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Putting the Love Back into Hockey

Charlie Schroeder

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The Couple That Plays Together
(Courtesy Benjamin Salisbury)
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Playing hockey at the LA Kings workshop
(Charlie Schroeder/Weekend America)

Tonight is game four of the Stanley Cup finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings. Before the series started, sportswriters predicted that this "dream match-up" would help bring many fans, still reeling from the sport's lockout a few years ago, back to the game.

And fans are starting to return -- TV ratings are up, possibly because of the match-up, possibly because lots of folks find hockey exciting to watch. It's aggressive, it's bloody, it's dangerous -- basically, it's the exact opposite of "lovey-dovey."

But as Weekend America's Charlie Schroeder recently found out, that might be changing. He brings us the story of two fans who are currently in the middle of an experiment to change all that:

When Benjamin Salisbury was a kid, the closest he got to playing hockey was when he landed a role in the Disney movie "D3: The Mighty Ducks." But instead of being cast as a player, he was relegated to the sidelines where he played the radio announcer, Josh.

It wasn't that Benjamin didn't want to play hockey when he was a kid. After all, he knew how to skate. It's just that his mom wouldn't let him.

"She didn't even want us to go to North Star games," he says. "She was convinced that somehow a fight would break out and we'd be asked to go down to the ice and participate. I don't know how she thought we'd get hurt."

Benjamin grew up in Minnesota, where kids learn how to play hockey while they're still in their diapers. So he was kind of an anomaly. Still, his mom wasn't about to let her son suffer the same fate as others.

"I think my mom's real hatred for the game was that she was convinced that if we ever played hockey we would lose our teeth -- and as she painstakingly reminds me, she spent $6,000 on my braces."

Benjamin eventually moved 2,000 miles away from his mom, to Los Angeles. That's where he fell in love with the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and with Kelly, the woman who's now his wife. Earlier this year while at a Kings game, Benjamin heard about a beginner's workshop the team was holding. They offered five classes, equipment and tickets to games -- but the best thing of all, you didn't need any experience. He thought (unlike his mom): What a great thing to share with a person you love.

"I was really nervous, because I wanted to do it with Kelly so we had something to do together." But there was just one problem: She'd never skated before.

At their first class Benjamin finally got to hold a hockey stick and Kelly got to skate. Kind of. "I fell a lot in the first lesson," she says.

Afterwards, the couple went to a rink near their house so Benjamin could teach Kelly how to skate.

"It was the first real test of our relationship," Salisbury says -- after all, you never really know someone until you try to teach them something dangerous. "There were definitely a couple times when I was like 'Why aren't you just skating?' and she'd say 'I am, leave me alone!'"

And then there's locker room protocol. Even though women make up about 40 percent of the class, Kelly's the only one who suits up with the guys, something she's done since the first night when she mistakenly followed Benjamin into the men's locker room.

"We honestly didn't know," Benjamin says. "She dressed and we got out to the ice and I was like 'I can't believe there's no other women in this.' I thought there'd at least be a few more women in this. And then we look out and like, 10 women. And I was like, 'Oh, there's probably a separate dressing room.'"

All the sweaty half-naked men don't phase Kelly or make Benjamin jealous. Besides, they have other things to worry about, like all the stuff they have to wear: pads, gloves, shin guards and a big helmet. All told, it takes them about half an hour to suit up. And by the time they're dressed it's hard to tell the two apart. They look like they're heading into battle. Because they wear gloves, they can't hold hands, they can't kiss because there's a face guard on their helmets.

"The first day, it was like you were literally just a knight at Medieval Times," Benjamin says. "You're literally just weighed down."

For the first 20 minutes or so, their class does some drills. They skate backwards, forwards and handle the puck. The last 40 minutes is a scrimmage. The pace is slow, the play is sloppy -- it's what you'd expect from a bunch of beginners. And it's generally harmless. At their level, the biggest danger often comes from themselves. Last week when Kelly fell, she hurt her tail bone because she didn't put her padding on correctly.

"When Kelly fell last game, literally it's what I imagined watching one of your children get hurt," Benjamin says. "Like I had every impulse to go over to her. And you're trying to maintain some sort of like butch hockey-like image, but it's kind of hard when you're down on one knee going 'You all right, baby, you all right?'"

Unlike the pros, checking -- the practice of slamming into an opponent -- isn't technically allowed in this workshop. That is, unless you consider checking losing control and plowing into someone, which is what I saw the night I was there.

And with rock-hard hockey pucks flying all over the place, there's always the chance of getting hurt as Kelly tells me after class.

"This one guy, I don't know what he was thinking," Kelly says. "But he went for the puck -- and I was going for it at the same time -- he did this slapshot right towards me and I flinched thinking it was going to hit me in the face. Benjamin offered to make things happen if it did actually hit me."

Of course, as Benjamin's skills improve, his attitude might change.

