the ICE MEN

IF THEY PLIED THEIR TRADE IN AN ALLEY, THEY’D BE CALLED THUGS

EVERYONE IN THE ARENA was ready for the fight and Rory knew it. The fans were ready. After all, that is what most of them were there for. The league officials and coaches and staff and players will tell you about the grace and speed and skill involved in hockey. But the 2000 or so die-hards who assemble at night in that seamy, sheet-metal building in Fair Park know damn well why they are there. They want to see blood. They like it. They need it. And by now, the fans were pushing things. Stomping. Whistling. Chanting. Kill. Kill. “Kill him, Rory,” an exemplary advocate screamed. “Don’t let him do that to you.”

And Driscoll. He was ready. He’d been making his statements to Rory Cava all evening. Body language. An elbow here, a forearm there. It is the way to communicate on the ice. It was just a matter of time until Rory would use his 6-foot-5-inch body the way it is most effective: to pound guys like Peter Driscoll into the floor. But just as Cava and Driscoll skidded to a standstill and began staring into each other’s faces, they were upstaged by two other gentlemen on skates.

Kelly Elcombe, a scrappy Dallas Black Hawk defenseman, had become intertwined with one of the blue-suited Wichita Wind players in front of the goal. One of the first punches in Elcombe’s fusillade had knocked off his opponent’s helmet. Elcombe’s own helmeted head became an instant battering ram, an instrument with which to bludgeon the offender’s brains out. The crowd began roaring its approval, bringing the noise level in the arena to well above what those stuffed shirts at Texas Stadium produce for a game-winning touchdow

If Cava was more interested in upstaging his teammate, Elcombe, than he was in winning a hockey game, he’ll never admit it. But the fact remains that the incident that came moments after Elcombe’s fight takes blood-and-guts belligerence to a new level -even for hockey. After exchanging verbal abuse with Driscoll and watching him retreat to the sanctuary of the Wind bench, Cava simply scaled the 4-foot protective wall in front of the bench and followed his tormentor onto his home turf. It was there, as the fans screamed and stomped unanimous approval, that young Mr. Cava expressed his disdain for the wholly inappropriate manner in which Mr. Driscoll had conducted himself on the ice. Rory’s first point was made by pounding his bear-like paw into the vicinity of Mr. Driscoll’s face; that statement was rapidly followed by a barrage of other manual aggressions intended, in the parlance of the sport, to put Mr. Driscoll’s lights out.

It, of course, took only a few seconds for Driscoll’s teammates to join in this dialogue, making an unorganized but unified attempt to remove Mr. Cava’s head from the rest of his torso. Pandemonium erupted. The fans were as frenzied as the Wind players who were so feverishly attempting to turn Mr. Cava into a cadaver. The swiftness with which the coaches and officials intervened was doubtless the reason that Rory emerged from the Wind bench still able to walk, bearing only the type of lacerations and bruises that one expects to see when men of sport convene to slap a puck across the ice

Both Cava and Driscoll were ejected from the game, along with Elcombe. But Cava left with something else besides the bruises and the ejection. Cava had gained hero status in the eyes of the fans. And everyone from Seagoville to Saskatoon knows that Rory Cava, the brash young rookie imported from the shores of Lake Superior, is one tough Canadien.

The elements that make Rory Cava a hero with the fans make him archetypical of the Central Hockey League, the division of which the Dallas Black Hawks are perennial champions. Cava is not particularly fast or agile or accurate with a hockey stick. (At this writing he had scored only one goal for the Black Hawks.) But he doesn’t really have to be. This isn’t the National Hockey League. He’s not playing against the Boston Bruins or the Toronto Maple Leafs in front of crowds of 20,000.

Dallas, like it or not, is a farm team. And the one thing that every Dallas Black Hawk has in common (in addition to the fact that every one of them is Canadian) is that if he could cut it in the big leagues, he wouldn’t be here. Hence, the entire Central Hockey League is populated by players who are either youngsters on their way up, has-beens on their way down or that vast third category -probably the majority- of icemen who will never make it past the periphery. Places like Tulsa, Fort Worth, Nashville -and Dallas -are the boondocks of professional hockey, places for a young Canadian to dream of getting back to where the sport flourishes, half a hemisphere away from here.

Rory Cava is a hero with the Texas fans because he fulfills their expectations. He can fight. And he prides himself on his low tolerance for taking crap from his opponent

“You have to more or less establish your territory,” Rory said in one of his more reflective moments. “Let them [your opponents] know that if the game’s played clean, then you’ll play clean, but if they want to get nasty…” We all know what happens if they want to get nasty. The fans know. That’s why Rory is a hero.

