Gold Medal Sports

I walked into Gold Medal Sports as a young Junior hockey prospect. The sound of a skate sharpener emanated from the back of the shop. Two young towheaded boys ran past wielding wooden hockey sticks like light-sabers. From out of nowhere came a stocky man with the same blond hair as the two kids and a mischievous grin. This was the owner of the shop and my new coach, Bobby Suter; he of the 1980 gold medal winning US Olympic hockey team.

The gravity of meeting someone that was part of such a historic moment, didn’t hit me right away- maybe since I had just been to my own Olympic training camp- but it would hit me later.

I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin that summer of 1985 driving past two large lakes on either side of the city. A dock with boats and college kids walking around in shorts and T-shirts made it feel like one big giant summer camp. This was the end of the heavenly slice of thin summer pie that Madison was served yearly as a kind of treat for putting up with such long hard winters.

With the good weather, we began our training outdoors. Coach Suter’s brother Gary joined us for dry-land drills. He had just signed with the Calgary Flames and was using this opportunity to prepare himself for the NHL. He was only a couple years older, but he seemed to be more of a grown man than any of us. His solid physique was a lot like his brother’s.

It was probably bitter-sweet for Bobby to watch Gary’s playing career take off, just as his ended. But Bobby wasn’t alone: many of his Team USA mates didn’t make it to the NHL.

With the change of seasons came our first game. Madison’s lakes weren’t yet as frozen as the sheet of ice in our home rink, but they would be. We lined up for the national anthem. I looked at the flag, then over at Coach Suter who’d stood on a podium some 5 years earlier listening to this song with 19 other amateur hockey players who had done the impossible by beating the professional Red Army team from Russia and taking gold from the Fins. As the song soared I thought I saw a tear in my tough coach’s eye.

Years later, when I started at Easton hockey, I was at an LA Kings practice the day before a home game against the Nashville Predators. The Pred’s bus pulled up and off walked a kid that looked just like Coach Suter. My boss introduced him as Ryan Suter.

“I met you as a little kid in your dad’s hockey shop,” I told him. “I almost had to call you out for a high-sticking.” He then gave me the same mischievous grin as his dad’s—the same one they both would flash on the ice just before taking someone hard to the boards.

Like father like son.

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Call Me Ishmael

When I was a pro hockey rep, there was always one player on each team that was a whale. If you could lure that whale in and get him to use your product, you could live off of that for a good long time.

Ilya Kovalchuk was my whale on the Atlanta Thrashers… a Russian white beluga whale; very elusive.

I’d tried to spark up a conversation or two with this whale on many occasion, but he was either being paid handsomely to use the competitor’s product, didn’t like me, was too full of himself to give me the time of day, or didn’t understand English as well as I thought.

Easton however had supplied me with some really good bait, and after dangling it in front of a few other fish on the team, I got a bite from my whale Ilya. These were our newest S17 sticks: light as a feather, and as responsive and powerful as a pistol.

Ilya handed me one of his current sticks to match. I looked at the banana curve and thought “how is this thing even legal?” Sticks can only be curved to a certain degree, and if found to be too extreme, can be illegal. I found out later from my plant manager that Ilya got around this rule by putting a slight indention in the heel of his blade, right where a referee’s tool would sit to check for an illegal curve. The indention would make the tool read a slightly smaller curve than was actually there. A Russian bent of the rules, but if that’s what he wanted, that’s what we’d make.

I received a batch of 12 sticks from my plant: 6 of the explosive new S17’s and 6 of our more mainstream and softer Synergy models. We’d been burned by only making S17’s for another Russian beluga named Ovechkin, and he couldn’t seem to handle the puck with it. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the softer Synergy as a backup on that fishing expedition, and we lost our catch.

I drove across Atlanta with my precious cargo of sticks that morning, looking over at ladies applying makeup in their sun-visor mirrors, and guys fixing their ties. How many of these folks even knew who Ilya Kovalchuk was, or cared for that matter, I thought? But this was an exciting day on the job for me.

