Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The End of an Era


My head is reeling, struggling to process this wholly unexpected turn of events. I never thought I would read the headlines I've been reading over the last 24 hours. Even during the times that I most feared that Shane Doan's time in the Valley of the Sun would come to an end, I never imagined that it would happen like this. I never thought it could happen like this. 

On Monday morning, Coyotes owner Andrew Barroway announced that the team would not be renewing the contract of longtime Captain Shane Doan, who is the last player remaining from the relocation of the Winnipeg Jets to the Valley in 1996. The move signaled the end of the Shane Doan era...and the beginning of the Andrew Barroway era.  

Andrew Barroway bought a 51% stake in the then Phoenix Coyotes in December of 2014. He remained largely a silent partner, leaving operational control of the team to minority owner and CEO Anthony LeBlanc. Barroway managed a hedge fund in Philadelphia, so he seemed content to leave the day-to-day operations up to LeBlanc.  

Having evidently become dissatisfied with the direction of the team, he struck a deal last week to buy out the other partners and become the sole owner of the team. With the buyout, LeBlanc and President of Hockey Operations Gary Drummond (half of the Coyotes' management team along with General Manager John Chayka and Head Coach and Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Dave Tippett) stepped down from their posts.  

In the absence of a CEO for the Coyotes, pending a search for LeBlanc's replacement, Barroway took it upon himself to announce the team's decision to part ways with Doan. I think this is why the move struck such a sour note with much of the team's fan base. The way it was announced, without any kind of press conference or any apparent involvement of Chayka or Tippett, made it seem like this decision was Barroway's alone. If it was a hockey decision, why not involve Chayka and TippettTo have such a decision made by a non-hockey person who isn't local and couldn't possibly understand the impact that Doan had on this team and this community seemed short-sighted and disrespectful. 

Additionally, many Coyotes fans feel that at the very least there should have been a front office position offered at the time he was let go, which it appears was not the case. There are reports that such a position was offered, but apparently not until after the backlash had begun. For many it reeked of cynical damage control.

Most of us feel that Doan should have been allowed to decide for himself whether he would return or retire, especially since team management had indicated that that would be the case. As recently as last month Chayka seemed to indicate that the team was awaiting Doan's decision as to whether or not he would decide to return for another season. The implication was that there was a spot for him on the team, should he decide to accept it.  

Many Coyotes fans believe that Doan has earned that much. For twenty years he has been the face of the franchise. He has demonstrated greater loyalty to the Coyotes than anybody else could have...perhaps more than they deserved. For twenty years, there has not been one bad word uttered about him. And in that time he has never uttered a single bad word about the team. Even when things were at their worst, he would simply smile and assure us that everything would be all right. He would appear on TV and radio, in hospitals and schools, anywhere he was asked to go. He could have jumped ship on numerous occasions, and nobody would have blamed him. But he chose to stay. He chose to ride out the storm along with the rest of us. And we love him for that. That makes this decision and the way it was handled that much harder to take. 

Fans had just had their hopes raised last week, when Doan's agent, Terry Bross, announced that Doan was "leaning towards playing" again this season. To then have the rug yanked out from under us seemed unfathomably cruel. As if we, as fans, hadn't been through enough emotional turmoil over the last twenty years, this seemed like a dagger to the heart.  

I'm not exactly sure what would have made this news palatable. But I'm quite sure that the Barroway missed the mark. The way it all came about seems like a slap in the face.  

