Monday, July 8, 2013

Chapter 17: Show(case) Me the Money!

Here is how a year goes  in the life of a youth hockey family.  The season goes from Labor Day until late February or March, later if you get to the regional or national playoffs.  Spring hockey goes from March until tryouts for the next season which usually happen in May or June.  In the meanwhile you attend clinics, play in a summer league, take private lessons from "the coach", go off to summer camps and showcases.   The season itself starts with a Labor Day tournament.  The regular season starts in the next week or so.  You have weekly games punctuated by tournaments at all of the major holidays.  Playoffs start in February.  Again, you go as far as you can go and start the entire process over again.  

Sooner or later any competitive youth hockey player will need to start attending "showcases".  Showcases are events organized to attract top level players to play in a series of games over the course of a three day weekend in front of scouts who are looking to attract talent to their leagues or schools.  These showcase events are held all over the country and Canada.  I imagine they are huge money makers for the organizers.  We've given Bliss Littler more money than any man deserves over the years.  They hold out hope of the holy grail to parents, such as myself, eager to have their kids be scouted.   We spent many a summer weekend traveling hither and yon.  Of course, I always hoped my kid would be scouted and drafted to whatever league or level was next.  But in reality, my true goal was to get him the experience of playing with and against the best competition we could find with the ultimate goal of him playing at the highest level of college hockey possible. 

Some of these showcases are structured as camps where the games are informal scrimmages with refs who rarely call anything.  When a penalty is called it results in a penalty shot for the offended player, who is simultaneously being chased by the entire opposing team as he streaks in on the goalie.

Other events are organized as tournaments where entire teams compete for a title.  We participated in both.  The first showcase we went to was in Vancouver, BC.  It was the Global Showcase.  We attended the Global Showcase in Las Vegas, the Pre-draft and Chowder Cup in Boston, The Pre-Prep showcase in New Hampshire, the U. S. Junior Development program in Colorado, Hockey Night In Boston, The Chicago(Now known as America's) Showcase and Cali Camp in Los Angeles.

The biggest thing I almost learned in Vancouver is to turn your cell phone off.  My typical family cell phone bill for five iPhones and an iPad runs about $300 a month.  Back then we only had two phones.  I had a Palm Treo, one of the early smart phones. After a long weekend in Vancouver I was shocked and surprised to get a $1600 phone bill due to the AT&T international roaming charges. Lesson learned.  You would think.  

The following Christmas we went to Toronto with the Gulls bantam team for the Marlies tournament. I knew about the potential problem with the roaming charges so I contacted AT&T to sign up for an international calling plan.  This time I returned home to find a phone bill for $4000.  I disputed it.   I still ended up having to pay a big chunk of it though.

A running theme I tried to impress on my son was to ways play as if you were being scouted.  You never know who is watching.  I was once again coaching the next season and we went to watch a kid who we were considering.  He played like he didn't care.  We crossed him off our list.  He probably never knew if he even just gave a little effort we would have offered him a spot. 

In the back of my mind I was always curious about how my son would fare playing hockey, not in Southern California, but in my old stomping grounds of New England.   I may have already mentioned this, but I had prep school offers after high school, but my parents would not hear of it.  I thought that if Max ever had the chance to attend prep school I would be all for it.  

I found out about the PrePrep Hockey Showcase at the Icenter just over the Mass state line in Salem New Hampshire. It was a  four day event showcasing the talents of 6th, 7th and 8th graders in front of most, if not all of the prep schools.  These schools included not only the New England schools, but also schools from around the country and Canada  as well.  The players were placed on teams and played four exhibition games in front of coaches from the various schools.  There was a private school admissions fair on Saturday as well as a presentation featuring some of the coaches and  question and answer session.   I still remember one of the kids helping out with he presentation.  He guarded a door, dressed in his pink LaCoste Alligator shirt with the collar popped, his khaki pants and his beat up docksider shoes.  Yep, we were in prep school territory.

At the admissions fair, we met many coaches.  Max talked to the coaches who expressed interest.  He signed up for the mailing lists of schools he found interesting.  We had a friend who was attending the Northwood School in Lake Placid.  My brother-in-law's father had also been headmaster there for a short stint a few years back.  I specifically recall meeting Rob Gagnon who was the coach at Hebron at the time.  Hebron was way up in Maine somewhere.  Rob ended up moving on to Cushing Academy in Mass last I knew.  

I didn't expect anything out of having Max attend this showcase other than as I said, to see how he stacked up against the competition and the northeastern style of hockey.  I was a bit surprised and a little saddened when one of the coaches asked Max if he was interested in attending prep school. He said he was.  I got nostalgiac and realized if this were to come about, we would no longer share our two hour car rides in L.A. traffic up to his travel hockey games anymore.  Of course, other than receiving a steady stream of prep school brochures in the mail for the next four years, nothing happened to make this a reality.  So we continued our weekend commutes up to L.A.