It’s not as if nastiness is not without its drawbacks. Especially for the team.

The harsher reality of herodom is that Cava and Elcombe both are defensemen – their eviction left Joe McDonnell and Dick Lamby as the team’s two remaining defensemen. That meant McDonnell and Lamby had to play the game’s last 17 minutes without relief. That’s somewhat akin to playing offense and defense in football without any time to rest.

But the fact remains that hockey is the last professional sport in which open violence is more or less tolerated. If Too Tall Jones, for instance, decided to stroll to the Philadelphia Eagles’ bench one afternoon and beat hell out of Ron Jawor-ski, Too Tall would be too unemployed. Out of the league. Out of football.

The fact is that Texas hockey fans are not universally involved in the game because they like to watch strategy evolve or see a skillful slap shot. Most are simply there to see the blood get frozen to the ice. And with crowds at the Black Hawk games frequently running less than half of what is necessary to make the break-even point, the league can ill-afford to get so pacifistic as to run off the few good fans who do atten

“The fights are what keep me coming back,” said one famale fan at a recent game. “I love the fighting. I think it’s sexy.” To emphasize the point, she stretched the word s-e-xxx-yyyy so that it came out nice and long and slow.

“What else can you do?” Cava said later, talking about the fighting. “You sure can’t run from a fight.” The brown-haired, brown-eyed native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, says that although violence is the nature of the game, he prefers not to fight. “But if the other guy wants to take cheap shots, well, then…”

Cava probed the swell in his lower lip, then explored his face with his long fingers until he came to the knot above his left eye. Artifacts from the scuffle with Driscoll. Hazards of the industry. He had taken a pretty good thumping from Wichita.

What was running through his mind when he went into the Wind bench? “I guess that was the problem,” Cava laughed. “I probably wasn’t thinking too much.”

Rory Cava, known on ice as Big Roar, is unimpressed with his image as hometown favorite, hockey hero. He, as are the others on the team, is out there because he loves the game and likes the money, not because he thrills at the roar of the crowd. At 22, he’s younger than the average Black Hawk age of 23 but, as with the rest of the team, he’s clipping a cool $30,000-plus salary to strap on those skates this season. Not bad, especially for the guys on the team who haven’t finished high school.

Rory plays hockey because it is and has been the thing he does best. Why not? Most Canadian kids begin skating as soon as they’re old enough to walk. Swinging a hockey stick is as natural as swinging a baseball bat or kicking a football. Hockey is the Canadian national obsession. In places like Toronto and Montreal they’ve had sellout crowds every night since World War II.

So what are all these bellicose Canadians doing playing hockey in Dallas, Texas, in the dry and warm Southwest? Hockey, after all, requires skills not native to this area before you can even be good enough to be admitted to the fistfights. And hockey is not native to this area because ice is not native to this area. Our kids can’t grow up on skates; they have to lose their front teeth in other manners.

The reason that the Cavas and the Vaydiks and the Tudors and the rest of their countrymen are down here is simply that the National Hockey League needs a training ground, a place to learn how to play professional hockey. And if the NHL can defray part of the cost of training young icemen with the gate receipts and the beer sales from a handful of hometown hangers-on, then all the better. (The reverse occurs in professional football, in which young Americans go north to freeze and fight in cities like Edmonton and Calgary. And, if they are lucky, they come south to play real professional football, in places like Dallas. The Cowboys’ Anthony Dickerson is a classic example of that phenomenon

The Black Hawks and their Canadians have been around for 15 years. The team’s current owners include four young men with backgrounds in business, marketing and sports: Mike Hargis, president of AWECO, Inc., a Dallas-based energy company; Preston Pearson, former Dallas Cowboy who is president of a corporation that includes several other Cowboys; Tom W. White, president of Miller of Dallas, Inc.; and Jerry W. Angerman, who has experience in banking, construction, real estate and insuranc

They are in the hockey business because they see a “solid and exciting” future for the Black Hawks, according to Hargis. “We plan to go after the crowd that has never seen hockey in Dallas as well as the new arrivals from the north who grew up with hockey but don’t know Dallas has a hockey team.” Apparently that’s a lot of people. The crowds at Black Hawk games generally range from 1,500 to 2,000, though there are always larger numbers when arch-rival Fort Worth visits.