Shane Doan deserved better

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The EBUG Chronicles

Fans of the Arizona Coyotes who watched the team’s home game Monday night heard a lot of talk about the team’s Emergency Backup Goaltender for the game.  It was the big story on the broadcast, drawing mention during the pregame show and an interview during the first intermission.  For a guy who didn’t face a shot or take a shift, they spent a lot of time talking about Nathan Schoenfeld, a Scottsdale banker who got the call Monday evening when the Coyotes’ backup goalie injured his Achilles tendon before the game.  Schoenfeld got the call, packed up his gear and hit the road, arriving just in time to miss the warmup but still be ready for game time.  Had he not been the son of former Coyotes Head Coach Jim Schoenfeld (and the son-in-law of Equipment Manager Stan Wilson), he may not have been such a hot topic.  But nonetheless they had fun with it and it made a nice story.  The team was so appreciative of his quick response to their call for help that they awarded him the “Championship Belt” as the player of the game.  I’m pretty sure that was the first time that a backup goalie had ever been so honored.
I worked in professional hockey for over two decades.  I’ve seen a lot of EBUGs in my day.  For those of you not in the know, EBUG is the official acronym for Emergency Backup Goaltender.  Technically speaking, it includes any non-rostered goalie who is called upon to sit on the bench to satisfy league rules in a professional hockey game.
All professional leagues mandate that each team have a backup goalie dressed for each game in case the starting goalie gets injured.  This ruled is designed to avoid lengthy delays while a team scrambles to suit up a replacement goalie.  In the early days of the NHL, a team would have to dress a regular player to play goal in the event of an injury, meaning everybody would have to wait while that player got suited up in the goaltending accoutrements.  In one famous incident, the New York Rangers found themselves without a goalie when Lorne Chabot got injured during a game in the 1928 Final.  Lester Patrick, the team's 44-year-old Head Coach and General Manager, dressed and finished the game in goal, stopping 18 of 19 shots and becoming the oldest goalie to play in the Stanley Cup Final as he beat the Montreal Maroons in overtime.
These days, the NHL requires that each team not only has a backup goalie dressed for each game, but they have to have the name of an available local goalie to act as a fill-in goalie on an emergency basis.  There have been several occasions over the last few seasons where this rule has come into play and some lucky men’s league player has gotten the call to fill in.  In my years in hockey I’ve seen some very interesting EBUGs.
Probably the most interesting one I’ve seen was the time our EBUG was also our coach for the evening.  We were in Winston-Salem for a 2-game series against the Twin City Cyclones.  Game One devolved into a bench-clearing brawl that led to numerous suspensions on both sides.  Our Coach was suspended because it was one of our players who left the bench first.  Additionally, our backup goalie left an off-ice area to come onto the ice and join the fray, fighting the other team’s backup goalie.  This led to both our Head Coach and our backup goalie being suspended for the Saturday night game.  Luckily, our Assistant Coach had made the trip, and had some experience playing goal, and he was able to pull double-duty as both our Coach and EBUG.  He was quite a sight behind the bench in full goalie gear (minus the gloves and mask, of course).

Another interesting EBUG story came out of the United Hockey League.  One night the Fort Wayne Komets found themselves short a goalie and turned to their Equipment Manager, Joe Franke, to fill in for the evening.  He took his place on the bench in full backup goalie splendor, hoping nothing would happen to their starting goalie, Pokey Reddick.  Much to Franke’s dismay/horror, Reddick became dehydrated and had to leave the game.  Franke took the net for the final 11:03 of the third period, stopping 4 of 6 shots he faced and even assisting on a Komets goal.  The period ended in a 3-3 tie and the game went to a shootout.  Franke stopped 3 of 4 shots in the shootout and recorded the win for his team, and legendary status for all Equipment Managers.  He even made NHL 2Night!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Top 5 List: Yogisms


Lovable Baseball lifer Yogi Berra died this week.  He was not only a Baseball legend but also a world-famous pop-culture icon.  To today’s generation, he is better known for his contributions to the lexicon of America.  Every one of us, at one time or another, has dispensed one of his pearls of slightly skewed wisdom…whether we were aware of it or not.  The English language (or, more specifically, the American language) is much more colorful due to his malapropisms, better known as Yogisms.  His brilliant butchery of the spoken word had much method to its madness.  His linguistic “mistakes” struck a chord with their ring of truth.  He is probably the most oft-quoted (and mis-quoted) American since Thomas Jefferson.  There is a certain folksy wisdom in his words.  One could argue that through his "mistakes", he made our language much more perfectly imperfect, and therefore much more human.  So, in tribute to Yogi, I have decided to do a Top 5 list of my favorite Yogisms.  Here they are, in no particular order:

1.       “Nobody goes there anymore.  It’s too crowded.” => This has always been my favorite Yogi quote.  It sounds ridiculous, but when you think about it, he really has a point here. 

2.        “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” => The Zen of Yogi.  You know what he meant to say.  But somehow, the slightly off way he says it gives it a greater depth of meaning.

3.       “The future ain’t what it used to be.” => On the surface, this one seems nonsensical.  But in reality there is a lot of truth to it.  You just have to look at it from a slightly different perspective.

4.       “Baseball is 90% physical.  The other half is mental.” => This one is often misquoted, but in any form it epitomizes the Yogism.  It doesn’t make sense at face value, but it rings 110% true.

