CHbLog – Inside Edge

Looking Back: Laredo Coach Terry Ruskowski

Last January, I caught up with Laredo coach Terry Ruskowski at a game in Rio Rancho. Here’s what he told me.

Timbits Trivia of the Day:

Ruskowski admits, “I probably go through six to eight pieces of gum a game.”

Rosco Jan 07 “Rosco,” as he’s known to his players and colleagues, must have one heckofa jaw. But he had tough chops long before he was coaching. As a player in the World Hockey Association and the NHL during the days of Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe, Ruskowski commonly defied his smaller stature by sticking up for his teammates to just about anyone. His dedication earned him the “C” on his jersey more seasons than not. Although he tallied the most assists for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 1979-80 season, Ruskowski most often topped the roster in penalty minutes, amassing 1,354 PIMs overall in his 10-year NHL career. “My teammates always knew I had their backs, whatever happened,” says Ruskowski.

Ready to Rumble

Sticking up for your teammates can build unity and demonstrate a solid work ethic. Aggression can translate into wins by way of out-hustling other teams. Ruskowski puts this positive spin on owning a higher count of penalty minutes, and it manifests in the teams he coaches. “It’s being aggressive and wanting to win, never backing down from a challenge, meeting the challenge head-on. My philosophy is: it’s not whether you win or lose, as long as you show up and show your teammates and the other team you’re willing to do whatever it takes to meet the challenge,” he shares.I'm gonna need another piece of gum...

Ruskowski says the most effective quality of a coach is recruiting ability. “You try to recruit the players who have character and want to win. When your team has character and doesn’t like to lose, it makes the coaching job a lot easier.” He’s gleaned the most successful tools from the various coaches he’s played for, including Roger Neilson and Pat Quinn. For coaches, too, Ruskowski emphasizes a strong work ethic and thorough preparation, with an added personal touch. “All you have to do as a coach is try to get the other team’s weaknesses and try to manipulate them, then go forward from there. If you can take a little bit from each of the ideas of other coaches, it’ll benefit you in the long run. I also think if you’re your own person, you’ll be a better coach. If you can’t be yourself, then you won’t be a good coach.”

Put the Hurtin’ On

Weaknesses? Players don’t reveal any they can hide. Guessing at the number of less consequential pains players suffer in a game, Ruskowski sighs, “Oh… Lordy. Everyday there’s a list that my trainer gives me of bumps or bruises or cuts that we had sewn up. We probably have two or three guys a game who have some sort of aches and pains. We’re padded okay, but obviously the padding can’t cover the whole body, so it’s from blocked shots, nicks across the arms and that kind of stuff. During the whole year I couldn’t imagine – way over 100.”

Presumably, it’s all worth it for the two CHL President’s Cups the Bucks earned in 2004 and 2006 (plus the extremely near-miss in 2005), and just over a 70 percent win record by the team since their inception – with Ruskowski at the helm. It’s no surprise that a guy whose birthday is New Year’s Eve knows how to create excuses to celebrate big. “Everyone celebrates my birthday,” Ruskowski smiles.

Rosco’s Law

While many teams find themselves overconfident with what masks itself as a secure lead, ultimately losing the game, Ruskowski tells his team to keep up the pace. “You rely on your team to do the job on the ice. What I can do is if we’re ahead by two goals, I try not to change up a whole lot. I don’t like to sit back and let the other team come at me. I like to be aggressive and keep on going. What I do not like is an odd-man advantage against us. So we make sure that we’re defensively sound.”

Keep workin' boys! On the flip-side, say, with a 5-goal deficit, Ruskowski expects about the same. “We try to create more opportunities by getting the defensemen into the play, going to the net as hard as they can for rebounds and the screen, trying to get back on the track. That kind of deficit is pretty tough to come back from. All I can say is, you have to keep on working hard and whatever happens, happens.” And whether his team is playing Colorado or Wichita, Ruskowski knows it can be a mistake to not get “up” for the game. “Rivalry teams keep you on your toes, like Rio Grande and Corpus. But if you’re not on your toes for any team you play against, you’re not going to win. There are times when the players themselves get more up for games, like Colorado.”

