Friday, January 10, 2014

Chapter 45: The Iceman Cometh

It's been an eventful week here in Connecticut. I finally got to my parents home at 3am. The funeral went smoothly.  It was humbling and enlightening to see how loved my dad was; by his friends, family, neighbors, fishing buddies and fellow musicians. I prepared a speech. I was not particularly sad or emotional about losing my father.  He was not very happy being ill and I know he wanted to go. So I was in pretty good shape knowing he was no longer suffering.  

That was until I stood up to deliver my talk right after my mother spoke. I was a blubbering fool. I had no idea where that came from. My speech include jokes and some funny stories so I had people laughing and crying.  

This story was relayed via email by one of my dad’s fishing friends.  I included it in my talk.  People were doubling over in their seats picturing this:
Red Balaban-Old Man and the Sea
 I always enjoyed fishing with " Red " when he was in Florida. He once hooked into a large Cobia and fought it so hard that his pants fell off . He continued to fight the large fish in his underwear until he finally landed it. By that time his underwear were around his knees and all enjoyed watching his bare ass as he got his prized fish into the boat. I laughed until I was blue in the face. He was a great man who I will truly miss.
If you happen to be fan of jazz, dixieland or otherwise, here are a few links about my dad and his impact on the genre:


It was great to see some of my high school hockey buddies and even my high school sweetheart at the service. My cousin, Bob Balaban was there as well as Ted Kennedy Jr. I rented a car for my son and he drove eight hours each way to get to say farewell to his Papa. 

Max and Bob Balaban
Ice on Phipps setting up for a perfect freeze
The day of the funeral the ice and snow on the lake was wet and melting.  We'd just had the big snow storm that covered the northeast. Now the temperature shot up to the high 40s with rain. 

We are not a religious family, but my mom wanted to “sit shiva” so we did that.  I was talking to one of our guests at this occasion.  A fellow named Joel Schiavone.  In one of my very early chapters of this saga I mentioned my introduction to the game of hockey started with my next door neighbor who played for a peewee team at the New Haven Arena named the Schiavone Scrappers.  Joel Schiavone is a dixieland jazz musician, associate and long time friend of my father’s.  I’d known of him for nearly 50 years.  I never knew he was involved with hockey.  At the Shiva I asked him if he was related to the Schiavone’s scrap business which sponsored the peewee team way back when.  He said he was.  He then told me my father had told him my story.

Schiavone Scrappers 1967
I thought I was talking to a nice older jazz man who may have had some familiarity with hockey.  He then told me he’d owned the AHL New Haven Nighthawks.  I couldn’t believe I’d known of this man for all those years and my dad never mentioned he owned a pro hockey team.  The things you learn!  I showed Joel this picture and he got a big kick out of it.

By Monday the “Polar Vortex” came blasting in.  I could tell the lake was setting up for perfect black ice on the lake. I predicted the ice would be ready by morning.
As good as it gets

I, however, would miss out on it because I had a 7:00 am flight up to Buffalo to watch my son's team play Fredonia for their first game after the winter break. I was excited to see Max play defense. 

My original plan was to fly to Buffalo, catch the game and then hang out there until Friday when they would be back to play Buffalo State. Then I would hop on the team bus back to Elmira where the would face Geneseo on Saturday. I would then fly back to San Diego on Sunday out of Elmira. 

I started thinking about what I would do in Buffalo for three days by myself.  I decided to ask my mother if she would like me to come back on Wednesday so I could help her get some affairs in order. She thought it was a great idea.  So I kept my Tuesday flight to Buffalo and my Sunday flight to San Diego and I added a round trip flight back to New Haven on Wednesday and back again to Buffalo on Friday morning. 

I've mentioned before but I have one messed up spine, so all this travel is a killer. 

To recap: New Haven to Buffalo. Buffalo to New Haven. New Haven to Buffalo.  Bus trip from Buffalo to Elmira. Fly from Elmira to San Diego. Every flight includes a stop in Philly. 

I wake up at 5:30 Tuesday to drive myself in my dad's car to the airport in New Haven. I was planning on leaving the car at long term parking and picking it up the next day when I returned. 

Did I mention it was cold. Below zero with nasty winds. Did I mention my dad’s 1995 Dodge neon is a death trap?  I got to the airport and parked.  I had to walk about 1/4 mile in the the bitter cold to the tiny terminal at Tweed-New Haven.  When I was about 50 yards from the door I had to break into a what I generously call a run because my face was killing me…(I know, it was killing you too). Actually what I call a run is really more of a shuffle. It was way too cold for any animal life.

Once I checked in for my flight I got a call from USair telling me my connecting flight from Philly to Buffalo was cancelled.  Damn.  What now? I needed to get out of Connecticut.  I’d had enough.  I was not going to miss my son’s game.  My mind raced. I’m a pretty good problem solver, especially when it comes to travel problems.  I will find a way.

