My dad began taking me with him to hockey games in 1958, when I was 6. Our team was the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League, and they played in the Cleveland Arena, where my dad had gone to see boxing in the 1940s. He became a hockey fan only after television had sucked the marrow out of local boxing cards: By the mid-1950s, all the fights were broadcast from New York City, sponsored by Gillette. To the best of my knowledge, neither he nor anyone else in my family ever owned a pair of skates. A hockey game was simply the only place he could go to watch guys duke it out.
Maybe it was coincidence, but not long before my first hockey game, I’d whined to my father that Dickie Schwartz, the kid across the street, was picking on me.
“Hit him,” my dad had advised.
“But he’s bigger than me.” This was a lie: We were the same age, and even when I was a toddler, my clothes were labeled “Husky.” I just was afraid to fight.
My father scowled. “Then pick something up,” he said, “and hit him with that.”
Thus, hockey. We sat so close to the ice that I can still feel the chill and hear sound of the players’ blades slicing past, the thunder of their bodies slamming into the boards. No one wore a helmet; even the goalies played unmasked. These were men, men with fierce red and few visible teeth, and except for Michelle Herzig, who lived next door to Dickie, I had never seen anything as breathtaking. I don’t recall who won, but I remember jumping up with the rest of the crowd when a Baron veteran named Freddy Glover began mixing it up in the near corner with a guy from the other team. With one balled fist, each held the other’s jersey to keep his balance while flailing away with his free hand. The referee and linesmen circled them as they punched themselves out; meanwhile, the other players on the ice shoved and danced and snarled. My father lifted me to his shoulders so I could watch.
The Barons may have been minor-league, but in those days the National Hockey League consisted of only six teams—today there are twenty-six—and the AHL champion called itself “the seventh-best hockey team in the world.” It was an especially good league for fighting, filled with 35-year-old guys mad as hell because they’d spent their entire careers waiting for an opening in the Big Show that never came. Now it was too late for hope; there was nothing left to do except lace up and pound the crap out of the younger players—exactly like real life. I learned just what to do the next time Dickie Schwartz waddled across Ranchland Drive looking for me: I’d pull his winter coat over his head and whale away.
On a Sunday night in January, inside the Industrial Mutual Association Sports Arena in Flint, Michigan, some joker whose official billing is Crazy Claude the Trumpeter sprints down the aisle and slams the side of his head against the Plexiglas surrounding the rink. Repeatedly. He has put in a full night’s work already—blowing endless “Charge!” arpeggios from every corner of the building, exhorting the fans to chant “WE WANT BLOOD!”—but Crazy Claude is a pro, and, sensing that the crowd has grown morose, he does not flinch from his duty. Never mind that he’s played bigger barns than the lMA Arena, for more money: Tonight he’s going to earn his $600.
Down on the ice, the Flint Generals trail the Detroit Falcons, 3–0. The puck and players are at the far end from Claude, and the sound of his skull bashing the Plexiglas echoes like a shotgun blast. Three thousand heads jerk in his direction, including, briefly, the Detroit goalie’s. Slowly, Claude gathers himself, lifts his horn to the rafters and launches into a keening, mid-tempo version of “Hava Nagila.” As the crowd starts to clap along, he pumps the valves faster, wailing; the fans, now stoked, don’t just keep the beat, they’re into it heart and soul. Grizzled, potbellied men from what’s left of the assembly lines, young couples with children, ponytailed teenage girls with eye shadow and too much blush, bulky women of all ages in windbreakers and tight perms: Their Generals may be losing, but they are clapping and smiling and stomping to a Hebrew folk tune as if possessed by the Lubavitcher rebbe, because there is a game on tonight in Flint, Michigan.
Which is more than can he said, on this particular night, for the National Hockey League. After NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman—hired away from the NBA in 1993 to lead hockey into the promised land of huge television contracts, global merchandising deal and, most critical of all, a salary cap—and the greedheads who own the NHL teams saw what had happened to baseball, they decided to ensure that major-league hockey would avoid a strike. At the end of training camp, they presented the players with a take-it-or-leave-it contract; the players rejected it but offered to play the regular season under the old contract while negotiations continued. No way, the owners replied, and shut the sport down.
So it was that on Day 100 of the NHL lockout, only two days before Commissioner Bettman’s drop-dead date for the remainder of the season, I flew to Flint to watch a little hockey.
