Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Hockey Life: Taping stick blades

Just like tying his skates, getting Colin's hockey sticks ready for a game or practice is one of the few things left that he lets me do. He's old enough to do both, I suppose, but it allows me, in a way, to be out there with him. It makes me feel better, too.

Mostly, I appreciate the therapeutic value of it. The physicality needed to tear away the chewed-tape. The attention to detail of scraping away the smallest bit of tape residue with a fingernail. And, then, the act of taping, from the feel to the sound, that completes the task.

Sure, it may look simple, running an inch-wide strip of tape from heel to toe along the blade, but there's much more to it than that.

I first started taping stick blades back in the early 1970s, as a kid playing pickup games on an iced-over, outdoor basketball court at a Catholic school in Buffalo's west side. Because I didn't know better, and really didn't have anyone to teach me, I always used the shiny, black plastic electric tape. I'd dig a roll out of the junk drawer, never taking the time to ask, and wrap the blade. Two layers, too, so it would last longer.

After my mom passed away and I went to live with my grandparents, I'd raid my grandfather's toolbox, looking for the heavier electrical tape. He'd see me taping my stick, but never complained, just reminding me to put it back when I was finished.

A few years later, I discovered the brave new world of white athletic tape, snagging nearly spent rolls from school sports teams. It was wider and made of fabric, just like my grandfather's tape, but it didn't weigh as much. I liked, too, how it got marked up, from either pucks or hockey balls, each one a memory of the last time I had played.

Nearly 40 years later, not much has changed about hockey tape. It's made of cloth, is an inch wide and is sticky on only one side. The biggest difference is it's now available in many colors and patterns. Colin has had the stars and stripes, the Canadian maple leaf and blue camouflage. Unlike others, we've passed on fluorescent offerings. There's just something about a lime green that doesn't go with hockey

Colin's favorite, though, is the skull-and-crossbones tape, shown above on one of his old Bauer sticks. For a while, we used to find it with relative ease, even if it meant making a trip over to Brandon. Lately, though, that hasn't been the case, as it has become scarce. As a result, we're using a dark-blue cloth tape on his Mission Widow youth model.

The one constant, from those early days during freezing Buffalo winters up until sitting in air-conditioned comfort at our dining room table here in Florida, has been the approach. It's always been heel to toe, starting on the backside and ripping a little lip over the top. It doesn't have to be pretty or uniform. No, it just has to do its job.

One adjustment, though, is I've had to learn how to cover the toe in tape, as Colin has a habit of chipping the tips of his blades. Faceoffs, I believe, are the likely culprit. After a few practice tries, though, wrapping the toe has become second nature. Three 8-inch strips, a steady hand, a sharp eye and a pair of scissors is all I need now.

Someday, and that day is fast approaching, he'll tell me that it's his turn to tape his own sticks. He's already started asking, and has tried it once. Didn't do too bad, either. Until I relent, and give it up for good, it's another welcome chore for this hockey dad. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hounding haul: Buffalo Sabres

We may not go out often during the 2011-12 hockey-hounding campaign, but when we do, we'll do so with a purpose. With my hometown Buffalo Sabres visiting Hockey Bay and a free Saturday morning, Colin and I kicked off the season with a strong effort. In less than two hours, we managed to snag 32 autographs.

Some of the highlights:

Top row: Brad Boyes and Jhonas Enroth; and
Bottom row: Jordan Leopold and Rob Ray
A hat trick of pucks from Marc-Andre Gragnani
A pair of pucks from Nathan Gerbe
Christian Erhroff and Jhonas Enroth signed international pucks. 
Sabres goalies Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth added to our ongoing Threads collection.
Top row: Brad Boyes, Jhonas Enroth and Jochen Hect; and
Bottom row: Tyler Myers, Thomas Vanek and Mike Weber
Tyler Ennis signed these four cards.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Every so often, The Missus captures a moment within one of Colin's hockey games when I know that he truly gets the "Go Hard" concept I've been preaching to him for the past few months. This image, taken last Saturday during one of his Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning games, is one of those moments.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


We had a nice surprise heading into practice tonight. The champions banner for the Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning Squirt A's undefeated run at the Labor Day Challenge was placed upon a wall at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy.

Going forward, we'll be reminded of that wonderful hockey weekend every time we walk into that rink.

Down the road, I hope it's there long enough for Colin's children, should he be fortunate enough to have any, can see his name on that banner. Of course, having a couple more banners with his name listed on them would be nice, too.