Hockey Days in Canada

OMG! My secret formula works! (see Dec. 2 posting)

Just as I predicted, On January 30th Rocky Mountain lost 4-3 in OT (technically, a shootout), meaning that according to my formula, they were destined to lose to New Mexico – okay we’ll settle for Corpus Christi – on February 1st. Sure as shootin’ the Rage fell to the Rayz 4-3. Genius! Wonder if we’ll have a chance to test this again in the playoffs….

Y’all watched the NHL outdoor game on New Years Day? There sure are a lot of people willing to freeze their small parts to sAstana in Albuquerqueee an outdoor hockey game. Still, are those games a ton of fun or what? Way more than, say, freezing your small parts off to watch Green Bay lose to the Giants. Maybe equally as fun as chasing the professional cycling team Astana on a training ride in 32 degrees and impending snow….

Speaking of unspeakably cold weather, this past fall I took a trip to Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City. The weather was actually quite nice, other than a little rain. But can you believe I had to wait 2.5 days before hearing Rush on the radio? Heard Bryan Adams right off.

Oh Canada... In the Toronto area, I paid $5 to see a PeeWee game. In case your kids don’t play hockey, PeeWees are 11 and 12-year-olds and they’re allowed to body check. It was actually some skilled, quality hockey – like the NHL but much slower – rather than the messy stuff you get in my adult beer league composed of people who didn’t play as kids. The player I went to see, Connor, was one of the team’s top offensive threats with predictable sass to match. On the drive to dinner in separate cars, the superstar mooned out the window of his ride. Just wait ‘till he’s 17 and/or famous.

Over dinner, his dad explained that Conner’s team, the Hamilton Junior Bulldogs, a Minor PeeWee AAA team, has an owner. Coaches at that level can make up to $50K a year. Connor’s parents were wined and dined for the purpose of player recruitment. I’m talking PeeWees, people.Montreal from Mont Royal

In Montreal, I tried to finagle a ticket to the Big Show but it was the Canadiens’ season opener. There was no way I was gonna get one for any less than an arm and a leg, maybe throw in an ear. La Cage aux Sports is a popular sports bar in the area. The Bell Centre has its own La Cage which serves as an affordable alternative to game tickets. It has a big window through which you can stick your tongue out at rich and lucky fans walking the Bell Centre concourse, and peak into the arena seating as well.

The sounds of the arena are pumped into the bar when it’s not the TV broadcast announcers, who speak French of course. There were no less than 30 television screens all tuned into the football game – not! One had a poker game on it though – not! Believe me, they all had the hockey game and it was a good one. Unfortunately, the home team lost to Carolina. Afterwards, I snuck into the arena and sat in a real seat and pretended the real game was still going, the roar of the crowd, Koivu scoring a goal….

Quebec or France? I did my best to speak something that might be mistaken for French in Quebec City. I figured out the accent: speak as if you have a mouthful of soft cheese. The hotel bartender, Marc, who spoke impeccable French by the way, totally agreed. Go ahead, try it! Maybe find a little privacy first.

A few days later at La Cage in QC, the patrons cheered, “Let’s Go CanaDIENS; let’s go ABS!” (There isn’t a “ha” sound in French.) Montreal lost again, 2-1 to Florida in a shootout.

Every business in Old Quebec City was Halloween-crazed. DecorationsWhich one's real? everywhere. October is also apple season. Each person walking with produce carried an apple. Personally, I ate way too many French fries. I’m repulsed by the idea of dipping them in mayonnaise, but when in Quebec…. Come to find out, it’s good. Really good. Note to self: forget how good it is. I also tried them in gravy, which was gross.

I wanna ride!With temperatures dipping enough to open the mini, outdoor skating rink, it was time to head south and catch the start of the Central Hockey League season, before the air turned wicked cold.


Not to make it all about the Rage, but see what I mean? (see Nov. 15th posting) Teams like the Rage can potentially bounce back from a large deficit. Maybe not 7-0, but hella close:

The Central Hockey League (CHL) announced today that the Rocky Mountain Rage’s third period comeback on December 29th versus the Tulsa Oilers has been selected as the recipient of week 11’s Performance of the Week. The Rage fell behind 5-0 after two periods of play but battled back with five goals in the third period to tie the game and ultimately winning the contest in a shootout.”

