Thursday, January 31, 2013

Following up

Last season, when the Ottawa Senators came to town in February, I made a point of introducing Colin to Ottawa's Colin Greening. It was part of a new project, so to speak, of having him meet NHL players who shared his first name.

With Colin in school last week, I couldn't take him out to meet Greening this time. But, I was able to have him sign this card for Colin, even asking him to personalize it to him.

We're adding a twist this year, should conditions exist. Beyond taking a photo of the two hockey players, Colin will begin a project that will use one of his old hockey sticks as a platform for any Colin in the NHL to sign.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Nice start to the season

Like most NHL fans, I've done my part in welcoming back players to the 2013 season. Unlike most NHL fans, though, I've renewed acquaintances with players outside a rink, not inside. In this case, it was the Ottawa Senators.

Given a change to my daily schedule, I'm trying a different hounding time this season. Rather than before a team's morning skate, I'm opting for post morning skate. After my first trip, I'm thinking it'll work out just fine.

Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, who passed on signing before the morning skate, must have changed his mind. This puck became my first autograph of the 2013 hockey-hounding campaign. Not a bad start, if you ask me.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Hockey Life: Uncle Russ

A call came not long ago, during our ride to Atlanta for a hockey tournament, that no one ever wants to receive. There had been a death in the family. My Uncle Russ had passed away in his sleep. He was 77.

In an instant, memories of my childhood came rushing back.

I remembered how much he looked like Elvis Presley back then, his thick black hair, combed just right. I can't hear an Elvis song today, especially Hound Dog, without thinking of him.

I felt the chill of late-night snowmobile rides through the western New York countryside under crisp, clear starlit skies. These days, I can't see a snowmobile, mostly on some commercial, without thinking about him.

I smelled motorcycle exhaust from the many motocross races our family participated in throughout western New York and Pennsylvania. Places like Zoar Valley and the Wilson Farm are as fresh today as they were back in the early 1970s.

 Of all those memories, though, there are two that stand out the most about my Uncle Russ:

~ He was the first adult that I remember to hold me responsible for my actions when I was a kid. One summer day, my cousin Danny and I were given the task of clearing loose rocks from the motocross practice track out back. The track wasn't all that long, but picking up stones was something that carried little interest for me.

My effort, I suppose, showed my disinterest. At best, I probably picked up, say, maybe 100 stones, none bigger than a baseball.

Well, Uncle Russ would have none of our half-hearted effort. Rather than tell us that what we'd done was good enough and we could go back to being kids, he sent me, as well as Danny, back out there. This time, though, he handed us shovels and showed us the wheelbarrow. He figured it would take at least four or five loads to clear the track.

Of course, I wasn't happy about it. It was hot and picking up stones wasn't fun. At that moment, the lesson being shared escaped me. Years later, I finally understood what he was doing -- and it had nothing to do with being mean. No, what he was teaching us that day was any job you have is worth doing your best.

As a father, I've passed along that advice to Colin many, many times. Doesn't matter if it's hockey, school, building Legos or coloring. If he's doing something, I tell him, he needs to be doing his best.

And, yes, I've made him pick up rocks.

~ Later that summer, a few weeks after my mother passed away, I took my first ride in a helicopter. My Uncle Russ had a lot to do with it.

He and my mother (his younger sister) were born three years apart -- to the day.  When we celebrated their birthdays, it meant a big family gathering. Lots of food, fun and live country music. Back then, that's how we celebrated.

That summer, though, was different. An air of sadness hung over us. I found comfort from the love of my family, but I knew nothing would ever be the same. In the days leading up to Uncle Russ' birthday, I wasn't sure how I would feel. On a day that we'd celebrate a birth, my mother's death was fresh in my mind.

My Uncle Russ repaired transmissions for a living. From what I hear, he was pretty darn good at it, too. At that time, he was working for a guy named Bucky Bucholtz, who had garages in the Buffalo area. Bucky, from what I can remember, was a pretty wealthy man.

On the day of the party, as our family gathered at Uncle Russ' house, I heard a loud noise overheard, one I hadn't heard all that often. When I looked up, I saw a helicopter. Bucky, I would soon learn, was the pilot.

