Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Chapter 4: Coming of Age

Art Crouse and the team on the
bench
Well, this was it.  This was to be our time.  We would be seniors in September.  A lot was expected of us.  By us,  I mean Mumbles, Longo and me.  Dave Depew and I hung out and did everything together.  Dave didn't speak all that clearly and earned the nickname Mumbles. Dave was the center on our line.  Frank Longobardi, the best looking kid in Connecticut was our left winger.  One of our teammates who ended up being a cop and pretty much a racist tagged me with AyRab(Arab).  Steinberg and I were the only Jews on the team, and he already had the nickname of Bird due to his resemblance to Big Bird from Sesame Street.  

Koho, the hockey stick and equipment company, held a three week hockey camp in Finland.  Frank, Dave and I went over together and had the time of our lives.  Summer time in Finland for a 17 year old was amazing.  I'm not able to go into details due to the fact that my kids will be reading this, but let's just say there were a lot of firsts for me over there.  Whitey Bensen loaned me the money to pay for the trip and I worked it off by raking a hell of a lot of leaves.  

It was an amazing hockey school.  The pros included; Garry Unger, Carl Brewer, Pete Stemkowski as well as many of the players from the Finnish National Team.  In fact, during "the big game" at the camp I scored on the Finnish team goalie...this would be the same goalie that the 1980 USA Miracle team would need to beat after upsetting the Russians to win the gold that year.

We spent half of the camp in Forssa, Finland.  Forssa is the home of the Koho stick factory. Scandinavia in the summer is a trip.  It never gets dark...so we would get up, skate, eat, nap, skate, drink, sleep and repeat.  It was hard to tell when to sleep and when to wake up since it never got dark.  The other half of the time was spent in Davos, Switzerland in the Swiss Alps.  Davos was a cool mountain village.  It is famous for it's skiing, having hosted a few winter olympics and also hosting the annual global economic forum for gazillionaires.   One highlight for me was of taking the tram to the top of the mountain and hiking back down with Garry Unger.   We drank wine out of a bota bag.  Again, probably not cool and grounds for a law suit in this day and age.  But it was a blast.

I was talking to another hockey dad that I coached with in San Diego when my son was a squirt(about 10 years old).  His name is Steve Terry.  Steve grew up playing hockey in San Diego.   He's my age.  Our kids are the same age.  We were having the buffet breakfast at a hotel during a tournament in Vegas and for some reason the topic of Finland or Koho or something came up.  It turns out Steve and I were at the Koho hockey school together 30 years earlier.  We had no idea.

I Guess the Koho Camp Helped.
This was just after we returned.
As a line we notched 20 points in
one game. Haha!
Anyway, Frank, Dave and I really bonded and we returned home to Connecticut and played together in a high school summer league.  Yeah, I broke my collar bone after an awkward hit into the boards.  I was out for four weeks.  But I had no football to deal with so I had plenty of time to heal and get ready for the season.  

And what an amazing season it was.  We steam rolled nearly everyone we played that year.  Our biggest rivals were Amity High, New Canaan and Hamden.  Hamden was the perennial Connecticut powerhouse.  I don't think West Haven had beaten Hamden in years.  They won the state title every year.  If you  recall, Hamden was led by my peewee idol, John Glynne.  We beat Amity.  We beat New Canaan.  We played Hamden at Hamden and we beat them.  We lost games to Lawrenceville, which is the prep school at Princeton, as well as Cathedral Catholic from Massachusetts.  And we lost a game 3-2 to a team we hosted from Sweden.  The team was called Skuru Ik.  They were amazing.  Great hockey players and fun guys to hang out with.  It was a friendly game that turned pretty serious.  It was after playing them that I started cutting my hockey sticks to be pretty short.  I was impressed by the puck control they had, much of it due to how short they kept their sticks.  