Owning the Box

A Weekend in the Life of a Central Hockey League Official: Training Camp ‘07

Ever wonder if you could be a CHL official? Come on – you know you’ve yelled at ‘em but could you be one? Do you have even a vague idea what it’s like to skate within the game, there on the ice, in the mix of a 3-on-1 breakaway ending with the crash-n-bang of a possible goal?

I sorta know ‘cause I was there – at the 2007 Officials’ Camp, anyway. It was held in October just outside Dallas, TX. I flew into town and skidded into the clinic a few minutes late, at the NYTEX Sports Centre  (it wasn’t my fault, I swear).

Go ahead - you make the call.

Friday evening At my seat for the first classroom session, I find my very own official’s manual, CHL ball cap and name plate. I’m feeling special already, and not just ’cause I’m a foot shorter than the rest of the guys. Wayne Bonney, the CHL’s supervisor of officials, introduces me and tells everyone I’m with the Hockey News, at the clinic to do a story. [see the December 4 ’07 issue, pg. 56] Class breaks at 10 pm and I’m finally able to grab dinner with some of the guys – and learn that referee Tudor Floru was on the cover of my 2005-07 USA Hockey Official Rules and Casebook.

Saturday, way early 8 am is apparently for skating drills. Let me clarify a little about my history: I’ve been ice skating for five-and-a-half straight years, not even counting the time I tried those double-bladed skates in kindergarten. Still, during one drill, I’m panicked. We’re all skating backwards, increasing our speed with each whistle. Except that I can’t go any faster without risking a fall, causing a pile-up and a quick end to the seasons of several very big guys. In the name of self preservation, I angle to the wall yelling, “Inside!” as skaters loom toward me. Several seem intent on playing chicken, veering away just before I’d be sent to the ice express mail, immediate delivery. Bless his heart; former NHL linesman Ray Scapinello encourages me to hang tough through a few more of his drills.NHL official Jay Sharrers

NHL official Jay Sharrers stops by to give the guys a few tips. Call me a nerd if you must, but I was really excited to meet him. Got my photo taken and gushed how cool it was that he was there. Told him I recognized him from a time I saw a game in Phoenix, when my seat was actually close enough to the ice to see faces. Yup, I notice the officials.

Later we watch the Texas Brahmas‘ intra-team scrimmage (rejoining the CHL – can I get a “hallelujah!” from the fans in the area). Former Scorpions goalie Cacciola was in a Brahma net. A rookie linesman sat with me and explained the camaraderie officials have for each other. While they don’t travel as an entity like a team does, they still experience the “all for one and one for all” that bonds a group with a common cause. Watching a NHL game on TV a week later, I notice how all four officials stand together at center ice before the start, winking and fist-tapping each other with encouragement for a great game.

Saturday evening Back at the hotel conference room, it’s pizza time. It’s also an opportunity to explore the undiscovered talents of rookies through initiation rites. But what happens in Hurst, TX… okay fine. I will say that a surprising number of them can sing quite well, and the farm boy from Saskatchewan could fool the animal itself with his rooster call.

Former linesman and current NHL supervisor of officials, Leon Stickle, sits with me and shares some great stories about team mascot mishaps, like the one about the pirate who caught on fire: he skated out onto the ice not realizing his feather was aflame. Of course the fans loved it, assuming it was part of the planned entertainment. Stickle had spoken to the CHL officials earlier in the day, closing his comments by wishing them, “Good luck with your dreams.” CHL Commissioner Emeritus and former official Tom Berry tells me his history of involvement with officiating kids way back when.

Sunday morning I catch up with Floru, who says, “The biggest thing I learned in my first season was – I had a game where one team had to kill a lot more penalties and was saying, ‘You’re picking on us.’ But they were blatant penalties. What I took from that was the importance of communication with the players and the coaches. To explain what’s going wrong and take preventative measures, give the players a chance to avoid the penalty by issuing a warning to play the puck or keep the stick down.”