5.       “I really didn’t say everything I said” => This one could (should) have been the title of his autobiography, but was instead used as the subtitle for a book of Yogisms.

I could have made this a Top 10 list and I still would have agonized over the ones I left off.  In any case, Yogi, we will miss you.  And I’ll leave you with one more Yogism…call it an honorable mention.
“You should always go to other people’s funerals.  Otherwise they won’t go to yours.”
You needn’t have worried, Yogi.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 2

So, here we are…2 rounds deep into the NHL playoffs.  Only one of my final four picks from my original bracket is left standing.  Thank you, New York Rangers.  Unfortunately, I picked the Canadiens to beat them on their way to a Stanley Cup win over the St. Louis Blues (who lost in the first round).  So now I am officially out of the running for the NHL Bracket Challenge.  I did pick the Rangers to make it this far, though, so I’m counting that as my one small victory.  I even predicted prior to the second round that they would beat the Capitals in seven games.  

They went about it the hard way; digging themselves a 3-1 hole in the series before winning the last three games to take the series.  Something about the Rangers in Game 7, especially at home, is hard to bet against.

Alex Ovechkin did his best to make things interesting.  After Game 6, Ovi boldly declared that the Caps would win Game 7 and take the series.  I’m not sure if he’s up on his Stanley Cup playoff history, but maybe a refresher is in order.

First of all, it’s never considered good form to predict victory in upcoming games.  It’s kind of a hockey bugaboo, the prevailing wisdom being that the only thing to be gained by it is firing up your opponent and giving him extra motivation to prove you wrong.  With a few notable exceptions, most hockey players and coaches don’t want to give their opponents “bulletin board material”.  It’s not wise to say anything that will be reprinted in the paper and end up posted on the other team’s bulletin board as motivation to beat you.  It’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.  This is why we always hear the same boring clichés in post-game interviews.  “They’ve got a great team over there, but…”  “We have a lot of respect for them, but…”  Basically, you never want to say out loud that you think your team is better than their team, even if you do.

Secondly, the mother of all guarantees in hockey is and always will be Mark Messier’s declaration before Game 6 of the 1994 Prince of Wales Conference Final between the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils.  With the Rangers down 3-2 in the series and facing elimination in Game 6 in New Jersey, Messier declared “We’ll win tonight” and his words were plastered all over every newspaper in the Tri-State area.  It’s unclear whether Mess intended his words to be broadcast to the world, but there they were.  But, as we all know, the Captain delivered on his promise.  He didn’t just guarantee the win, he ensured it with a hat trick (the third goal an empty-netter, but it still counts) to lead the Blueshirts to a 4-2 victory to force a deciding game.  That seventh game, while pretty memorable in and of itself, pales in comparison to Messier’s Game 6 heroics.  The moral of the story is, if you’re going to guarantee victory you damn well better deliver.

Messier wasn’t the first New York athlete to make predictions.  “Broadway” Joe Namath famously guaranteed a victory over the Baltimore Colts (which sounds weird to me now) in Super Bowl III.  He then went out and played the game of his life and brought home the hardware.  You could argue that Babe Ruth started this trend with his “called shot” home run against the Cubs in the 1932 World Series, but there is much dispute over that legend.

I would be willing to bet that these are not the only examples of an athlete publicly predicting victory.  In many cases, the prediction is a futile attempt to fire up his own teammates and will them to victory (as I believe was the case with Ovi).  We don’t remember any of those because they faded into obscurity with the multitudes of others who failed to deliver.  I believe in just a few years, nobody will remember this prediction.  Some have probably already deleted it from their memory (as I’m sure Ovi would like to do).

In all fairness to Ovi, he did his part.  He played with abandon, hitting everything in sight, and scored the lone goal for the Caps.  It’s not a hat trick, but he did give a hearty effort.  But for a bounce or two, the story might have had a different ending.

In any case, the Rangers will now move on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, who manhandled the Montreal Canadiens in Game Six to win their series 4-2.  Montreal’s effort to overcome a 3-0 games deficit fell short.  As I predicted, the series was decided by goaltending.  Unlike my prediction, it was decided by the goaltending of Ben Bishop and not the finalist for the Vezina and Hart trophies, Carey Price.  Price played well, to be sure, but he was human where a super-human effort would have been required to win.  Bishop played so well he deserves a promotion to Cardinal, maybe even Pope.

