The only time I was nervous about going on the ice

It was mid December, 1976 and it was snowing like crazy in the Tri Cities. I'd driven into the Civic Center with my dad so he could drive his Zamboni at that evening's Gears game. As we arrived, dad headed up to the front office and I put on my skates and gloves to go out and have the ice to myself for a while. Armature hockey had just ended and the ice was in fair condition so I just blasted out there and started shootin' around. No sooner had I gotten started than my pal Dennis Wenzel appeared at the Zamboni doors.

Dennis and I were line mates on the Junior B team with him being on the left wing and me being on the right side- our center was a guy named Mark 'Grif' Griffore. The three of us really clicked that season and were simply having a good year- and a lot of fun. Dennis asked if he could come out and skate with me. He'd been in the building refereeing the armature games and had all of his stuff out back in his car. Of course, I owned the ice for that 20 or so minutes and so I told Dennis to get his stuff and get out here. He did, and we screamed around the rink. Dennis, Grif and I were rapidly getting to the point where we could think alike on the ice. I had the quirk of doing this under the arm, around the back blind pass thing that our coach just hated- but I could hit either Dennis or Grif every time. In one game I was deep in our zone, near the hash mark, and picked up the puck at the boards- popped it out, blind, behind me, rink wide and hit Dennis right on the tape as he was breaking just short of red line. He took it all the way in on a clean break and scored. We giggled all the way to the bench- where we met a not-so-happy coach. "I wish you guys wouldn't do that." he said flatly shaking his head. Anyhow- it was always fun to skate with Grif and Dennis- they were just plain good. So it was that this evening Dennis and I ripped around the ice at Wendler Arena until my dad came back and signaled us back in. We both gave up our sticks and gloves and dad made Dennis walk the nets with me as payment for the ice time.

While the game preparation went on and the crowd began to file in Dennis and I hung out. We watched the Gears players file in sheepishly one by one. Then the visiting team came piling in through the back door- they were a bit late due to the snow. In fact, the snow seemed to be impacting the attendance as there were only about 1,200 odd fans in the seats. I recall Dennis leaning over to me and quietly asking "Am I gonna need a ticket?" I replied, "Ticket? What's that?" We laughed... our lightheartedness was also about to be impacted by the snow.

As game time approached and the players were finishing the warm-up skate, it became obvious that something was missing... the officials had not arrived. Keep in mind that this was almost two decades before the cell phone. There was no way to make a call and find out where the referee and linesmen were, or what their arrival time would be. By the time the players were coming off the ice, Gunner came out of the Gears room and had a serious chat with my dad and a few of the team officials. They came up with a plan where the fellow who was the head armature referee, a person named Harvey Packard, who just happened to be attending the game, would referee the game, and he would need two linesmen. My dad came over to me and said "Go get your skates... and find your buddy from your team and have him get his too- you're about to be linesmen." The two teams had agreed to have Harvey referee and to have two players from the local junior team skate the lines... Dennis and Me.

Dennis was coming down from the concession stand with a popcorn and a Coke when I broke the news to him that we were gonna skate the lines in the Gears Game. He lit up at the chance- I was scared to death. I wasn't worried about skating in front of a crowd, or skating in the big arena (hell, I'd grown up in that building), I wasn't even worried about skating with the pro.s- I was scared I'd make a bad call. We were herded into the referee's dressing room and putting on our skates. Harvey came in and briefed us that he had spoken to both teams and warned them that he had two kids from the juniors on the lines and so if any ruff stuff started he would simply shut down the game and everyone would go home. Then he gave both Dennis and I a quick lesson in calling the lines in a professional game. I needed that way more than Dennis did. Of course we both knew the rules by instinct, but still- Harvey wanted to keep our brains clear. He told us to get into game mode- ignore the crowd, skate your zone, call your line- period.

Gunner came in and tossed two yellow practice jerseys at us. Those would serve as our linesman's sweaters. The game was already delayed by nearly an hour and everyone was waiting on us. I was thankful that the crowd was small as I put on my yellow jersey. Dennis just looks at me and say's with a smirk, "You ready?" I put on my best game face and said "Hell yeah." We stood up...

At that moment, the door to the referee's locker room burst open and in rushed the three IHL officials clad in the best polyester "goin' to work the game" clothes! They'd been caught in snowbound traffic on I-75, which was down to one lane each way. Faster than I could breath a sigh of relief, they were changing into their official's outfits like three supermen in a large phone booth.

Harvey, Dennis and I got out of our skates and stuff and went back to being just fans. I did my best to fain disappointment- but I don't think that Dennis bought it. The blizzard blew, the Gears played, the fans cheered and rang their cowbells as the game played out. Dennis kept saying "Man, that would have been so cool." I kept agreeing... I don't think he bought that either.


Anonymous said...

I 'grew up' watching the Gears games, just like you. Your article's bring back so many fond memories and I was shocked when you mentioned my name and our 'line' that played together that one season. Finding out the truth about the streaker, 30 + years later, was hilarious!
Mark 'Grif' Griffore

Wes Oleszewski said...

GRIF!!!!! Holy crap! It's terrific to hear from you! Hope all is well. Indeed, we had a terrific line... not because we were good, but because we clicked and had fun. I recall, however, one game- coach kept starting our line, game after game, and you were standing at the center point just before the faceoff and I skated casually up and you said "God, I hate to start." and I agreed that I felt the exact same way. Of course we never told the coach. Drop me an e-mail when you can! Wes