Saturday, January 12, 2013

Today's lesson: if you keep playing hard, something good will (eventually) happen

To say the least, it has been a long, hard winter for the men's hockey team at Hamline, my school. We knew in advance it would be a young team. We knew the combination of three head coaches in three years and graduating two top scorers plus the top goalie from the year before could make this season a potentially rough one. Our new head coach, Doc DelCastillo, is a good, smart man who knows what he is doing. He picked assistants with a variety of experiences and told them all they would need to be, like he would have to be, patient. But he got a late start on recruiting. By the time he talked to some players, they hd already made up their minds where they were going to school. The season started with a close loss and a tie but there were encouraging signs things might be okay. Then, a couple of injuries flared up. Other issues -- stuff that happens during the course of the season -- happened. Hamline kept playing hard. Most nights, the scores were close. But it seemed something bad would happen late in the second or early in the third period. All of a sudden, the season was 15 games old and the team still didn't have a win -- just two ties to show for a year of solid effort. There is a tendency among the young to fixate only on results -- wins, losses and goals. Coaches, however, know better. They know that losing streaks ... and winning streaks ... are contagious. A team on a losing skein simply doesn't get breaks. Pucks hit posts and stay out. The other team gets the benefit of the doubt on calls. Their shots hit a leg and go in. Coaches understand this is part of sport. And they know it can turn and head the other way, too. The above is a lengthy preamble to something that happened last night that might stun the layman. But coaches and folks who know the sport just nod their head and say, "Uh huh. It was due to happen." Hamline was hosting first place St. Thomas. Tough game for me because the UST coach, Jeff Boeser, is a friend of 40 years standing. His team was tied for first but they had been having trouble lately scoring goals. As part of my usual pre-game work, we chatted for a while. I could tell this game concerned him. A low scoring team playing another lowscoring outfit. One or two goals might do it. And if Hamline got a wind up, Jeff knew it could be a rough night. Had he known what I saw, he might have been even more concerned. The players not suited for the game didn't seem too worried. Several of them were playing cards upstairs. I walked by another one on a cellphone and overheard him say, "This one should be easy. I'll be back early." Such overconfidence is not unusual among players, young or old. But it often can lead to difficulty. So it was the game began and Hamline came out as it had done so many times before. They checked hard. They had a few scoring chances that didn't result in goals. But they kept St. Thomas from doing much offensively. There were only a couple of penalties either way and the game moved on quickly with no goals. The first period took less than a half hour to play. My guess is Jeff had what an old coach once referred to as "a one way chat" with his charges between periods. His team came out flying in the second and it was all Hamline could do to keep them off the board. Matt Hemingway, our goalie, was tested often but kept his head at all times and also kept the puck out of the net. Despite Hamline getting outshot 12-4 and being outplayed by a similiar fashion, the game was still knotted at 0-0. The third period began and the home team picked up the pace. Sensing an opening, they attacked the Tommie net harder but still couldn't score. The game was now 50 minutes old and still no goals. St. Thomas had a couple of good shifts in a row but we held firm. Doc had recently switched up some lines and moved Grant Fahnhorst, a huge defenseman, up front. Turns out he is very good at faceoffs. He won several down the stretch, many in our end. Regulation time ended with still no score. Things were getting serious now. The two benches had a marked contast to them. Doc's bench looked like colts ready to roam the prairie. They couldn't wait for the next faceoff. The St. Thomas bench reminded one of the look Paul Newman had in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" when he stared at his constant pursuers and said, "Who are those guys?" A scoreless tie is a rare hockey event. I have been working hockey games for 40+ years and can only remember one, a high school game at Adie Knox Arena in Windsor. (For the record, it was Assumption 0, Massey 0.) But this game appeared to be headed that way until ... In college, you only play one five minute OT. The first three minutes of the extra session passed uneventfully. Then there was a collision in the corner by the St. Thomas net and I spotted a referee's arm go up. A penalty in OT is unusual. It is really unusual in a game were only seven had been noted all night. As it developed, it was St. Thomas that would be shorthanded for the remaining 1:32 of playing time. At first, the HU power play struggled, losing conrol of the puck twice. The clock ticked into the last minute. Just as I was thinking a scoreless tie against the league leader would be something to proud of, there was a dramatic event. Joe Rubbelke, a talented defenseman, fired a low shot from the point. There was a big screen in front of the Tommie goalie. Zach Johnson, situated perfectly in the slot, tipped the puck slightly. It changed directions just enough that it landed perfectly in the back of the net. BINGO! Winless streak over. The Piper bench erupted and swarmed the power play unit. Hemingway looked like Eric Heiden, the old speedskater, as he sped from his net and eagerly joined the party. Stunned looks on disbelief on the Tommie side. An OT loss is always hard to swallow. But an OT loss like this is doubly hard to take. The nature of my job is I rarely get downstairs after games. So I didn't get the chance to congratulate Doc or console Jeff. But, as luck would have it, I will be at the rematch tonight and will get to do so again. But I was left with several emotions. I was very happy for Doc and his players, who had endured a lot of heartache and finally got a victory. At the same time, I felt bad for an old friend who, although he has been a coach for a long time and understands the game, still anguishes over defeats. And I found myself wondering about the lad who, before the game, had predicted to somebody this would be an easy win. I wondered if he learned his lesson about never taking anything for granted in athletics. The teams play again tonight. St. Thomas might come out mad as a hornet and dust us, 7-1. Or they might still be in a funk and, if the HU goalie is on his game again, be in for another tough fight. Who the hell knows? But what this Friday night game showed is one of the beauties of sport is in the danger of presuming something will happen. It doesn't often happen that an 0-13-2 team beats the first place team in a league game. But it did happen on this night. And that is why they play games.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A quiet Christmas can be a wonderful one