Referee Mark Lemelin Asked what he wants the world to know, Floru laughs before he says, “Be gentle.” Players blow it once or twice a shift and I’m betting he’s been tempted to tell them so after they yell about a couple questionable judgments per game. But he knows officials are expected to be perfect. Floru has advice for overcoming a rough streak of games. “Often, if you just go back to basics, review positioning and that sort of thing, it gets you out of those slumps.”

Before wrapping up camp, as we watch the final set of DVD clips of fast action that I still struggle to assess the perfect call for, I wonder: if the irate fan in the stands knew how many hours are spent discussing and dissecting calls, how the officials have to be able to skate as well as the players, how many dynamics come into play for a penalty, requiring a sophisticated knowledge of the intricacies of the game, how even coaches occasionally disagree among themselves on the severity of a penalty, would that fan still think he’d make a better official?

Such friendly faces...

Duh – of course he would! (You were just about to call me ignorant, weren’t you.) Believe me or not, but I’ll attest that in general, officials are pretty much a bunch of flip-flop wearing, hockey-loving dudes like the rest of us (girls being girldudes, of course), just doing a job that at least 99% of us are generally clueless about and would be eaten alive trying. Eaten alive.

For more details about Camp, see the Dec. 4 2007 issue of The Hockey News.

My Chat With Bobby O

Things that make me go hmmm…

Before I get to the Bobby Orr interview, I thought I’d reveal the secret formula for predicting a loss for Rocky Mountain. There’re two parts. Part One is that they play in New Mexico. Part Two is that they lose 4-3 in overtime on the 30th of the month before they play in New Mexico.

Both times the Scorpions have beaten the otherwise undefeated-in-regulation-time Rage have been closely following an overtime loss by Rocky Mountain. This past November 30, they played to a 4-3 overtime loss against the Sundogs. Back on October 30, they suffered a 4-3 OT loss to Colorado.

The next opportunity to (almost) test my theory is January 30, when they play Laredo, but then they play Corpus instead of New Mexico. Let’s keep an eye on that one anyway, just for the fun of it.

On to the Orr Interview – adapted from the original posted to the 02/04

“Surreal” is exactly how I felt when I heard the voice on the other end of the line. “Hi Sonya, this is Bobby Orr.”

I’ve never been one to wait by the phone, but when his assistant told me Bobby would call me in the morning, I slept with the phone by my side. The next morning, I showered with the phone in the bathroom but as I got ready for work, I convinced myself there was no way he’d ever call. I was staring at the phone on the table while I ate breakfast and then, as I started to walk out the door, the phone rang. The display read “PRIVATE” and I knew – it was Bobby!

“How’s the weather down there?” he asked. “It’s cold up here!” Orr is in Boston, where he played with the Bruins of the NHL from 1966 – 1976, earning two Stanley Cups. Many former athletes become coaches or media personalities, but Orr jumped at the chance to be something different: “I was approached by some friends about a company that involved marketing and other things. I figured with my experiences, both good and bad, I had a lot to contribute to these kids. It’s been fun.” Among other duties, Orr is a player agent for the Orr Hockey Group.

Since I was calling to discuss a particular goaltender represented by Orr, he shared, “Goalies take longer to develop than other players – they take the longest. If anyone makes it, it’s due to hard work and dedication.” There’s no guarantee that because players look good or not at one point, their ultimate success or failure is predetermined. So how does an agent recognize “potential?” Orr admitted, “The first time I saw Dominik [Hasek] I thought, ‘He’ll never be a good goalie’ because of his style, but you see how that went! Really, as long as they stop the puck….”

Orr elaborated that the job of an agent isn’t necessarily to recognize talent, but to identify players who have the dedication it takes to be successful. “You have to talk to the kids often and help them understand what it takes. They have to have passion. The clients have their demands and we want [dedication] back from them. You do all that and help them understand. You work with their parents, their friends, family and girlfriends. You let them know that they have to put in every effort they have in their body, and then if they don’t make it, it’s only because they aren’t talented enough. You hate to see the kids with talent not have passion. How many times have you heard people say ‘how did he make it?’ It’s about work ethic.”

