The State of Hockey: from a Player to a Coach to a Fan … Maybe Not Too Much Longer
By Ken Lewis
I grew up in Brooklyn in the 60’s and 70’s. Hockey was usually played on Chicago Roller Skates with a black roll of electrical tape as your puck. Joey Mullen was doing the same in Hell’s Kitchen.
My neighbor was a figure skating instructor on the weekends at Abe Stark Ice Rink in Coney Island. To keep her son company she brought me; we skated eight hours every Saturday and Sunday. By the time I was 10 years old I could do things on skates that even the skate guard could not do.
My dad was an NYPD patrolman there was not much money left for hockey but somehow shoveling snow in winter put enough money in my pocket to cobble together enough gear to clinic in Coney Island and Prospect Park. Rag tag to say the least but I still remember walking into the rinks on cold mornings and cold nights. Sometimes my two Koho’s were my protection, sometimes they were just my badge of honor.
At that time no USA players were playing in the NHL, I was ticked we did not live in Ontario. I wanted to be Brad Park, Walter Tkaczuk and, in ‘72 seeing the Bruins beat the Rangers in the finals, Bobby Orr. Man did I love Bobby Orr; man did he have everything except resilient knees and a nose for the business world.
I loved the game. It was not my time—born too soon, born too far south of the Canadian border. It’s hard to make the NHL riding the B3 bus to Coney or the QB train to Prospect Park. Somehow Nick Fotiu did it, somehow Joey Mullen did it, and a few did make it to play high level but it was indeed a rarity. Ice hockey was tough to play. You need dollars and the ability to travel. Back then this great game was owned by toothless farm boys from up north of the border.
Then fast forward to my son’s days up in Westchester County. We had him on ice as soon as his legs would work at it. I got my USA Hockey coaching certificates so he could play in a program not in our town. He was driven to every game and practice, never had to take a bus or subway. We traveled the East Coast cementing our relationship while building a love for grinding it out along the walls. I met great hockey parents, although maybe not all. I met great players who were with me ‘til they were ready to move on to better coaching and better levels. It was the best 10 years of my life. As a level 4 coach I could coach high level Juniors but the overhead in Westchester has me on life’s treadmill. Chasing pucks in dark dank rinks does not cover mortgages and college tuitions no matter how much I wish it could. I love coaching hockey, love the game. I can break down problems and strengths with the best of them. When I coached it was always about the players never about me. Youth hockey even at the highest level is about love of game and working to make your players better to get to the next level both on and off the ice.
With my adult career league days now over, I am glad to have escaped middle aged injury. Today I’m happy watching mites go up and back in any rink as watching the enthusiasm of their game and play makes you know what the game is all about. You know why you love the game. It’s hard to compare this to billionaires fighting over slight percentages with millionaires. I go back and forth in my mind with whose fault this lockout is. There is a ton of stupidity to go around. Seven hundred guys with an amazing talent letting it die on the vine for fractions. A bunch of bull-headed owners, led by the ultimate Company Man Gary Bettman —would I like to take him into the corners of any rink and grind that little snit into the glass. I believe they are killing the Golden Goose. The NHL, a league that has been mostly striving and making great financial gains, and they can’t seem to split up the pie in an equitable manner without these work stoppages. My advice is they all take some time to get into a local rink and see the smiles inside the helmets of Mites and Squirts—it will make them remember what is good about this game and what really matters to those of us who live and love it.