This was my 59th Christmas on this soil. As has been said many times (and years)before, it was the best Christmas ever. It certainly was adifferent one -- one that reminded me that the holidays are about memories ... and priorities. When you are a kid, the priorities are simple -- get fun gifts. My memory of kiddom is that, for several years running, we got a game or a toy that my three brothers and myself could use. One year, it was an erector set -- a complicated thing that we spent hours contructing ... and de-constructing. Another year, it was a table hockey game -- a wonderful game at which two or four could play. It had an automatic puck dropper. When you scored a goal, there was a little crowd noise. Another year, it was Foto-Electric Football. This would seem tame by today's vodeo standards. But we were enthralld by it. This got topped the next year by a GTO car set -- complete with tracks that seem to fill up the living room. We melded that one with the erector set for a truly complicated operation. As you get older, the priorities changed and you appreciated getting a check or cash from a favorite relative. As an adult, the priorities changed again. You wanted to be invited to the house of that cute girl in the third row. You had a gift for her ... and hoped to get one back in turn (even if it was just a kiss). (But you didn't necessarily want to give to her in front of her parents.) As an older adult, the holiday priorities have changed again. I just want Christmas Eve and Day to be one with a good meal and friendship with people you want to be around (and, hopefully, vice versa). That was the case this year. Christmas Eve was a quiet night at a local tavern with friends. We played games, listened to holiday music and ate and drank together for a couple of hours. It wasn't formal and it was very relaxed. We laughed a lot. What better night could you have? On Christmas Day, Lynne's sister and a brother-in-law came over. There was a great meal, a lively discussion and the day ended watching Barbra Streisand being interviewed on CNN. It was lowkey all the way. We left the dishes for the next day and didn't worry too much about how the kitchen looked. When I was 10 years old, I would never have imagine a holiday like this one would ever be considered "fun." Looking back at it after the fact, it would b hard to imagine a better way to spend the last two days. Priorities indeed.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Good news today

The Happy Dog has had a rough year, suffering some seizures and going on medication. But just got a report from the vet. Levels are great. His weight is up. So are his spirits. And ours, too.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Let's hope there are folks more like Tom Hansen out there