Special thanks, too, to Sam Barranco for taking the photo.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Hockey Life: Fatherhood

Last Sunday's death of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon hit home. It had nothing to do with him being a professional athlete. Nor was it because he lived here in St. Petersburg. I didn't know him, either, only meeting him briefly as Colin got an autograph.

No, the connection was far more personal. He was a daddy, just like me.

When you take away money, jobs and possessions -- all things we've been told, for good or bad, are defining factors --  there are two types of men -- fathers and those who aren't. Fatherhood crosses every line -- racial, socioeconomic, spiritual. It's a common bond for millions of us.

Fathers face an enormous pressure to provide for their families, serve as positive role models and lead our little ones down the path of becoming an adult. Sometimes we get it right. There are times, though, when we're the ones learning. Still, we don't complain. Choosing to become a father means choosing to accept that responsibility.

Over the past week, from the initial news of Wheldon's horrifying crash to yesterday's funeral and memorial service here in his adopted hometown, one thing became crystal clear: as much as the speed of racing brought him fame and fortune, it was being a father to Sebastian, 2, and Oliver, 7 months, that kept him grounded.

If you're looking for one quality that defines a good man, there you go.

Over the past 10-plus years, from the day I first held Colin only minutes after his birth to watching him score a game-winning goal with less than a minute to play yesterday, I've done my best to be a good man. More often than not, I believe, I've reached that goal. Lessons have taught him right from wrong. Honesty, he's learned, is the best policy. He has been held accountable for his actions, as well.

Along the way, we've shared a growing lifetime of memories, far beyond hockey, that bring smiles to our faces. From our fishing (mis)adventures to flying kites to many, many innings of watching minor league baseball, it has been, and I hope it remains, a fun ride. That, to me, is what separates a Daddy from a father.

For whatever reason, which remains elusive to this day, the man listed as my father on my birth certificate played no role in my life. Thankfully, I had plenty of other positive role models, from within and outside of my family, to guide me down my path. In most cases, I learned what to do.

I also know the gut-wrenching pain of losing a parent as a child. That early morning call, when I feigned sleep because I wanted it to be a bad, bad dream, is fresh in my mind, like it happened only yesterday. Nearly 40 years after the fact, it still brings tears. No child should lose a parent.

Wheldon's sons, Sebastian, 2, and Oliver, 7 months, are far too young to even remember him. The only memories of their far-too-short time together were his. As they grow up, I hope they take comfort in knowing that their Daddy, in spirit and from high above, will be watching over them, protecting them and doing his job.

That's what a good daddy does.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ice time at the Forum

Just got word that Colin will attend the first Lightning Made Clinic of the 2011-12 season at the St. Pete Times Forum. He was lucky enough to attend all four free events last year.

A great learning experience, it must to be a hoot, too, skating on the Forum ice.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Taking a pass

Not that my presence was truly missed, but I passed on hounding the Florida Panthers yesterday morning. Seeing that it was the home opener, I really should've made the trip over to Tampa. But, with my car in the garage and a nagging cold that won't go away, I felt it best that I stay home and get some freelance work done.

It's not like the Panthers won't be back this season, too. Even with all of the new faces down there in South Florida, I can wait for a return trip. It also shows the realignment of my priorities this season. That's one of the benefits of not having to hound for a living.

Having said that, Colin and I might head over Saturday morning for the Sabres. Because I'm pulling a night shift and he doesn't play until 2 p.m., our schedules are clear for a morning skate session. Besides, I have a few pucks left over from last season.

Now, if this freakin' cold would go away.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Hockey Life: Getting vocal

There are very few times in life when I choose to simply sit back and stay quiet. Maybe that's the reason why I got into journalism -- to have a voice, as well as a platform when the situation dictated, to make myself heard.

Simply, it's who I am. One of the father figures in my life, for good or bad, taught me to stick up for my beliefs and not be afraid to speak up or out. If you believe in something, he told me, you have every right to tell the world. It's up to others, though, to listen.

People are finding out, too, that my vocal nature extends beyond a newsroom. I tend to get a little loud at Colin's Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning games, hopefully for all of the right reasons.

Most of the time, it's being supportive of the kids, congratulating them on a goal, great hustle or a particularly strong shift. Sometimes, the old player in me comes out, giving a head's up to one of our defensemen if a forward is getting closer and how fast he's approaching. "One hard," if he's close and fast, or "One soft," if the kid is merely taking a twirl. Seldom do I give the refs a hard time. That's what the coaches are supposed to do.

