Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chapter 13: Our Own Miracle On Ice

Next up, summer hockey, then Peewees.  Max got an invitation from Michael Callahan.  Mike coached one of our big rivals from L.A., the Paramount Panthers.  Another Dad coach. This would be the beginning of a fun and valuable experience.  That would be of skating with rivals and making new friends.  The invitation was for Max to go with the Panthers to play in a peewee tournament in Edmonton.  It involved going up to L.A. for a number of practices and exhibition games.  This was my first experience of being a California hockey dad and witnessing our kids holding their own against Canadian teams.  We were usually dismissed as being a bunch of surfers, only to surprise our opponents with our skills.  Our team had the coach's son, Mitch Callahan, who was drafted a couple of years ago out of the WHL by the Detroit Red Wings.  He currently plays for Grand Rapids in the AHL.  We also had Beau Bennett on the team, but he didn't end up playing in the tournament.  He was in the Stampede Challenge tournament in Calgary at the same time.  He made it to the final game in Edmonton, but not in time to play.    You may recognize Bennett from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The San Diego Junior Gulls organization had some big plans for our talented crop of 1991 birth year players.  These boys would be first year peewees. They recruited a hotshot, a full time professional coach.  The first non-dad coach we'd experienced.  He was from Northern California, played D1 hockey and was the tournament director for a national roller hockey organization.  He also coached a roller team out of Escondido. 

I love the guy today.  But it wasn't always so. My initial experience was at an evaluation clinic he ran at the iceoplex.  It was a school night. Max was in the 6th grade.  There must have been eighty skaters there that night.  After the session was over players could stick around to meet one on one with the coach for his evaluation.  Later, that same night Max and I were called into the small refs room where the meetings were held.  It was nearly 11:00 pm on a school night.  Finally we get to see the master, who proceeded to spend most of the interview giving us his background.  When he finally got around to giving Max his evaluation, he actually mistook him for another of the eighty-something skaters.  Mom wasn't happy when we came rolling in around midnight.

The tryout process for the Junior Gulls was always stressful for our family.  It is a three day process.  They were held in May or June and happened over a Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.  The kids get on the ice, skate, do a few drills then scrimmage for the balance of the session.  At some point during the tryout, the coaches who are observing the players from on high, send down the club president, with big 8 1/2 x 10" envelopes.  The envelopes contain letters of intent.  The letters are offered to the parents of the players while the boys are out working their butts off.

I've always tried to be realistic about my son's skill level.  During those days I would have placed him in the middle upper half of group of kids who should have been offered roster spots on the team.  Up until this point, I had always heard about the "politics" of hockey, but I'd never experienced it first hand.  Well, here it was.

It turns out that the first group of letters of intent went out to all of the kids who played on the coach's roller team.  Max was not among them.  I thought...oh well, that's the way that is.   Even, the goalie on the roller team was offered a spot and he was trying out as a forward.  He'd never skated out before.  There was always tomorrow.

We came back the next day for the second tryout session on Saturday afternoon.  Again, the boys warmed up, skated, did some drills and then scrimmaged.  Again, the club president circulated among the parents handing out letters of intent.  I saw her give one to the parent of a set of twins whose grandparent was a club board member.  No offense, but these boys weren't very good.  Other less talented players with obvious connections were given envelopes.

I was upset.  And to be honest, offended.  

I made a new friend in the month or so before the tryouts.  His name was Dan Hansen.  Dan was in the Coast Guard and was moving to San Diego to run their recruiting office.  I met him one day when he came to the rink to check out the talent and find out about youth hockey in San Diego.  I'm a friendly guy.  We hit it off.  He had a kid who would be moving to San Diego when his family came out from Florida.  Dan's son's name was Rory.  We would hang out watch the kids skate in some of the pre-tryout clinics.   Rory was a stud.  He was a year older than Max.  He was offered a letter the first night.

When I saw the handwriting on the wall after twins were offered their spots on the team, I decided enough was enough.  I talked to Dan and told him I was going to take Max back to La Jolla and go to the Jaguars second day tryout that was happening a little later.  

I never thought I would ever have anything to do with the Jags again after last season's debacle.  But, My buddy Dave Corbin's son Alex was going to be their goalie.   Dave has always been a champion for Max and he told me that the Jaguars were going to be good this year.  They were coached by Joe Noris.  I've mentioned Joe earlier in my accounts.  Joe played a couple of hundred games in the WHA(World Hockey League) and 55 games in the NHL for Pittsburgh, Buffalo and St. Louis.