We hear this all the time when a nice person dies. "There will never be another guy like him (her)." Tom Hansen, a truly nice man, passed away the other day. I'm headed to his wake tonight. I will tell his wife how much I appreciated Tom from his days as the AD at St. Bernard's and the various sectional sporting events I worked for him. I will console his son the same way. What I won't say to them but am happy to do so here is this: Let's hope there are more Tom Hansens in the wings. We need more guys like Tom. He was an excellent administrator. He was fair to his students. He understood his school ... and the kids in it ... very well. He knew that the kids he had at St. Bernard's had their faults. hen they screwed up, he doled out the punishment necessary. But he never did in a vindictive manner. No, it was always meant as a teaching moment. He understood the school's athletic teams would have some very good moments (they won a couple of state softball titles) but they would often be overmatched. And, while he was as competitive as the next AD, he wanted his teams and ... his coaches to win and lose the right way. Play hard. Play tough. Play fair. And let the chips fall where they may. He understood that when the Bulldogs had the horses, they would win their share of games. But he also knew that when they played football against, say, DeLaSalle, they were likelt to be outmanned in size and talent. He could live with that. But he could not accept being outclassed. When one of his teams did that, he stepped in and corrected the problem immediately. We need more guys like Tom Hansen, not less, in athletics -- and in life -- these days. We need more guys who see the value in playing games and, yes, understand that lessons can get learned even when your football team loses 56-0. So I will mourn Tom's loss because, well, he was a helluva good guy. But I am also hoping that there are others like him ready to take over and run athletic programs. That is a legacy worth hoping for.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An evening of Championship Bingo

As a holiday treat, Lynne and I took a one-day siesta and decamped to a casino two hours north of home. We didn't have a lot of money to spend but the price was right ($40 for a one night stay) and the drive was wonderful. After a couple of hours of unsuccessful pokering at machines, we took a break and decided to play Bingo.

Little did we know what we were getting into. The Bingo Hall was about the size of a grade school gymnasium. Arriving a half hour before the scheduled start, we discovered nearly chair had been taken up because many folks were engaged in a pre-game game. Those who weren't playing the pre-game game were busy prepping for the Big Show.

We had stepped into the world of Championship Bingo.

It is a world where you no longer buy a card or two for a couple of bucks. Instead, there were packages at a variety of rates from $10 to $75 for an evening's entertainment. Some of these deals included "extra" games, battles that takes place between the regular affairs. You need to use dobbers for the cards. At a buck each, this proved to be the best deal of the night.

Being novices, Lynne and I decided to go somewhere in-between and bought a $10 and a $20 package to share. We scoured around for a few minutes before we discovered two unoccupied seats near the front.

The adventure was just beginning. It turns out we had started the evening by breaking an unwritten rule. Bingo cards are packaged into several sheets. On those sheets, there are often more than one game that will be played. Each player is supposed to be responsible for the sheets you buy. So, when we tore apart part of the $20 package (which had more sheets than the $10 package), we had broken a rule. You're not supposed to buy than you can personally handle. A woman bustling around the place informed us of that but took pity on us and said it was an allowable rookie mistake.

She then asked us what we wanted to buy. As noted above, there are "extra" games that take place as breaks from the regular games. Those games cost a buck or two each to play. We ponied up for most of those games, too. Thus, our $30 bingo adventure had morphed into a figure past the $40 mark before the first ball had been called.

Championship Bingo is no longer just played on cards. No, there are these contraptions available where one puts in a code. The code comes a package you buy. When a number is called, it goes on a big screen and is automatically entered into the system. (It also flashes up on a very glitzy board that looks something like the board at the New York Stock Exchange.) This way, you can buy as many cards as you want and you don't have to keep track.

Championship Bingo had hit the tekkie age.