When the third period comes around, though, my voice grows even louder. I'm a big fan of reminding our team, through urging our kids to skate hard, that their hard work wins game. I'll admit to getting in subtle digs at certain programs, one in particular (I still can't fathom why any parent would take their child across the Skyway Bridge to play in that program), that clean, hard hockey, not taking cheap penalties when the game's outcome is no longer in doubt, is the way to go.

From where I sit or stand in a chilly rink, there's nothing wrong with that.

Last weekend's games, a pair of 3-2 victories, were particularly enjoyable and vocal. Both wins came against teams that spanked Colin's teams during the spring season.

The first carried even more satisfaction after that team's parents exulted a bit too much about a month ago when their Squirt A squad lit up a combined Mites-Squirt A squad in a scrimmage. It's funny, I didn't hear them say much after the game this time. I didn't say anything in return, though I was tempted. No, all I did was look at a couple "familiar" faces and smile.

The second game, against one of the self-appointed premier programs, was my best vocal effort of the season, so far. Though their kids were trailing in the third period, I must applaud the parents' efforts to get the team back in the game. And while some of it was comical (one Mom telling everyone else to pass to her kid so he could score all of the goals his team needed), I certainly wasn't about to let it go unchecked.

I answered each and every encouragement with one of my own, drawing upon, once again, telling the Jr. Lightning to work hard so the other team hard to work that much harder. "Make 'em work!" I'd yell. "Make 'em skate!" As the game wound down, though, I think I came up with my best line, even it if might been have perceived as one of two ways: 1.) a bit demoralizing to the other team; and 2.) a bit of sideline coaching.

Holding a 3-1 lead and maintaining possession of the puck in the opponent's end, I waited until the other side's screeching stopped and offered my two cents, simply urging the kids to "Play catch with the puck. There you go, back and forth. Just like baseball, kids, just play catch. We don't need to score again, but they do."

I didn't hear a peep from the other side until the buzzer sounded.

If I'm hard on anyone, yes, it's Colin. Just ask him. He'll tell you. I'll tell him when he has played well, but I'm not too shy about letting him know when he needs to work or skate harder and appreciate the opportunities before him. He's spent too much time working on his skating, shooting and growing hockey sense to take more than the occasional step back.

After getting beat on a center ice faceoff in a rec league game last Sunday and watching the kid pull away from him and score an unassisted goal, I asked Colin, as he skated sheepishly back up ice, very loudly if he enjoyed that goal, as he had the best seat in the house. His response? He won the next faceoff, skated down the ice and nearly scored, clanging one off of the post.

I like when he talks back to me like that.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Revisiting history

During training camp, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher went to great lengths to remind players that this season wasn't about picking up where the team left off last season. No, he said, this season meant starting from scratch.

Well, after last night's loss to the Islanders, dropping the Lighting to 1-2-1 on the season, I'm thinking maybe Boucher might want to revisit his approach. Making the playoffs is hard enough. Having to pull yourself out of a hole only adds to that effort.

Then again, I'm just a hockey dad and a journalist. What the heck do I know?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Hockey Life: It all adds up

As any hockey parent knows, having a child play the game takes commitment, especially a financial one. Beyond the league fees, there always seems to be something that's needed or wanted that cuts into the checking account.

It's not a complaint, though. We knew what we were getting into, long before the big bills of travel hockey. I must admit, though, to longing for those days, that weren't even that long ago, of Hockey 101 and 201. To us, really, it's a lifestyle choice.

Rather than check out the latest TexMex/Asian Fusion/Grilled Cheese restaurant, be the first in line at the new Legoland here in Florida or watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster with a $6 tub of hot-buttered popcorn, you're more apt to find us in some sort of hockey environment, most likely a rink, with a $2 cup of generic coffee.

That's where we feel most at home.

Still, though, after dropping $2,250 for a fall-winter travel season, payable in installments, and then another $360 for some rec league games and ice time, it's amazing just how quickly the extras add up. Trust me, too, there's no nickel-and-diming here.

Over the past seven weeks, we've bought:

~ A $50 tournament T-shirt;

~ two more tournament T-shirts for $44;

~ a new pair of Bauer hockey pants for $50; and

~ a Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning warmup suit for $72.

And that doesn't include the hotel stays, meals out, skate sharpenings, skate laces, rolls of sock and stick tape, bottles of Gatorade and Powerade as well as the weekly Wednesday $5.35 skating sessions at the Westfield Countryside mall. Let's not forget the costs of transportation and food between games. That's how these costs quickly add up.

