Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Chapter 9: On Becoming a Hockey Dad

 Max wasn't yet a year old.  We bought him a tiny little pair of skates and headed up to Mira Mesa to take him out for a public skate.  It was really Kyle and I on either side of him holding his mittened hands and pulling him around the rink.  He enjoyed it.  The next winter we were back in Rhode Island and then Connecticut at Christmas time.  Not even two years old and he was skating on Lake Phipps.  It was a beautiful crisp cold winter day.  There was not a soul around.  The ice was like glass.  I took him out and let him hold himself up by pushing a chair on the ice.  He looked better than I did my first time out there.  He was a natural.  

A year later we took him to the ice rink at the University Towne Centre(UTC) mall in La Jolla.  We enrolled him in a "learn to skate class".  This didn't work out so well.  He wanted me on the ice with him, but that wasn't allowed.  So he stood there crying in the corner for most of the sessions.  

A new rink was built in Escondido, It was originally called "IceFloe".  It was built by a family that was taking advantage of some California energy laws.  The rink was actually built as a cogeneration power plant.  The local utility company was required to purchase excess power produced by the rink.  Ultimately the scheme didn't work out and the rink was sold to Ice-O-Plex.  

We took Max up to the new rink to sign him up for Mini-Mite hockey.  There really wasn't much of a program and I ended up running it for a few dozen little four and five year olds who showed up every Friday evening for their weekly practice.  It was your basic cluster bee-hive mass of post-toddlers stumbling and bumbling all chasing the puck at the same time. 

I stressed to my little one the importance of not following the pack and of passing the puck when he got it.  He took this to heart, somewhat to his detriment for much of his youth hockey career to come. I'll explain later.  

The mini-mite program was a family affair.  There were almost as many dad/coaches on the ice as there were players.   All the mom's gathered at the glass with their cameras and video camcorders. 

As I mentioned the practices were on Friday nights. This was after a long hard week of preschool and fighting Friday evening rush hour traffic to make the 30 minute trip that usually took an hour.  By the time we got these rugrats on the ice they were usually in full A.D.D. Mode.  

There was one little boy named Garrett who had no ability to pay attention.  I was truly worried about him. He would not, could not pay attention or listen. He was in his own world.  One night we we decided to have him be the goalie. The kid transformed before our eyes.  He was focused. He knew what he was supposed to do and he did it. It was a mini-mite miracle. 

One night we got on the ice and there was a new dad skating around. I skated over and said hello, introduced myself. His name was was Kirk McCaskill. "What do you do Kirk?" He replied, "I'm Retired". "Where do you live Kirk?"  He lived in Rancho Santa Fe. A very exclusive community.  

He was wearing green UVM hockey warmups.  We started talking. I found out he knew Kyle Bensen, from West Haven. I think they roomed together at Trinity Pawling. He also told me he had played hockey at Vermont.   I was curious why this guy in his early thirties was retired so I asked him what he retired from.   

He retired from Major League Baseball. He'd pitched for the Angels then the White Sox. He attended UVM because they allowed him to play both hockey and baseball. He was a Hobey Baker finalist in hockey.  He was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 1981. He played one season of pro hockey for the AHL Sherbrooke Jets. He dressed but did not play in one NHL game. 
He retired after that season to pursue his successful baseball career which allowed him to retire to Rancho Santa Fe at the age of 34.  I hooked him up with my senior league. He was an incredible beer league player. All roads…

One last point about Kirk. One scout 
was asked to describe his hockey career. He said that Kirk played hockey like he pitched...about once every four games. 

Max was becoming a pretty good skater at the ripe young age of four and five.  It was then that I formed my little thought experiment.   He was starting hockey at such a young age.  I didn't start skating until I was twelve going on thirteen.  I always wondered how much better I would have been had I started playing earlier.  So I kept an eye on Max.  I'm still watching. 

After a year or so of house league mite hockey I started to notice as some of the kids got older and better they moved on to something that would come dominate our family and our finances for the next decade or so.  

Travel hockey!  Sheesh, if I'd only known, I might have saved the money and stuck it in a 529 college savings plan.   But noooo.   My kid was gonna get a D1 scholarship.  Maybe even go pro. So we poured thousands of dollars down that drain.   

