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.