Posts Tagged ‘youth ice hockey’

The Spryzsaks… The Unique Hockey Family

September 30, 2015

You might expect to hear a story about a family of hockey players that made it to the show and for that reason they are worthy of mention.  One of them could have made it but for several different reasons it did not happen.  I mention them because among hockey families, they were truly unique.

Ice hockey, for the most part is one of the last bastions of whiteness in North America.  It requires money and dedication by parents to get kids to the rink, pay for clinics, teams and equipment.  The sport becomes your hobby even if you don’t play.  When you’re hauling children around to games and practices, there is very little else left for you to do except work or sleep.

I met John, the father when my son decided to take up the sport at the age of five.  John was one of the Sunday morning, beginner instructors that helped with the little mites.  When my son became proficient enough, he was put on a team.  In his first game, my son played against John’s son Tim.  John’s son looked like a chubby Asian child of Japanese or Korean lineage.  The boy looked nothing like his dad but every bit his mother’s son.  Tim was their youngest son’s name and if ever there was a kid perfect for the sport of ice hockey, it was this child.  He had legs like a running back and trying to catch him with the puck was like trying to catch a rabbit in your backyard.  Tim could stickhandle at the age of six, hit perfect passes on the tape and shoot a wrist shot.  Tim got bored with scoring and would just set up other players as a mite.  While other kids tottered around like old people at a senior’s dance, Tim breezed around the ice with ease.

John approached me years later and asked if I would like to coach with him.  John was notorious in that he said whatever came to mind.  If he thought you were an asshole, he wouldn’t hold back.  A woman once walked into the local pro shop and rubbed her elbow against John’s shoulder as he philosophized and loitered.  The woman knew John and coyly set herself up for a put down when she stated that “I have a question for you”.  John moved his body away from her, looked her in the face and said, “I have the answer…  If our species relied on the two of us getting together, we’d become extinct.”  The woman walked out embarrassed and miffed.  John went right on talking.

John Jr.  or just Junior, was a year older than Tim.  Everything that Junior was able to do, came through hard work.  Junior was an intelligent smart ass that wore his straight black hair down to the middle of his back.  He looked like Indian princess and was called such in a game in Toronto.  Right of the face off of the 1st period of a game, Junior crossed checked across the cage and sat for five minutes because he was teased about his long hair.  He later went to the locker room of a team from London, Ontario and invited each and every one of them to come out and fight him.  Junior told the border guard at Windsor that he was being kidnapped by the white man driving as a joke and nearly landed John in jail.  Junior dipped people’s water bottles in the commode when they were dicks.  As a midget of seventeen years of age, he came to the rink to watch me coach a bunch of mites early on a Sunday morning.  When I asked why he was there, he told me he had been up all night and decided to watch the little ones play.  It was heart warming to see this jaded young man who hated the world, show up to watch a random mite game and tell the little ones that they did well.  John grew to be my friend and some times I think I was his only friend.  His sons felt like my sons and we all had a connection through the love of the game.

A youth hockey organization was giving consideration to letting John be the head coach of their midget team but asked me if I would be his assistant and help rein him in when necessary.  I said I would.  The hockey director of the organization was the son of a general manager of an NHL franchise which had floundered for years.  Before I had a chance to tell John that I had talked the club into giving him a chance to coach, I saw him standing over two men on the board of directors that he had great disdain for.  As John walked up the bleachers to watch an informal pre-season scrimmage that Tim and Junior were a part of as well as my own son, John stared down the two men on the board that he disliked and then posed a rhetorical question- What the fuck are you looking at?  I tried to pull John away but he wasn’t budging.  He wanted to get his point across and so he did.

“Boards are for people like you two fucking pansies to provide a place for your kids to play.  Take a good look on the ice…  Who do you think the two fucking worst skaters are out there?  I’ll clue you both in….  Your son and your fucking son too.  Now who are the best?  That would be my sons and his son.  Now you went out and spent a butt load of money to have the son of the worst general manager in the history of the NHL to do for you what his dad has been doing for years which has been dick.  Speaking of dick, I’d like to take you two fairies out in the parking lot and smack you around until you cry but you being lawyers and all, I think I might wind up in jail, right?  I mean you wouldn’t want to be a man about this all and tell me to shut the fuck up and invite me to go out to the parking lot to settle this like men, right?  No that would take a nut sack which neither of you has  between you…  You don’t want me to coach here?  Fuck you and fuck you and fuck the son of Sam out there who will gladly take your dough.”