He landed out back, joined the party and must have answered a hundred questions from everyone. I remember just standing there, looking at the helicopter and thinking how cool it would be to go for a ride. I wasn't scared one bit.

Uncle Russ must have seen me standing there. It didn't take long before he walked up and asked me if I wanted to take a ride in the helicopter. Bucky would be giving rides and he wanted to make sure I got one of the first ones. Of course, I didn't say no.

For an hour or so, that birthday party was fun.

Over the past few days, I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about my Uncle Russ. I've spoken with his two children, my cousins Danny and Jenn. I've spoken with his sister, my Aunt Phyl. It has been a time to reconnect. It has been a time to people that I love them. It has also been a time, as I now am the oldest living male on our branch of the Saar family tree, to remember what's important -- family.

Even in his death, my Uncle Russ gave me another lesson. Thank you, sir.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Rookie mistake

It wasn't until we were in New Tampa, about an hour north of where we live, when we discovered, minutes before a seven-hour ride up Interstate 75 to north of Atlanta, that we had forgotten to bring along Colin's game jerseys for the Freedom Cup Invitational hockey tournament in Alpharetta, Ga.

At first, we considered letting Colin ride up with a teammate while we doubled back, picked up a rental car, stopped by the house to get his jerseys and finally head north ourselves. Thankfully, we found two practice jerseys -- in blue (his teammate's) and white (his) -- that Colin could use during the tournament. So, rather than be three hours behind, we piled into the minivan and hit the road.

Along the way, I contemplated calling a neighbor and asking him to go into our house, grab Colin's jerseys and send them to us overnight. Ultimately, I decided against it as, even though I knew he'd do it, I didn't want to impose upon him.

Once we arrived at the rink before the first game, I bought two rolls of tape -- one white and one black -- so I could apply Colin's No. 37 to his jerseys. To his credit, he had no problem with the tape job, just another sign of his resiliency this season.

As for me, I chalk it up to a very embarrassing teaching moment. Because I pride myself on being prepared, going forward I will double-check that we have everything -- and I do mean everything -- before heading off to Colin's games, be it in the Tampa Bay area or wherever our journey takes us.

It was no one else's fault but my own. And I'm glad that Colin was so understanding.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Hockey Life: That didn't take long

The opening day of the Tampa Bay Lightning's training camp
at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. (Photo by Colin)
During the recent NHL lockout, I played the role of a somewhat indifferent and occasionally indignant fan. I canceled my $10-a-month sports cable TV package, as it carried the NHL Network. I groused a little about greed, pinning blame on owners and the players.My biggest lament was nodding off to replays of games.

Sure, it would have been nice if the 2012-23 season actually started in 2012. Who knows, we might've even attended a couple of games so far. And, yes, I would've dusted off the hounding bag and, any time a Western Conference came to town, added to the collection.

Even a season lost, I projected to those who asked, wouldn't have bothered me too much. Look at the money we would save, only to likely spend elsewhere on Colin's hockey and other life expenses. It would serve as an important lesson to Colin, too young to remember the season lost during his infancy, that money, not a love for the game, drives the NHL.

My strongest statement, in one of those indignant moments, was it would take time for the NHL to win me back. Little did I know, though, how short that time would be.

Really, all it took was walking inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum last Sunday for the opening of the Tampa Bay Lightning's training camp. Even though we arrived late for the Fan Fest activities, the buzz we felt upon entering was palpable. People, decked out in full Lightning gear, were laughing. You could feel the chill. You could smell the ice. It felt like a game night.

Even before we found our seats, I felt a growing sense of relief that we'd have an NHL season, albeit a shortened one. It was nice knowing that games could serve as teaching moments, for father and son. It was nice knowing that Colin could see his heroes, even if one wears black, gold and white. It was hockey, the best in the world. And it was back.

Seeing friends, mostly from Colin's hockey roots, certainly eased the transition. We weren't 50 feet inside the Forum when he ran into one of his former teammates. Before long, we were all sitting together, catching up, sharing news and swapping stories, with the sights and sounds of the Lightning's practice serving as a backdrop. It doesn't get much better than that.

