A longtime firefighter and still, at 44, a hockey goalie, Spence Waldo looms in both roles as a mysterious heroic figure, masked and helmeted as he faces the heat.
A member of the Southern California Blazers--a team of firefighters from Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and San Diego counties--Waldo guarded the nets Tuesday night as the Blazers played the San Francisco Flames in their 14th annual Firemen's Hockey Championship at Iceland Arena in Paramount.
The three-game tournament, which concludes tonight at 7:30, has in the last 10 years raised more than $100,000 for the Canoga Park-based Alisa Ann Ruch California Burn Foundation, a nonprofit group that offers burn-prevention education in schools and assists burn victims and their families.
Before joining the Blazers 17 years ago, Waldo had never skated. "But I had a knack for (playing goal) and I thought it was fun," he said last week at practice, his forehead sweaty even in the arena's frigid air. "And the guys would ask me to do it. They said, 'If you play goalie, you don't have to pay dues.' "
As it's turned out, Waldo, who lives in Lakewood and works at the Long Beach harbor, has paid his dues anyway. Pucks have left their imprint on various parts of his body, and, while playing in a tournament in Canada two years ago, he suffered a torn hamstring and torn knee ligaments. As a firefighter, he's had only a few pulled muscles and some minor burns.
"Butterflies already," Waldo says an hour before the game Tuesday night. "I don't know if I can play a whole game, it's so hot."
At 7:30 he goes into the dressing room where his uniform and equipment have been laid neatly on the floor by his 11-year-old son, Tyde: socks, pants, skates, gloves, protective cup, pads of various thicknesses, an orange jersey with 00 on the back and the mask that looked suitable for Halloween.
"Spencer, come on buddy, this is it," defenseman Rich Grimm says to Waldo as the goalie rubs himself with liniment.
When he has pulled everything on, Waldo stretches. "The gladiator going out to the coliseum," he says. And then he waddles out the door.
Before a noisy packed crowd that chanted, "L.A., L.A.," in an arena deorated with "Go Blazers," "Beat Frisco" and beer signs, Waldo spears a hard shot with his glove on his first save opportunity in the opening period. Then, with the fast-skating Blazers leading, 1-0, he makes a kneeling save. Just when it appears he won't get any more action, he is elbowed to the ice by a charging Tom Alexander of San Francisco, who is called for a penalty. Waldo bounces up and watches the ensuing power play, on which Gerry O'Hagan scores on a slap shot to make the score 2-0.
Between periods, while his teammates talk excitedly in the front of the dressing room, Waldo smokes a cigarette and sits in the rear, alone.
Although Waldo--also the goalie for the Phantoms and Lancers, amateur teams in Paramount--won't be confused with a National Hockey League goalie, his competitiveness and desire to improve have made him a creditable amateur.
"He's enthusiastic, and enthusiasm means a lot at this level," Art Brewster, the Blazers' 73-year-old coach, said last week. "You can count on him. He's a good goalie who doesn't let a game get out of hand. He's got that mental attitude of a winner. An excellent team man, everybody loves him."
Waldo, without an idea what his goals-against average might be because no one keeps statistics, has long wondered how he would fare as a professional. "Everybody dreams of playing at least one game in the pros to see what it's like," he said. "I go out to a Kings game and sit down by the ice and see that it's a whole different world. I think I'm all right for our caliber of play but (NHL goalies) are superhuman. You can't even see the puck, and those guys are on it."
At the side of the rink during the recent practice, Waldo's family--wife Shzelle, sons Tyde and Keane, 7, and daughter Fawna, 3--watched their hero.
"I think what he does is fantastic, I'm real proud of him," Shzelle said. She worries about Waldo getting hurt playing hockey but "not like when he's out on the job."
Tyde, a hockey player himself, yelled out at his father: "Watch the back door."
"He turns too much and faces the guy who has the puck, and doesn't watch the back door," the youngster explained.
Having never had formal coaching, Waldo's approach is basic: "I try to figure out where the puck is going and get in between it (and the goal)."
Goaltending's individuality appeals to Waldo, who also pitches on the 39-and-over firefighter's softball team and placekicks in the annual firefighter-police football game.
"I do my own thing, and since there are not too many on the team who know what goaltending is about, they don't yell at me," he said. "You're either a hero or a goat. You get slapped on the back or ignored."
As Waldo had hoped, his teammates keep the puck at the opposite end of the rink during most of the second period. But penalties suddenly plague the Blazers and Mike Domeier of the Flames shoots the puck in the net with 6:54 left. After two periods, the Blazers' lead is down to 2-1.
"I was screened, I never saw it," Waldo says of the shot while watching the Zamboni machine smooth the ice for the third period.
On a recent afternoon at the four-man fire station that serves the harbor area, Capt. Al Chronister described Waldo, a Los Angeles native and a firefighter for 20 years, as "a very quiet man who knows his job and does more than his share."
Off his skates and out of his bulky gear, Waldo looked much smaller, although he is a firmly built man of nearly six feet and 180 pounds.
Because of his profession and sports participation, he is a double hero to his children. On fire safety days, he goes to their schools and, in full gear, puts on demonstrations. "They think it's a big deal, and say, 'That's my dad.' " Waldo said.
Tyde sometimes spends the night at the fire station, where his father is used to waking abruptly, jumping into his boots and the rest of his cumbersome "uniform" and, in seconds, climbing aboard a polished lime-colored truck. Because the modern building has only one story, there is no pole to slide down.
"It's a good job," Waldo said. "Fires are always exciting, especially if you can see the flames and smoke while you're driving up. Every day there is something different. When you see all the stuff out there, all the tragedies, you learn how to put it in perspective. You don't forget it but you don't dwell on it. You get shook up seeing something (happen to a) kid; that really gets to you."
And he recalled a time when he gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a baby in a police car en route to a hospital. But the baby, who had strangled on a toy, could not be revived. "I thought he was coming back,"
He thinks more about pressure when he's in goal than when he's on the job. "In firefighting you don't think about it, you're trained to do it," he said. "You have a captain and a chief, they point and you go. You don't think about it until afterward. In the (hockey) tournament there's pressure because of the people. It's the biggest crowd anyone has played before."
With 13:04 left in the game, Rick Moreno scores to give the Blazers a 3-1 lead. As three Flames bear down on him, their skates squawking, Waldo stands his ground and kicks away the shot. With 2:49 left, Aldo Bevilacqua scores a final Southern California goal.
The Blazers win, 4-1. In the tradition of hockey, they skate to the goal and congratulate Waldo.
Though he was not under heavy pressure most of the game, he has done what he had to, and is a hero.
He congratulates the Flames, then skates to the side of the rink and says to Shzelle, "This one's for you, hon."