Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Chapter 5: Uconn-College Hockey

With Bob Blakeslee's support the high school allowed us to throw together a lacrosse team in the spring. It was a gong show.  All the hockey players and the football team got together and formed a mess.  All we cared about was hitting.  It was a big boy version of little kids soccer.  Just a mass of bodies around the ball trying to kill each other.  

I played summer league hockey again.  That summer was kind of cool. It seems like all of the high end players from different schools could be friends.  I hung out with kids who had previously been rivals and bitter foes.  Now we were playing together, hanging out, becoming friends.  It was a great way to transition out of our high school days. 

I went back to Finland that summer. I went alone.  Just as much fun the second time.  We took a ferry across the Baltic and spent a day in Soviet Russia touring Leningrad.  Today it is known as St. Petersburg.  I didn't go into the museums with the rest of the tour.  I hung out in the square, met people and traded away a pair of bell bottom jeans.  I forget what I got in exchange.  FYI they were a spare pair I'd brought for just this purpose, not the ones I was wearing. 

On the ferry ride back to Finland we ate smorgasbord style.  I carelessly got gravy on the table cloth.  The matron in charge of the buffet read me the riot act in some unknown foreign tongue.  While I couldn't tell what she was saying it was obvious she was pissed.   It turns out my ugly American ways were being criticized.  The table cloth I soiled was "the table cloth". My thoughtlessness was not appreciated.  

I made friends with a couple of stoners from Toronto.  When I got back home I took a greyhound bus trip up to visit them.  This was 1973. I was a borderline hippie.  My hair was a little long. I sported what facial hair I could muster.   I traveled with a backpack that had an American flag sewn on it.  Going through customs at Niagara Falls proved to be challenging.  "Purpose of your trip?" 
"Visiting buddies, playing hockey", I replied. They looked me up and down, figured I was a trouble maker and pulled me in a little room for some friendly interrogation.  They were less impressed that I was going to visit Toronto Leafs All Star defenceman Carl Brewer and more interested in the white powder they found in my dock siders.   It was baby powder to fight my foot odor. I was finally on my way.  

I met up with my buddies.  One of them, while living in Canada had dual citizenship with Austria.  He would go  on to be the Austrian goalie in the 1980 Olympics.    He lost multiple games by double digit scores.  No miracle for Austria.  

The first thing we did when I got there was party.  Later that night I played with them in a summer league junior game. Half of the guys played in the OHL, major junior hockey.  At some point in the first period I was forechecking a moose of a defenceman who decided to skate the puck out from behind his own goal.  I layed a crushing body check on this guy.  Only problem was I was the one crushed. He skated over me and through me.  I remember the collision. That's the last thing I remembered.  

The next thing I recall was sitting on the bench. It was the last minute of play.  A French Canadian forward on my team streaked down the right wing and beat the goalie for the game winner.  I looked at the scoreboard.  We led 3-2. 

I turned to my buddy on the bench and asked him if I had been playing.  I had. Although he said I was playing pretty tentatively. Especially in the corners. I didn't remember anything from the moment I got run over by the freight train in the first period.  It wasn't the first and definitely not the last time I got my bell rung. We didn't care about concussions back then. You played if you could. 

I don't know if you've been keeping track, but in my young life I'd ruptured my spleen, cracked my coccyx, broken my collarbone, had a number of concussions and oh yeah I broke my hand.   Later that summer I would pull my groin.  That groin injury was the one that hampered me the most.  Oh yeah, we didn't play with shields or cages, so I had my share of cuts and stitches.  Never lost any teeth though.   Oh, and all through college I had terrible back pain that I ignored. 

Frank and I arrived at Uconn after Labor Day to start our freshmen year. We dormed together at Belden Hall in the brand new Alumni Quad.  

Frank knew from even before he got to college he wanted to be a CPA.   I had no clue what I wanted to be or to study.  I'll get to the hockey shortly, but first i have to tell you I ended the first semester with an atrocious GPA.  Should I say?  Ok. I'd never gotten less than a B in my life, except for the D in Algebra that earned me my earlier discussed punishment my freshman year in high school. Ok, so my  GPA was 1.6. 

I freaked out.  I went to my counselor. I realized I never learned to study in high school.  

Two things came out of the meeting with my counselor.   First, I discussed my lack of direction and my envy of Frank and his focus.  His advice: hardly anyone ends up working in their field of study.  Study what interests you.  Frank became an incredibly successful CPA and is now the CEO of a major accounting firm.  I majored in Anthropology.  

The other thing that came out of that meeting was that I became a serious student. I spent many a Friday and Saturday night in the library.   I made the Dean's list every semester for the next three and a half years.  But I majored in Anthropology.   I should have studied accounting.  But it was interesting. 

My girlfriend, Debbie and I lived at opposite ends of campus.  Her dorm was called " the Jungle".  It was the beginning of our end. We went through a typically painful separation and breakup after going together for 4 years.  We are very good friends today. 

