Under normal circumstances, it isn’t easy being a hockey player in Southern California, where many consider an icing call to be an order for a frozen margarita.
But for the Los Angeles All-Stars midget hockey team, which consists of the best--though little known--teen-age players from leagues throughout the Southland, the road to the Western Regional championship in Anchorage, Alaska, last weekend presented more obstacles than Alaska’s notorious Iditarod dog-sled race.
The Los Angeles team, which won the State championship in early March, had to endure volcanic eruptions, aborted airline flights, a long and tedious bus ride, lack of sleep and respect from opponents, and adulation from teen-age groupies on its way to the regional title, which gave the youngsters the right to advance to next week’s National tournament in Marquette, Mich.
“Volcanic Ash Slows Trip, but Plenty of Goals Erupt,” a headline in an Anchorage newspaper proclaimed the day after the Los Angeles team surprisingly won the tournament.
Indeed, this group of sun-tanned, laid-back Californians kicked some ash, so to speak, in beating a strong field that included Alaska’s two best teams. It was akin to a fellow from Nebraska winning a surfing meet in Malibu.
More intriguing than the upset itself were the hardships the team overcame simply to make it to the tournament.
The odyssey began normally enough last Thursday morning when the 16 players, 3 coaches and 5 parents from Los Angeles boarded a flight at LAX for Anchorage, with a brief stopover in Seattle.
The way coaches Greg Scott and Bob Nadler figured it, the team would arrive in Alaska Thursday evening and get plenty of rest before Friday afternoon’s first game. Wrong.
When the plane landed in Seattle, the passengers were told that all flights to Anchorage had been canceled because Augustine Volcano, located on an island about 180 miles south of Anchorage, had erupted. Ash scattered over the area left the sky looking worse than a smoggy day in the San Fernando Valley, closing the Anchorage airport for two days.
Faced with the prospect of being stranded in Seattle and missing the tournament, the team decided to fly instead to Fairbanks, about 380 miles north of Anchorage. The coaches called tournament officials and postponed their scheduled game Friday morning--on account of volcano?--but promised that the team would be in town by Friday afternoon.
The team arrived in Fairbanks late Thursday night without baggage or equipment, which somehow made it to Anchorage. The group was booked standby on a Friday morning flight to Anchorage--and almost made it. A few minutes before the plane’s approach at the Anchorage airport, the pilot announced that volcanic ash was hampering visibility and the plane had to turn back to Fairbanks.
“We came very close to going home at this point,” said Nadler, an assistant coach. “When we got back to Fairbanks, we said we’d give it one last-ditch effort. We decided to bus it.”
For $1,500, the coaches rented a school bus and a driver to take them to Anchorage. They rode nonstop for nine hours, through a light snowfall, arriving at their motel in Anchorage at midnight.
While the players prepared for bed, thinking that they would have to make up Friday’s game on Saturday, the coaches went to the airport to get the baggage and equipment.
At the airport, they were told that the baggage had been sent to the hockey arena. So, the weary coaches drove to the arena, hoping it wasn’t locked for the night.
It wasn’t. The lights were on, people were in the stands and the Zamboni machine was resurfacing the ice. Los Angeles was expected to meet the Alaska All-Stars at 12:30 a.m. Back to the motel for the players.
“When we played that first game, that Alaska team was laughing at us,” said Gary Sina, a forward on the L.A. team. “But they stopped laughing after a while. We were just happy to be playing. Me and most of the guys thought it was pretty much over when they made us go back to Fairbanks on that plane flight. We were so tired, but we woke up enough to win.”
Los Angeles beat Alaska, 6-5, in the wee-hours opener, which ended at 2:30. The players trudged back to the motel, knowing they had to play again in seven hours. Then late Saturday morning, they posted a 5-0 victory over the Wasiliu All-Stars, the other Alaska team, which finished second in the nation in 1985.
Los Angeles played again Saturday night, shutting out Billings, Mont., 2-0.
By this time, the saga of the Los Angeles team had been told in the newspapers and on local television, and the Californians had their first taste of celebrity.
“As soon as the Alaska girls heard there was a team here from Los Angeles, well, let’s say they showed a lot of interest in the kids,” Nadler said.
Even after the team advanced to the title game with a routine win over a New Mexico team Sunday morning, Los Angeles still did not get much respect from the Alaskan teams. It was learned that the Wasiliu All-Stars already had reservations at the National tournament because they were certain they would win.
“I don’t think they took us seriously,” Nadler said. “Nothing was said, but you could feel it.”
Los Angeles routed Wasiliu, 6-1, Sunday in the championship game.
“At that point, nothing could have stopped us,” Nadler said. “We were on such a high.”
The team returned to Los Angeles--without any delays or cancellations--Monday morning, extremely tired but also very satisfied.
Next week, they will be off to Marquette, Mich., for the National tournament. Nadler said there is not enough money for connecting flights into Marquette, so the team likely will land in Detroit and take another long bus ride to Michigan.
“But this time we know what we’re facing,” he said.