The Flint Generals play in the Colonial Hockey League, a four-year-old outfit where the rosters change daily and whole franchises often shift from town to town. It’s hockey at the double-A level, all slop, muckery and elbows-out nastiness—exactly what I came to see. Flint leads the league in goals scored and major penalties. Three of the team’s top players are watching from the press box, serving league-imposed suspensions for various and violent on-ice infractions. Seven newcomers have joined the team since Christmas, halfway through the season. Watching them play, I wonder if they’ve been introduced.
Still, shortly after the last strains of “Hava Nagila” have faded, the Generals put together two quick third-period goals. The Flint defensemen, who’ve spent most of the game caught up-ice while Detroit swooped in to pepper the net, are suddenly checking Falcon forwards into the boards with shoulders, hips and gratifying malice. With twelve minutes left, Flint ties the game. Up in the stands, old women are high-fiving and showing their brown teeth. Young men hug. Then a Detroit defenseman deftly spears Flint winger Ken Blum square in the nuts. The referee misses this completely; what he does see is Blum slashing the Falcon defenseman with his stick. Blum draws a major penalty plus a game misconduct.
With no prompting at all from Crazy Claude, two entire sections of the arena burst into a jeer of “REF, YOU SUCK!” Soon the whole place joins in. Even me.
Detroit scores on the power play and again a few minutes later. The Generals are finished: weary, down by two goals with five minutes to play, game over. Strangely, no one leaves the arena. The fans continue to taunt the referee and linesmen, they hoot at the Detroit players and boosters, and they cheer Crazy Claude’s feeble last riffs. Finally, the horn sounds. Flint loses, 6–3.
And still most of the fans remain wedged in their seats, chatting and laughing.
“They looked tired,” says a young guy in Section 2.
“Three in a row will do that to you,” his girlfriend answers.
Monday can wait, I know, but why are they just sitting here making small talk? Why are people strolling the concourse with their children as if this were an extra intermission or the time between games of a doubleheader?
After a few minutes, the Generals, freshly showered, come gimping through the concourse with their coats unbuttoned over their warm-ups, toting enormous gym bags, most no more than kids themselves. The fans go up to greet them. The players shake hands and talk hockey with the men. They pose for pictures and sign autographs for the youngsters.
Imagine that: a place where the team acts like their fans are important.
Their locker room is one level below; all they had to do was follow the basement hallway to an unmarked exit door a few feet from where their cars are parked. They’ve just played their third game in three nights and taken a dead-legged loss. Yet here they stand, mixing with the rabble who paid to see them, as if this were the most natural thing in the world for a professional athlete to do.
“After every game, the players go up into the concourse,” I am told the next day by Peter Horachek, the team’s coach and general manager. “We’re going to let the fans have an opportunity to see the guys—not ‘If you want his autograph, it’s going to cost you five bucks.’ We don’t do that. They leave the building through the fans. Every game.”
The Generals are one of eight teams in the CHL, but they account for nearly a quarter of the league’s attendance. Back when everyone in Flint had a good job and money to spend, the team averaged 2,500 fans a night during their better years and barely broke even. Now they draw more than 3,500 per game, nearly 90 percent of capacity, and generate a profit. The Generals hold a free Fan Appreciation Night before the season starts: Horachek takes the ice and introduces each player; then the team plays an intra-squad game. Flint has more than 1,100 season-ticket holders, nearly double last year’s number, and is shooting for 2,000 next season. When a guy called the office last fall about seats for his mother and himself but said that he’d been laid off and his mom was on disability, the Generals worked out an installment plan for him.
“It’s a small town,” Horachek says. “They want it to be their team. At this level, your fans are everything.”
Imagine that: a place where the team acts like their fans are important. Occasionally, you do hear a major-league executive or perhaps a player allude to this concept, too—generally during a strike or after a ticket-price increase.
Flint’s the perfect hockey town: frigid, hard-drinking, shabby. Not unfriendly, mind you, unless you’re driving a Honda or a Nissan or, God forbid, a Toyota. General Motors was founded right here in 1908, and when the bottom fell out of the domestic car industry—Flint lost 30,000 high-wage, low-skill jobs during the 1980s alone—the citizenry didn’t blame the GM bean counters who decided to maximize profits by moving plants to Mexico; they blamed the Japanese for making better, cheaper, more efficient cars. During my week in Flint, I count exactly two cars with foreign nameplates: one Mercedes, one Saab.