I waited until John calmed down a moment and then broke the news to him.  “You were the head coach of the midget team for a full twenty minutes before you verbally accosted the two men who agreed to give you the job.”

John for the first time ever that I can remember, did not say a word.  I went on to tell him how I sold the board on how well you would work with older kids.  John thanked me and walked out.  If you ever met John, Junior or Tim, you would agree that the three of them love the sport, play the sport and really understand the sport and keep hockey from being too predictable.  If you ever have an hour of your life to donate, we can have a beer with them.  You would not be disappointed.

To Kill the Ref or My Fat Goalie

January 28, 2011

It is my conclusion after playing and coaching ice hockey for many years, that there is a distinct lack of respect for the game by most referees who opt to make money on the side to pay off credit cards, buy a horse, keep from going into debt or only work as a referee and mostly sponge off of a girlfriend, wife or parents. Lack of icing calls, non-calls or waiving off clear goals because they were too lazy to get into position to see the play are just a few of the things that do not sit well with me regarding the on ice policing that takes place in both men’s league and youth hockey. That is not to say that there are not exceptions because I have run across some very good referees too. 

            Inevitably in these times of fat laden, processed garbage that most of us eat and feed our children as they virtually participate in sports, conduct wars and kill aliens, I had one particular obese and unathletic child on a youth team I coached that I will always remember.  You might ask yourself the question now what poor refereeing, fat foods, fat children and ice hockey have to do with each other based on my first two paragraphs and so I shall tell you.

            Back in my younger adult days when I was more outspoken and unforgiving in my prejudices and conclusions about things and people, I ran a summer hockey camp for children age seven to fourteen.  I actually loved the camp.  I was the ringmaster for a Lord of the Flies hockey camp where I instilled a Darwinistic point of view towards the sport.  It irked me that many parents approached summer camp as baby sitting and time occupation rather than a chance for young players to truly improve and contribute to their teams come fall.  My barometer of success was if I could see a player come in early June and leave in mid-August and I could detect an improvement in decision making, receiving a pass, making a pass, shot selection, stick handling, edge control and foot speed.  Occasionally I would have one or two that did not improve very much if at all and then I always gave it thought.  Did I fail them in some way by not focusing on what they needed?  Did they not try for some reason or were they just devoid of talent for the game.

           One particular summer, I had the fortune/misfortune of having within the camp two brothers who were identical twins.  They were thin and wiry and wore yarmulkes because they were orthodox Jewish.  I had in the past coached their older brother who was quiet and obedient.  The younger twins were Thing one and Thing two.  They would tag team kids they didn’t like in the group and play practical jokes all the time.  Once when I threw them off the ice for trying to do a Hanson Brothers imitation in a scrimmage, they took my street shoes and hid them.  I had to go barefoot the rest of the day and never did find my shoes.  Both boys vehemently denied having anything to do with shoes and I couldn’t prove that they did.  They were vindictive, mischievous but very athletic and valuable to have.  One loved playing goalie and the other loved playing defence.  If the goalie brother made a save, the defenceman brother would mix it up with any opposing team’s player who got anywhere near his brother and goalie.

            On a rain day when we could not go out in the field after taking the ice, I had the boys put on their helmets and gloves and challenge one another to a one on one boxing match.  I put the twins against each other and they refused to fight one another.  They swore at me and declined with folded arms.  They wanted to fight smaller or bigger kids and generally kids they detested.  The twins were fast and fearless and nobody really wanted a piece of either of them and so I thought turning them on each other would be a good idea.  The twins were opposed.  While I was instructing two other campers on the rules of locker boxing such as no headlocks or kicking, someone had grabbed hold of my shorts from behind and ripped them down to my ankles.  The elastic on my underwear was a bit weak and dropped to my ankles with the shorts. My fifteen year old female junior counselor got a full frontal.  I was so upset that I grabbed the closest camper next to me who was a fat child named Nat.  I picked up Nat with one arm and ripped his shorts off leaving him standing and crying in a pair of smiley face boxers.  When he got his breath, he told me it was the twins.  The twins knew they were in trouble and so they just ran home without any thought to what was going to happen to their equipment or what I was going to tell their Guatemalan au pair that was responsible for collecting them.  I had a talk eventually with their mother and got the impression that she didn’t believe that her two darlings were capable of such a thing.  Times have changed since I was a lad.

