Royal Joy and Pain: Learning the ropes in Double-A hockey

Thanks to Roaming the Rinks

You wanna know the easiest way to piss off someone who’s trying to help you?

Track them down at the end of a game in the bowels of the arena and complain about statistics. Bitch and moan about assists and plus-minus to the people who take time out from their weekday and weekend schedules, and for no money, are still responsible to an entire league for compiling in-game and post-game numbers.

Ride a guy mercilessly, one who’s driving 110 miles round-trip because it’s the only foot in the door he has towards a career in sports media, who takes pride in his job, for not knowing an unwritten rule a player desperate for a call-up invented on the spot.

I still wouldn’t have it any other way. I’d rather they hate us for what we do, rather than hate us for what we write, because in the former, there’s at least recognition given and respect for the fact that we’re all trying to land on the same page.

It was roughly three months after the Macon Whoopee fiasco, that I heard a new minor-league team landed in Reading. Typical for the times, I had to do some online research and found out the club touched down in Berks County some time before and already has a full front-office staff, but I wasn’t deterred.

I became a member of the ECHL off-ice crew based in the Sovereign Center due to misguided persistence and blind luck. After making the trip, unbidden, up to team offices on a humid August afternoon and stammering out that I wanted to speak with the team’s general manager to a host of blank stares, I was eventually steered towards John Curtis, the director of broadcasting.

After hearing my spiel for five minutes, and graciously accepting my tape and resume, he informed me that they’d be looking for off-ice personnel and he’d pass along my information to the man who ran the operation who would contact me at the appropriate time. That man was Shane Hanlon, a certified referee with USA Hockey who took this thankless job on the side, and that time was a month later.

(Note: I’ve heard and read just about every nightmare scenario from “hiring managers” about the habits of desperate Millennials when those top 10 do’s and don’ts lists are shoved in our faces every six months. I would only recommend you do this for ONE job you feel particularly suited for, and only have ONE face-to-face meeting with a decision maker, but ONLY after calling or having electronic correspondence with that person. The kind of initiative I displayed back in 2001 is likely to work against you in 2013. And for Flying Spaghetti Monster’s sake, make sure you’ll get paid for it if it works.)

Learning the gig was like the circle of life. Half a dozen of us trekked to Trenton for a preseason game in late September, where the existing Titans crew were gracious enough to teach us how to track puck movement. Since that wasn’t part of any computer programming at the time, we had to do it the old fashioned way…pen, paper and pealed eyeballs for the full 60 minutes.

It ended up looking like code: 4-5-45-4/3-19-10/6-34-12-6-12/56/5-9-16 and so forth, with the dashes representing passes between teammates and the slashes indicating change of possession. It was an inexact science. The last player to touch the puck on offense before a goal was obviously the scorer, but counting assists in the handwritten message relied first on penmanship, secondarily on your own vision, and finally on the eyewitness of your backups. Depending on the manpower situation, the last three, four, or five players on ice get tagged with the plus or minus for that shift.

That’s where the grey area of statistics led to many a surprise post-game meeting with coaches and players of both teams, always scamming for that positive boost that would vault them out of the ECHL and onto better things. One particular guy, a defenseman out of Michigan Tech who suited up in Reading’s second season, was so ridiculous with his stats whoring, we resorted to shouting out “That’s My Plus” every time he took a shift.

We did this job because of the love of the game, and the desire to be around it. With the exception of a few gents, everyone had a background in the sport, from being a referee down to a board member or parent in a youth league. Everyone played the game in their youth. It wasn’t a wedding, where I’d win a centerpiece for being the person who traveled the longest distance to be there. So I didn’t particularly want to hear how we were screwing some mediocre 26-year-old on the verge of a real estate career out of bonuses or a contract if, for one second, we had to be distracted on press row because the computer froze or we had to input a scoring change.

The pride we felt in getting the job done, and doing it right, superseded any desire to give the hometown discount. You also learned to grow callouses on your heart, because of the in-house ball-breaking to ease the monotony of the work, plus the constant angling of players and coaches to gain even the slightest advantage by disparaging your work.

We knew that we were the last line of defense for a lot of players on the margin. A distraction or malfunction here and there, even with five pairs of eyes trained on the ice, could be the difference between a guy and his girl going out on the town for Steak and BJ Day or the dude being left alone in his apartment with baloney on hand. It could be the difference between a life riding the pine in small ECHL towns or getting an upgrade to the sleeker accomodations in the AHL.

While the pen may be mightier than the sword, the keystroke turned out to be mightier than the pen.

Some guys, like Ryan Flinn, didn’t need our help and made sure it was his own hard work that lifted him up. We all shared in the glory when the 22-year-old made his NHL debut with Los Angeles mere months after starting out throwing haymakers for adoring crowds on Penn Street.

And once the Reading crew figured out a rhythm and our proper places, we ended up teaching the crew down in Atlantic City, which also gained a berth in the league in 2001 — creating a nice triangular rivalry between the Royals, Titans and Boardwalk Bullies.