I played Thursday night pickup with Joe and I always liked him.  I told Dan, Rory's dad that I was going to head over to La Jolla and have Max skate in their tryout.  He came with me.  

Rory and Max both made the Jaguars that night.  Joe only wanted 12 skaters.  He didn't want to have to deal with the parents of a fourth liners when they weren't getting enough ice time.  They had a great team.  Joe happened to be another dad coach.  His son Johnny was talented.  Joe was probably the best dad coach I'd come across.  He was fair and didn't favor his son the way so many others have.   In addition to Johnny, this team included:

C.J. "Chad" Ruhwedal-now playing with the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL(USHL, Umass-Lowell)
Jon Parker-now playing with the Rochester Amerks in the AHL(WHL)
Rory Hansen-just graduated from Western New England University
Kory Grahl-just graduated from Western New England
Garrett Taylor-out of hockey due to injuries(WHL and USHL)
Gregory Park-now playing at Northern Arizona University-ACHA, club team
Alex Corbin, Goalie-now playing for San Diego State University-ACHA, club team
Pat Mercer-probably the best player on the team-pursued a golf career
Max Balaban-just finished freshman year at Plattsburgh State
Emil Kedbrant, Goalie,-returned to Sweden where he played at the junior level
Tom Plotkin-played at the University of Iowa, ACHA, Club team.  Tom died tragically in 2011 while studying  in India.  He was studying abroad in an outdoor leadership program.  He was on a 57 day hike when he twisted his ankle and fell 300 feet into the Ganges River.  His body was never found.  Tom was a great kid and this broke everyone's heart
Nick Whaley-played a few years of Tier 3 Junior hockey-now out of hockey
AJ Hatch-went to the dark side, Roller Hockey.  Now out of hockey
Johnny Noris-plays roller hockey and surfs 

That was it..twelve skaters and two goalies.  I mentioned this earlier, but the Jaguars ended up having an above average season that culminated in "Miracle On Ice" caliber day...or as I like to put it, they had a great season that day.

We made the playoffs and met up with the Anaheim Junior Ducks for a 6:30 a.m. semi-final game.  Just like the 1980 USA team met the Russians in the semi-final of their Miracle On Ice Olympics, we faced the overwhelming tournament favorite.  I wasn't coaching, but I was helping Joe out with some behind the scenes aspects that year.  We'd played the Ducks twice during the season and they handled us fairly easily.  I arranged an unofficial exhibition game against them to be played the weekend before the state tournament.  The Ducks were pretty much unbeatable...They went 20-0 in our So-Cal hockey league.  I believe they may have suffered one defeat in an exhibition game against a team from Northern California called the Gold Rush.  But it would appear to all concerned that the Gulls didn't have a chance.  As I said earlier, the Ducks parents already had their flights reserved to Nationals.

We played the exhibition game.  We lost 5-0.  The best player on the Ducks was a kid named David McKenna.  They had a play they ran off of the opening face-off where McKenna, a forward would line up as a defenseman.  When the puck dropped, their center would tie up ours, McKenna would rush through the face of circle, pick up the loose puck, bust through our defense and go in all alone on the goalie.  He scored at least two goals in this game using that play.  Joe studied the play. The exhibition game also gave Joe a chance to study their break out and see that we could stop it by having our defense pinch on their wingers on the boards.

After practice the next week, we played the Miracle On Ice documentary of the 1980 USA Olympic team for the boys.  Our rally cry became:  "Beat those Commie bastards".

And beat them we did.  Between Johnny Noris's hat trick and Alex Corbin standing on his head we pulled off our own miracle, ending the Ducks dream season with a 6-3 defeat. we got to face the Finns, er I mean the Gold Rush in a few hours for the Championship game.  The Gold Rush were coached by Ernie Hicke and his son Shane.  They've had their share of controversy during their coaching careers together.  Ernie played 520 NHL games for the Minnesota North Stars, the Islanders, California Golden Seals, the Atlanta Flames and the L.A. Kings for eight seasons in the 1970s.  We played the Gold Rush earlier in the tournament and lost 5-2. Not this time though.  Thanks again to Alex Corbin's outstanding performance in net we won, again by a score of 6-3.  We were the champions.  

The next stop was the Pacific District regionals.  We beat a team from Spokane that featured a fantastic player named Tyler Johnson.  Tyler played for the USA u-20 Junior team twice and just finished this past season with the Tampa Bay Lighting with 3 goals and 3 assists in 14 games.  We lost in a heartbreaker by one goal to the California Wave in the regional championship game.  End of a great season.  

Next up:  back to the Gulls and another state title.

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