To me, that's the best part of hockey, no matter the level. It's the common bond over the love of a sport. Despite physical or financial differences, we're all cut from the same cloth. We're hockey fans. We know it. And, really, we wouldn't have it any other way.

Still, I won't be making a deep financial commitment. At the least, I've called my cable TV provider and had a $10-a-month sports package added back, so I can watch the NHL Network. I imagine, too, we might take in a game or two. Anything else, I'm not so sure.

So, yes, my indifference was nothing but an act, a brave front masking a sadness I felt because the sport I hold so dear was, once again, being held hostage. I'm glad it's back and I know, without a doubt, I'm not alone. Am I?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Hockey Life: First big road trip

For the past four years, Colin's hockey games, from rec to travel, have been played in rinks throughout Tampa Bay, Orlando, Estero and South Florida. Later this week, though, that changes when Colin and his Jr. Bulls teammates take part in a tournament in Atlanta.

We're heading out Friday, joining his buddy, Nick, and his dad for the seven-hour ride straight up Interstate 75. Thankfully, Colin has a long weekend from school for the Martin Luther King holiday. Me and The Missus are even taking the time off so we can both make the trip.

This past week, I could sense Colin's growing excitement about the trip. Sure, he had two Central Florida Hockey League games yesterday, splitting that pair. Still, though, it's the thought of a road trip, especially one lasting more than two hours, that has him pumped up.

I'll admit, too, that I'm pretty excited. Given the team's success at the Holiday Invitational in Estero just after Christmas, it'll be interesting to see how they stack up against kids from other hockey programs throughout the Southeast. In three of the four games, the kids will play teams (at this writing, we're on our third schedule) from Atlanta, Greensboro, N.C. and Huntsville, Ala.

At first, we thought this tournament would present the closest opportunity for relatives in the Carolinas to travel and for the first time watch him play. But when we heard the team would also participate in a tournament near Charlotte, N.C., in February, we knew the thought of a day trip, rather than an overnight trip, would be much more appealing to them. So, in another five weeks, we'll be hitting the road again.

I must say, too, the offer to ride along with his teammate really helped seal the deal for us. Like I wrote before, these tournaments can cost a good chunk of change. So, the idea of saving some money, by not having to rent a vehicle, was appreciated and will be rewarded. Plus, Nick is Colin's best friend on the team. That alone should make the trip fun as the boys get to hang out together.

The trip, however, won't be the first time that Colin will skate outside of Florida. This past summer, he held his own during a pair of clinics up in New Hampshire, showing that Florida kids do, indeed, play hockey. Really, it's a shame there wasn't a camp he could've attended when we were up there. In time, though, we hope that changes.

Until then, this week's trip becomes the biggest step -- so far -- in his journey.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Hockey Life: Check your facts

Editor's note: Given the news of the day that the NHL lockout had ended, this column was substantially revised. Still, the message that facts, not fiction, drive the news holds true.

As a professional journalist, not some wannabe with a blog, I learned a very long time ago to be cautious and accurate reporting the news. Mistakes kill credibility. Falsehoods bring trouble. It's foolish if you're first, but your facts are wrong.

When it comes to reporting, you have to know and trust your sources. Are they credible? Do they have an agenda? Are they protecting themselves? Do they like to hear themselves speak?

Over the past week, in matters concerning the NHL lockout, I've seen glaring examples of people, including some real journalists, jumping the gun with "news" that the league and players have reached a deal. In every instance, at least through late Saturday night, each and every one, posted from Facebook to Twitter, was wrong.

That all changed around 4:45 a.m. today, though, when news, and not opinion or wishful thinking, broke that the owners and players reached a tentative agreement. There will be a 48- to 50-game season, beginning Jan. 19 at the latest, once the deal is ratified by owners and players.