A woman to our right had one of those toys. She was very nice, telling us which games were coming up in which order, smiling at our naivete as we laid out sheets in front of us. Turned out she is a bingo pro. A while back, she had her daughter had won $50,000 in a bingo coverall. "But we had to share it with two other people," she said with a sigh. "So, we really only won $16,666. After taxes, it was about $14,000. That was a nice win but you have to remember we paid $350 to play."

(A quick math computation revealed 16,666 times 3 is 49,998. The bingo hall keeps the other two bucks. Hey, it a business.)

The pre-game games ended and it was time for the show to begin. The woman calling out the numbers did so in a bored, soft tone. She sounded like a recorded telephone operator. In Championship Bingo, the number that will be called pops up in a camera first. This gives you a head start before it is called.

As we shall shortly discover, this turns out to be an important thing to note.

We were busy dobbing up a storm while our new friend on our right just watched her machine tabulate matters. After a while, I heard a sound from the machine.

"What's that?" I asked.

"The machine is telling me I am one number away," she replied.

Lynne and I were so busy dobbing up the 15 cards in front of us that it took a couple of games before we figured out a system that would allow us time to see if we were close to winning.

As noted earlier, if you watched the monitors, you had a short head start on numbers. This is key because, when you get your winning combination, you must quickly get your hand in the air so the caller knows something is up. As it turns out, the rest of the crowd knows, too because an audible (often disgusted) groan always emanated when a winner emerged.

In my church youth, when a Bingo winner presented him (or her) self, they read off the numbers and verified the success.

Not here. Instead, they read off the computer number on your sheet. The caller pressed a few buttons and -- voila -- the winner's card is shown for everybody to see.
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The caller pauses long enough to catch her breath and ask if there are any other winners. If not, the game is closed and seconds later, we are into the next game.

As it develops, there are all sorts of versions in Championship Bingo. We played the standard game but also added a four corners version. There is the postage stamp (four in one of the corners of the card), a Z version (five across the top and bottom as well as a second G and second B.), an L version (you can go backwards here) and a nine pack version. Near the end of the night, there is the usual coverall battle with a bonus tossed in if you win it in less than 50 numbers called. (One friend who is a regular Bingoer draws a line on her card indicating where the winning diagram needs to go. Championship Bingo requires planning.)

(It didn't happen on this night but we did see this occur at another casino a while back. The winner was a man who appeared to be in his late 50s. He won $25,000. When he raised his hand, he was sitting by himself. Before he put his hand down, he seemed to have acquired several new female admirers. Who needs match.com anyway?)

We didn't win anything (although I came close twice. One game, I was one number away from riches beyond my wildest dreams. Okay, I think I would have won $300. Didn't know for sure because I didn't know what level I was playing at. There are levels in Championship Bingo. But that's another story for another day.) but we had a good time for a 2 1/2 hours. In the end, we probably spent less money than if we had been playing video poker.

A woman named Cindy sitting to our left won two games. Afterwards, she was approached by a person who congratulated her on her haul and then asked "Are you ahead for the week?"

Cindy grunted, "Slightly", and then lit another cigarette. (Championship Bingo players seem to be big smokers.)

Our new friend to our right went home winless but seemed more cheerful about things. "I am picking my daughter up from the airport in the Twin Cities tomorrow," she said. "We're going to Mystic Lake before we come home."

Championship Bingo requires road trips, too.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Story

(Editor's Note: I know. I wrote this tale in 2008. But it deserves repeating this year.)

Once upon a time, there was a 12-year old boy who lived in Detroit and was a big hockey fan. It was the days of the six-team National Hockey League. Although it was a competitive league, the Montreal Canadiens were the gold standard. They won five Stanley Cups in a row from 1956-60 and seriously contended just about every year they didn't win.

The hometown Red Wings? They made the playoffs just about every season but couldn't get over the hump, even losing in the Stanley Cup Finals two years in a row.