The official unemployment rate is down by two thirds from 1982, when it peaked at nearly 30 percent, but that’s largely because tens of thousands of suddenly jobless natives with cash enough to rent a U-Haul packed up and left. AutoWorld, an $80 million indoor theme park that was supposed to turn Flint into a million-tourists-per-year destination, is padlocked, surrounded by debris: It closed in 1985, after seven months of operation. The hottest industries in town, growth-wise, are the titty bars out on Don Highway and the “party stores” that seem to anchor every corner. That’s what their signs say: “PARTY STORE,” in huge, lit letters and, beneath, “LIQUOR, BEER, LOTTERY, CHECKS CASHED.”
For better or for worse, Flint and General Motors are married forever. The Vehicle City, they still call it; on Water Street, overlooking the Flint River, close by the chamber-of-commerce building, at the end of a short block redone in pseudo-vintage style in yet another pathetic attempt to put earrings on this ravaged sow of a town, stand the curiously small statues of Billy Durant and Dallas Dort, two of the founding fathers of the U.S. auto industry. In the ungentrified neighborhoods they stare past, there are lots of men, most in their mid-thirties and forties, with lined denim jackets and lank hair, walking aimlessly in midday. They look lost, not drunk; their faces are hard, but their eyes, tearing in the winter wind, are bright, expectant. They still await the phone call summoning them to finish out their time on the job, to complete their thirty-year grind. They still dream of retiring on the kind of pension their fathers and uncles and grandpops collected. Ten years out in the cold, and they’re still hoping GM will call them back to work.
The Flint Generals were born in the boom times of the late 1960s. While their current uniform features a beady-eyed, lantern-jawed gamer wearing four stars on his helmet and a battle ribbon on his jersey, the original logo was simply a large G with a hockey stick in it. No need to explain the Generals’ name back then. In the old logo, the stick was poised to shoot, but the round object on its blade wasn’t a hockey puck—it was the wheel of a car.
On Monday afternoon, I visit the Cody branch of the Flint Public Library for an appearance by two Generals: centers Blake Martin and Bobby Clouston, both 21, both clad in jeans and their uniform jersey. Martin, two weeks in town, has a beardless, narrow face, bad skin and a world-weary air. Clouston, five-eight, sweet-faced and stocky, looks less like a pro athlete than a high-school junior, which, along with his sky-blue eyes, may account for the number of teenage girls in the library gazing at him dreamily.
The autograph session begins with a stream of younger children, boys mainly, most rendered speechless by such proximity to their heroes. Every so often, one manages to squeak out a “Thank you,” and Martin and Clouston smile and, in unison, say “You’re welcome.”
At one point, Clouston asks a boy no older than 7 what his name is. The boy flushes and freezes on the spot. Behind him, a large woman in stretch pants prompts “Tell him, Joey.”
“Joey, eh?” Clouston tries. “How you doin’, Joey? You just get out of school? I went to school today, too.”
Poor Joey blanches, struck even dumber. I can see him struggling to open his mouth, his eyes getting wider and wider with the effort. And I have a vision of him decades later, at the shrink, trying to explain why every time he makes love, the thought of ice hockey comes unbidden to his mind and ruins his erection.
Joey and his chums are replaced by a long line of teenage girls, one of whom is wearing a Bobby Clouston picture button on her red T-shirt. Her name is Karen Lindsay, she is celebrating her fourteenth birthday this day, and she clutches a folder of Generals memorabilia. “It’s mostly of him,” she tells me, pointing a cherry-red nail at Clouston.
When he reaches the players, Karen boldly asks Clouston to show her his necklace; he blinks twice, dutifully reaches behind his neck to unhook it and lays the chain on the table. There at the end, shining in gold, is Donald Duck.
At this point, with Clouston surrounded by nine teenage girls and Martin looking at him sideways, I step outside for a smoke. Directly across the street I see the Fenton Road Tavern; behind me, back inside the library, I notice a thirtyish man with a three-day beard and a Red Wings cap hunched over a circular table. He is alone, but his lips are moving. For two hours, on the other side of a mauve bookcase not six feet away from where the players sit, he has been working, pencil in hand, copying notes from a book titled High Impact Resumes and Letters.