I'm joking. Kind of. My goal for my son was for him was to have fun, enjoy himself and play as long as he wanted, seeing how far he would go given his young start.  I'd already heard about and witnessed kids "burning out". These were the kids who started young and were pushed relentlessly by their parents. There are people, and I admit I've been one, who lived through their kids.  I would deny this, but I have family members who might think otherwise.  Of course the other hockey parents and I could live in denial of this with the silent agreement never to acknowledge this sad fact to each other. 

The next year we graduated to a travel tournament team.  I say we, not only because I was living vicariously through my kid, but because while he played, I coached. 

Steve Terry and I coached the San Diego Dragons. Steve was the guy I was in Finland with at the same time 25 years earlier. 

The Dragons were a fun team.  They played out of the rink Mira Mesa. The other team playing there was the San Diego Stars. Those boys were a year older than our kids. 

My friend Jaye Park coached the Stars.  Jaye and I played Thursday night pickup together. He was the one who shared his shifts with Chris Chelios years earlier.  There was a kid on the Stars that Max would go on to play with off and on over the next decade. He was called CJ.  

CJ was a smooth skater. A natural.  He wasn't big. He wasn't fancy. He was smart. He could do just about anything but for some reason he seemed to always find a way to not finish.  A few years later CJ and Max and twelve  other very talented peewees would play for ex-pro Joe Noris on the La Jolla Jaguars.  They, not we, as the era of dad coaches was ending(although Joe's kid was on the team), played at the shopping mall at UTC in La Jolla. Early in the season after a couple of games, a very mature CJ and his buddy Kory went to Joe and offered to play defense. The team turned around and by the end of the season shocked the California youth hockey world by defeating an undefeated Anaheim Junior Ducks to win the state Peewee championship. We laughed because the Ducks parents were so sure they would win it all that they already had their plane tickets to nationals. 

There has always been a big debate in San Diego among the elite youth players as whether to stay home or go play for the AAA tier programs in Los Angeles.  It was clear that if the local kids stayed home and stuck together they could be competitive with anyone. 

The L. A. Programs have been putting out NHL draft picks at an impressive rate.  Bennett , Blum, Etem, Zucker and others with more to come. Our boys played against these kids in those early days. 

A lot of good San Diego boys made the trip and paid the $25,000 a year to play for L.A. Selects or The Wave or L.A. Hockey Club or the Junior Kings.  Some are still playing. Jon Parker is with the AHL Rochester Amerks in the Sabres organization. Some are playing college hockey.  One hit the jackpot. 

CJ was the poster child for making the case that you didn't need to leave home to go far. CJ played AA hockey for the San Diego Gulls, the premier youth program in town. He played there every season until his last year of youth hockey when he did finally play one season for the Jr. Kings. The argument made by the San Diego youth hockey coaching community was if you are good they(the scouts) will find you. 

CJ  had a good year with the Jr. Kings then signed with Sioux Falls in the USHL, the premier junior league in the U.S.  After two solid seasons in Sioux Falls he was offered a scholarship to attend Umass-Lowell.  Fast forward to this past season. CJ who is now called Chad and Umass-Lowell were defeated in overtime by Yale in the semi-finals of the NCAA Frozen Four. Had they won Chad would have faced Quinnipiac for the championship on Saturday.   As it was his season was over.  

At least his college season was done. On Saturday morning, rather than preparing to play for the NCAA championship, Chad Ruhwedel was signing an entry level contract and played in his first NHL game with the Buffalo Sabres that same afternoon.   He played in each of the last seven games for Buffalo. Watch for him next season. 

Back to the Dragons. By this time Kyle and I had our second child, our Daughter-Bret. I know, I know, Bret is a boys name. It was a deal I made with my wife. The day Bret was born I had a game that night. The deal was I could go play and Kyle could name our child.  So my wife with the boy's name gave our daughter a boy's name. 

By the time Max was playing for the dragons he was seven and Bret was five. Funny enough besides me and Max the dragons had; a Max, a Kyle, a Steve and a Brett(two t's) on the team. 

This is a good time for a break. Let me get my thoughts together and I'll be back in a bit. 

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