My whale was being extra elusive that morning and made me wait until the end of practice before trying the sticks. Everyone else was off the ice and it was just him and me. I wish I had my skates on, but alas I was shoe-bound.

He took a few shots with the S17, then asked me to give him some passes… in my shoes. He then tried the Synergy. He seemed to be pleased, but his was a hard demeanor to read.

The team had a home game that night. I didn’t go, but I got the play-by-play from the team’s equipment manager the next day. Apparently, Ilya tried to use the softer Synergy for regular game play, and the explosive S17 on power plays. This was not a normal thing to do, especially with such different-playing sticks.

Well Ilya was on a power play and wound up to take one of his signature one-timers, a slapshot taken right off a pass, and he totally whiffed. He missed the puck like a beginning golfer misses the ball.

I lost my white whale quicker than you could say Ishmael.

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Hometown Pride

I guess we’ve lived in Atlanta long enough now to feel some hometown pride. There was a skit on SNL last Saturday that proved that point. They were trying to make fun of typical people from each city vying for Amazon’s new offices.

Boston had its thick accented tough-guy and tough-gal types, offering up Fenway seats and Dunkin Donuts stuff. Miami had Latinas and Pit Bull (ironically who once lived in our suburb of Atlanta). And for Atlanta they had a man and woman from City Hall and Paula Deen.

Paula Deen isn’t even from Atlanta, she’s from Savannah. That’s a world away. About 4 to 5 hours by car, depending on traffic and where you’re starting from. And the two people representing City Hall were about as uninspiring as, well, City Hall.

Later that night in bed, where we tend to do our best thinking, my wife looked at me and said, “that’s all they could come up with for Atlanta?”

I know SNL is supposed to be comedy and all, so what about any one of Atlanta’s more relevant characters: Zombies from the Walking Dead? Tyler Perry dressed as Madea? Danny Glover (not the one from Lethal Weapon, but from the show Atlanta) dressed as his singing persona Childish Gambino? The Spanx founder giving out Spanx? Usher dressed as an Usher? QB Matt Ryan fumbling a Super Bowl trophy? And a bit dated, but still relevant: Captain Courageous himself, Ted Turner, of, well everything Turner… Broadcasting, Network Television, Classic Movies? You get the gist.

We may not have the Hollywood sign, but we’ve gotten a lot of Hollywood’s business lately. We may not have The Statue of Liberty, but we’ve got the Martin Luther King Center. We may not have Wolfgang Puck, but… okay, we’ll still claim Paula Deen.

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Thank You For Being My Friend

Pro hockey players are tough but they can also be respectful, thoughtful and well… goofy.

I was trying to get one of my Carolina Hurricane’s into Easton gloves. He was a foreign-born player, someone the flamboyant-suit-wearing Don Cherry might have called “sweetie” for wearing a visor on his helmet, or “soft” simply for being from Europe, or even worse back when the airwaves were less politically correct.

This particular player was intense on the ice, easygoing off, had a nice flow of hair going, and some really good stats. So good, that he was going to the Olympics to represent his home country that season. He was already using our stick, so the gloves seemed like a no-brainer.

I brought some examples of the softest gloves I had and got this guy to try them on. He liked the softness, but was correctly concerned about the protection factor: the softer the glove, the less protection it inherently has. You soften a side pad or take it out altogether, and sure, it feels a lot more comfortable, but it also hurts a lot more when you’re whacked by a goon’s stick or hit by a hundred-mile-per-hour slapshot. It could even lead to unnecessary injury.

So I told him we’d go back to the drawing board and I’d call him when we had a workable sample. He gave me his cell phone number, which wasn’t always given in this business. Some guys protected their privacy more than others. I never had Ilya Kovalchuk’s cell phone number for example, even though he had me get sticks and skates made for him. Instead, I’d get calls from his teammate Slava Kozlov or a relative of his on his behalf. It was kinda’ strange.