What strikes me at this moment isn’t some disjunction between the two baby jocks signing their photos for the youth of Flint and this poor yutz coughing up phlegm, muttering and boning up for his next doomed job hunt. No, I understand that they share a reality, the three of them. The Colonial Hockey League restricts each team’s payroll to $7,000 per week, divided among eighteen players. An All-Star might make $750 a week; the average weekly salary is less than $400, for a twenty-six-week season. Considering their youth, Martin and Clouston probably earn less than that. The odds that either will make it to the NHL—where the Detroit Red Wings’ payroll last season was $23 million—are, in reality, about the same that the guy in the Red Wings cap will become the CEO of General Motors.
That night I go to a meeting of the Flint Generals Booster Club, forty people on metal folding chairs in a basement room of the arena. Total membership numbers 126, and last year they raised $25,000. They spent it outfitting the team’s weight room and locker room, buying new road uniforms and travel bags and making sure that players arriving in mid-season had beds and televisions and hot meals. Young, old, men, women, children, couples: The only apparent common denominators, besides a passion for the hockey team, are skin tone—white and whiter—and an average body-fat percentage sufficient to survive winters in the Yukon, nude.
The main order of business is making ready for the annual Gong Show, where the hockey players perform songs and skits for a panel of local celebrity judges. Brian Sabin, president of the Boosters, suggests that the club buy its own karaoke machine instead of borrowing one again.
“I think I’ve seen them on sale for seventy-eight bucks,” he says, standing behind a table at the front of the room.
“I make a motion that we buy one,” says a silver-haired woman a few rows away.
“We have a motion now in regards to buying a karaoke machine,” Sabin says. “Can I have a second?”
He gets it.
“All in favor?”
The whole room says “Yea.” Even me.
Later, back at the motel, I dream of the Flint Booster Club’s Gong Show, featuring special guest stars Barry Bonds and Lenny Dykstra. To my amazement, Bonds and Dykstra are onstage doing a karaoke version of “Ebony and Ivory.” They are quite good.
Wednesday, January 11, is the day after NHL Commissioner Bettman’s absolutely final, this-time-I-really-mean-it deadline for the players to accept a salary cap or payroll tax; settle by Tuesday, he vowed, with all the credibility of Kurt Waldheim, or the entire season would be kaput. And Tuesday came and Tuesday went, and nobody canceled the season. Now Bettman is haggling with the players’ union over a rookie-year salary cap of $850,000 and whether players can become free agents at the age of 31or 32.
At the IMA Arena, they are playing actual hockey: Flint versus Saginaw. The early part of the game I miss; I am working the arena with Generals assistant GM Steve Hill. Hill is very tall, with a deep voice, prematurely white hair and the sad, baggy eyes of an undertaker. He’s at every game, walking the building the entire time, making certain that everyone is having fun. As Hill makes his rounds, people stop him every few feet to shake his hand, offer suggestions or share some gossip.
On our second lap of the evening—the Generals are already trailing, 2–1—I ask Hill if we can sit a while and watch the game; he agrees, politely, but with visible reluctance. His eyes never stop scanning the crowd. Not long after we take our seats, though, a Saginaw player’s hook sends Blake Martin skidding helmet-first into the boards. Martin lies motionless on the ice while the teams play on; no penalty is whistled. Hill rises immediately to head to the trainer’s room, check on Martin and, if need be, call for an ambulance; I follow. On his way up the aisle, Hill pauses: A young man a few rows over is standing with his hands cupped around his mouth, braying “Asshole!” down at the referee, over and over. Hill walks across to him, puts one hand on the young man’s shoulder from behind and calmly whispers a few words in his ear. The young man nods, suddenly quiet.
Blake Martin is taken from the ice on a stretcher and then to the hospital for X rays, but proves to have nothing worse than a sprained neck. After Martin leaves in the ambulance, I ask Hill what he said to hush the fan upstairs.
“I told him ‘Buddy, yell all you want,’” Hill answers, “‘but please, keep it clean.’”
I watch the balance of the game from the press box; I wish I could say that Flint turns it around or even makes it close, but they don’t. Teen idol Bobby Clouston scores, but by that time the Generals are down three goals, with the game nearly over. The team works hard, but they are undermanned—still short three key players and even thinner after Martin’s injury. Once again, the fans stay until the end. I leave when the horn sounds; an older man who reaches the door at the same time says to me “Oh, well—another one bites the dust.”
