ALBERTVILLE, France — Hey. When it comes to patriotism, I do my part. I salute the flag. I pay taxes. I coach the Olympic hockey team . . .
Well. Not yet. But I will. I figure it’s just a matter of time before the guy they have now, Dave Peterson, goes bye-bye. He’s nasty, everybody hates him. So when he gets accidentally pushed off a chair lift, who’s gonna take over?
As they say in French: Moi?
Why not? I am ready. And I am qualified. This is how I trained for the Winter Olympics: I learned to coach hockey. I learned goalies and forwards. I learned to make line shifts. I learned to fold my arms and chew gum rapidly. Of course, I learned this all in one night. But hey. I didn’t want to miss the plane.
And so now, here I am in France, sitting on this Olympic bus as it winds around the Alps, and around, and around. I wonder whether we are ever going to reach the top or whether this is just the French idea of a really funny joke. After all, they do like Mickey Rourke. And so, what better time to recall that special night, just last week, when I stood behind the bench and led the boys to a stirring 5-3 defeat. . . .
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the story. I was invited by our very own Detroit Ambassadors to spend a game as guest coach. Stand behind the bench. See the action from ice level. My first response was, “Can you get hit with a puck back there?”
They said: “Sometimes.”
I said: “No thanks.”
But eventually, they talked me into it. The game was at Joe Louis Arena. Our opponent was the very tough Niagara Falls team. I studied hard. I asked my good friend Mike Stone — who knows so much about hockey, he can tell you the Zamboni driver’s address — what would be a good thing to say on the bench. He told me, “Wings on wings!” I have no idea what it means. But I wrote it down.
Then I did something I hate: I put on a tie. That’s hockey. You can leave your teeth at home, but not your tie.
Next, I drove to the arena and met my “boss” for the night, Jim Rutherford, a former Red Wings goalie who is the real coach — and general manager — of the Ambassadors. We commenced to the very important task of Eating Pizza In The Food Room. Then we discussed our strategy for the game. Actually, he went over the lineup card and I nodded earnestly.
Then it was time to meet the boys.
Now, I should mention that the Ontario Hockey League, in which the Ambassadors play, is not the NHL. The OHL is basically a minor league, a training ground for the big leagues, and is limited to players aged 16 to 20.
Of course, many of these players already have beards and can drink me under the table.
“Maybe you could say something after I do,” Rutherford said as we entered the locker room. “The way we’ve been playing, it couldn’t hurt.”
I thought about it. I looked at the apple-cheeked faces beneath the helmets. And I realized that I was far more used to asking questions of hockey players than I was giving orders.
“We’re as good a team as they are . . .” Rutherford told his troops.
“We can beat these guys . . . “
“Wings on wings?” I whispered.
And suddenly, the players rose from their seats and began clumping toward the door on their skates, slapping each other on the head and yelling, as near as I could tell, three basic phrases: 1) “Let’s go, boys!” 2) “Here we go, boys!” and 3) “Come on, boys!”
(By the way, I am told this never changes, even when they reach the NHL and get into their 30s, hockey players still yell, “Come on, boys!” To me, it sounds like something out of a Mickey Rooney movie.)
And here they were, facing off at center ice . . .
Now, for those of you who have never stood at ice level of a hockey game, let me tell you, it goes fast. Bodies zipping past. Sticks flying. Just seeing the puck is difficult, especially when the players jump up to take their shifts.
“What happens if the puck comes flying in here?” I asked Rutherford.
“Don’t worry. I’ll tell when you to duck.”
What a comfort.
“CHANGE!” he yelled.
And three bodies went flying over the boards as three others flopped back in. You ever wonder how the right guys always seem to be there for a line change? It’s because as soon as three guys jump over the wall, three others slide into their place, like candy bars in a vending machine. Only once did I hear a kid say, “Over to the right, eh?”
And everyone slid to the right.
I liked that.
“Come on boys, here we go boys!” yelled an assistant coach.
“Come on boys, let’s go boys!” yelled a player.
“Wings on wings?” I wanted to say.
Suddenly, a fight broke out. The players in the box leapt to their feet. Rutherford jumped on the bench to get a better view, so I did the same. And there I was, standing on my tiptoes, behind the shoulders of all these hockey guys, and I thought about Jacques Demers, how he used to throw his glasses on the ice when he was upset. I considered throwing mine, you know, for team spirit. But then I’d never see the puck.
And here came the puck.
It banged off the boards just a few inches below the players’ noses. They never flinched. I, standing behind them, jumped back five feet.
“Whoa,” I said, “did you see tha–“
“Come on boys, let’s go boys, here we go boys!”
“Attaboy, Phelpsie! OK, Bartsie! Way to go, Phelpsie!”
Did I mention that nicknames are really big in hockey? Just add “ie” to anything. Jones-Jonesie. Glen-Glennie. Halls- Hallsie . . .
Wait. We scored! And our players banged their sticks on the side of the box. And then Niagara Falls scored. And our players spit. Then we scored, and we banged our sticks on the side of the box. And then they scored, and we spit.
This is pretty much how it went until the break between periods, when we returned to the locker room, said a few things, and then the players clumped to the door shouting “OK, Bartsie! OK, Phelpsie!”
And we started over.
Anyhow, the game finally ended. I would like to say it was my brilliant line changes, or the way I crossed my arms, or the color of my tie that was responsible for our results. But since we lost, 5-3, I’ll just say it was Rutherford’s fault.
Ha! Just kidding.
And that’s how I became a qualified hockey coach. I want to thank the Ambassadors for showing me the secret, and for making sure I didn’t leave with a hole in my head. This way, I am nice and healthy when Peterson says adios amigos, and our Olympic team is left looking for direction. You know what I’m gonna do then?
I’m gonna jump in the middle of the box and holler, “Let’s go boys, come on boys, wings on wings!” And you know what? I bet they like me. I bet they do.