Frank, Dave and I earned the moniker the G-A-P line.  It stood for goal a
period line.  The NY Rangers had the G-A-G Line, goal a game line. Although it was often two or three or more....we all started to amass points over the course of the season.  I think our season was only 20 games plus playoffs.  After every game we would check out the New Haven Register and the West Haven Town Crier newspapers.  The sports sections covered local high school hockey.  Articles, pictures, stats.....so after every game we loved to read what was written.  One of my favorite things was to see the stats section that kept track of the state's scoring leaders.
Frank Longobari making a play vs. Uconn
Freshman team


All season long it was Me, Frank and Dave...1,2, 3....we took turns leading.  I have to admit, while I never "chiselled", I was very good at making sure I got credit for every point, especially every assist.  In hockey, if you don't know, you get a point for a goal as well as a point for an assist.    So you could be the scoring leader even if you weren't a finisher.  Playmakers are equally rewarded.  I was a pretty balanced scorer as far as goals and assists went, but I took more pride in setting up my teammates.  No one likes a puck hog. (This is not true in California...for some reason everyone here loves a puck hog...go figure.  Something to do with roller hockey) There is some skill in in being able to make sure the ref knew you were in on the goal.  It was important to be able to get your point across without your coach realizing what you were doing.  Coaches hate that.  You also never want to cheat a teammate out of an assist.  But trust me if I assisted on a goal I was credited on the score sheet.

It was time to think about college. Both of my parents graduated from Brown University.  My big brother was in his junior year at Brown.  My younger sister would attend in a few years.  .  I was an above average student, gradewise.   I knew how to get by.  I tested relatively well.  I did my work.  But I wasn't the most academically motivated student in high school.  My SAT scores were mediocre and I had it in my mind that I couldn't hack it at Brown.   I submitted a half-assed application but I put next to no effort into it.  I still have recruiting letters from Alan Soares, the head hockey coach at Brown.  It wasn't to be.

I took a recruiting trip to Maine with my mom.  We visited Bowdoin and Colby Colleges.  Beautiful campuses.  More snow than I'd ever seen in my life. About a world away from Connecticut.  Too far.  I didn't mention this, but I had a girlfriend in West Haven.  Debbie Richards.  Debbie was captain of the cheerleaders.  Her dad was the high school principal.  We'd been together since my freshman year.  Being way out there in Maine was not going to work.  Mistake #1-not trying harder to get into Brown.  Mistake #2-letting a girl influence my college decision. Mind you, this was all me.  Debbie never said a word to me about this. Debbie was really smart.  She was our class salutatorian.  4.0 gpa.  Too smart for me.  She was heading for a school that, when I first heard of it, I assumed was in Alaska...Uconn.  Of course when I moved to Connecticut and heard Uconn for the first time what I heard was "Yukon".   Funny enough, this happens all the time, even now when I mention Uconn to people in Cali.
Dave Depew taking the draw.  I'm on the RW, Frank Longo
on the left with Paul Sikorski #18.  Danny Torrie is the ref

We played the Uconn Freshmen at our Rink in West Haven in December.  We beat them 5-2.  The G-A-G line tore it up.  After the game their coach was in our locker room talking to my coach, Art Crouse.  He was talking up Dave and Frank.  The Uconn coach asked him, "What about Balaban?".  My coach told him I was going to Brown.  "Um, I'd be interested in Uconn" I interjected.  A week later I had a letter from the Uconn head coach, John Chapman inviting me to come to Uconn.  I applied and was quickly accepted.
Ay-rab, taking the draw vs. Uconn Frosh

We easily won our way through the state playoffs and were due to meet Hamden in the final.  The game was held at the West Haven Rink, Bennet Rink. It was a sellout, thousands of screaming fans from both schools and all over the state came to watch us go down in flames to the Green Dragons by a score of 3-0.  It was a hard fought game but we failed to score.  Such a let down after an incredible year.  John Glynne beat us. Damn, I knew he was good.  He, and their goalie Peter Reynolds were heading for the University of Vermont.  I would play against him four more times in college.

I ended up with the scoring title for Connecticut High School hockey that year...64 points in about 25 or so games.  Something like 28 goals and 36 assists.  Dave and Frank finished right behind me.  It could have gone either way with any of the three of us.  Frank also committed to Uconn.  We would go on to room together and play for the Huskies or the next four years.  Dave went to AIC(American International College) but did not play hockey.  He should have and could have but he wasn't recruited.  He was determined to study there and attended regardless.
Yep, that's how I used to roll....
before the wheels fell off

I loved my years in West Haven.  The friendships, the hockey, the trouble I got into.  It was almost time to move on.  My hockey life was really just getting going.  

Next up....Uconn.....

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