Outside, it is a damp, foggy night. The back parking lot is cluttered with enormous trailers: The Shrine Circus is setting up for its annual visit to Flint. For the Generals, the circus means two weeks of bus trips and box lunches.
I head for the Raincheck Lounge, two minutes from the arena, and park beneath a large red neon sign amid a cadre of battered Buicks and Chevys. The Raincheck its next to Theo’s Party Store; they’re owned by the same guy, Ted Vomvolakis. Ted’s father opened the bar in 1966 after fourteen years at GM. There’s hockey stuff all over the walls, sticks and jerseys and posters, but Ted says his dad started it as an “industry” bar—GM, AC Delco, the Pepsi bottling plant nearby.
“Guys at the plants come in 360 days a year,” Ted says. “We still are in a slump—things are tight right now. When Pepsi went to the twenty-ounce plastic bottle, I lost 200 to 300 customers. It hurt my party store, too. But I think we’ve seen the worst. We’ve bottomed out.”
The Raincheck is a big room, with a U-shaped bar in the center, plenty of drinking and dining tables—they serve a stromboli for $5.50 that would choke Pavarotti—and in one corner near a side door, a pool table. At 10:30, the place is pretty much empty, except for a few rough-hewn guys—ZZ Top beards, tattoos, heavy boots—shooting stick under an old lamp.
By eleven, the Raincheck has started to fill with hockey fans. Then Steve Hill, Peter Horachek and two player-coaches come in and take a big, round table; some of the Generals arrive a little later and stake out their own territory toward the back of the place. A few of the younger female fans join them. Nearly everyone is drinking beer, laughing and smiling, unwinding postgame.
“I told those hockey players, ‘I’ve carried you. When l die, if it’s hockey season, you’ll carry me.’”
At the bar I see an older woman, chicken-thin, smoking a butt, wearing a Generals jersey and knocking back whiskey-and-Cokes. “MILLER” it says on the back of her jersey, above the number 1.
Her name is Connie Miller, and she was presented with the jersey at last season’s opening game for being the team’s number-one fan. Every Wednesday last season, she cooked a complete dinner for the front-office staff—stuffed pork chops, lasagna, apple pie. Thanksgiving of ’93, Connie had fourteen players over for turkey. She keeps extra appliances—televisions, refrigerators—to loan to players new to Flint. “Pots and pans, anything they need. These are my boys,” she says. “This is my team.”
She always liked hockey, but she worked the night shift at the Kroger and couldn’t go to games. Then she had back surgery and had to quit working. “I got so that I just sat and stared at that idiot box,” she says. “l just gave up.”
One night her daughter dragged her out to see a game. “Man, l was hooked. She took me to that game and I was hooked.”
Last year, she says, the players gave her a surprise seventy-first-birthday party and presented her with a plaque that said “TEAM MOM.” Connie orders another Velvet and Coke, lights another cigarette and fishes a stack of photographs out of her purse. “I told those hockey players, ‘I’ve carried you. When l die, if it’s hockey season, you’ll carry me.’”
She is still showing me the birthday-party pictures when Steve Hill comes over to her for a kiss good-bye.
I didn’t get my shot at Dickie Schwartz until one Saturday the spring before my seventh birthday. My dad was in a chair on the narrow cement slab we called our porch, reading the paper. When l met Dickie at the end of our driveway, I grabbed for his jacket with my left hand and drew back my right, just like Freddy Glover. Dickie gave me a two-handed shove in the chest that knocked me on my ass. Any bravado or strategy I’d mustered flew out of me; shocked and scared, I looked back to where my father sat. He had the paper held in front of his face. l understood that I had two choices: l could stay down, cringing like a dog, or I could mix it up with Dickie.
I got up, stood my ground and got a fat lip for my courage. Maybe I landed a couple, maybe not; my arms were swinging, but my eyes were squeezed tight. All I know for sure was that my father sat there like stone while Dickie Schwartz rained fists on his firstborn.
My dad saw the split lip; he saw the hurt in my eyes, too.
“You gave as good as you got,” he said. “I’m proud of you.”
By that time I was crying.
“You know what?” my dad said. “I don’t think Dickie will bother you anymore.”
[Image credit: Elena Scotti/GMG]