But most players were not like that. In fact, when my Carolina Hurricane’s new gloves were finished and sent to my house to be hand-delivered by me to Raleigh, I dialed this guy’s cell number and I got his voice mail. It said: “Thank you for being my friend! Please leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

I thought the outgoing message was so nice (and goofy), I redialed it and played it for my wife. “Wow,” she said with a chuckle, “I like that guy.”

I never got his glove business, but I did gain respect for this player.

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Saskatchewan Neck Warmer

“You’re a hockey player?” I would sometimes get asked rhetorically after proclaiming the fact, as if you had to be missing teeth to be a hockey player. Sure, the stereotype still exists of one front tooth, visible facial scars, and some variation on a mullet (aka Saskatchewan neck warmer) but we’re not all the same.

Take two of my pro players when I was an Easton rep: the Washington Capitals, Chris Clark and Brooks Laich. They looked nothing like the stereotype. They looked more like military guys with short-cropped hair and steely-eyes. Like real brother’s in arms. In fact, I couldn’t tell them apart sometimes. So much so, that I actually introduced one of them once as the other.

Clark was the captain of the team, but surprisingly soft-spoken. Laich was very confident, well-spoken, and always surrounded by the press. Clark was on the downswing of his career at the time; getting a little older and hindered by some injuries. We had to make his sticks more flexible than any other pro player so he could shoot the puck without reinjuring his wrist. Laich was getting chances to skate on a line with Alex Ovechkin and kind of on that bubble to being either just a solid player or a real star.

Laich was using Warrior sticks, but I had talked him into trying the newest Easton model. Only problem was that since he wasn’t quite the big star yet, we were reluctant to spend the couple thousand dollars on a new mold for him. His curve was pretty similar to one of our stock curves anyway, so we got him a couple of those to try out first.

Meanwhile, we had made Ovechkin some new sticks to try out and I was in Washington with my plant manager to follow up. The potential Ovechkin business was a big deal. So big, that I was more focused on that than anything else that day.

My plant manager and I had just delivered the goods to Ovy and we were excitedly waiting near the player’s bench for practice to start, when someone called my name. I turned and saw who I thought was Brooks Laich standing in front of me. I even introduced him as Brooks to my plant manager before realizing it was really Chris Clark.

I felt horrible as I realized my mistake, but was somewhat vindicated when from the crowd of fans on the other side of a nearby barrier, kids were shouting “Brooks! Brooks! Can we get an autograph?!”

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t tell these guys apart. If only Chris Clark had a Saskatchewan neck warmer going… but then he’d look like every other stereotypical hockey player.

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Peanut Jesus

I found Peanut Jesus in a bag of other everyday peanuts in Savannah, GA. Just the type of place that Jesus might want to reappear. What with all the ghosts, and voodoo, and booze, and Paula Deens and all.

I showed him to my wife and said we could probably sell him for a jackpot on eBay, or at least charge people a fee to come and look at him. She thought that besides being selfish, I had a peanut that looked more like a big toe with a fungal issue. But I still believed, so I cleaned him off and sent a picture to a friend to get his opinion. He wrote back instantly confirming my belief.

I put PJ in our cooler at the hotel to keep him fresh. He was in between my beer and my wife’s wine. After a late night, we slept in the next morning and had to rush to get out of there.

Somehow, Peanut Jesus didn’t make it to the car. I’m thinking we inadvertently dumped him in the trash while getting our things together before checking out of our room. Either that, or we ate him.

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An Anthropomorphic Christmas Present

I got a bag for Christmas. It’s not any old bag. It’s more of a statement. It screams “adventure.” It shouts “get out of your suburban bubble you soft-handed wuss and do something daring.” If Bear Grylls were a bag, this is the bag he would be.

It’s a heavily stitched duffle bag made of a rubberized material with an extra inch over the zipper as a kind of awning. Whatever you put in this bag will not get wet. You could carry loose chia seeds in this bag and not worry about growing a chia pet.