I couldn’t hang up without asking Orr about a caption for the famous “flying photo” of him scoring the game winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup final. Perhaps caption contests are a more contemporary thing, however, since Orr claimed, “Never seen one. I could make one up… no, I don’t have anything.” I offered, “How about, ‘Yeah! I had that V-8!’”


Get this – Travis Clayton is in his 11th and Jason Duda his 12th season with Wichita. Those have to be some kind of records, eh? Most players don’t play professional hockey that long, much less with the same minor league team.

The IHL is back! Well, not exactly, but the name is. No longer the United Hockey League, it’s changed its name to the International Hockey League, where former CHL-ers like Mark DeSantis play.

The 10-0 Punch

Reeder's First Star CelebrationSo I caught that crazy game when the Rocky Mountain Rage played New Mexico on November 3. As the doorwoman scanned my ticket, she announced, “The Scorpions just scored!”

Silly me, I figured I’d just missed what could be the only goal against the Rage, at the time still undefeated in regulation. But no! As I rushed up the stairs to my seat, the Scorpions scored what turned out to be their third of five, first period goals against a team that hadn’t allowed even one first-period goal in their first six games of the season. Holy crap!

Already down 3-0, I assumed the Rage would snap out of their momentary lapse and turn on the juice, right? Still, I ran down an extensive list of possible excuses for what just happened:

1. Disrespect. No team wants to admit it, but chances are the Rage didn’t get “up” for the game against New Mexico – a team whose second win of the season was only the night before (in a shootout against Amarillo).

2. Injury. But Rocky Mountain’s bench wasn’t short and unless they were playing with a few hidden, somewhat serious injuries, this wasn’t the excuse.

3. Exhaustion. They did play Colorado the night before.

4. Momentum. Perhaps Rocky Mountain’s overtime loss Tuesday had drained a little out of them, while New Mexico’s Friday OT win had energized the Scorpions.

5. Mental Stuff. There’s always that wildcard relating to what Ray Edwards talked about (see previous blog). Maybe personal issues distracted Rocky Mountain.

6. The flu. What comes around, goes around.

My mom was visiting from the west coast and in the middle of the second period, she asked of any likelihood of a Scorpions loss. I told her that even with a 7-0 lead, they didn’t want to take anything for granted against the sort of team the Rage has morphed into. It’s a matter of bounces and here’s how it works: A quick snap at the face-off could result in Rocky Mountain’s first goal. Disappointed but not worried, the Scorpions could be caught off-guard for a second goal. Finally flustered, they might miscommunicate for a third goal-against and with all that momentum, the Rage might score a fourth. I figure that’s as many bounces as a team generally gets.

With eight minutes remaining in the third, I gave Mom my theory about a come-back: When a team is losing badly, there’s a superskinny chance they’ll rally as long as they have a minute-per-goal to do it (see strategy of bounces above). I know a goal can be scored in what, 4 or 5 seconds minimum? But more than one goal scored that quickly would be pretty freaking unusual.

Don’t You Dare
“I forget – is it called a hat trick when the goalie doesn’t have any goals against?” my mom asked. “A hat trick is three goals in a game scored by the same player. I’ll tell you what you’re referring to for a goalie after the game!” I answered, not wanting to be mauled by the home crowd should I curse Martin with the forbidden words.

10-0 At the Final Buzzer
How does that happen in professional hockey (coincidentally, my beer league team won 8-0 Monday)? New Mexico’s Martin sure did his part. At times the Rage controlled the puck in their offensive zone way too long and still, Martin kept the door locked on all 31 shots, including two penalty kills. Both goaltenders for the Rage had less than stellar nights (Scott Reid stepped in for the second half of the game, letting in three goals on 19 shots). The Scorpions certainly executed some pretty sweet offensive plays. I guess after the Rage suffering their first loss Tuesday, then their first goal-against in the first period Saturday, systems failed. Perhaps they have some learnin’ to do about expectations. They did get right back to their winning ways for their next game.

Can’t help but congratulate the Rage on their 5-0 start of the season after enduring an inaugural season as Colorado’s other CHL team, having to play the Eagles again and again as Northwest Division rivals but with nearly opposite end results. If the Rage can escape the punching bag status of the lower 50% and join the few Big Dogs in the League, more power to ’em.