Granted, these are our decisions. It would be just as easy, I suppose, to say no. Though we don't have as deep pockets as some of our fellow hockey parents, these are the things you do as a parent to support a child's dream. Understand, too, that we'd do the same if Colin wanted to play baseball, chess or the violin.

Some could argue that we'd likely be better off setting money aside for his college education. Valid point. We're fortunate, though, that his grandparents have been doing that. We've focused the past two years paying down our debt. Though we still have some work to do, the end result, given current employment conditions remaining the same, is the opportunity to gain liquidity, so to speak, and play catch-up -- for him and for us.

So, no, we're not putting all of our eggs in one basket.

Given recent developments at my employer, which include another 5 percent across-the-board pay reduction as well as hopefully dodging yet another pink-slip bullet, we're fortunate to afford our hockey luxuries. It's my freelance work that pays the hockey bills.

That doesn't mean, though, that we're standing pat and crossing our fingers that current conditions will continue. That, to me, wouldn't be too smart. I've had a few ideas rolling around in my head for some time now on how to add to our bottom line through hockey.

No, it's not selling autographs. In the weeks ahead, we'll see just how realistic they are. I'll never know if they'll work unless I try. It's time, folks, that we take those steps.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thanks, Victor

Now that the Tampa Bay Lightning's website beat me to the punch, even causing a slight, but tolerable embarrassment, it's time to show the rewards of our efforts in attending last night's Lightning Radio Show at a McDonald's in Tampa.

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman was the guest of honor, taking questions from fans and signing autographs later. Technically, I don't think of these as hounding opportunities, but I seldom look a gift horse, so to speak, in the mouth. An autograph is an autograph, always adding to the collection.

While getting autographs was cool, the time Hedman spent answering Colin's question on-air and then talking to him for a few minutes later about playing travel hockey certainly created memories for Colin and myself. And, really, that's the most important thing for us.

For the record, Colin asked Hedman if he ever played travel hockey as a kid. Surprisingly, Hedman said he didn't. There were enough kids and rinks in his hometown that it wasn't necessary to travel. Certainly raised my eyebrows.

A bonus, too, was that Rick Peckham, the show's moderator, added that Colin played for the Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning and told listeners about the Squirt A squad's championship at the Labor Day tournament in Ellenton.

Besides adding to Colin's Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning hat, here are the other items we got signed last night:

Hedman signed this new-look Lightning logo puck; and

a promotional T-shirt produced by the Lightning during Hedman's rookie season.

Hat's off

One of the perks of playing travel-team hockey are the amenities that come with it. Some are free. Some cost money. Either way, it's all about the kids representing who they play for. In this case, it's a Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning team hat.

While some of his teammates will likely keep the cap as clean as they can, Colin put his to good use, getting autographs from members of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization over the past weeks.

After getting a good start during the Lightning's training camp in Brandon, scoring the likes of Ryan Malone, Nate Thompson, Adam Hall and Dustin Tokarski (all in blue), Colin added Dave Andreychuk and Victor Hedman last night during a Lightning Radio Show in Tampa.

With the NHL season starting tonight, we're thinking there's plenty of time to fill out the rest of the hat.

No complaints, here

Now that we're hours away from the puck dropping on the 2011-12 NHL season, I figured it about time I started filing posts that deal with housing, specifically some of the autographs we've added. After all, The Hockey Life is much more than one proud hockey dad writing about his son.

This pair of pucks came from the Tampa Bay Lightning's training camp, our first hounding adventure of the campaign. It was on the day of a game, so we thought we might snag some of the Lightning's stars after taking part in a light morning skate. Instead, we found players who wouldn't be playing that night.

After watching the guys skate and run through drills, we made sure we didn't go home empty-handed. Beyond these autographs, from Alexandre Picard (left, on the Lewiston Maineiacs puck) and Daniel Milan, we got to talk to fellow Bolts prospects Cory Conacher and Kevin Quick.

Colin didn't seem to mind, not the least bit. It doesn't matter where they play -- NHL, AHL, juniors or college. To him, a hockey player is a hockey player.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

No, not yet

This past Sunday, before Colin took to the ice for a Tampa Bay Metro League game, a fellow hockey parent was lamenting how some parents are foolishly believing their son will someday play in the NHL.

"How many years have kids been skating here in this rink?" he asked anyone willing to listen. "Not a single kid has made it. Nor will any make it."

And though he has a point -- no players have made it to the NHL out of this rink -- I had to bite my lip. It's good he already knows this, I thought to myself, because, well, it'll be a reality for him.