This period of time was the peak of my son's size disadvantage versus the bulk of his age group.  So many of his peers had already gone through at least their initial growth spurts.  Kyle and I are both at least average if not slighty above average height wise.  I was shaving by the time I was in the 9th grade. It turns out Kyle was a late bloomer, and it looks like both of my kids were following in her footsteps. The upcoming bantam season would be the worst.   Just to give you an example of what he was up against, here's picture of Max standing in line at the snack bar behind Luke Duprey.  The issue of size would be no more obvious than this moment. They are the same age.  Luke was a New Hampshire kid.  He was a youth hockey legend in those parts who ended up playing hockey and lacrosse at Philips Andover.  He went on to play lacrosse at Duke.  He was hockey team mates with Chris Kreider at Andover.

The Gulls coach ended up getting a job offer and moved back east.  Bruce Miller was offered the job to coach our Bantams.  Bruce was an entrepreneur from Buffalo.  He owned restaurants and music stores.  He'd played hockey and coached at Geneseo State.  He was about 40 years old.  Brian Lang had been the previous coach's assistant.  Brian played at Oswego State in the Sunyac.  He was also a prep school product having attended the Hill School in Pennsylvania.  I'm sure he had some influence on Max ultimately going the prep school route.

Bruce took over the team and had a great way with the boys.  He was serious.  Disciplined but fun.  The kids responded well to him.  He also had one of the most talented group of players around.  The photo at the top of the blog site with Wayne Gretzky in the center is this team.  The team actually ended up missing the playoffs that year.  That was primarily because another team hosted the tournament that year and they got an "auto-bid".  So we qualified but missed out because the last playoff spot went to the host team even though they wouldn't have qualified otherwise.  

The other big thing that was happening for us is that Max was getting much more involved with roller hockey. 

All of his buddies played.  He played for his middle school team and was now moving on to the high school. High School roller hockey is a pretty big deal in San Diego. It's a sanctioned varsity sport. There is no high school ice hockey in San Diego. The best news was that Joe Noris had been right. It contributed significantly to Max's puck skills and confidence.  

The boys all played in a summer roller hockey league. Max wasn't very serious about it.  He played when he could but he was playing pony league baseball and summer league ice hockey as well.  We got him to weekend tournaments when he could make it. 

I'd received a mass email to the team asking who would be available for an upcoming tournament.  It was a qualifying tournament for NARCH.  NARCH is the national organization that runs all of the tournaments culminating in the annual championships.  

I didn't really know or care much about what a qualifying tournament was. Apparently others did. I responded to the email that Max had baseball on Saturday and ice hockey on Sunday morning.  We would try to get there for the later games on Sunday afternoon if possible. 

Sunday morning came and went. We finished up the ice hockey game. I was talking to two other dads, my friends Jaye Park and Dan Hansen. Their sons Gregory and Rory were in the same boat as Max.  So we discussed the situation and somehow I ended up getting nominated to drive all three boys up to Anaheim to join up with the roller team. 

By the time we got going and got up to the rink it was getting dark.  We had to fight some awful traffic.  We ended up being late and missed the start of the game. 

Here I was thinking I was being a hero, delivering our kids who would ride in on their silver horse and save the day. 

In addition to the three boys, I had my daughter, Bret with me.  I was also just recovering from another back surgery. 

The guys hustled into the locker room and suited up. Bret and I parked and made our way inside the arena.  Rory scored a quick goal.  Max took a tripping penalty. 

Suddenly, two dads went crazy yelling and screaming at Max.  I assumed they were dads from the opposing teams and I said something to them. "Really guys, it was just a trip, no need to get so worked up". 

The guys turned around.  They weren't from the other team. They were Dad's from our team.  I didn't understand. Why were they so upset?

Next thing I know they are in my face yelling and screaming about showing up late after the team did not qualify. Who the f**k did we think we were?

I was dumbfounded. I still didn't get what the big deal was.  But these two were so pissed they were ready to fight me. My daughter was in tears, horrified at what was happening. 

It turns out these two had been there all weekend. They'd been drinking all day long. The team didn't win enough games and so hadn't qualified to go to nationals. With our boys there they most likely would have made it. So they were "out of control" pissed. 

I thought I was doing a good deed by driving all the boys up to play and it turns out I was on the receiving end of all this anger and drunken hostility. 

One of the two dads was Dale Obinger.  Dale passed away last year.  He was a bigger than life character with a heart of gold.  But he did love him some beer.  Over the next few days some emails and phone calls were exchanged.  Apologies were made and we went on to become good friends and laugh over this incident for years to come. Out kids went on to play ice hockey together for a number of years and all was good. 

The other dad, Dave apologized as well. But our kids never played together and we never had a chance to become friends and put this behind us. We would bump into each other over the years but we never really had much to say to each other. 

Maybe four years later I was dropping Max off to referee a youth game. Dave was doing the same with his son. He came over to me and asked if he could have a word. 

He went on to tell me how awkward he felt whenever he saw me. He told me that he was so embarrassed over his behavior that he didn't know what to say.  He then told me that he was so ashamed after that initial exchange that he sought out help, joined AA and has not had a drink since.  I nearly cried.  It was so amazing to me that an incident like that could have such an impact and be the catalyst for someone to alter the course of their life.  

Crazy stuff. 

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