Hmm.  I had my dad’s rolling wheels of death.  I could chance it and drive it to Buffalo.  How far would that be?  7 hours.  A. That would kill my back.  B. That’s a long freaking drive.  But hey, I was determined to see Max play.  I was going to go for it.  I spent an hour on the phone trying to get refunded for my travel.  That was a mess, but I finally got it done.  Then I headed back to the parking lot to retrieve the car.  Again, through the bitter cold, I made my way.  I got to the lot only to see a sign that said to pay for parking inside…so I turn around and fought the biting wind once more.  There was no one at the terminal to take my payment.  The vending machines were out of order.  I found a time stamp machine behind the counter and helped myself to it.  Success?  Back again to the lot, I got in my car and pulled up to the exit.  I inserted my ticket in the machine where it was promptly eaten.  OK, let’s go! But that didn’t happen.  The arm did not raise, so I couldn’t get out.  I scouted the area and thought the Neon should be able to squeeze through the small gap between the post and a fense, which it did…so I was on my way.

Great, seven hours in a car that probably hadn’t had an oil change in quite a while in sub-zero weather.  Then I realized that the wiper fluid was empty…On my last visit I discovered this and I bought a jug of the stuff.  After I poured it into the washer fluid reservoir cap I watched every last drop leak out from under the vehicle. A hole in the reservoir.  

I started thinking this drive might not be such a good idea.  I searched for a car rental office on my phone and realized my hands were almost numb.  The car had no heat.  I surely would have died.  So I headed for the nearest Alamo office.  I got there and started the rental process but I texted Max and his coach to make sure the game was still happening.  

I also put out a request on the forum for anyone to let me know if they knew anything.

No one got back to me, so I proceeded.  I had not quite completed the transaction when the agent went out to warm up the car for me.  By the time he returned the coach had gotten back to me to let me know the game had indeed been called off.  Later I got a nice phone call from "joecct" from the USCHO forum also letting me know the game had been canceled and not to take the drive.

Back to West Haven.  Back to my parent’s home on the lake where I’d grown up, where I first skated and fell in love with hockey. The ice was amazing..I don’t think I’d ever seen it more perfect.  Again, my back prevents me from doing what I love the most.  I can barely even reach my feet to tie my skates…but the ice was so beautiful.  I knew I would pay for it, but I had to give it a whirl.  I headed to Whitie Bensen’s.  The oldest and arguably best hockey store in Connecticut, maybe New England and possibly the universe is about 3 minutes from the house.
Take your pick

I walked in and Kyle Bensen said to have at it…take whatever I needed.  I grabbed a pair of 8 1/2 Bauer Vapor XXs, some gloves, he let me use a West Haven High hockey beanie, gave me the longest heaviest Sherwood wooden stick I’ve ever lifted and 4 pucks.  He also gave me a pair of skate guards so I could put the skates on in my living room and walk across the stone patio down to the lake.  
Brother and sister

What I lived for as a kid

No words
Painful, and stupid, but worth it.  I was in heaven.  I skated alone.  Then with my sister.  Then my old high school buddy, Dave Hansen and his two sons, Austin and Ryan.  There was Conor Crouse, grandson of my high school hockey coach, the legendary Art Crouse.  The ice was spectacular.  Never better.  We skated to the far end of the lake watching and listening the scary but harmless freezing cracks beneath our feet.
I even inserted myself into the shinny game.  I was horrible. The stick was too heavy to be able to control the puck. My feet did very little of what my ego thought I should be able to do.  I was out there with college kids who could skate circles around me.  It was quite humbling.  I wanted so badly to tell them how good I used to be, what a legend(at least in my own mind) I am in West Haven hockey lore.  They wouldn’t care.  I was just some old fart who could barely skate as far as they were concerned but they were very kind to me.
Conor Crouse, Ryan Hansen and Dave Hansen

It took only minutes for me to realize that this was a bad idea.  I haven’t, can’t and shouldn’t partake in this kind of activity.  But I would not be denied. Even though I’m paying for it.  If there is such a thing as painful bliss, I just experienced it.  

Did I mention it was cold?

So, for three days there was this winter perfection.  The kind of ice we used to live for as kids.  And for the most part there was no one out there but me.  I went out each day a few times for a few minutes at a time.  I found it hard to fathom that no one was taking advantage of the beautiful, amazing  and rare phenomenon.  On the other hand, I would skate around thinking, this is all, just for me.  What a gift.  The people I mentioned only showed up for the last day or so of these three days.

Today I got up at 5:00 am, once more to catch a cab to the airport, to once again try to make my way back to Buffalo to watch my son play tonight.  Problem!  It was snowing. Crap.  Would my flight be canceled again.  Would I be stuck in West Haven again?  And now the great ice would now be covered with snow, so there goes that.  Besides, I’d returned my skates and gear back to Whitie Bensen’s last night.

Other than paying the price for my indiscretion by skating, with the ensuing pain, and the delays due to de-icing the planes in both New Haven and Philadelphia, I got to Buffalo without much of a hitch.  I landed, took a cab to Buff State, found a cute little coffee shop and bakery where I am hanging out until the game at 7pm tonight.  Did I mention pain?  I need a bed!

In the meantime, after all this, I get a text from my son telling me he’s not in the lineup tonight.  Great…sheesh.  I was obviously very sad about my father’s passing and the funeral, but this…this is hard to take.  I’m a hockey guy, what can I say?


  1. I enjoyed your story. Sorry for your loss, but I'm sure you skating on the lake brought a smile to your father from above. My hous nab lived over on Edward St. Send told me he spent a lot of time playing hockey out there on the lake.

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