Still, in the premature announcements that preceded the official news, it was easy to understand people wanting to be first. It's normal. You don't have to be a journalist to want to score a scoop. Imagine the thunder, if you will, if a layman, so to speak, and not someone with a ringside seat to the negotiations broke the news? That, my friends, would have been a major score.

Just because you want something, and you might want it really, really bad, that doesn't make it real. We needed to be patient. We'll all learned earlier today that a deal had been reached. The announcement, too, was based on facts, not wishful thinking nor opinion. That's why it's called news, not commentary.

Now, if you want to comment on this situation -- and this is the time to do so -- that's all well and good. As hockey fans, we're entitled to it. It stinks that we haven't been able to watch our favorite sport, in an NHL arena or on TV. For those willing to forgive, the wait won't last much longer.

Having said that, here's my two cents:

It was my opinion, and it was based solely on a gut feeling, was there would be a deal. Team owners are in the business of making money. They haven't made much, if any, since October. Some revenue, in the form of fannies filling seats and overpriced snacks and souvenirs, is better than no revenue.

Going forward, too, I wouldn't be surprised if NHL commissioner Gary Bettman loses his job. Maybe not this week, but soon enough.

Between the nearly two lost seasons on his watch, team owners have undoubtedly lost billions. If the NHL was a corporate entity (and, really, it is), the board of directors, answering to shareholders, have no other choice. He simply lacks the vision and humility to keep the league, which faces a huge public-relations effort, back on solid ground with fans and, in time, moving forward.

Again, these are my opinions, not news. There's no room for any you-heard-it-here-first chest-thumping. Would I like to be correct? Certainly. What happens if I'm wrong? Nothing. Opinions aren't based solely on fact.

In stories like this, people should let the professionals -- those who are paid to deliver this specfiic information -- do their job. When there's news -- and that news is based on facts -- they'll be the first ones to tell us.

When it comes to news, my advice is to take anything you read, hear or see from someone not directly involved with the specific situation with a grain of salt. I would, however, keep a close eye on Twitter. As a journalist, I know that's where any news will break.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The old standby

With a little time on our hands last Friday before Colin and his Brandon Jr. Bulls Peewee A teammates semifinal game, we took in a couple of practices of the college teams participating in the Florida College Classic hockey tournament at Germain Arena in Estero.

Though we arrived a few minutes late to catch players from Cornell University, we made it in plenty of time for Colin and his buddy, Nick, to score some autographs from players with the University of Maine, which won the tournament, and Ferris State University.

It should come as no surprise to regular readers that Colin trotted out his familiar team sheets, his go-to item any time he goes hounding. Like any doting daddy would, I prepared a set for him before we left, though he ended up using only the two.

Top UMaine players who signed were Devin Shore, #94, a second-round pick by Dallas in 2012; Ben Hutton, #10, a fifth-round pick by Vancouver in 2012; and Martin Ouellette, #51, a seventh-round pick by Columbus in 2010.

Top Ferris State players who signed included Kyle Bonis, #28, who leads the Bulldogs in scoring; Garrett Thompson, #16, second in team scoring; Jason Binkley, #7, who leads the defense in scoring; and starting goalie CJ Motte, #30.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

For 2013 ...

In the year ahead, in matters of hockey, I hereby resolve to:

~ Put Colin in only positive situations where he can grow and learn, not have to deal with negative issues like bullying. If there was anything positive to come out of the nonsense this season, it was his ability to deal with adversity. It's too bad, though, he learned this as a child.

~ Continue to share our experiences within hockey, both good and bad, here on this blog. As always, it's my goal to maintain a positive approach. But, in the interest of objectivity, I'm also compelled to share negative situations. If you don't like it, that's too bad. As long as it keeps happening, I'll keep writing about it. It's as simple as that.

~ To stress education far more than hockey. Over the long haul, it'll provide a greater foundation for Colin's future, I believe, than anything else. Good grades in a challenging curriculum are far more important than wins and points.

~  Remember how the NHL and its players brought about labor strife for the second time this decade. Sure, we'll be back, once a season takes place, but our financial commitment will be minimal. I'd much rather pay to watch my son play hockey.

Beyond that, here's hoping that the coming year is the best one yet.