The boy knew all this and a lot more. That’s because he listened to just about every game -- the only way for a youngster to follow the team. At the time, there was no local television of Detroit games. On Saturday nights, when he could convince his mother to switch away from Lawrence Welk (which aired at the same time), he would get to watch “Hockey Night In Canada.” But Detroit games were blacked out. Olympia Stadium, their home rink, was usually sold out. Even if you could find a ticket, the rink was located in a "bad" area of town, a place his mother wouldn't dream of letting her young son visit by himself.

The only time the lad could ever see his favorite team play came when Detroit played a nationally televised Sunday game from Chicago, New York or Boston. That might occur 2-3 times a year.

Christmas 1965 came with the usual trimmings. As per family tradition, the lad and his brothers were allowed to open one gift when the family came home from Midnight Mass. He scouted the horizon in advance for possibilities. There was the usual thin box from Aunt Marcie – handkerchiefs. There were big boxes (toys, he hoped). There were square boxes that he knew from experience were clothes.

Then he spotted something unusual. In the corner of the pile of gifts was an envelope with his name on it. Since it wasn't stamped or addressed, his mind began to race. What kind of gift could be in an envelope?

For some reason, he reached for it as a first choice. His mother stopped him, saying "Save that for Christmas Day.” When you tell a kid that, you drive the interest level up astronomically. Fearing he might miss out on another gift, the boy reluctantly obeyed.

A restless night was spent wondering what could kind of gift could be in an envelope? More importantly, why couldn’t he open that one first?

Morning finally came. When the feast of gifts was nearly complete, the boy was left with the envelope. Go ahead, said his mother. Now you can open it. The boy opened it and stared in disbelief. It was two tickets to see the Red Wings play, Montreal at the Olympia the next night. His older brother Johnny was going to take him to see the players he knew so well but had rarely seen.

His joy was such that the boy never noticed the location of the seats. Later, he saw the tickets were stamped "Standing Room” – a concept he knew nothing about. "Oh, it will be fine," his brother assured him.

For once, Christmas dragged as the boy eagerly waited the next night. The Olympia was a wonderful mystery. The boy knew the building was red on the outside but that was it. Walking in the door, he was struck immediately by the large scoreboard hanging over the center ice. It was an old clock with smaller clocks for the penalties. (Chicago Stadium and Boston Garden had the same type of clocks well into the 1970s. The clock changed colors to signify the final minute of the period. No digital stuff here.)

"Where are we sitting?" he asked his brother.

"We're not," he said. "We have standing room."

"Where's that?"

"Wherever we can find a place. Quit asking questions.”

The two walked around the building for a long time, looking for a place to stand. As game time neared, they still hadn't found a place where they could see the ice very well. The pair wandered into the balcony. At that point, an angel appeared in the form of an usher.

"Where's your seats, boys?" he asked gruffly.

We showed him our tickets. "Can't stand up here," he said. "Standing room is downstairs."

The boy began to cry. "This is my first game ever and I can't see anything," he said.

The usher stopped waving people to their seats. "First game, eh?" he said. "There is one place you can stand but you can't tell anybody I told you about this."

He took the two boys to a corner of the upper deck. There was a small platform with a spotlight – the kind you used to see when the circus came to town. "Stand here," he said. "Nobody will bother you. It's kinda high but you'll see everything from there. I like watching the game from here myself."

The usher was right. The players looked like ants in the far corner of the ice but you really could see everything.

The Red Wings and Canadiens didn't disappoint. It was a terrific hockey game. Detroit attacked Montreal goalie Gump Worsley constantly but couldn't get a goal. Montreal did the same to Detroit's Roger Crozier but couldn't score themselves.

The game was still scoreless when the clock changed colors for the final time. There was no overtime rules, either.

This wasn't possible. How you could you go to your first NHL game and not see a goal?

Then it happened. A shot came from the point that Worsley could only knock down. Alex Delvecchio, a husky center, swooped in and batted the loose puck into the net.

The boy jumped so high he nearly fell out of the alcove. He had no idea how much time was left but it was clear it was the final minute of the game. The Wings ran out the clock and claimed the 1-0 win.