Tampa Bay was able to take advantage of their speed to overcome Montreal’s defense.  They didn’t get a ton of shots on Price, but they got a number of quality shots and second shots and screened shots, the kinds of shots that are difficult (if not damn near impossible) for any human goalie to stop.  Even in the 6-2 rout in Game Two, Price made the saves he could have reasonably been expected to make.  Four of the shots that eluded him were screened shots that he never saw, one was on a back-door one-timer and the other was a clean breakaway.  Maybe on another night he could have stopped two or three of them, but even Carey Price couldn’t stop them all.

Both Bishop and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist seem to be at the top of their game right now.  I’m going to predict that once again goaltending will make the difference in this series.  Which hot goalie can remain hot?  Experience has to favor Lundqvist and the Rangers.  They’ve been here before, having made it to the Stanley Cup Final just last year.  They know what a grind the conference final will be and how to handle it.  The Lightning has less experience, but they do have a handful who have been there, including Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman (who went to the Final last year with the Rangers).  It may all come down to Hank’s experience and whether or not Bishop can stay hot.  He’s been the driving force for the Lightning this spring.  If he falters, so will they.

Over in the Western Conference (Oh, how I miss the Clarence Campbell Conference) I am going to pick the Blackhawks over the Ducks.  I’ll admit that I had completely underestimated the Ducks coming into the playoffs.  They swept a pretty good Jets team and steamrolled Calgary in five games.  If nothing else, they should be the most well-rested team remaining in the playoffs.  I’m just not sure they have enough experience to overcome the Hawks, who know what it takes to go all the way and have the weapons to do so.   All the usual suspects have shown up for the party, and now that the goaltending situation seems to have stabilized the Hawks are on a roll.  Patrick Kane, a big question mark coming into the playoffs, has proven that he is healthy and is playing some very good hockey right now.  Their talent, depth, and experience are going to be tough to beat.

So, my predictions for the third round are Hawks over Ducks (sorry, Coach Bombay) and Rangers over Lightning.  We’ll see how these picks turn out.


I went 3-for-4 with my second-round picks, but I should point out that I made those picks after both Anaheim and Chicago had posted blowout wins in their series-openers.  I may have picked differently had I made those picks before the second round got underway.

In any case, the second round was packed with a lot of really good hockey and the third round sets up for even better hockey.  It should be a lot of fun to watch.

Friday, May 1, 2015

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1

Like a lot of people, I filled out a bracket in the NHL playoff challenge.  Also like a lot of people, I actually thought I had a chance at picking the winners.  As the first round of the playoffs winds down, I can look at the ruins of my bracket and wonder where I went wrong.  All in all, I guess I really didn’t do terribly awful.  In the Eastern Conference I correctly picked 3 of the 4 winners, but was off in all the numbers of games of the 3 series.  I did, however, have the right number of games in the Caps/Isles series, but the wrong winner.
In the Western Conference I had the Flames beating the Canucks in 6 games, but I went downhill fast after that.  I had Anaheim over Winnipeg in 5 games, so I was only off by a game there.  I had Nashville in 7 games over Chicago (who won in 6).  But the biggest flub of all came when I picked the Blues to go all the way to the finals.  So, not only did they not win the first round, but now I have to look at that blue note in every subsequent round knowing that there’s at least one winner that I’m not picking.  My failure lives on all the way to the Stanley Cup Final (where, by the way, I had called a rematch of the 1968 and 1969 Final series between St. Louis and Montreal).