            Later that fall, I coached a pee wee team and had Nat and the twins on my team.  We were a solid .500 team and most parents thought that being at sea level was a winning season given the talent we had.  I had a game against a formidable powerhouse organization that was walking through their season without much of a fight.  Come game time my number one goalie called in sick leaving me with Thing two only on defence.  I had no choice but to use my back up goalie Nat.

            To Nat’s credit, he tried hard and went to clinics and his parents spent a young fortune on matching equipment to our organization’s colours.  Nat was a roly-poly child with curly hair and freckles who was always drinking a soft drink with a high sugar snack.  He had the physique of a middle aged man going through a stress test after a heart scare.  Nat was slow and not athletic but I needed a back up and Nat was happy to have the job.  The job description was to be ready to jump into a game if a satellite landed on goalie number one or if he becomes ill and so I was faced with having to play Nat against the top team in our division. A win meant going to the playoffs and a loss meant we get ready for spring league.  I told Nat to stretch out away from the bench as I talked to the team before the game.  I gave them a pep talk and was quite honest, maybe too much so for twelve year old boys.

            “Boys…  Thing one is sick.  We gotta put in Nat.  I want you to play as if you had an empty net behind you.  Pretend there is no goalie and Nat will have a fighting chance.”

            During the warm ups a referee that hated me and I had a huge dislike for, took to the ice.  This referee was one of the dirtiest players in men’s league when he wasn’t refereeing.  He got the moniker, The Dentist because he was forever getting the blade of his stick up in people’s faces.  He had hooked me once behind the net around the neck and left me looking like Clint Eastwood in Hang em High.  When the referee blew the whistle, I took off my glove to see if he drew blood.  As he skated to the box, he said a few words to me.

            “I hardly touched you, you fucking pussy.”

            I thought to myself quickly that I had possession of the puck.  I was hooked up high and was cut across the throat and then called a pussy.  I wanted a piece of him.  I never got my chance to line him up that game or in other games.  It might have just turned out that we were on separate ends of the ice or different shifts but I was looking to have this guy come fly around someone so I could attempt an open ice hit or a hip check.  It never came for me.

            During the course of the youth game that I was coaching and my adversary was refereeing, my team had three five on three situations against us and Nat was playing out of his mind.  For almost the entire game, we were behind by a score of 1-0.  We tied the game when time expired on a penalty and one of our players got a pass at centre ice and walked in alone on the other team’s goalie.  With about thirty seconds to go in the game, the opposing team’s coach was livid that they had beaten us in running time just a few weeks earlier and that he was faced with a less than perfect season by ending the game in a tie.  11-0-1 is not as good as 12-0 and so he screamed for his players to crash the net.  Nat had made a great save as he was falling and Thing Two tied up the stick of the opposing team’s player who had an empty net.  Nat scrambled on his stomach and froze the puck.  The whistle sounded for what I thought was a face off with less than ten seconds to go and the referee, The Dentist, my adversary, my nemesis, motioned for a penalty shot. In a tie game with less than ten seconds to go a referee should never call for a penalty shot unless someone is killed during play.  I usually watered down my language in front of the boys but at that moment, I believed they needed to hear just how unjust I felt the call was.

            “You are a fucking dirty hack of a player and less than a piece of shit as a ref…  What kind of a fucking asshole calls for a penalty shot in a tie game with a few seconds on the clock?  Make sure that when they score that you give yourself the assist for this one, you fucking cock.”

            The ref then gave me a minor penalty and ordered me to put my goalie in the net.  I took a deep breath and calmly called a time out.  I looked at Nat who had played the game of his life and was faced with possibly losing in a game that should have been a draw.  I then called Thing two over.

            “I want you to get in the net instead of Nat”

            “What?  I’m not the goalie!”

            “Nat played his fat ass off today and deserves a win or a tie, not a loss.  I won’t let Nat face their shooter on the penalty shot.  I want you to take off when the skater starts skating towards you.  Don’t worry about where the shot is.  I don’t want you to think about the puck.  I want you to skate up and smack the shooter as hard as you can.  If they score fuck it, the ref is trying to give them game anyway.”

