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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The Great Chili Controversy

Now that fall has fallen, Alex is making more savory fare like chili. Now Alex’s chili is not one of those “drop a can of this and a can of that in with some hamburger meat” kind of deals. No, her chili is like a flavor expedition.

The expedition starts days in advance with a head of garlic smoked over hickory, raw white beans soaked overnight and then strained a few times to lessen the starch content, good quality meat, a homemade sauce…. You get the gist.

When we first moved to the neighborhood we entered her in the neighborhood chili cook-off. It was more to meet people than to compete… or so we told ourselves. By the end of the thing, we were sure the event was rigged, after Alex only tied for 1’st. “We need to add more heat,” we agreed, “I mean, the judges were firemen after all!” Like there was some kind of correlation between firemen and hot food.

So the next year, we brought the heat. The only problem was there was now a firewoman, and she was a vegetarian, so she would only try the sauce and beans. When she took a spoonful of ours, she got more beans than anything else, and the rest, shall we say, was history. We didn’t even make the top two. We swore off any more of these competitions.

And it’s a good thing we did: We found out later that a guy had won a few years after us with a chili he’d bought from Wendy’s and threw in a Crockpot to make it look like he’d sweated over it.

Hey, if that’s what you’re used to, you might find that better than homemade, but I’ll take Alex’s homemade any day over anything that comes from a restaurant.

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Thanksgiving Explosions

Now that Thanksgiving is here, I’m thinking I shouldn’t have cleaned our microwave because there is bound to be an explosion in there before, during or after the holiday. Not that Alex cooks in the microwave. She just melts butter or reheats things in it.

She’s the best cook I know, but she refuses to learn the nuances of a microwave. Like how coffee gets bitter if you don’t do it on a low setting for a couple of minutes. Or how butter will explode.

“Set the power button to 3 or 4,” I’ll tell her as she puts a frozen stick of butter in to melt down to add to an incredible sauce or some such thing. But instead she’ll hit the Easy Minute button, which might as well be called the Messy Minute button.

Like clockwork, I’ll hear a low thud and a pop and I’ll rush across the kitchen like I’m trying to save a life. I’m actually just trying to save my life another 20-minute microwave cleaning session.

But hey, for the goodness that comes out of Alex’s kitchen, I will gladly clean the inside of a microwave.

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An Athlete’s Rituals

I walked into the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room and saw Marty St. Louis put a blowtorch to his carbon stick blade, step on it a little bit, and then dunk the blade into a bucket of icy water.

When I was a kid we would do this same type of thing with our wood sticks by putting them over a gas flame from my mom’s stove, and stepping on them to curve the blade as much as humanly possible. My mom came home one day just as the blade I was holding over the flame caught fire. I ran into the bathroom and dunked the thing in the toilet.

“Hey Marty, the new curve must not have been what you were looking for?” “Some are good, some are slightly off,” he replied. He didn’t seem to mind the work he was doing with the blowtorch. Sometimes these little things became rituals; part of a player’s routine. But for me, it would look better if he didn’t have to do this to half the Easton sticks he received.

Once again, we were dealing with the slightest difference that was frankly within our factory’s plus-minus for passing QC. And this was our pro factory in Mexico, where attention to detail was paramount to success. We’d already made a couple different molds for him, and these molds weren’t cheap or easy to make.

Each custom blade pattern, like Marty’s, required a steel or aluminum mold. Each mold was worth a couple thousand dollars in materials alone. With the instability of the Mexican society and economy, there were some instances of workers throwing these molds over the factory fence on their lunch break to sell for their material worth.

When I visited our Mexican factory, I went to lunch with the factory boss. He told me about the family that owned the restaurant we were eating at and how they’d been taken for ransom. “Anyone with money out here has to watch their back,” he said, “people disappear all the time.”

So it wasn’t a surprise when Marty St. Louis turned down our offer to come visit the factory to see how we made his sticks. We figured it would give him a better appreciation of the process. “I’m not going to Mexico,” he said, “I do not want to get killed.”

He had a point. What’s a little stick ritual, as opposed to getting killed?

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Whiplash

I’d been getting regular weekend calls from a number marked “private.” Before this job, I wouldn’t pick up anonymous calls, but now I did, since 9 out of 10 times it was one of my pro hockey players needing something: “I need a bigger toe-curve;” “I need more flex;” “I need new golf clubs;” “I need a flat screen TV for my vacation home…” Yeah, I was the guy they called for all that, and more.

But these calls were legit. Martin St. Louis was still having stick issues, and he was one of my most important players. He felt like his sticks were too stiff, but he didn’t want to go down a flex.

The stiffness of a stick correlates to a number, for example a 90 flex is more stiff than an 85. What most players don’t know is that there can be slight differences between one 90 flex and another 90 flex, even within the same batch of sticks. This is due to manufacturing tolerances. Meaning, if a stick is within a 5-point tolerance of a 90, then it’s called a 90, even if it’s really closer to an 85.

For pro sticks, Easton didn’t even print the flex on the shaft, like you’d see in a store. The reason was they didn’t want a competing company to grab a famous player’s stick and simply have all the specs spelled out for them to copy. So Easton came up with a letter/number combo that only the reps like myself were supposed to know how to decipher.

All that said, we were in a bind with Marty, because he was asking for something that couldn’t be delivered… or shall I say, could, but with too much wasted materials and manpower- even for a player of his caliber. What he was asking for was basically to make our manufacturing tolerances tighter than a Brodeur five-hole (that’s hockey-speak for the spot between a goalie’s legs, and Brodeur rarely let one slip through the five-hole).

We decided to just give Marty a lower flex stick without telling him, just to see how he liked it, since the numbers weren’t on the sticks anyway. Well, you know the way a small lie can whiplash into a bigger problem?

Marty started asking about the letter/number combos on his sticks, and started comparing his old ones to the new ones. Before you knew it, I was scrambling to come up with an answer that made sense. Finally, I decided that just coming clean was the best solution.

We agreed that Easton would deliver sticks in the lower third of his usual flex to make him happy… but there was still this little thing with his curve that he wanted to fix, and maybe I could get his kids some Easton stuff…

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