For what it’s worth, I could still have 3 of my final 4 teams make it…but it’s not looking good after last night.  I had picked Calgary to beat Anaheim, setting up a rematch of the 1986 Campbell Conference Final series.  As you can see, I like historical rematches.  Unfortunately, I like to make my picks based on things that haven’t happened in the last 30 or 40 years.  I guess that’s why I never managed to get a job as a pro scout.
If anybody cares, I picked the Canadiens and the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final.  The Rangers suffered a setback in Game One, but I still think they’re the better team and will win out in the end.  The Montreal/Tampa Bay series is the one that could get interesting.  History, and especially recent history, doesn’t seem to be on Montreal’s side.  The last time Montreal made it to the Semifinals, Tampa Bay didn’t even exist yet.  Worse, Les Habitants lost all 5 meetings against the Lightning this season.  In their playoff history against each other the teams are 4-4, each having swept the other in the playoffs.  Tampa Bay’s sweep came in 2004, a stepping stone to winning the Stanley Cup.  Montreal’s sweep came last year in the first round, with Anders Lindback in goal for Tampa Bay after an injury to Bolts starter Ben Bishop.
This year, Bishop is back and looking strong after a Game 7 victory against the Detroit Red Wings.  This series should come down to goaltending, with Price being counted on heavily by the offense-challenged Canadiens.  Tampa Bay’s strength is their offense, so in the end this will come down to strength against strength.  Each game has the potential to end in one of two ways; either a 1-0 victory for Montreal, or a 6-1 victory for Tampa Bay.  Tampa Bay may outscore Montreal 30-9 in the series, and lose 4 games to 2.
The Rangers are too strong, and the Caps too one-dimensional, for that series to go Washington’s way.  I predict that it will go seven games, but I think the Rangers will move on.  Holtby looked good in the Caps net last night, but he’s no match for Hank at the other end.  When all is said and done, I think the Rangers will shut down Ovechkin and silence the Caps offense.  New York has too many weapons and Holtby can’t win every game 2-1.  The X-factor there might be “Big Goal” Joel Ward, who seems to have a knack for scoring goals when they are needed most.  I just don’t know if he has three more of those in him.
I picked Calgary over Anaheim largely for sentimental reasons.  Flames GM Brad Treliving is an old friend from my WPHL/CHL days and a former Coyotes Assistant GM to boot.  My heart picked him more than my head, but after last night it’s clear that I had no idea how good Anaheim is.  Despite being a left-coaster, I really haven’t seen much of the Ducks this year and had absolutely no idea they had that potent of an offense.  Unless last night was a complete anomaly, I just think they will overwhelm Calgary.  My prediction is Anaheim in 5 games.  I know, it’s a little easier to pick after game one, especially one that is that decisive, but there it is nonetheless.
I want Minnesota to beat Chicago, but I don’t think they have it in them.  As great of a story as they are, and especially Devan Dubnyk (another former Coyote), I just think the Hawks have too much playoff experience and too many weapons for the Wild to handle.  The deciding factor could come down to goaltending; Dubnyk will have to tend the goal like he’s never tended a goal before, and Chicago’s uncertainty at the position with the struggles of Crawford and Darling (himself a great feel-good story after climbing from the abyss of SPHL obscurity) may prove to be their undoing.  Still, I’m picking Chicago in 6.
I’ll meet you back here after this round is over so you can laugh at how awful my picks were.  Then I’ll make new picks for the third round, complete with justifications for why my second round went so awry.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Passages

