Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Chapter 33: That's What Friends Are For

I started my hockey life with a group of local kids.  We all hailed from the same town.  We all played at the same rink and we spent many a winter day on the same frozen lake in my back yard.  From where I stood, I was surrounded by the older kids, the varsity high school players and my peers, my teammates and opponents in the town league.  There were the town fathers, the hockey elders who ran things and there were the families of my friends. 

That was our hockey circle.  As I got older my hockey world expanded to include the players from other teams in my state and then on to college where the only connection to my hockey past was my constant friend, room mate and line mate, Frank Longobardi.  I had new team mates at Uconn each year and so my friends and contacts expanded.  I never really knew many of the younger kids from my home town.  I knew my high school coach's, son, Marty Crouse.  I knew Whitey Bensen's son, Kyle…but I didn't really follow much of what happened at West Haven after I graduated.  

I did my time, had my fun and moved on from Uconn, when I had my major back injury that ended my hockey life for over a decade.

Fast forward to the birth of my son, my reintroduction to playing and then when he turned four, signing him up for mini-mites.  That started a new chapter in relationships that I enjoy to this day.

When Max and I stepped on the ice at the iceoplex in Escondido in 1995, he as a brand new player and me as the dad who volunteered to run the mini-mite program, little could I anticipate the rich friendships that I would form in the hockey community.

Jaguars State Champs-Alex Corbin, Max Balaban, Chad Ruhwedal, Jon
Parker, Rory Hansen, Joe Noris, Kory Grahl, AJ Hatch, Garrett Taylor,
Pat Mercer, Greg Park, Tom Plotkin(RIP), Jonny Noris, Emil Kedbrandt,
and Nick Whaley

There were dozens of kids in that first program.  There would be many more as each year passed.  Soon it became evident that the kids born in 1991 would form a core group that would stick together for years to come.  There were also kids a year or two older or younger who would form parts of this group.  As we played for first one, the San Diego Gulls, and then the next, the La Jolla Jaguars and then back to the Gulls, we would forge, strengthen and often separate from kids in that core group.  But they played together, and from time to time against each other for years.  They were either on the Gulls or the Jags.  They nearly all played for their high school roller hockey teams.  They all played together or against each other during the summer house leagues and for NARCH Roller hockey tournament teams.

The kids played, worked out,  and hung out together.  The dad's mostly drank together.  As they got older, they split off.  Other kids joined in.  My own kid branched out to other teams, camps and leagues out of the area where we made even more connections and new friends.

Dave Corbin, Chad Ruhwedal and me
A group of the boys ultimately decided they needed to head up to Los Angeles to play for the Tier 1 teams if they were to have a real chance of "making it", whatever that means.  Most of those kids ended up getting drafted to the Western Hockey League in Canada.  Anyone who took that route forfeited their chance to play NCAA hockey.  Because there are WHL players who had pro contracts, the NCAA says if you play Major Junior hockey in Canada you are not eligible to play college hockey in the states.  

More of those kids ended up heading for the upper US junior leagues, the USHL and the NAHL.  A few of those kids are now playing D1 NCAA Hockey.  JT Osborn is at Western Michigan, Robert Francis started at Western Michigan but just transferred to Umass Lowell, Brandon Carlson is starting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.  You may recall Chad Ruhwedal played in the USHL, then Umass-Lowell, before signing with the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL.  He's fighting for a roster spot for this season, but will most likely spend time with another San Diegan, Jon Parker with the Rochester Amerks in the AHL.  

Of the kids we met and played with and against over the years from L.A., Arizona and Nevada, many more have made it to the pros, minors and to D1 college hockey.  The list is long and I've mentioned many of them previously.

And then there were the kids who reached the pinnacle of their hockey careers and have gotten on with their lives.  Many still play.  Lots of our friends are still playing ACHA College club hockey or D3 hockey.  Many ended their competitive careers and have found their were way to where we all end up anyway, the beer leagues.   

Me and Dave Corbin at the Kings vs. Sharks
Stanley Cup Playoffs 2013
One of my best friends, another hockey dad Dave Corbin and I have been connected at the hip for nearly fifteen years now.  I first met Dave when I left Merrill Lynch in 1992.  I took a deal and moved to what was then known as Shearson-Lehman Brothers. By the time I left that firm in 2006 the name had gone through about six changes.  Today it is now Morgan Stanley.  

Dave owns the Plaza Deli on the 3rd floor of the Wells Fargo Plaza on Fourth Avenue in downtown San Diego.  I'm not sure when we figured out that we both played hockey and both had kids about the same age who also played, but at some point our boys ended up on the same team, for about a week.  Dave's son, Alex was a goalie.  Max and Alex wound up both being on the San Diego Dragons, a mite tournament team.  I coached with another dad, Steve Terry.  Alex was going to be the goalie, but before the season started he was lured away from us to play for the La Jollla Jaguars Mite travel team.  The Jags played out of the rink at the mall at the University Towne Center in La Jolla.  You can eat at the food court and watch the kids skate. 

So our boys didn't skate together that season, but Dave and I bonded over the fact that we were both hockey dads.  

Dave is a super friendly guy with a raspy voice and a shaved head.  His deli is the best in town.  They make a mean avocado, turkey with bacon and cheese on sourdough called, the Plaza, #21.  He also cooks the best scrambled eggs with cheese I've ever had.  

