Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Chapter 18: Burning Down the House

Things were going along. Life was good. We sold our house for a ridiculous price a few years before the market peaked. We moved to the Scripps Ranch area of San Diego, much closer to the rink in Escondido and right down the road  from Mira Mesa. A lot of hockey families lived in this area. My son was doing his thing with hockey, roller hockey and baseball.  My daughter was immersed almost full time with her friends playing travel soccer and softball. We were almost never home on the weekends. 

By now it was a becoming a division of labor. Kyle drove Bret to her tournaments. I got Max where he needed to go. Bruce Miller, Max's coach recognized my background and expertise and had no knowledge of my having previously inflicted brain damage on that poor squirt a few years back so he started letting me contribute to the team. First in terms of video, stats, managing the schedule and ultimately he brought me on as his assistant coach.  I was little more than a glorified puck shagger during practices. Bruce ran the show.  I was on the bench and I had a lot of ideas and insights that Bruce seemed happy to incorporate.  For example, I once said "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger".  Bruce liked that and repeated it in his pre-game talk. I was full of wisdom. (Sarcasm intended)

Tryouts ceased being the stressful head trip they had been in the peewee days. Max had become an integral part of the team and no longer had to sweat out dealing with politics nor a coach's ego. 

A core of the 91 birth year kids opted to go up to L.A. To play AAA hockey with the Kings or L.A. Hockey club. Before they left we played the best AAA Bantam team in L.A. And beat them 1-0.   Then a handful of our top players decided they'd rather spend five to six hours a night driving up and back on school nights three days a week.  So we ended up playing Bantam AA without them. 

The Gulls were the beneficiary of a merger though. MF Schurman ran a youth program in addition to his Surf junior club.  The Surf youth players were absorbed into our team.  We got three or four of their best players plus their goalie. 

We also inherited their parents.  A nice group of folks.  They fit right in. They loved hockey and they tolerated their kids. So it worked out nicely. 

They all knew me since I was with their kids every practice. I got to know them and liked them all.   Because Kyle was busy taking Bret to her games each weekend these new parents had never met my wife. 

That was, until our Christmas Tournament in Toronto.  Kyle and Bret joined Max and me. We made a fun winter vacation of it.  One night all of the parents were out for dinner at a steak house restaurant.  Kyle was sitting to my left.  One of the new families' parents sat to my right and two couples were across from us.  This was their first time actually meeting Kyle. 

I noticed this quizzical look on their faces as I introduced my wife.  They looked at each other and then broke into laughter.  I'd spent the past four months with these people.  When they got the email list of players info they saw Max's dad was Steve and his Mom's name was listed as Kyle. They then assumed that Max had two dads. They explained this to their kids and for the entire time just figured I was gay.  Not that there is anything wrong with that!  I'm glad we got that straightened out.  Ever since then when I mention Kyle's name I add "She's a girl". 

By the way,  soon after we moved to Scripps Ranch we woke up early one Saturday morning to an ominous sky full of thick dark smoke.  We were up early because Bret had a softball game that morning.  We turned on the news to discover we were in the midst of a raging fire.  This became known as the Cedar Fire , the worst fire in California history.

Scripps Ranch was engulfed in smoke and fire. Hundreds of homes were destroyed. Many homes burned due to overgrown brush in the canyons and because they had flammable wooden shake roofs.  We had quite a few friends who lost their homes.  People were evacuated and didn't know for days if they still had a home. 

Fortunately we lived on top of a hill in a newer section of the community. While the flames got fairly close we were never in much danger.   Bret's game was obviously cancelled.  But Max had a game up on Long Beach.  We went.  What self respecting hockey dad wouldn't?

Before leaving we pulled our valuables together and loaded up our SUV.  Kyle stayed behind and made sure the house didn't burn down. She was prepared to evacuate if need be. 

Max, Bret and I made the hour and a half drive north for his game.  All along the highway there were fires breaking out on the hillsides. Homes were burning.  It looked like a war zone.  For days afterword  it looked like the world had come to an end. Unfortunately it had, for some. Sixteen people died. Smoke and soot hung in the air for well over a week.  People wore masks all over the city.  Eeriest thing I've ever seen. 

The team did quite well that year. There was one team we just couldn't beat. We came close every time.   Every game ended in a one goal loss. This was the L.A. Selects Bantam AA team.  Emerson Etem,  Shane Sooth, Matt Nieto.  There were a few others who escape me.

We lost to them by a score of 3-2 in the opening game of the CAHA (California Amateur Hockey Association) state playoffs.  Our second game of the tournament was against another team that we struggled with, the Yorba Linda Blackhawks.  We were slightly better but they had a strong goalie. 