I met a lot of good people during my career in hockey.  Most of them were hockey players, naturally, but some of them were not.  Some were fans and boosters, some were rink workers, and some were fellow team employees.  But regardless of their relationship to the team, we shared a love of hockey and through that shared affinity we found that we had other things in common.  Some of these people have been merely acquaintances while some have become (and remained) close friends.  But in a larger sense, all of them are part of my “hockey family”.  And, as such, their lives are part of my life.  Through the wonder of social media, I am able to keep up with their comings and goings.  And even though we no longer see each other regularly, or at all, it still feels like they are a part of my life.
One such person was Mysti Digby.  She was one of our boosters when I worked for the Lubbock Cotton Kings.  She was the first to greet me on the message boards when it was announced that I had signed with the Kings.  She and her partner in crime, De Lyn Wolcott, arranged sewing parties to fix the team’s hockey socks.  They were always eager to help out in any way they could.  In following the two of them on the message boards I found that they both had a wicked sense of humor, not unlike mine.  I always enjoyed their posts, even after I had left the team.
A couple of years ago, Mysti was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  When I read the words, my heart sank.  I thought, “Why?”  But there’s no answer for that.  She never felt sorry for herself.  She was a strong, Texas woman and she wasn’t going down without a fight.  And fight she did.  She fought cancer.  And she beat it…twice.  But finally it overcame her.  A couple of months ago I got a message on Facebook.  It said, “Did you hear about Mysti?”  I didn’t want to hear the rest.  I already knew.  She fought until the end and she never let it get her down or stand in her way.  She reveled in the little victories and I marveled at her strength.  I was amazed at her ability to stay positive through the most trying of times.  She used to post something nearly every day about something in her world that was awesome, then she would ask, “What’s awesome in your world today?”  You are, Mysti.  You are.
There was a somewhat cryptic tweet a couple of weeks ago from the Chicago Blackhawks mourning the sudden passing of Assistant Equipment Manager Clint Reif.  I’ve never met Clint, but know many people who knew him well.  Every one of them will attest to what a great guy Reif was.  I felt a connection to him only through our common profession, and our membership in the Society of Professional Hockey Equipment Managers.  He is part of the Hockey fraternity, so in that way I feel connected to him.  There was something about the wording of the original tweet that didn’t sound right.  It sounded just a little off.  And I found it odd that there weren’t any details as to the cause of death.  My suspicions were confirmed when the coroner’s office ruled his death a suicide.  Once again, I never knew Clint, so I have no idea what he may have been going through.  Most of the world probably never will.  Nevertheless I do feel a sense of loss at his passing, and regret that something couldn’t have been done to save him.  If only somebody close to him had known, if only he had reached out, perhaps he could have gotten the help that would have saved him.  It’s a shame.  Somebody so young, with a wife and four children, seemingly with the world at his feet…shocking.  It’s all so terribly sad.
There’s an old saying in Hockey that the equipment manager is the first guy to arrive every day and the last guy to leave.  That’s not always the case.  Many times when the equipment manager gets to work there’s already one guy there, the Zamboni driver.  He may have been there overnight, getting the ice ready for today’s morning skate and tonight’s game.  He’s often still there when the equipment manager leaves, finishing up the ice for the next day’s practice.  Because of that, equipment guys are usually pretty close with the ice techs.  One of those I had the great pleasure of meeting was Brian Horne.  Brian was one of the Zamboni drivers at the US Airways Center in Phoenix, the former home of the ECHL’s Phoenix Roadrunners.  I was the equipment manager there for two seasons, so Brian and I saw a lot of each other.  There are a lot of late nights when you share your building with an NBA team.  Brian was one of those guys that was always quick with a smile.  He was just happy to be there, and hoped that he could help the Hockey club.  He was so excited to be a part of it that he even filled in as the mascot on occasion.  I probably shouldn’t have divulged that information.  The general public isn’t supposed to know who the man behind the mask is.  But he wouldn’t have cared.  He wanted people to know.  It was always great to see him on those nights where my tail was dragging and I didn’t even want to think about what I had left to do.  He would come by during his breaks and help us clean up, flip laundry, whatever he could do to help us out.  And he was always so up, so positive.  I swear we would get a burst of energy from him that helped us finish our work for the night so we could go home.  Sometimes I wondered if they even had to pay him.  I know it’s the old cliché, but I really believe he would have done it all for free.
Monday, I got word that Brian had passed away on Sunday.  I don’t want to go into the details, because I’m not sure I have all of them.  I heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend, and I’m not sure how much of it is true or accurate.  What I do know is that he was a great guy.  He was devoted to his wife and his family and his friends and his work.  He had equal passion for everything he did, and that is rare.  He didn’t do anything halfway.  It was all or nothing.  I just hate it when terrible things happen to good people.  I suppose I should be used to it by now, but I don’t think I ever will.
The last stop on this train to Downersville is probably the most shocking to me.  I met Jim Burton when I was working for the IHL Phoenix Roadrunners.  He joined the team as a Player/Assistant Coach before the 1995-96 season.  He didn’t finish the season with us.  He only played nine games and spent a few more behind the bench before leaving the team mid-season to return to his previous team in Austria.  In that short time, I got to know him a bit.  He was the exact opposite of our Head Coach, who was one of those really intense old-school guys.  He said more to me in half a season than the Head Coach did in two years.  He was very happy-go-lucky.  Nothing fazed him.  Even when things were going badly, you would never know it to talk to Burty.  Everything just rolled off of him like water off a duck’s back.  Calm, cool, and collected.  That was Jim.  After finishing the season in Austria, Jim returned to North America to play in the fledgling Western Professional Hockey League with the Austin Ice Bats.  He was past his prime, but still managed 68 points in 52 games…not too shabby for a defenseman.  In fact, he was a very good defenseman for years, winning the Governor’s Trophy as the IHL’s best defenseman three times in the 80s.  He was considered by many to be the “Bobby Orr of the minor leagues”.  When he finally retired from playing, he took over coaching duties with the Ice Bats, then moved on to the Arkansas Glacier Cats before eventually moving on to the ECHL and the Augusta Lynx.
It’s ironic (or maybe not) that he ended up with the Augusta Lynx.  For all his prowess on the ice, by most accounts he was even better on the links.  He made a living for years as a golf pro, and some said he could have made it on the PGA tour if he had had any inclination to do so.  In any case, he always did what he loved and loved what he did.  Stress wasn’t even in his vocabulary.
That’s why it came as such a shock to me to find out on Monday that he had passed away suddenly after suffering a heart attack.  That didn’t make any sense.  Guys like Burty don’t have heart attacks.  They just don’t.  I couldn’t believe it.  I still can’t.