Yeah, we made sure that the crew took multiple trips down the Shore each year to see how the Bullies OIC were doing, but inside the lines, it was all work. Believe me, it was easy concentrating on the task at hand in Boardwalk Hall, that cavernous vaulted monument to times long past. Even with a packed house and a winning team, the acoustics were deadened enough that we could hear each other from one end of the press table to the other — a luxury never afforded in the early days of Reading. We also never heard one single complaint from either Bullies management or the league about any trouble in AC, which was another point of pride for our crew being able to impart our own knowledge to a rival for the greater good.

Even with the work, there was plenty of fun. It afforded me the chance to go on the road as a representative of the league with the Royals, to see the ancestral home of “Slap Shot,” before the conversion of the Cambria County War Memorial Arena as it had been for the movie shot 25 years before. For the first and only time, I was hired as a goal judge, and operated the light at my end, which consisted of a pull chain you might find in a closet fixture and a glowing neon red “Bud” sign.

I saw more than 40 Royals home games from the vantage point in the above photo at Sovereign Center. In many ways, those three years kicking around the ECHL helped formulate my attitude towards my chosen career, the game itself and the people involved.

Though now attempting to be a writer, I don’t identify with the craft, its guidelines, or its social structures. I still lean towards viewing myself as a cog in the wheel which makes the whole thing turn, rather than a detached voice trying to be a liaison between the team and fans.

A good, skilled, aggressive reporter might wait around for over an hour after the game to interview any subject which might make for an interesting sidebar or feature story. When I’m on the road, I’d much rather do my job, write a game recap, then kick back at a local bar or restaurant and see who amongst the people responsible for deciding the outcome walk in, and let the recorder in my mind spring to life. That way, stories add depth, color, and meaning with a few fudged details thrown in to stoke interest as time passes.

If I had shown some of the dogged careerism of a guy in his 20s trying to prove himself worthy and getting the scoop, it would have certainly spoiled moments like seeing Royals defenseman Simon Tremblay, drunk off two pints of Lager, attempt in gloriously mangled Franglish to belt out “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” at the Outside In. Or stepping up to Alex Kim and repping my school and its region in a playful but intense argument over which among Hockey East or the WCHA was the better and more competitive college hockey conference.

If I’d kept my eye on the prize like others who have passed through on their escalator to better things, I wouldn’t have been able to sit in Jimmie Kramer’s Peanut Bar, ankle deep in discarded shells ’round Midnight, sipping a beer and being completely rapt by the stories told by that evening’s officiating crew about the drag of life on the road every weekend for six months. I’d have been too worried about corralling those guys before they left so I could get an “exclusive,” instead of keeping those tales close to the vest and reminiscing later on about one special point in time.

I’ve been to hockey-mad communities which some alongside me in the Flyers press box might never lower themselves to tread, and, on reputation alone for my work with Reading, was welcomed by staff, the officiating crew and even the locals, permitting me access to sights, sounds and activities that a legitimate journalist would only try to uncover.

Wanna know what they are? Ask in the comment section and I’ll tell.

I never once partied with or talked the culture of the sport with someone on deadline, and, almost a decade later, still haven’t. In time, the stats crew became a clique, but I recall way more often than not, the writers declined our invitations after their work was done. When it comes to the game of hockey, I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, to use a cliched line.

That’s why, when given the choice between Reading and Trenton while the NHL was on hiatus yet again last Fall, I chose Reading to cover games. It was familiar, like home. That is, until I tried to talk to the stats crew before my first game. As a credentialed writer, I was clearly on the other side of the line, until later in the season when they saw enough of me and was able to talk about the early days that I was able to be accepted.

So, here’s to Shane, Harry Warriner, Jim Lilac, Eric Yost, Cliffie Bauman, Pete Probst, Jasin Garner, Bill Kauffman, Stacey, Melissa, Bob Ashlock, and the dozens of other part-timers who kicked ass and took names bringing respect from the league to Berks County.

  • Leo Delucca

    Love hearing stories about life in the minors. Being from Hazleton we are spoiled with Reading, Hershey, and Wilkes Barre. Look forward to more stories like this if you have them

    • Bob H

      Thanks for stopping by, Leo.

    • Bob H

      Here’s two that happened in one night, but in the AHL-NHL and not in the minors…

      Back in September of ’05, I was invited out to Hershey to see a Penguins-Capitals preseason game at Giant Center. After the game was over, my two companions (who worked for Inside Hockey for 3 years and knew a ton of local personnel up and down the Northeast) and I headed to this bar called “Shakey’s,” which was the local spot for fans and players who came through town.

      The undercard was Dainius Zubrus trying to coach a young Alex Ovechkin, in Russian and English, how to pick up fine young American foxes. Ovie then proceeded to walk over and hit on one of the girls in my company in a way that only a foreigner could say something inappropriate in mangled English and have it be endearing rather than creepy.

      The Main Event featured a then-19-year-old son of a Hall of Fame defenseman being completely inappropriate to the female companions he and his Penguins teammates rounded up at a nearby table. This youngster got louder and handsier with every beer, eventually openly groping two of the girls. He then proceeded to get so drunk that he dropped an entire 6-pack of beer all over the floor, and yelled at the “bar wench” to come clean it up. Later on that season, I heard that the young man was in trouble with the law due to underage drinking, but thanks to the intervention of the Bears, the town and Ray Bourque himself, the kid managed to not ruin his career.

  • Jasin31

    Funny thing, I googled my name today and this article came up. Being on the off-ic crew is definitely a love for the game. – Jasin Garner