Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Chapter 8: Born Again

I met my wife-to-be in early 1986 after a couple of near misses.  I was 31.  I'd lived all my adult life without hockey.  My accident occurred just two months after I arrived in California in 1978. I had just turned 23. Over the next 8 years I did lots of soul searching, had two serious relationships that nearly ended in marriage. They would have been disasters, thus the near misses. I had a handful of jobs that evolved into my ultimate career.  Then I met a beautiful young woman with a boy's name. It was love at first sight. 

Her name was Kyle. We both knew immediately we would marry.  But we waited. My sister had been going with her college beau for 7 years and had plans to have their wedding that coming fall.  We scheduled ours for the following July.  

We recently found out from my parents that they took one look at the two of us and figured we were a couple of bubble heads and they would be surprised if we lasted five years.  That was 26 years ago. 

Having a wife named Kyle has caused confusion along the way. Not that there's anything wrong with that. 

Again, no hockey. Kyle didn't know me as a hockey player.  She knew me as a stock broker. I played a little softball. We road bikes. We did a little skiing.  But there was no hockey.  I did still own my CCM Tacks that I was wearing the last time I played.  

Those skates' days were numbered though.  One day Kyle was at our townhouse in Tierrasanta when she spotted a fluffy Old English Sheep Dog wandering down the street.  She brought the dog in the house and we tried to find her owner.  No one ever claimed her so we adopted her and named her Bo.  

Bo was a great dog.  Well, she became a great dog.  She was still a puppy when we found her. We figured she was around eight months old.  She was pupzilla.  We knew nothing about training a dog.  If we had a clue we would have crate trained her but that wasn't known to us at the time.  

What we did was left her in the garage during the day so she wouldn't tear our house to pieces.  She was quite the chewer. She did manage to rip up just about everything in the garage including Kyle's convertible MG.  she tore up the rag top and the upholstery.  She destroyed the headpiece from Kyle's wedding dress. She also ate my CCM's.  I didn't need them anyway.  

Bo outgrew her puppy chewing days and went on to be a great pet.  Four years later on the day the U. S. began its ground invasion into Iraq for Desert Storm, our son Max was born. It was February 24, 1991. We would soon find out that Max was also the most popular name for male dogs. 

By August we'd moved into a large loft space in San Diego's Gaslamp district. I heard that there was a new minor league hockey team that had recently started playing in San Diego in the International Hockey League, the IHL.  There had been a contest in the newspaper to name the team and it was decided to call them the San Diego Gulls after an earlier Western Hockey League franchise...not the same as the Canadian major junior WHL.

We got tickets and took our eight month old baby to watch the home opener at the Sports Arena.  We had a great time.  Max was fixated on all the movement on the ice.  I remember watching and, for the first time in over a decade, really missing the game.  

After the game Kyle, who saw the look in my eye asked me...or actually told me I should start playing hockey again.  

I thought about it. It was a scary thought.  I didn't know if my back could handle it.  It had been a couple of years since my back pain had been exorcised by my client's pain doctor son, Dr. Amundson. 

A few days later we were walking into our loft building when I ran into someone I knew.  It turns out he lived in our building.  His name was Doug Munson. He was on my senior league team when I got hurt and I hadn't seen him since that night in March of 1978. 

It was great to see him. We spent a few minutes catching up then he told me he was on a team and he invited me to come out and play with them. 

I said "what the hell, why not?". But I owned no gear.  Doug told me to go to Barry's Sporting Goods in Lemon Grove. So I did. The problem was I'd forgotten just about everything I knew about hockey equipment.  Most importantly, hockey skates run smaller than your shoe size.  I bought a pair of Bauer Supremes, size 10. The same as my shoes. I bought a helmet with a full shield.  When I last played we didn't use shields or cages. 

I went out to a couple of pick-up sessions to try out my new stuff and see how I felt.  It didn't take long to realize my skates were too big.  I couldn't stand the shield.  I took it off after a couple of shifts.  I couldn't see the puck on the ice in front of me.  I would go back and forth about whether to wear a half shield.  I didn't like it because it would fog up or get scratched and limit my view.  One deflected slapshot that hit the bridge of my nose would end that debate.  

I was terrible.  It did not come right back like I'd hoped.  I took my skates back and swapped them for the right size, 8 and a 1/2s. 

I was nowhere near ready, but Doug told me to come play in their next game. The team was called the Mustangs. They played in the advanced division.  There were ex-USIU players, some ex-minor pros.  A pretty good level of competition. Way above my pay-grade for the shape I was in.  

I was on the third line.  In men's league, that's the bottom of the barrel. At first I couldn't take three strides without falling flat on my face. I did have a rush into the offensive zone where I skated hard to the net. My left wing fed me a pass that I redirected and lifted past the goalie. That felt good and pleasantly familiar. 

I went home and crawled in bed. I was prepared to wake up the next morning and be in so much pain that I wouldn't be able to get out of bed. But alas, I woke up and felt great.  I was hooked.  