            Thing Two got in the net and banged the posts with his forward stick the way he saw his brother do many times.  He got into a goalie’s stance and waited for the ref to blow the whistle.  The ref skated over to the bench and demanded that I put the goalie in the net.  I refused.  When I asked to see the rule on whether a forward could play the goalie position on a penalty shot, the ref did not have a rule book and so he had no choice but to let me have the forward in the net.  The skater took off in a straight line from centre ice with the puck.  Thing Two took off just as the skater reached the top of the circle.  He skated like a bull charging a bull fighter.  The skater let the puck go just as Thing Two clothes lined the skater in throat with his forearm and dropped him.  The puck trickled slowly on the chopped up ice and died just over the goal line for a goal.  My parents hated me, the opposing team’s parents hated me and the referee laughed.  I promised him I would get him on the ice one day.  In the locker room my players could have cared less about the loss.  They were all talking about how Thing Two sent the snot flying around the helmet of the kid on the penalty shot.  For them and me, it was the craziest move we had ever seen.  Parents questioned me and I told them that I did not want Nat to feel badly about a loss after saving close to forty shots.  As far as I was concerned, Nat got the tie.

            It was in the summer when The Dentist took the ice on a team against me in a men’s league game.  He had done all he could to not come into the zone on my side nor camp out near the net near where I was playing defence.  Again it looked as if I wasn’t going to be able to line him up when good fortune came for me and misfortune for him.  The speedy dentist zoomed up the boards and got in front our bench when my son came from nowhere, landed a solid hit on him and then dumped him head first into the clams that accumulated around the feet of the players on my team.  He was slow to get up as cleaned cold saliva from his cheek.  I stood on the ice smiling without saying a word.  Nothing needed to be said.  As my son was being escorted to the penalty box he calmly said with a smile loud enough for The Dentist to hear: you should give that fucking guy a penalty shot.

All-star break is here.  Vancouver and Philadelphia look like the picks for the Stanley Cup finals.  Who will crash and who will emerge in the second half of the season?

Ice Hockey: Everyone is a NHL Prospect

April 18, 2010

Anyone who has ever waited to take to the ice to play hockey after figure skaters and stood around with their bottom half of their gear on possibly wearing a wicking type of shirt that fits like casing on a sausage and glared through the glass at the girls and that one guy or two, doing the same spins and same jumps over and over again before the Zamboni cleared away any evidence of them, you’ve probably had similar thoughts as I.  Very simply I have asked why.

            If figure skating would have been my thing, my chances to make the Olympic team for the United States as and a male figure skater, would be roughly one out of one hundred million.  I stand a better chance of winning the lottery, being hit by a satellite or lining up four double diamonds at one of the slot machines at the Greektown Casino in Detroit (the Greeks have done better off of me than I of them) than making it to Olympic glory.  Some who figure skate might say that they do it because they love it and are passionate about the sport.  I understand that very well.  As a grown man with grown children, I still play ice hockey four to five times a week because I love it and I am trying to find fun ways of keeping my percentage of body fat down while having a good time.  Having scoffed at figure skaters and their Joan Crawford-esque mothers who dedicate hours and hours and dollars upon dollars paying washed up former youth figure skaters who have become coaches who too were once Olympic hopefuls, these coaches go on to run the dog and pony shows at every rink, everywhere in North America. Sadly, ice hockey parents are on a similar track.

            If the 2008 stats are correct or even if they are skewed a tad, 768 Americans make their living playing the highest level of professional hockey.  I know of a two or three people that have made it to the NHL and hoards of others that went on to play college, juniors and various levels of professional hockey.  Not too many make the big game.

            When you take into account that there are only 35 million people in Canada, one’s chances of making the NHL are much higher coming from a Canadian youth system as the Canadians still make up 52% of the NHL.  Many will say that the European style of play is more current and intelligent than the North American style of play.  Canada winning the gold in the men’s and women’s categories was a pretty strong statement for the youth development in Canada.  United States posted silver in both which is not bad except that the pool of people from which to draw from in Canada is about 10% of the United States.

            The Americans make up roughly 20% of the NHL after Canada’s 52%.  The rest of the pie is split among Russians, Czechs, Slovaks, Swedes, Fins with a few from places like Belarus, Ukraine, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Kazakhstan.  The Czechs, Swedes and Finns combined are close to the same percentage of Americans currently playing in the NHL.  The combined population of those three countries is about 25 million.