The hockey team started training in late September. The training, at least at Uconn was definitely not what it is today.  All we did was run cross country through the woods and we ran the stairs at the football stadium.  

Coach John Chapman, we called him Chipper, was a huge disappointment. He had founded the hockey team about twelve years earlier.  He was also the tennis coach.  He seemed to be content with his job but had no commitment to excellence.  His inspirational pregame speech had the same theme every time: on any given night any team can win(maybe even us if we get lucky).  

Uconn Hockey has always suffered from Title 9 and being the red headed step child to the basketball and football teams.  The school never really committed to the hockey program. Even when they went D1. That tide seems to have turned. Next year they are joining Hockey East and it appears the university is finally getting behind hockey. I just saw that Uconn's new head coach, Mike Cavanaugh just hired Joe Pereira formerly of BU and from West Haven as one of his assistant coaches.  But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

Pre-season training came and went. My groin injury continued to hamper me.  I made the varsity. Frank did not.  He played JV that year.  And he honed his accounting skills.  It was a bit awkward rooming with him that year.  I felt badly but I enjoyed my season.  I ended up on the 3rd line. I played a regular shift getting a ton of ice time.  

I was one of two freshman on the varsity.  The other was Tom "Little Duke" Dyroff. His older brother was a senior.  He was "Duke". Even though Tom was bigger. They studied pharmacy.  Little Duke was a monster. A freak.  He had a thick beard, hair down to his shoulders and the hardest slapshot I'd ever seen.   His nephew, Brooks Dyroff, played for Phillips Andover prep and Boston College with Chris Kreider who is now with the Rangers.   My son's Prep school Tilton, beat them and Andover 3-2 in overtime a couple of years ago.   Just sayin.  

By the end of our senior year I had 37 goals, 64 assists for  101 points.  Tom had 71 goals, 52 assists and 123 points.   Both of us were in the top ten all time scorers when we graduated.  36 years later I'm still 24th and he's 13th. My Facebook friends Bryan Quinn and DJ LeBlanc are 6th and 7th. Bryan and Todd Krieger are 1 and 2 with over 200 points each. 

I had a good year as a freshman.  My groin injury was an issue. It definitely slowed me down for the first half of the season but I ended up with 7 goals and 16 assists.  I hated Chipper. He was no Artie Crouse.  It's one thing to hate a coach because he pushes you.  This was not that.  We didn't respect Chipper.  He didn't challenge us. 

We ended the year with a record of 15-10.  I think it was the best record of my four years.  The team never improved. My production never improved.  Frank made the varsity the next year and while I stayed at the same production level of approximately 25 points per season, Frank worked harder than me and outscored me  each of the next three seasons.  Our senior year Frank had 6 goals, 24 assists and 30 points. Me?  12 goals and 13 assists.  Frank was an Assistant Captain that year. Not me.  He worked hard and it paid off. I got complacent.  

Ours was a strange team.  Nearly half of the team, not me of course, would huddle in the back of the bus on long road trips and smoke pot.  I sat up near the front.  The smell was obvious. The coaches never said a thing.  This was a time of open rebellion.  The Viet Nam war was bring protested everywhere.  Colleges across the nation were dealing with protests and sit-ins.
We look like Ken dolls without proper anatomy! :-)
Streaking was in.  Disco and the Allman Brothers were everywhere. It was easier for Chipper to ignore what was going on in the back of the bus. On any given night.…

Anyone who remembers Uconn Hockey from those days will know we played in an "outdoor" rink.  Actually it had a cover, but like many prep school rinks of the day it was open all sides.  It could get damned cold out there too.  Often with the wind whipping through from one end.  This gave us home ice advantage.  Most of us had beards.  We practiced in this nasty cold.  Visiting teams dreaded coming to our barn.  It was miserable for them.  Not only did they have to deal with the wind and the cold, but to add insult to injury, their locker room was in "the warming hut".  At the end of each period they would have to walk a path from the rink to the warming hut while our shirtless, painted brandy soaked fans would hurl snowballs at them.  It was pretty funny.  To this day when I run into people who played for teams that visited us, that's their only memory of playing at Uconn.

One of my most appreciated benefits from my days at Uconn have been the handful of lifelong friendships. First and foremost has been my friendship with Frank Longobardi.  We've stayed in touch and he's been a great help on numerous occasions.  I've visited Frank and his wife, Pat many times. Frank is still the best looking man in Connecticut.   I love Longo.  Even if he is a Yankees fan. Did I mention Frank is a verrrrryyyy successful CPA.  

One of my fondest friends is Glenn Adamo.  I graduated and lost contact with Glenn for years. When we reconnected Glenn was VP in charge of Broadcasting Operations for the NHL.  He worked his way up the latter starting as a receptionist. He's such a great guy that people couldn't help supporting and promoting him. He's since moved on and is VP for Media Operations for the NFL.  He had a brief stint as head of marketing for the Jersey Devils the last time they won the Stanley Cup, 2003 I think. 

