When the coach tells the team that curfew is at a designated time, a player may not like it but generally they accept it. Like anything in life there are consequences. I am sure nothing has changed since the previous generation played the game. Don Cherry’s generation was known to miss the odd curfew.
I thought of my early days in the coaching fraternity. In the start up days of the American Frontier Hockey League. Junior hockey was expanding into some unique, unknown hockey regions. With hockey expansion into the Wild Wild West of the USA there were some adventures. There were also some interesting personalities and I was fortunate to have my fair share of them on my team. I would not change it for anything.
The AFHL expanded into becoming the AWHL then into the NAHL. Players from all over North America were playing for new teams in locations covering the Rocky Mountains. That initial season was made up of the Billings Bulls, Bismarck Express, Casper Drillers, Pikes Peak Miners, Pueblo Flames, Ogden Utah Blades, Vail Avalanche, and the Jackson Hole Grizzlies.
The league kicked off an exhibition weekend the second Friday of September with the Casper Wyoming Drillers team travelling to Vail Colorado for the first exhibition game in the league. The Drillers piled on a bus for the six-hour trip down I25 to the Denver area then west to Vail. The trip included Vail the first night then Aspen the next. Everyone was excited. The start of a new league, the team’s first road trip, a time to bond and get to know each other. Not many of us on that bus had ever been to Vail, a popular vacation town. A great sunny Friday in September, the bus barrelled down the interstate and spirits were high. Maybe a little too high.
As coaches and staff, we sat at the front of the bus. We observed that the closer we got to Vail, the exciting chatter increased. A vocal group of young aspiring athletes living life, playing the game they loved. The talk was not about the upcoming game that evening but more focused on activities that would follow the game. As the Coach/GM, I remember thinking that we were booked to stay in the highest priced hotel I would have stayed in to date, and how expensive it was going to be to fee the team. Each player had been given a per diem
for the trip, a practice I would learn was a mistake. I listened intently the rest of the trip trying to determine how I was going to control this group. It became apparent that many of them were going out after the game to check out the sites. I remember saying to our trainer and my assistant coach that maybe it was time for an old “Scotty Bowman” trick. As the bus came to a stop in front of the hotel in the heart of Vail, I informed the team of the itinerary. As my short directions concluded I informed the team that the curfew for the evening would be 11:30 pm. I indicated being late for curfew would result in a financial contribution to the team fund. Also, that breaking curfew would probably require a call to Mom and Dad for a little financial support. Well, the groans were boisterous, and I am sure at that point the veteran players now had a decision to make. Either eat after the game and get back to the hotel on time or try to come in after curfew. Sneak by the lovely lady at the front desk and get into their respective rooms undetected. Decisions, decisions.
Well if there is one thing I learned in the game, it was that young hockey players are full of themselves, especially when an attractive young lady is working the late shift. I thought a few guys would wander in later than curfew, however I did not want to sit in the lobby awaiting their arrival. After all this was the first trip and confrontations were not a productive way to start the season. When everyone had retreated to their rooms I went out to the bus and retrieved a brand new KOHO Pro Fibre wooden hockey stick out of the team stick bag. Yes, there were wooden sticks back in the introduction of the AFHL.
I entered the hotel lobby and asked the kind lady on the desk if she would mind keeping the new stick behind the front desk. I asked her if she was scheduled until midnight. She confirmed she was finished her shift at midnight and her friend was relieving her for the night shift. I explained this was our team’s first road trip and I related I was reasonably sure that some of the players were going to check out Vail after the game. As I handed the young lady the stick, I simply requested that she ask every player that came into the lobby after the assigned curfew time of 11:30 pm, for their autograph on the stick. She giggled and said she and her friend would be more than happy to assist. She thought it was funny. I knew that a hockey player would be honoured when asked for his autograph especially by a young lady. A couple guys signed the stick addressed to the young lady and saying “Best Wishes” with their signature and jersey number. What I did not count on was the number of “autographs” that would be on that stick when I retrieved it!
When I retrieved the stick around 8 am from the night shift attendant I knew that the team breakfast would be interesting. I knew that not much would need to be said, the autographs were an admission of guilt after all. Breakfast was at 9 am and the assistant coach and the trainer had the team seated and starting their breakfast. I planned on being fashionably late walking into the dining room with a KOHO hockey stick in my hand and a smile on my face. The price of admission, unbelievable. Eight guys turned white as a sheet and their jaws dropped. The rest of the team took a couple seconds to figure out what was going on but soon clued in and laughter erupted. It was evident that the black sharpie pen autographs were etched up and down the stick. Not much more needed to be said. The culprits were told that the fines were due before arrival in Aspen, Colorado the next day.
The fine was not astronomical but, in a few cases, it required a call to Mom and Dad for a money wire. No doubt, the players would be asked “why do you need money already, you are on the first trip and I thought the team paid the expenses?” When the players had to come clean on the fact that they broke curfew, and they were fined, the hammer was now in Mom and Dad’s hand and out of mine. I cannot remember exactly but there were a couple of scratches from the line-up in Aspen. As a result, the entire team got the message loud and clear and we all enjoyed a few laughs given the scenario.
Overall, thinking back cannot even remember the scores of the games, who won or who lost but I remember them as spirited affairs. It was a great trip to start a new team, new league and the first of many adventures. Although there were some incredible challenges back in the old AFHL, there were some great times. So many games in the AFHL created some intense rivalries. I cannot remember any goals that year or many details about games, but I can name every player by name and details about them. I often wonder if they share some of the same stories that I recall. I choose to remember those fun stories. You always think of the special people you keep close to your heart. I hear from some of the players occasionally and it is so enjoyable to reminisce. I hope all the guys are well and prosperous.
Thanks for the memories boys!
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