Memorabilia Memories, with Rick Ackerman
In one of my life's great ironies, I left St. Louis in 1967, the year the Blues were born, to attend college in Ohio. Of course, I returned several times a year to visit with friends and family, and more importantly, to attend Blues games, including Stanley Cup Finals games those first three years. Unfortunately, I was not around for any training camps or practices or promotional and charity events such as the Blues Alumni Fantasy Camp. I had seen ads and brochures for Fantasy Camp, in which amateur skaters could sign up to play hockey with current and former Blues players, yet could never attend the annual event in early September due to the conflict with being a high school teacher in Ohio, starting a new year, unable to get away. That changed when I returned home in the fall of 2005, free at last after my 30 year stint as a teacher.
There was no camp in 2006, so I had to wait until 2007 to don my skates and play some hockey with the Blues. However, I didn't have any skates (or any other equipment for that matter), and had not played since the mid-1990s, due to a back injury and wobbly knees caused by playing over 20 years in a garage league in Dayton. So, I contacted Bruce Affleck, then the director of alumni affairs, and asked if I could borrow all the equipment in order to play. He graciously invited me to the alumni locker room at the Summit Center (now the Hardee's Iceplex) in Chesterfield and opened the back room so I could scrounge up all the gear I would need, including skates, gloves previously worn by Brett Hull and even a couple of sticks, one game-used by Steve Yzerman
I found myself on a team with the likes of Bernie Federko (HHoF 2002), current Blues' owner Tom Stillman, Jimmy "Soup" Campbell, Bruce Racine (who played defense instead of goal), ex-Montreal Canadiens scrapper Chris "Knuckles" Nilan, Scott Rupp (StLHHoF 2014) and coaches Jimmy Vesey (a top scorer for the Peoria Rivermen) and star center Craig Janney. Although I hadn't skated for over ten years, the guys made up for my lack of skill by telling me to head for the net and screen the opposing goaltender and wait for a pass to deflect or shoot. Of course, they didn't warn me that Bob Plager would be playing defense for the other team in our first of six games, and sure enough, Plager hip-checked me down as I skated into his territory. "You have to throw one or two every game just to knock them down", Plager quipped afterwards.
To make matters worse, my hockey pants didn't fit and they kept falling down to my ankles, much to the amusement of my teammates. Coach Janney took care of that, though, by taping them up around my waist until he could find me a decent pair of suspenders to hold them up. Even though I was possibly the worst skater on the ice that year, I managed to keep up and assisted on a couple of goals, the best of which was a nifty five-hole shot by line mate Rupp. However, through the first five games, I could not find the back of the net and the pressure was on for our last game. The coaches put me on a line with Stillman at left wing and Federko at center (the helicopter line; no wings), and that did the trick. Midway through the first period, Stillman dug the puck out of the corner and slid it to Federko, who found me open on the right side of the net and put the puck right on the tape of my stick for an excellent scoring opportunity. I lofted a wrist shot and scored top shelf. That was even more thrilling then getting knocked down by Bob Plager!
At the dinner after the game, I was invited by my "new best friend", Coach Vesey, to sit at the alumni table with the likes of Janney, Campbell, Racine, Al MacInnis, Scott Mellanby, Garth Butcher, Tyson Nash, Pat Jablonski and Brett Hull, who made a surprise visit to camp that night. As it turned out, the main topic of discussion at the table that evening was Mike Keenan. And, no, I will not repeat any of that expletive-laced conversation in which the players' disdain for "Iron Mike" was made quite apparent. Suffice it to say their memories were not at all kindhearted or joyful under Keenan's tutelage in St. Louis.
My biggest surprise came after dinner when Affleck called me up to the podium to receive the camp's MVP award. My poor skating ability and lack of talent did not stop the Alumni from recognizing my enthusiasm, spirit and determination to be the best hockey player I could and rewarded me by allowing me to keep all the equipment I borrowed, including my pair of Hull gloves and Yzerman stick (which I give most of the credit to for that top shelf goal). What an honor! Playing a competitive hockey game with living legends like Federko and Plager is something that diehard Blues fans can only dream about, so, believe me, I kept pinching myself many times that night to make sure I wasn't just dreaming it all up.