And at the championship games. There have been a lot of those games. The Black Hawks, in fact, are the winningest team in minor league hockey history. It is the only existing team to win the prestigious Adams Cup four times. In their best year ever, 1980-81, the Hawks won an almost-unbelievable 56 games in a season of 79 matchups. The Hawks are first in number of points scored in a season, road victories, consecutive final-round appearances, playoff-game appearances. Still, nobody’s watchin

Major league status, of course, would help. With all the major-league sports in town, why go to a minor-league game? The minor-league label is meaningless, of course, but it still dissuades some people from going

What about the possibility of Dallas acquiring a National Hockey League franchise? John Ziegler, NHL president, during a recent visit to Dallas, said there are no plans to expand the 21-team NHL any time during the next three years. But, as N.R. “Bud” Poile, CHL president, said, the true significance of Ziegler’s forecast is not in what he said but what he didn’t say. “He didn’t say Dallas would never have an NHL team. He didn’t say the door was closed.”

Too, the Black Hawks play in State Fair Park. Even though the facility has guarded, lighted parking lots, there are potential fans who would never, ever venture into that area at night. There has been talk about contracting to play at Reunion Arena. It’s believed that a move to Reunion would bring an automatic increase in game attendance.

“Reunion is certainly not a dead issue,” Hargis said. “We have spoken with the management. The major problem, of course, is with the scheduling with the Mavericks. But we would like to play at least one game there this season.”

The players, for obvious reasons, would like to move out of the old, musty State Fair Coliseum. But they realize that they are instrumental in drumming up followers and willingly visit area schools to explain the game to youngsters.

But, for now, the Black Hawks are stuck in Fair Park. And they are resigned to the relatively small crowds.

Another crowd draw, of course, is the Big Rivalry. And there, the Black Hawks have a built-in with the Forth Worth Texans.

When the teams meet, they draw some of the biggest crowds of the season. Fort Worth’s draw on any night is generally larger than is the Black Hawks’, due in part at least to the fact that the Texans are the “only sport in town.”

In what is known as the Turnpike Series, the Black Hawks and Texans have played 230-plus games during the 15 years they have each belonged to the Central Hockey League. At the end of the 1980-81 season, the Black Hawks had a win-loss-tie record of 74-29-10 at home, and 39-60-18 in Fort Worth. They play each other 15 times in each regular season, and a Turnpike Trophy is awarded the winner. Over the years, Dallas has emerged 10 times with the trophy; Fort Worth has won it four times.

The owners are optimistic that crowds will grow larger. Pearson, for example, sells the game with the inevitable comparison to his sport, and Texas’ national obsession. “Hockey is every bit as exciting as football,” he said. “Look at it this way-those guys have to be able to do a little bit of everything. First, they have to skate, then they have to be able to handle the puck, then pass the puck and then be able to shoot. Plus, they have to be in excellent shape to skate up and down the ice as many times as they do. They combine the power of a football player, the agility of a basketball player, the stamina of a track-and-field runner and,” Pearson chuckles, “even the talents of a boxer.”

Pearson only hung up his helmet after last year’s season, but he obviously had been planning for his post-football days. The Canadians, on the other hand, are foreigners in a strange land, and most plan to get back north, if not as NHL players,then as former players.

“I’m really not worried about what I’ll do after my hockey days are over,” said Cava. “I’m assuming I’ve got a good number of hockey years still ahead of me, and I want to play those first.”

The team captain, Rob Tudor, is from a farming family in Saskatchewan and he packs up his wife and daughter each spring and returns home. He plans on retiring there and continuing the family tradition as a tiller of soil. Greg Vaydik, a native of the Northwest Territory of Canada, is considering playing hockey in Europe before retirement.

But even before the retirement question comes up, minor-league hockey players share an affliction of other minor-league jocks: job insecurity. They could find themselves moving across the winter wasteland, from Dallas to, say, Omaha. Of course they could be luckier. Like Dick Lamby, former Black Hawk. Lamby, the only American on the team, was traded in early December. But the trade was to the Colorado Rockies in Denver, who assigned him to their farm team in -Fort Worth. Lamby got the news as he was preparing to suit up for a game against – you guessed it – Fort Worth. So he walked across the hall to the Texans’ locker room and reported to his new team. Then he scored the winning goal against his old teammates.

“I’m still kind of in a state of shock,” Lamby said later, as he hung up his Texan sweater. “But, that’s hockey. I just thank God I’m not going too far. I just got settled here [Dallas] and brought all my stuff down from Boston and my wife just got a job.”

Besides the young players on their way up to the NHL, the Black Hawks have their share of the guys who do not have the stuff to make the big time. The players who are just a little too slow, or not strong enough, or just not good enough. But they stay on the ice as long as anyone will have them, as long as anyone thinks they can make a contribution, until their darkest dreams become reality. It may be minor league, but it’s hockey. As one Black Hawk said, “It’s all I’ve ever done.”

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