It has the requisite handles that any duffle bag has, but it also has shoulder straps like a backpack, just in case you need to scale a mountain, or run from a bear… or run to catch an Uber. Oh, and it has a little key-holder thingy, but I don’t think you’d need keys to any house if you used this bag to its fullest potential. You’d just be out in nature, living off the land.

I love this bag, but I think I’ll have to store it deep in my luggage pile, just so I don’t get a complex.

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Building Bridges ~ Part II

Our Christmas card to a friend in LA with a good sense of humor (see last post for more context):

Dear Michael,

Well, it’s been quite a year here at Casa Smith. Our son Juan’s single “F That Wall Mo Fo, We Buildin Bridges Biatch!” was downloaded so many times that we may not be able to claim him on our taxes as a dependent this year. The video for the single was on the fast-track to being directed by a famous Hollywood director, but got delayed amidst an unseemly predatory sex scandal (I can’t say who but his last name rhymes with Shatner). Meantime, Juan has been working on his follow-up: he’s tentatively calling it “F You and That Golden Toilet You Rode In On!” As you can tell, he’s become quite the young activist.

Merry Christmas, and may Baby Jesus always be in your manger.

Love,

The Smiths

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Building Bridges

Our first year after making the big move from Los Angeles to Atlanta, we were picking up some prints from the store (yes, the antiquated physical photos you could hold in your hand) and amongst the pictures of us was one of a young Latino-looking kid. We had no idea how the picture got into our batch and almost tossed it, but decided to have some fun with a friend back in LA instead. This friend enjoyed the fact that he didn’t have kids to the hilt, and loved the fact that we didn’t either.

Well, we sent the picture inside a Christmas card to our friend and told him we’d adopted this boy named “Juan” and our lives had been forever changed. We didn’t hear from this friend much after that, as he must have thought we were serious and had sold ourselves out to the other side- the responsible parental-unit side.

We’d all but forgotten about it, when out of the blue one day our friend called and asked about Juan. So we decided we had to make a Christmas card for our kid-averse friend last year with a family photo and all. It read:

Dear Michael,

Season’s Greetings! Hope you and yours are doing well. It’s been quite a year here as our adopted son, Juan, is turning into a young man. And just as we’ve always taught him, he’s making lemonade out of lemons (or perhaps making orange juice out of oranges is more apropos). You’ll remember that Juan was the first chair in the children’s symphony? Well, as soon as Donald Trump won the election, Juan said “if that man can be president, I can be a Mexican rap star.” So this Christmas we ask that you all buy his first single (available on iTunes) “F That Wall Mo Fo. We Buildin Bridges Biatch!”

Merry Christmas, and may Baby Jesus always be in your manger.

Love,

The Smiths

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A Very Phallic Christmas

It’s that time again when men and women who shouldn’t be on ladders, climb up on wobbly legs- sometimes of climber and ladder- and get themselves into positions even the Kama Sutra wouldn’t recommend, simply to decorate their home for Christmas.

Some advice to those climbers this year: think about the finished product before you start. Are you looking to do a swirl of lights, or something more random? Either way, take into consideration the shape of whatever it is you’re covering.

There was a nice neighbor who decorated a tall bush that sat between two shorter round shrubs. I’m sure he had the best intentions, and probably thought he’d created a masterpiece of twinkly lights… until the neighborhood Christmas party.

The Christmas party was a big affair held in a professionally decorated and catered neighborhood home. People would come in all proper and nicely dressed, and some would leave a little less proper.

Alex and I were talking to a very merry couple- okay, they were drunk- when the nice neighbor who’d created the masterpiece happened to interrupt. The drunk couple hadn’t met the guy, so they asked him where he lived in the neighborhood, which was kind of a thing people did. When they got a lock on his house, the husband of the drunk couple said, “oh yeah, the house with the big penis out front!”

The nice neighbor raised an eyebrow like, “huh?” Then he started to chuckle. “Excuse me,” he said as he turned to leave, “but I think I have some Christmas lights to unplug.”

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