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Cornered Coach: Cutting to the Chase

 

To quote that famous old rock and roll tune, "The first cut is the deepest."

And the second cut is pretty darn painful, too.

Last week, I cut two 10-year-old kids from the Toronto AAA baseball squad I coach, as we completed our September tryout camp. It's never easy making cuts and I spent a couple of sleepless nights trying to come up with the right words to deliver the bad news. But while it's definitely tough on the coach, it's obviously much more painful to be on the receiving end when cut down day rolls around. 

As a middle-of-the-road goalie back in the 1980's, I had lots of experience when it came to getting cut. However, two stories stand out above all the rest of the heartbreak.

When I was 17, I was coming off a season with the Drumheller Falcons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. The Falcons had a working agreement with the Western Hockey League Medicine Hat Tigers and in the fall of 1980, I attended the Tigers training camp. 

The number one goalie?

A very talented 'tender by the name of Kelly Hrudey, who would go on to a solid National Hockey League Career and is now a stalwart on "Hockey Night in Canada" broadcasts. So, although Hrudey was entrenched in the Tigers cage, the back-up job was wide open. Eventually the Tigers got down to four remaining goalies, including Hrudey, with three of us WHL-wannabe's duelling for the second spot. It would come down to the final "Black versus Orange" intra-squad game and as I strapped on my equipment in the bowels of the storied old Medicine Hat Arena, I could feel the butterflies churning away in my nervous belly. All of a sudden, however, my pre-game preparations were interrupted.

"Toth!," barked the assistant general manager of the Tigers, "Paddy wants to see you in his office."

Paddy was Paddy Ginnell, the cowboy-hatted legend who served as the Tigers GM and Coach. Feeling about two inches tall, I stripped off my goalie gear in front of my fellow campers, who were too embarrassed over my plight to make eye contact.

"We've decided you're not gonna make the club," growled Ginnell as I stepped gingerly into his office. "We want to get a better look at the two other guys behind Hrudey  tonight, so we're sending you back to Drumheller."

The logic was sound, but the execution of the plan left a little to be desire.

I mean, they couldn't have cut me before I arrived in the dressing room?

A few years later, another junior hockey legend dashed my hockey dreams.

Gerry James holds the distinction of playing in the NHL and Canadian Football League at the same time – a hard rock 1950's and 60's winger for the Toronto Maple Leafs and a bruising running back for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Following his playing days, James became a successful junior hockey coach, which included a lengthy stint with the Estevan Bruins of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. 

In 1983, I was coming off an enjoyable season spent with the Red Deer College Kings. But I still had the itch to play one more year of high-calibre junior hockey and was told by James that the Bruins were in the market for an experienced 20-year-old netminder. In my humble opinion, I had the best training camp of my life and was feeling very confident about my chances, especially after leaving the ice following one workout and having James slap my pads while telling me how good I was looking.

You can imagine my disappointment, then, when the very next day James called me into his office to tell me I was being released. Too shocked to ask any questions, I stumbled out of his office and headed back home to play out my 20-year-old season in highly unspectacular fashion, suiting up for a local Jr. B squad.

Four years later, I still couldn't figure it out and, as fate would have it, I was now working as a full-time broadcaster which included a stint as the news director at a small radio station in… wait for it… Estevan. One day, still coaching the Bruins, James came into our office to conduct an interview with our sports reporter. 

Here's the chance I'd been waiting for.

"Mr. James," I said. "I've got to ask you a question. Why did you cut me so quickly? You seemed to think I was playing pretty well and you said you needed a 20-year-old goalie. So, what the heck happened?"

James paused for a moment, reflecting I surmised, on how to come up with just the right answer to help heal my wound.

"Well," he said. "You must not have been much of a goalie because I don't know who the hell you are or what you're talking about."

That said it all.

To me, getting chopped by the Bruins was a life-altering moment.

To Gerry James?

I was just one of hundreds of ham and egg hockey players that he cut along the way.

But I did learn a few things from being diced and sliced on the old chopping block. As a coach, it's important to show as much respect as possible and let kids down easy. However I also learned that nothing can completely remove the sting of rejection.

About the only things you can do?

File it away for future reference, or perhaps a HockeyNow blog, keep your sense of humour and keep on fighting.

By:Mike Toth| 14/09/17 | (0) Comments

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