We were trailing 2-1 near the end of the second period when one of their players dumped the puck in from the other side of the red line.  He turned away from the puck to head for the bench. Had his dump in shot not been on net it would have been icing.  

But it was on net.  Our goalie went down to his knees in a butterfly position and swiped at the puck with his stick intending to steer it harmlessly to the corner.  Instead he missed it and it squirted right through his legs and into the goal.   3-1.  A heart breaker. 

This goal would have crushed most.  In one of the most remarkable pieces of coaching I've ever seen, Bruce challenged the goalie. "I need you!  Can I count on you?"  Many coaches would have jumped all over the poor kid or yanked him. But Bruce gave him the chance to step up.   Then he did the same with the rest of the team. 

The boys came out on fire to start the third period. It happened to be Max's birthday. He scored a great goal right off the bat to close the gap to 3-2 with nearly the entire third period to go. 

We out shot the Blackhawks something like 20-3. Their goalie stood on his head. 

We called timeout with about a minute to go in the game.  Already with one loss we knew we would be out of the tournament if we didn't win this game.  Bruce pulled the goalie for the final minute of play.  There was an offsides call against us with  :30 seconds left.  

We won the face off just outside of the Blackhawks zone, gained control and worked to puck down around the boards, behind their goal and into the near right corner.   One of our players was able to pass it out to the high slot area above the face off circles.  Mikey "Moose" Spunt stood alone as the pass came.  He wound up and was able get off a blast, a one-timer that made its way through a mass of bodies and past the goalie for the tying goal with  :15 seconds on the clock. 

Our bench erupted with joy.  The players on the ice swarmed Mikey.  The Blackhawks were dejected as they skated back to their bench. We tied it up.   We were alive. We had the momentum.  Looks like this one was going to overtime. 

The referee was a girl.  She may have been the same one from the game where I was ejected a few years earlier. She was in perfect position on the goal line when the puck went in.  She signaled "goal" as she pointing to the net.  As the boys celebrated, she made her way to the scorers table to report the goal. 

Uh oh. The older, male linesmen retrieved the puck from inside the net.  What I'm about to tell you should never have happened. It was wrong. There was no excuse. 

The linesman picks up the puck and places the goal back on its moorings. It had come off as the goalie tried to stop the shot.  As often happens he kicked the post while attempting the save, dislodging it.  We've all seen it a hundred times. 

The linesman then makes a beeline to catch up to the ref before she can report the goal.  A discussion ensues which ends with her waving her arms indicating no goal. Say what?

Bruce went nuts.  Bruce is the most courteous, respectful coach I've ever seen when it comes to dealing with officials.  He refers to them as sir, or ma'am in this case.  He never loses his cool.  But he did this time.  He asked for an explanation and was told that the linesman said the net was off.  That would be the proper call had it occurred prior to, or even at the time the puck went in.  But not now. Not after the goal had been awarded. Not when a linesman reports the net is off after the head ref already indicated it was a good goal. 

This was disturbing.  The game continued.  The final  :15 seconds were played. The game was over.  Bruce was making his way through the handshake line.   He was shaking the hand of the linesman and asked him if the net was off why didn't he whistle the play dead at the time.  He said to Bruce that he didn't notice it until he was retrieving the puck. 

Again, Bruce who always shows respect to officials goes nuts once again. And justifiably so.  I think he could have gotten away with justifiable homicide in that moment.  But nope, that was it. The game was over. End of story.  We were done. 

After the game we headed to a restaurant to commiserate. We also celebrated Max's birthday. But there was no joy in Mudville that night. 

Before the food was delivered we got a phone call.  It was the CAHA president.  He and a number of board members and other league officials were at the game.  They saw what happened and they suggested we file a protest.  They asked for a written affidavit and any video tape we could provide. 

Bruce and I left the party.  We hopped on the computer and wrote out the report. We got video tape from another parent. We met with the officials and submitted it.  They said they would let us know. 

The boys were unaware of the protest. We didn't want to get their hopes up.  In hindsight, we probably should have.  They played the next game but they were flat, dejected and had lost heart.  We lost. I forget the score or who we played. 

We played one of the best teams in the state other than L.A. Hockey Club in our final game. We crushed them 5-0. 

We took the long bus ride back from San Jose to San Diego.  This was the same bus trip where we found out Paul, our billet kid, was partying with the girls and ripping us off. 

A few days later I asked Laura, our club president whatever became of our protest.   She checked into it and got back to me. The CAHA board had witnessed the play and considered our protest. They decided that had we won our next game, the one where we came out flat, they would have overturned the call. They would have allowed our tying goal to stand and we would have played overtime hockey until one team scored. 

This would have been good to know prior to that next game.  It turns out the linesman was a senior official and pretty much bullied the referee into disallowing the goal.  

That was a hard one to swallow. 

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