My favorite Glenn Adamo story was from a visit I had with him right after Gretzky retired.  My wife and I were sitting in his office at the NHL headquarters in New York. I asked Glenn if he was at Gretsky's last game at Madison Square Garden. 

He proceeded to tell me how he choreographed the Great One's final curtain call following the end of his last game.  Yeah, he told Gretzky exactly what to do after the end of the game.   Take a bow, exit into a locker room where Glenn instructed him, back and forth a few times.  At one point Gretzky was alone with Glenn in the locker room.  He grabbed both of Glenn's hands and staring deeply into his eyes saying ; "Glenny, thank you so much…I couldn't do this without you!"  

And I'd asked if he was at the game.   Yep. He was there.   

I continue to stay in close contact with my team mate, Paul McCormick. Paul lives in Brooklyn. He's in advertising for a company that's makes great commercials.  His son Charlie is tearing it up on a lacrosse scholarship at Georgetown. 

I was playing senior league hockey at Mira Mesa in San Diego on the mid -90s.  There was a scuffle in front of the net.  Everyone paired off. I found myself clutching my opponent who turned out to be Tim Bensey. Tim was an outstanding freshman defenseman during my senior year.  He was also on the football team.  He ended up transferring to San Diego State where he played quarterback.  We've played Thursday night pickup together for years.  Now that I no longer play, he skates with my son when he's in town. By the way. This Thursday night skate is legendary.  It's been going on for nearly 40 years.  Chris Chelios skated in it when he was a teenager.  My good friend and fellow hockey player, dad, coach and referee, Jaye Park was a little older than Chelios.  They were strict about keeping it at ten players a side.  Chelios was a punk rink rat. and they never let him play.  He was younger than most of the guys.  Jaye took Chelios under his wing and let him dress and shared shifts with him.  They are best friends to this day.  He used to come out and skate with us every now and then.  

During my senior year at Uconn, we had another talented freshman defenseman show up. His name was Brad Holt.  Brad's father was the legendary hockey coach at the University of New Hampshire, Charlie Holt.  Charlie Holt played on the U.S. National Team with my high school coach, Art Crouse in 1948.  Also on that team were Army coach Jack Riley and BU Coach Jack Kelley.  Brad played one year at Uconn then transferred to UNH for his final three. Brad has been an invaluable friend and guide in helping me navigate junior and college hockey with my son.  I've helped Brad out by scouting for him in the Western States Junior Hockey league.  Brad is the head coach at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. One of my son's teammates from youth hockey, Cassidy April,  just finished his freshman year at UNE.

Again, a fun part of my college playing experience was the press.  Nearly every game resulted me getting my name and often picture in the paper.  We had the Uconn Daily Campus that followed us closely as well as the Hartford Courant and the New Haven Register.

A couple of years ago I was rummaging through an old box of all the articles and pictures and I came across a game program from a WHA Hartford Whalers game.  On the front cover was a couple of autographs.  One was a Scandinavian looking name that I did not recognize.  The other signature was Bobby Hull's.  Wow, that was cool.  But I had no idea where or when I got it.  I had no recollection of ever seeing Bobby Hull much less getting his autograph.

A little deeper in pile of articles and pictures I found a newspaper article from the New Haven Register.  It was about Lyman Hall.  Lyman Hall was a mid-level high school team in the greater New Haven area.  I was wondering why in the world I would have saved this article.  I turned it over and it turned out it was a feature article on me.  Local boy makes good kind of piece. It focused on my upcoming junior year at Uconn and my experience of coming out of West Haven High and playing college hockey.  Again, I vaguely recall being interviewed.

So I proceeded to read the article.  It was very cool.  At one point in the article the reporter asked me what NHL teams I followed.  My response was that I was too busy with my hockey and school to follow pro hockey and besides, Storrs, Connecticut is out in the boonies.  We only got 3 channels and it was hard to get any hockey on tv even if I had the time to watch.

I proceeded to tell him that I did however, have a chance to go to Hartford to catch a Whaler's game.  They were playing the Winnipeg Jets.  I told him that during the warm-ups I recognized one of the Jets players as one of the Finnish National players I'd met at hockey school in Finland.  I got his attention and was able to talk to him during warm ups.  He invited me back to the locker room after the game where he introduced me to Bobby Hull and I got both of their autographs on my program.  Mystery solved.  Don't forget it was the 70s.  A lot was forgotten from that decade.  

I'll always cherish my college hockey days.  I graduated from Uconn in May of 1977. I was qualified to do. anthropology.  But none of the big anthro firms came knocking.  So I had to figure out a new plan.

I'll get to that next.  Something would happen within the next year that would change everything.  

1 comment:

  1. What a great trip down memory lane...thanks for sharing!!!