Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Chapter 46: Sleepy Time Down South

Sleepy Time Down South

Well, kiss my grits!  What do Spanish moss, boiled peanuts, bugs the size of small house pets and southern cooking have to do with ice hockey?  Not much, other than me, I suppose.  I have to be the only hockey player to ever come out of the small town of Bonifay, Florida, a tiny hamlet located in the middle of the Florida panhandle.  It was a great place to grow up.  We were the only Jewish family in this small, admittedly, red-neck town.  People found us a curiosity and were most kind and friendly.  

I mentioned this earlier, but after moving to Connecticut and discovering the great game of hockey in my early teen years, I became a big fan of our local minor pro team, the Eastern Hockey League(EHL)’s New Haven Blades.  Old time hockey at it’s best.  Blake Ball, Gunner Garrett, Dave Hainsworth, John Brophy, Murray Kuntz.  These were real men.  Giants upon which to idolize and to devote my every waking moment.  They were gods to us. I ate, slept and dreamed about the fights, the goals, the hits…such a colorful sport with blood and ice, tape, pucks, splintered sticks.  Silver blades and brown leather boots.  There was a sense of watching true gladiators fighting till the death.  My neighbors, Mike McDermott or Mark Steinberg and I would go to games whenever we got the chance.  The next day when skating on the lake, I would always have an extra jump in my step.  Some of the excitement and energy from the previous night's game got into my blood and made me better than I was.  I loved it.

What does this have to do with Florida?  Not much.  Here I was a Bonifay boy who had recently managed to get rid of the northern Florida, southern drawl I’d learned from birth.  I was able to eliminate; y’all, I reckon and ain’t, from my vocabulary.  At the same time I was able to avoid taking on the lingo of my new environs.  I never said, “youse guys!”, even though my new junior high school had a name that sounded more like an Italian restaurant than an educational institution.  Gianotti Junior High…Proudly in our hearts you lie!.  They made great ravioli for lunch.  Every Friday meant fish sticks in honor of the large Italian and Irish Catholic student body and local populace.  Zuppardi’s Apizza was two blocks away.  

I had quickly found and fallen in love with hockey.  As a player and a fan.  To me, this was an entire new world.  I had been deeply and profoundly angry with my father for ripping me from the bosom of my childhood. I was forced to leave all my friends behind.  I lost my place in the world.  It was a wonderful and comfortable place.  Now, I was dealing with acne, shaving and all the awkwardness of adolescence.  Hockey was my salvation.

I never gave it much thought, but I just assumed hockey existed only where there was cold weather and ice…Connecticut, New England, Canada, Minnesota…Russia and Scandanavia.  It wasn’t until years later that I learned that there was indeed pro, or at least semi-pro hockey in the south as well.

One night skating, as an adult in San Diego at my Thursday night pick group, the old pro's, I found myself sitting next to one of my childhood heroes.  I heard the name Rouleau.  I wrote about this encounter in a previous chapter.  Michel Rouleau was one of my favorite pure hockey players for the Blades. I hadn’t heard nor thought of him in many years.  Yet there he was one of my childhood heroes sitting next to me on the bench at the San Diego Ice Arena in Mira Mesa.  Bald, pudgy, nowhere near the player I once considered a deity.  But there we were.  Nearly equal.  He was 50, I was 39.  He had been slowed down by age, me by injury.  We chatted.  I asked and he went on to rattle off four or five NHL teams he said he’d played for.  I checked and learned he never played in the NHL.  The WHA...yes but, not the NHL.  Once your idol becomes human, what harm can a small fib cause?

I went home and dug out my box of hockey memorabilia.  I had all my old articles and pictures from my playing days at West Haven High and Uconn.  I had professional programs I’d collected from NY Rangers, Hartford Whalers and New Haven Blades games I had attended.  In the box was an old Blade's program.  It was ripped and torn. but mostly intact.  On it was Michel Rouleau’s autograph.  Pretty cool.  I flipped it over and on the back was a listing of the league standings.  There, were the Blades, the Clinton Comets and the Long Island Ducks, along with the New Jersey Devils, Syracuse Blazers and Johnstown Jets.  But then there was a southern division.  I’d never noticed this.  There were teams in Knoxville, Roanoke, Charlotte, Nashville and even St. Petersberg, Fla.  The one that surprised me the most however was the Jacksonville Rockets.  Ice hockey in the Florida Panhandle…in the 1960s? Who knew?

Of course with the NHL expansion hockey found its way all over the USA and then with the huge trade that sent Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles the sport exploded all across the sunbelt.  

Having had my second life with hockey as a player, dad, coach, ref and fan, all as a resident of Southern California, I’ve enjoyed watching the quality, quantity and level of play increase. It's to a point where it is not uncommon to see Cali kids playing in the NHL as well as through all levels of college, junior hockey and prep schools.  They are right there along with the Canadians, New Englanders, Minnesotans as well as with the Czechs, Swedes, Russians and Fins.  

I’m most proud of having watched and been a part of the development of many of these Socal kids.  But the same thing was happening in Phoenix, Vegas, Texas and Florida, all through the south.

One such player we knew had just moved to San Diego from Florida.  In an earlier chapter I told the story of our miracle peewee year with the La Jolla Jaguars.  One of the best players on that team was a youngster named Rory Hansen. This was a solid team, with the likes of Chad Ruhwedel(now with the Rochester Amerks and Buffalo Sabres) and Jon Parker, also with Rochester.  My son was on this team along with many other fine young players.  Greg Park recently became the all time scoring leader for Northern Arizona University.  There were only twelve skaters.  Coach Joe Noris liked it that way.  

The fact that my son, and Rory Hansen, ended up on the Jaguars was a fluke.  Both were destined to sign with the San Diego Jr. Gulls but as fate had it, the tryouts there went awry and I decided to take my son over to the Jaguars.  I encouraged Rory’s dad, Dan, to come with me and both of our sons ended up playing for and helping the Jags overcome all odds and win the California State Peewee championship that season.

The Hansens were transplants to San Diego, from Florida.  Dan was in the Coast Guard and had been transferred to San Diego.  Midway through the season the Hansen’s had to miss an important weekend with the Jaguars.  Unfortunately, one of Rory’s grandparents passed away and they had to go back to Florida for the funeral.

We lost an important game that weekend.  

CAHA, the governing body for California youth hockey had some very strict rules.  Violating any of these regulations could result in suspension of an offending player or even disqualification of the team.  I mention this because some time later I learned that Rory had actually skipped out to go back to Atlanta for a tournament with his old Florida team.  No death in the family.  How many fake grandpa deaths have occurred in the name of weekend hockey tournaments? How many more have to die?

Today, hockey players coming out of the south is no big deal.  However, I'm pretty sure I'm still the one and only to ever hail from Bonifay, Fla.  I checked and the closest rink to Bonifay is in Tallahassee.  That's only about an hour and a half away.  Easily in range for a devoted player and hockey dad.  But I suspect they are still focused on football, baseball and basketball. 

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