My daughter, Bret and Dave's daughter, Cami played soccer and did in fact end up on the same team, Nott's Forest.  They were together for a year or two.  Max and Alex ended up on the Jaguars AA peewee team together a couple of years later.  In fact, Dave was probably instrumental in Max making that team.  I wrote previously about our tryout experience that year with the San Diego Gulls, where things were looking way too political so I talked Dan Hansen into taking his son, Rory and heading over to the Jaguars tryouts.  Rory was a stud and would have been the best player on whatever team he played for.  Max was younger and would have been in the middle of the pack where ever he played.  I'm pretty sure Dave convinced the Jaguars coach, Joe Noris, to take Max.  

Max and Alex were buddies.  They were a birth year apart.  Max was a 91 and Alex was 90.  So that meant that every other year Alex would be moved up to the next level while Max remained.  Our families became close.  When the boys were on the same team, we would spend every weekend together at soccer games or hockey games and tournaments.  Not to mentioned I saw Dave at lunch nearly every day.  Dave also played goalie so we played pick up hockey together from time to time.

Dave's daughter, Cami started to get frustrated with soccer and she began playing hockey instead.  She played in San Diego and then headed up to Anaheim to skate with the Lady Ducks.  After a few years she headed off to play prep school hockey at Gilmour in Ohio.  She amassed over 300 points in her three years at Gilmour.  Dave travelled to see her as much as I travelled to watch my son.  Once he ended up in Wallingford, Connecticut for a tournament with Cami.  he called me and asked me what he should do for the day.  So, I had Dave do my typical day.  He drove down to West Haven, knocked on my parents door and met my Mom.  He got to see my house and Lake Phipps.  Then i directed him to the rink at the high school where he went in and spotted my picture on the wall with the All State team from 1972-73.  Next he headed over to Whitie Bensen's and met Whitie and Kyle.  Finally he went to Jimmy's for a lobster roll and clam strips.  He and I were on the phone throughout the day laughing at every turn as he lived my life for a day.

Alex was always the number 1 goalie.  He wasn't used to sitting.  By the time he got to his first year of midgets a couple of things happened.  First of all, Alex stopped growing.  He matured young but hit his peak around 5'6" or 5'7".  The other thing was that the Gulls midget team he joined already had a goalie.  Brett Greene was at least 6" tall and was solid.  So Alex was going to be his backup.  On top of that Alex had suffered a back injury while snowboarding.  He ended up ending his competitive career.  He played pick up hockey with his dad but he pretty much gave up his dream of playing college hockey.  Alex was good.  Really good.  He was also extremely competitive.  Quick like a cat.  His only weakness was when he went down in a butterfly he left too much net open up high.  It was a shame to see his run come to an end.  Alex was the kind of goalie who could steal a win.  In addition to his heroics when we won the state championship during peewees, I remember a bantam game he played in Phoenix.  We were playing a much better Phoenix Firebirds team.  We were outshot badly but due to Alex's amazing skill came away with a 1-0 win.  That's just the kind of kid and the kind of goalie he was.

A couple of years later I was at the rink in Escondido.  Bruce Miller, had just bought the junior A team and was getting ready for a practice.  It was just before the team was to come back from the Christmas break.  I was reffing the adult league game and Bruce walked by.  He told me he needed a goalie to fill in at practice.  His starting goalie was having migraines and he needed an extra goalie at practice.  I suggested he call Alex.  Alex had only been playing pickup hockey with his dad.  He hadn't played a competitive game in nearly two years.  I gave Bruce Alex's phone number.  Alex came out and practiced with the team.  The next weekend, he was added to the roster and was sitting on the bench for the Gulls game against the Valencia Flyers up in Valencia.  

After the first period, the Gulls were down 3-0 and the starting goalie was having a rough night.  Alex started the second period.  Soon it was 3-1, then 3-2 and then by the end of regulation time the game was tied 3 all.  I was home watching the live stream on my computer.  I could hardly believe what I was watching.  I cheered Alex on.  They played a scoreless ten minute overtime.  Next it was on to the shoot out where Alex stood on his head and outlasted the other goalie to walk away with a 4-3 overtime win.    Needless to say, Alex took over as the starting goalie.  He finished that season and the next.  He was recruited by an NCAA D3 program and was promised the starting job.  Over the summer, he found out that other goalies from his league had also been recruited and promised the same starting position.  He opted to stay in town and play locally for the San Diego State Club team.  Here's one of my favorite clips of Alex from his SDSU days. Alex is the goalie in white at the near end.  

I had gained the reputation among the Corbins as Alex's "agent".  This was a running joke.  I'd helped him get back into competitive hockey with the Gulls,  I was instrumental in his college recruiting process, even though he didn't take my advice and play D3 hockey anyway.    I continued as a family "advisor"/agent for the Corbins with Cami as she was going through her own college recruiting process.  The goal with Cami was to get her placed with a good D1 women's program.  She got plenty of looks. She was a sniper and could score with the best of them.   I was friends with Tim Bothwell. He played at Brown University and then for the St. Louis Blues. Tim was the head coach for the University of Vermont women's program.  Tim is Canadian.   He tended to recruit mostly Canadian girls to his team.  He liked Cami but never bit.  She ended up going to Union and played there for two years but didn't enjoy it.  Cami is still at Union.  She's a junior.  She quit the hockey team and will play for their softball team this year.  

David and I used to spend many a Friday or Saturday afternoon together at my house watching his daughter and my son playing in their respective games on  We would often have two computers going at the same time with one game on each.

This is Dave's first season without any of his kids playing hockey.  I hope he will still come by and watch my son with me.  

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