I ran into Burty a few times over the years.  Hockey is a small world and paths tend to cross more than once.  The one thing I remember most about Burty is that he always had time for you.  He never was too busy or in too much of a hurry to stop and ask you how you were doing, what you had been up to, how the family was…anything.  He made me feel special every time we met.  There aren’t many people like that in the world today.  And now there is one fewer.  Jim Burton was a true gentleman, in the very best sense of the word.  He will be missed.

Just so I don't end completely on a down note, here's a little desert music from one of my favorite Tempe bands, The Chimeras (now known as The Pistoleros).  Seemed appropriate.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bittersweet

Today I’m experiencing mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I’m ecstatic that the NHL season is beginning tonight (even though my Coyotes don’t open their season until tomorrow night).  On the other hand, however, I’m saddened by the loss of the Central Hockey League.  I worked in the CHL for four seasons, beginning with the WPHL/CHL merger of 2001.  I had worked the four previous seasons with the Western Professional Hockey League’s Lake Charles Ice Pirates.  When Lake Charles didn’t make the cut for the merger, I went to work for the Lubbock Cotton Kings for a season, then spent the next three seasons with the New Mexico Scorpions.  Having been through one of these mergers before, I know what people are going through.  For the teams that make the cut (in this case, all of the remaining CHL teams), there is joy at the 11th hour salvation of your hockey team.  For several WPHL teams, there was no joy.  Thousands of fans lost their hometown teams that they loved so dearly.  I’ve seen that happen all too many times, and it never gets any less painful for those involved.  Luckily, this ECHL/CHL deal spared several teams and their fans that pain.  I only wish this deal would have come along in time to save the Arizona Sundogs and Denver Cutthroats, two CHL teams that suspended operations over the summer.  Rumor had it that both teams closed up shop in the hopes that they could hook up with the ECHL after sitting out a season (to avoid a legal conflict owing to a non-compete clause with the CHL).  If that truly was the case, I hope that they can get things sorted out so that those teams may join the ECHL later.  Otherwise, that’s two more fan bases without a team to root for.  This strategy doesn’t always work.  I know there are still people in Bossier and Shreveport hoping to see their beloved Mudbugs take the ice again one day.  As a former rival of theirs, I hope to see that too.
The Central Hockey League has a long and storied history.  In actuality, there were two professional leagues that went by that name.  The Central Professional Hockey League began play in 1964 as a feeder league for the NHL.  They shortened their moniker to Central Hockey League in 1968.  I guess they figured the Professional part was implied.  Either that, or truth-in-advertising laws became an issue.  In any case, the “old” CHL was the premier minor hockey league for the better part of a couple of decades, with teams stretched at various times from Tucson, Arizona to Birmingham, Alabama and from Cincinnati, Ohio to Seattle, Washington.  They finally ceased operations in 1984.  A new league sprouted up in 1992 with teams in six of the old Central League cities.  Some of the teams reused the names of the previous teams to attract the old fans, and since hockey fans love history and tradition it only made sense to revive the CHL name.  The “new” CHL had operated continuously ever since, until yesterday.
The Western Professional Hockey League began play in 1996 with five teams in Texas and one in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  They doubled in size the following year with their first expansion, adding three teams in Louisiana and three more in Texas.  After competing with the Central League for expansion cities, the WPHL merged with the CHL in 2001, keeping the CHL name and logo for its history and brand recognition.  Eventually, all of the old WPHL teams folded (the Fort Worth Brahmas were the last to close up shop after the 2012-13 season).
I was excited about the merger in 2001 because it meant a lot of new cities and arenas.  It did not disappoint.  Some of the cities were a real pleasure to travel to, with great old buildings and enthusiastic fans at every turn.  I really miss the CHL (and the WPHL).  I have many great memories of my time in the league, and I made some lasting friendships that I will always cherish.  I was sad to see the league struggling over the last few years, along with the constant rumors of the league’s impending demise.  I’m glad that at least the remaining teams will continue on in the ECHL, which is a great league.  I’m saddened by the loss of the CHL, but the ECHL is now stronger than ever.  I take comfort in that.

But then…that’s just me.