            During the Olympic telecasting in the United States which was carried on MSNBC, the commentators discussed how in the Czech Republic and Slovakia would be

virtually shut down to watch the Olympic Games.  Tiny Slovakia nearly showed up Canada in the semifinals of the Olympics and failed to medal after a loss to Finland.  Most people with access to a television in Slovakia watched the final game for the bronze medal between Finland and Slovakia.  The United States against Canada game was finally covered on NBC instead of MSNBC and suddenly hockey was of interest as it was in 1980.  The final score in overtime showed that the game could have gone either way and either team could have won the gold.  Great suspense rather than watching an ass beating without any drama and many Americans may have considered putting their little man or woman in a local park district ice hockey program after that day.  That is what most hockey enthusiasts wanted is for the whole country to see that the game is not just morons fighting a la WWF with no thought or strategy.  The intensity by all countries that participated was unparalleled except in NHL playoff games.  I went to work bleary eyed from watching hockey until four in the morning during the Olympics as did a quite a few other hockey fans that I am acquainted with.

            Not to poo poo anyone from ever trying to aspire to something such as the NHL because the odds are so heavily stacked against making it.  I believe that anyone and everyone should have a dream and a goal.  I still do at my age.  The problem I see is that the dream more often than not is adopted by a young player after being prodded by their parents.  All things being equal and parents being barred from arenas, many above average players in the United States and Canada, are equipped to make it to the highest level.  The missing ingredient is usually drive.

            In 1998, in the summer, in Minnesota, my son and his team were invited to a prestigious AAA tournament of pee-wees from Canada and the United States.  A team from Duluth was the team to watch out for and so the parents and coaches from my son’s team, watched the Duluth team play a quicker and smarter brand of hockey than our boys were capable of despite the fact that they were on the ice eight hours a week in addition to two or three games on the weekend.  The parents all marveled at the Duluth boys until we faced an unknown team from the Ukraine.

            The Ukrainian boys came into the rink without a smile on their faces.  They didn’t have hand held games nor did they engage in tag or other horse play.  Their equipment was shoddy at best and they simulated shooting on their goalie prior to the game because they did not have pucks.  The team had one coach who arrogantly went outside to smoke a cigarette while his team warmed up with no pucks.  When the game started, it looked as if our boys were walking on the freeway.  The speed and accuracy of the passing and positioning was so ahead of what our boys were capable of that they were almost rendered useless for about an entire period.  The final score was a double digit loss and our shots on goal were under five.  In the third period, the Ukrainian coach once again left the bench to have a cigarette leaving no adult or coach in charge.  It didn’t matter.  The coach never spoke to his players the entire game and the players changed every thirty seconds like clockwork without one word of direction.  The doors to their bench opened and closed like a beehive. 

            After the game, the parents from our team made various comments to each other on how and why our boys could have been beaten so severely.  We did find out that the team was handpicked from Kiev and that hundreds tried out for the Ukrainian team and if a player was chosen he was tutored by a traveling teacher as the team traveled the world in search of elite tournaments to participate in.  The coach’s job was dependant on him placing his players in American colleges or North American junior programs.  Many of those young players understood that if they were not successful at ice hockey, coming home and slaving away in a factory for the next 45 years would be their future.

            Ice rink parking lots are filled with Suburbans or minivans with stickers of colleges from the eastern United States, AAA programs or prep schools. The parents of most hockey players in North America spend thousands a year on ice time and equipment.  The sport in the United States and Canada favors the rich over those living check to check.  Some will make that sacrifice for the love of the game but if you’re hungry, it’s really hard to eat a puck.  Most North American players understand all too well that ice hockey is not their only ticket to a life worth living as was the case with the Ukrainians or is often the case with inner city African Americans who wind up playing professional sports.  You’ll be hard pressed to ever poll the parents of any ice hockey player in North American player and find out that their son or daughter has to make it in ice hockey or face a life of drab toiling until retirement.  Driving automobiles, dating, drinking, love making, working and then again not working at all are all things that could steer away a high school age ice hockey player from making the decision to put all else aside for a dream and a way of life that means more to them than most anything else without a nagging parent with a whip in their hand.  I’m sure there are many things to do in Finland or Slovakia and with money in hand life sure is easier to live.