"I don't know, I've got to be honest with you, today she was skating out in front of me and I was like 'It might be kind of fun to just roll over her right now.' But I didn't. It's hard to tell -- would my competitive nature kick in, or would my desire to make sure she's safe kick in?"

Then again, Kelly's attitude might change as well. "If I was more confident on skates and knew I could stand up if I knocked into him, I'd totally check him. I mean, no I wouldn't, I love you. It'd be fun. I wouldn't do it violently -- it'd be very playful."

I just hope she doesn't knock his teeth out.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Richard A. Terselic

    From Urbana, MD, 06/18/2008

    In your June 14 item " Polka in Decline in Small Town America" you seemed pleased to highlight an isolated negative incident. How about covering something positive re: polka music such as the attached item.

    Blast in Bessemer!
    2008 National Button Accordion Festival Report

    Ron Pivovar

    “Wow, what a weekend! William and I had an absolute blast and we can’t wait until next year.” These words, written by Leslie Hayes from Staunton, VA, are from a ‘thank you’ card. Many people who attended the 2008 National Button Accordion Festival, which was held in Bessemer, PA, expressed similar sentiments. People came from 18 different States including Alaska and California.

    Following in the Fontana Button Box Jamboree tradition, no bands were hired for the Festival. The music came from the folks who came to play their accordions. And what a line-up of players took the stage! The list included: Fred Ziwich, OH, Beverly and Ed Neubaum, CO, Matt Sepesy, PA, Frankie Spetich, OH, John Schweiger and Delores Berger, MO, Texas Bob Knittich, TX, Leonard Trinka, AZ, Arlene Watkins, AZ, William Hayes, VA, Roger Weinfurter, Patti Gersich, and Ziggy Szewc, AK, Mahoning Valley Button Box Club, OH, Bob Zgonc, PA, Frank Vidergar, Jr., MD, Ted Zalac, OH, Fairport Jammers (Jim and Ron Loncar, Dave Bey), IN, SC, Joe Smiell, CA, Henry Doktorski, PA, Lori Skvarch, PA, Mike Caggiano and John Preisnar, PA, Jim Koran, OH, Ray Machulsky, PA, Helen Matlack and Karen Renchko, PA, and the Pivovars, TX & PA.

    The Bessemer Croatian Club facilities and hospitality created a strong and enjoyable impression on all the visitors and guests. And the food menu was particularly good and tasty. The buffets on Saturday and Sunday included Croatian style roasted lamb and “pigs in the blanket” cabbage rolls, both special favorites. A lot of very favorable comments were made about the reasonable food and beverage prices, too.

    The Sunday Program and Concert were a nice change of rhythm and pace from the rotating jam format of Friday and Saturday. Fred Ziwich did a stellar job of playing waltz music on the button accordion just before the Sunday program started. Our respectful salute to Veterans, a part of the Memorial Day national holiday, included the flag presentation by V.F.W. Post 267 and recognition of active and retired military. On the piano accordion Fred played the appropriate marches from all of the military service branches as these people were recognized.

    The 2008 Festival was dedicated to the memory of Frank Vidergar, Sr. Frank, who along with his wife Mary Lou, spearheaded the Fontana Button Box Jamboree in Fontana, CA for 26 consecutive years. This festival provided the tradition and history for the National Button Accordion Festival, successor to the Jamboree. Sadly, Frank Vidergar passed away in December of 2007.

    Mary Lou and Frank Jr. were called to the stage for the dedication. Mary Lou was presented with a dozen yellow roses. Larry Sikora, current president of the Fontana Slovene Button Accordion Club, offered kind words about Frank Vidergar’s work and contribution to the button box music world. It was a difficult and bitter-sweet time for both Mary Lou and Frank, Jr. Both offered deep gratitude and heart-felt appreciation for the dedication.

    The Concert followed the Program. Concert players, whether soloists or groups, played two tunes. Joe Smiell offered a specially requested presentation of Daj Daj waltz variations. He played the tune in a contrasting number of classical styles showing how different composers might have approached the tune. Joe included: Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, Paganini, and others. The well-known classical piano accordion player, Henry Doktorski, surprised us with a visit and played in the concert.

    Following the Concert, the jamming format resumed. The great music seemed to peak when Ted Zalac took the stage toward the end of Sunday evening. He kicked off his set with his signature tune “Let’s Have A Party”. They were 4 deep in front of the stage cheering on Ted and the sidemen while relishing the very special moment.

    There was a clamor, even a demand by the crowd that we commit right then and there to a 2009 National Button Accordion Festival. The commitment was made. So ink it in on your calendar! May 22, 23, and 24th, Memorial Day Weekend, 2009. On behalf of Co-Chairman Paul Mirkovich and Joe Godina a huge “thank you” to all the musicians, the volunteer workers, and the wonderful folks at the Bessemer Croatian Club for a great time and a successful Festival. We’ll be in touch!

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