As one of those parents helping their son chase that dream, I don't think it's foolish. No, not the least little bit. It's my job, as a hockey parent, to afford my son every opportunity.

Like I always say, Colin has a long, long, long way to go. That's why I also say we're raising a hockey player, not a goal scorer. We'll know over the next few years if changes, such as moving to a more challenging environment, are in order.

You know what, though? Someone has to be the first. Why not my kid?

Monday, October 3, 2011

My mess

I'm working on my first puck order of the 2011-12 hockey-hounding campaign from Anderson KTP and I still have signed pucks to put away from last season.

Looks like I need to take a day off from my freelance work to get this mess cleaned up. That back corner of the display case looks a little thin, too.

And to think I give Colin a hard time about his messy bedroom and playroom.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Hockey Life: Preparedness

Every hockey journey begins with a first step. Often, it's shaky, as steel meets ice, as naturals are few and far between. In months, those first glides, sometimes accompanied by a guiding hand, show signs of progress. With time and practice, though, confidence takes hold.

To me, that's the beauty of watching your child grow through hockey. As much as you want to rush that process, you know better than to force the issue. Instead, you place your child in the best position possible to succeed, not fail.

Think of it, if you will, as taking baby steps. For us, the foundation for Colin's hockey has been skating. That's why we spent the first three years focused on it. From lessons to our weekly sessions at a mall rink, it has been about developing a stride, increasing his speed and building his wind so he's not tired in the third period of a doubleheader.

Along the way, he's taken part in programs and clinics, at a considerable expense, to learn the basics of the game. Through these efforts, working his way from Intro to Hockey to Hockey 101 and then Hockey 201, he has gained an invaluable knowledge of the rules and basic concepts. Since those early sessions, he has been a student of the game.

Over the past two years, we've deepened our commitment to his hockey through summer camps, semi-private skating lessons and increasing levels of competition to gauge just where he's at and what exactly he needs to work on. Trust me, Colin still has plenty of room for improvement. Still, from Day 1, a brick-by-brick approach has defined our program.

After watching his first Tampa Bay Metro League game last week, it's apparent that our approach with Colin might be viewed as old school. Though our goal is for Colin to work on his leadership skills in this developmental rec league, it didn't take long to understand just how much opportunity would present itself.

Rather than running their children through the normal development programs, as we did with Colin, there are a few parents who've rushed their youngsters into competition, simply for the sake of playing. Honestly, some can barely stop on their skates. Others simply lack ice awareness. A case in point: We had one kid who was offsides three times in a period, called each time as he was 10 feet into the zone and headed toward the net.

Before accusing me of being a hockey snob or asking what business is it of mine what other families do, I believe I have a valid point, one that focuses on safety. In a league that recruited travel-team players, there's a heightened risk that someone lacking even the most basic of skills and understanding of the game can get seriously hurt. It's just not the basics that haven't been grasped.

No, my fear is that one of these kids won't know enough to get out of the way and end up in a collision that injures both players. Even worse, I'm worried that one of these players, in a show of frustration at being in way over his head, could lash out at an opponent in a deliberate attempt to injure. My concerns, sadly, aren't unfounded.

Before Colin's first practice, one such player (a teammate, too) threatened to spear Colin in the berries. I suggested to that young man that 1.) that wouldn't be a good idea; and 2.) that's not what hockey is all about. Where does a kid, who's no more than 12 and can barely keep his skates underneath him, get that idea from?

That brings me back to parents. It seems we have a handful on our team who don't favor taking the slow-road approach with their children, building a solid foundation of skating and teaching the basics. Throwing them into the fire, prepared or not, seems to be their method. Not too smart, if you ask me. And, no, I didn't hesitate to make my feelings known.

To me, this is an issue that must be addressed by the coaches. If I was a coach, I wouldn't play kids who, to me, have no business participating in anything more than a 4-on-4, cross-ice, summer-league scrimmage. If they're not ready, they don't play. It's that simple.  And, if that bruises a parent's overinflated ego, so be it. I'll remind them, too, there's better ways to spend money.

The rink's program needs to revisit its decision, too. One team within the league carries six travel-team players and few, if any, developmental-level players. It's my odd-on favorite to win the league championship. It makes me wonder, though, if money, and not player development and potentially safety, is the only motivation at play here. If so, let's hope that doesn't prove costly -- for parents or the program.

I learned a long time ago that it takes much more than putting on equipment and lacing up skates to become a hockey player. It's a shame that everyone -- from parents to coaches and beyond -- hasn't learned that lesson.