Am I the only one who assumed that the Memphis RiverKings were from Memphis? Apparently they’ve been in Southaven, Mississippi for the past seven years and just this season changed their name to reflect that fact.

After a season off, the Fort Worth Brahmas are alive and well as the Texas Brahmas, off to a very respectable start and playing their home games in the NYTEX Sports Centre in North Richland Hills. It’s a cute little venue seating 2,300, but you’ll need a cushion to sit on (lots of bleachers). You could say they’ve come full-circle: in the late 1970s and early 80s, they were the Fort Worth Texans.

Movin’ On Up

Looking for a place to get the phat 411 on the happenings of the Central Hockey League and other musings on the vast world of hockey? You’ve found it. Sort of. I’ll give you the “inside edge” on whatever I get the whim to, but I can’t keep up with everything now that there are teams as far from the ol’ WPHL stomping ground (Texas) as South Dakota. Welcome Rapid City! (Right. Next season.) So
let me know
if you have a brilliant idea for something I should write about (not including how your favorite team is really great or Colorado sucks or how much the officials suck or how much taxes suck, pardon my language) or someone I should interview. Maybe I’ll retool my interview with Bobby Orr and share that next…. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, this first column will shed a little light on the role of a coach as experienced through the duties of former New Mexico Scorpions head coach Ray Edwards, who must know what he’s doing ‘cause he’s on his way up that ladder. You read it here first.

Goodbye Past, Hello Texas
Edwards has gone the way of coaches shooting for the moon. He’s accepted a position as assistant coach for the San Antonio Rampage, an AHL affiliate with the Phoenix Coyotes. In the off-season, Edwards told me that his ultimate goal is the NHL (duh) but he ain’t just talking the talk….

Coaches Murphy & Edwards

A Freaking Psychologist
Edwards also shared the dynamic approach for a successful team, including, “strength and conditioning, off-ice training, nutrition, mental stuff. We deal with guys mentally every day. I’m a freaking psychologist sometimes. Every day I’m dealing with someone who’s had a bad day, a wife problem, a girlfriend problem, lost a family member. Everyday, someone’s in my office. That’s all part of managing your group. If you can’t manage that stuff, you lose your group.”

Many Toques
Raise your hand if you go to your boss with girlfriend problems. Edwards said, “That’s part of it – you have to be a boss sometimes, you have to be a father figure, a mentor, a leader, a friend. You have to be all those things and if you can’t, I’m telling you, at some point during the year, it’ll explode. We have internal issues all the time that [fans] don’t hear about, but they happen all the time. Family issues, medical issues, there’re a million things that go on.”

Giving it Ten Percent
Okay but otherwise, I guess a team is a business. Edwards agreed, “I’m the HR guy though – I’m it! We have to manage that stuff just like any company. If you want good people and you wanna keep them, they’re not going to be perfect all the time. Coaching the Xs and Os is 1/10th of what I do. The actual systems, the penalty kill and power play, are so far down the list.” That’s news to me but I guess if you think about it, even at the Double-A level, the guys really know what they’re doing. They just have to learn the new coach’s system and after that, it’s all about staying healthy and focused enough to work hard and execute the plan effectively.

Which is why new Scorpions head coach Randy Murphy has the bases covered. History with the team as a dynamic forward, cheque. Internship learning the other end as the defensive coach for Edwards last season, cheque. Degree in sports psychology, cheque. All systems go.

Me? I’m off to the land of hockey and social health care, wondering how many more folks in the US would try recreational hockey if they didn’t have to worry about the high cost of a broken ankle. Get this: with a lot of luck maybe, just maybe, I’ll get to experience a NHL game in Canada (Montreal). I’m betting it’s way different than sitting at a game in Phoenix, where half the fans wear the visitor’s jersey.

Hockey Buzz Word (courtesy of Edwards): “upside” = potential.
Commonly used by recruiters and media who cover the draft, to describe a young player. “The rookie showed tremendous upside in his first NHL game,” a.k.a. he’s gonna tear it up. Smokin’ hot. Keep your eyes on the puck.