This was the beginning of a long and exciting comeback.  I worked hard. I skated two, three sometimes four or five times  a week.  Most of the ice times were pretty late at night.  Kyle was happy to see me having fun. She was able have some quiet time with me out and Max asleep. I worked out.  I jogged, cycled and rollerbladed.  I was reborn.  

We took a family trip back to Connecticut for Thanksgiving. I took my hockey equipment with me so I could play in the annual West Haven High School Alumni game.  

The game was alumni versus the varsity.  It was not a friendly game.  I was still getting my legs back at this point, still not in great shape.  Frank Longobardi was there. Dave Depew wasn't.  Some idiot was smoking a cigarette in the locker room.  I told him to put it out.  He told me to go back to California.  It was 1991.  I think it was the same guy who nicknamed me A-Rab back in high school.

It was full contact hockey. The varsity boys wanted to hurt us. Teenagers!  I got nailed into the boards by a little punk. A little later I had the puck in the corner.  I walked out and found myself in the slot where I back handed a shot into the top of the net.  I have it on video on a VHS tape in a box in storage.   I'll never watch it. But I remember it clearly.  Snipe!

Over the next couple of years my senior league hockey team became my passion, my exercise and my social life.  I started going to adult league tournaments in Vegas and Phoenix.  

I was able to start skating with the Thursday night "old pros" group at the San Diego Ice Arena in Mira Mesa. this is the same group I mentioned earlier that has been going for forty years and would not allow a young Chris Chelios a spot before he was then cut from USIU and before he went on to have a hall of fame NHL and Olympic career. 

It was a good group of guys. Ex-NHL and WHA players and San Diego hockey icons like Joe Noris, Sandy Fitzpatrick and Brian "Howie" Morenz.  Morenz was the grandson of Montreal Canadien legend Howie Morenz.  Many of the old USIU guys played. Brian Dobek, who was the top scorer for the 1976 US Olympic team was there. In the summer some of the IHL Gulls, players like Charlie Simmer, Ron Duguay and their coach and future Atlanta Thrashers coach, Don Waddell would show up.  Chris and his brother Steve Chelios made appearances.  You can look these guys  up on www.hockeydb.com if you want to see their hockey histories.  By the way, if anyone from the 70's who played at Uconn happens to be reading this, I've been trying to locate Uconn hockey media guides from those years.  Hockeydb has stats from my freshman and senior seasons and I would love to get ahold of 74-75 and 75-76.  

I know I've mentioned the New Haven Blades previously.  I don't think I went into what a big fan I was back then, in the late 1960s.  The Eastern Hockey League was the basis for the movie, "Slap Shot".  The film was based on the Johnstown Jets, one of the teams the Blades played against.  Also both were teams in our table top hockey league.   Anyway, I studied the rosters and stats of the Blades and all their rivals.  There were some real goons as well as some talented up and coming players.   I specifically remember one Blades player who I idolized.  His name was Michel Rouleau. A French-Canadian with dashing looks and a gift for scoring.  I got his autograph on one of the game programs.

One Thursday night I was on the bench sitting next to a chubby bald guy that everyone was calling Mike.  I heard someone refer to him as Rouleau.  I had to ask.  I told him I grew up in Connecticut and was a big Blades fan and they had a guy I loved to watch play named Michel Rouleau.....He said, "Yep, that's me."  Boy did he change. So I asked him where he went after playing for the Blades.  He rattled of five or six NHL teams.   Cool.  I was impressed.  Now he owned a hair salon and was cutting hair and playing Thursday night pickup.  All roads lead to the beer leagues.  I've said it before and I will say it again.  By the way, I looked him up on hockeydb.com and he did have a half way decent career in the WHA.  He never played in the NHL.  

Willie O'Ree, the first black hockey player to play in the NHL, had played for the AHL New Haven Nighthawks.  The Nighthawks came to New Haven and played in the new Coliseum. O'Ree went on to play in the WHA for the San Diego Mariners with some of the above mentioned guys. I only mention this because I went to buy a car and Willie O'Ree was my salesman.  He went on to recover his dignity and now works for the NHL promoting diversity.  I'm not sure if he ever made it to the beer leagues. One of the few, if true. Either way he's a great man. 

Around this time, Max was rolling around in his little baby walker.  He had discovered a little souvenir wooden Koho hockey stick I had gotten when I went to hockey school in Finland.  Kyle had given it to him. He grabbed it and started whacking everything he could reach.  Kyle set down roller hockey pucks on the concrete floor of our 3rd floor loft.  The stick ended up in splinters.  It had autographs of all the pros from the hockey school: Garry Unger, Carl Brewr, Pete Stemkowski, etc.  We went on to buy many more souvenir sticks.  

Next up, more beer league, getting Max on the ice and the beginning of life as a hockey dad, fan, coach and ref. 

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