Since that time, the boy has probably seen 1500 hockey games. But he remembers that one as if it happened last night.

Since then, the boy has received many envelopes as gifts. They have contained cash or gift certificates – very good things, indeed. But he still remembers that first envelope. It wasn’t until four decades later he learned the official value of it was four dollars – two dollars per ticket.

To the boy’s way of thinking, however, it was, indeed, priceless.

A final note: 20 years after that game, the boy, now covering the North Stars for UPI, found himself sitting next to Worsley in the press box at Met Center. He said to Worsley, "I know you have probably heard this from a lot of people but you played goal in the first NHL game I ever saw."

Worsley politely nodded. "Really? Where was it?," he replied.

"Night after Christmas at the Olympia. Detroit against Montreal."

Worsley sighed. "Was that the night that (bleep) Delvecchio scored in the final minute? I can still see that one."

The boy guessed it was not such a good memory for the old goalie.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A new gig is exciting, challenging ... and worrisome, too

In essence, today starts a new adventure for me. Since August 1, I have been filling for my friend Steph Harris as the Sports Information Director at Hamline. It was kind of like when Johnny Carson used to go on vacation and he would have guest hosts. You kept things going until the incumbent returned.

Steph took a three-month family leave to be with her father in Florida, who was battling cancer. Sadly, her dad passed away in late October. Steph has now decided to stay in Florida and help her mm sort through everything that needs to be done. She'll look for work there. In the meantime, the athletic season is in full blast at Hamline and somebody needed to step into the SID role. The Athletic Director, Bob Beeman, a very good man, offered me the job on a full time, interim basis through the end of June (when contracts for nearly everybody expire). I accepted and here I am.

As a fill-in for Steph, I tried to be very careful and not change much of what she had done. After all, if she had decided to return, that would not have been fair to her or the right thing to do.. Besides, she did a terrific job and, truth be told, there was very little reason to change much.

Now that I have the gig (at least until the end of June), I may tweak a few things here and there to suit my comfort zone (just as Steph did when she first got the job). That's the exciting part. The challenging part is figuring out is a proposed change can actually occur. The worrisome part is making sure any change made really is for the betterment of the school and the job.

I have been a SID before but the job has changed considerably since my last shot at it (at Concordia from 1999-2002). There is a lot of internet work to do. Much of the recruiting done by coaches is now via the web. I am not a tekkie but have learned a lot about cyberspace over the years. I need to learn a lot more in a hurry to make our website look snazzy. That's exciting, challenging AND worrisome.

I know the league well so working with the players in it isn't going to be the issue.

No, the problem will be Steph was a lot better at cyberpsace than I can ever hope to be. Being younger (and, sigh, a lot more hipper than me), she has spent more time on computers and, thus, can pick up concepts quicker. If I want to know a trend in that area, I have to ask someone.

But I like dealing with reporters, coaches and officials. I enjoy the stat work. I like our game day personnel. They're not working for the money. They want to and enjoy being at games. I love the MIAC. It stands for what can be very good in college athletics. There may be a Jerry Sandusky somewhere in our Division III midsts. But I doubt it. A fellow like that would stand out and (forgive the term) be exposed a lot earlier than happened at Penn State.

I signed my contract the other day. The gig is now mine and that means the responsibility for everything is now officially on my head. I am no longer the fill-in just keeping a chair warm. Let's hope I know what the hell I am doing. There is one advantage that many others in a similar spot wont have. Steph and I can contact each other easily. She has been wonderfully patient with my many (at times, repetitive) questions. Thanks, girl.

Starting a new adventure at age 58 is not something I expected to do. But such is life.

We have a home mens bb game against UW-Whitewater. A bb game Wednesday. Hockey games Friday and Saturday. Games next week as well. There is a lot to do and it is now incumbent on me to handle it all with no excuses and nobody to saddle with blame if something goes wrong.

Exciting, challenging and worrisome.

But isn't that what life is supposed to be?