Miami Manatees near last stop
By Ethan J. Skolnick
The bounty of the beer run is gone. So are the playing cards, the congealed postgame pizza, the sophomoric classics Road Trip and The Water Boy, the sun and the 10th day of February. It is four hours after an overtime victory in Orlando, more than halfway through the season, and the bus is moments from lurching back into the lot of an obsolete arena of the ambivalent city that passes for home.
This is another victory, because at least this driver didn't doze off. Neither did the wired boys in the back, cackling about girls and movies and teammates and tiny towns and fights and goals and girls, collectively shrieking Darkness' kitschy hit I Believe in a Thing Called Love, before ganging up on Josh Liebenow.
"Dazed and Confused, Liebs!"
Liebenow groggily climbs over legs, trying not to stir sleepers, and makes it a triple feature.
"That's good leadership, Liebs."
So that's how the Miami Manatees wobble into morning. To the opening of Dazed and Confused. To Aerosmith's Sweet Emotion -- "Calling my name, but I gotta make clear. Can't say baby where I'll be in a year ..."
Feb. 8: "All I Know"All knew the ride could end before the season did. Named after an endangered species. Tossed in a first-year minor league (WHA2) designed to feed a re-forming major league that dissolved a quarter-century ago, but with no ties to the NHL. Dumped in a market seemingly chosen by someone throwing a dart at a board, and missing. Forced to change on the fly, after half the 16-man roster left for leagues with more generous weekly salary caps than $6,600.
But plenty would be willing to hop aboard anyway, even at roughly $400 apiece. Skates, sun, stalling the inevitable? Appealing to guys from as far south as ... Michigan? You kidding? As Trevor Socholotuk says, "From 2 or 3, hockey's your life. It's all I know." Or wanted to.
Socholotuk had pondered paramedics, Oak Hewer acting, Steve Howard roofing. Kevin Swider has a computer information systems degree and Liam McCarthy a Harvard diploma for behavioral psychology. The goalie, Sean Weaver, is a certified P.E. teacher. Darren Cain has a marketing and economics degrees from the University of Calgary, often probing public relations director Mark Fischel about sports administration.
But why start working? Why shouldn't Cain spend his 28th birthday competing as a pro rookie, dressing in the Florida Panthers' old room, before playing with pals Liebenow and Dan Donnette on the gritty "Rat Line," against the first-place Jacksonville Barracudas, coached by former New York Ranger and jeans model Ron Duguay? Why not feel a fraction of the rush experienced by those on TV who are introduced as NHL All-Stars in St. Paul, Minn., as the Manatees gossip and gush?
"I met Bertuzzi in a bar ..."
"They booed him? Nice."
Many Manatees grew up in the same towns as NHL players, dreamed the same dreams. They don't anymore. Any delusions are gone. Ask if they've seen scouts, they'll say "boy scouts." Ask if they think about the NHL anymore, and Donnette says he thinks about "watching it. Not a chance. I realized that a while ago."
"Sickening," player/assistant Tom Perry says of watching NHL players up close.
"Holy smokes!" Cain says of their unreal strides.
Still, Duguay promises "once the puck drops, it's still hockey." So it matters enough to sharpen the skates, focus the mind, "play for the jersey and the guy beside you," as Weaver says. Matters enough for the coach, Zac Boyer, to inspire the men he brought here with language more colorful than any jersey. He promises February can be a great month, long as they have some bleepin' fun.
Playing is the easy part. Try being Shawn Thorimbert, the general manager who serves as the D.J. this night. From the rafters, he spots the inflatable Manatee the players skate through during introductions. It has fallen and it can't get up.
"Get it out of the way," he says into his headset.
Not that many heard it fall. Not in these backwoods. The Manatees play great here, proving the sub-thousand attendance lulls foes to sleep, as Hewer suggests. Offense-friendly rules, free tickets and T-shirts, season passes for youth players, postgame party invitations, even Chuck-A-Puck, which allows a fan to win a DVD player by throwing a foam disc closest to center ice.
During a stoppage, it is time for "Dance for Your Dinner." Two former members of the disbanded Bonitas dance team challenge each other for a T.G.I. Friday's coupon. They can hear booing. From the Manatees bench.
Follow the cheering, and you'll find a player's family. Angie Swider and her aunt and uncle wear her husband's jerseys from the Manatees, Knoxville Ice Bears and Nashville Smokes. And the Liebenows, skipping the Internet broadcast to drive from Minnesota and see their son Josh for the first time in four months, with mom Kathy over her initial anger about his leaving college with one class left.
Then there's adoptive mother Linda "Hattie" Hart, who has attended every game not conflicting with a Panther home date. "Man, this is such a great team, they play with such heart!" She has fallen hard for Hewer, even buying a plane ticket for his fiancee to visit next week. Seven years after painting numbers on plastic rats for the Panthers, she passes out foam cabbage and lettuce, purported Manatee favorites, that become projectiles after each of the six goals.
After allowing just two, Weaver scrapes his plate clean of the birthday cake for Cain and Zdnek Vanc, the start of a celebration to continue on South Beach. He flips through a CD case. Journey's Don't Stop Believin' fills the room. It can't be the first time.
Feb. 9: Life After DeathApparently, some players had more than cake.
A couple arrive late to practice, so Tom Perry must punish them. He's a teammate, if an injured one, but he's also an assistant coach. And with Boyer meeting the league boss in Orlando, Perry is boss here today. So he puts them through a "Death Skate," and keeps them longer than usual.
Perry, 31 in four days, is in this game longer than he expected. He says this is probably his last year playing. "But who knows?" He was supposed to quit last summer, icing those plans when finding the job market cool. So he followed his friend Boyer to Miami, to add some administrative and coaching experience to his resume.
Multiple roles are a minor league custom. Thorimbert, last of the Macon Knights of the Arena 2 Football League, manages the Manatees' salary cap while marketing and selling the product. He could have used 18 months. He had four. "Next year is when we see if this works," he says.
At 2 p.m., Hewer will see if something else works. Shirtless, ice packs hanging from his body, he pulls two checks from his locker: "Boing! It's an adventure every week."
The adventure begins at "The Ghetto," the Towers of Park West complex in Overtown where all but Boyer and Perry live, and MTV Cribs crews don't visit. The modest one-bedroom apartments are not so shabby, considering they're free, cable and phone not included. There's a pool, a Metrorail stop to take them to discounts at Friday's, a view of the Orange Bowl and constant entertainment near the colored benches below. Police practicing for trade riots. Elephants, in for the circus. A naked homeless guy, catching beers from above, yelling for acid.
In his kitchen, Swider calls Angie, a former volleyball player he met at Ferris State, to find out what to do with the ribs. She works for the United States Tennis Association, and the couple plans to stay in Florida for a couple of years before returning to Michigan. There he might just play in a senior league, like his brother.
"Or I'll be lost," he says.
He and Hewer find Jim Quilty and Greg LeColst, change into shorts and flip-flops, and drive to a Subway on South Beach, across from the Wachovia Bank. Not too fast, though. Can't beat the money there.
And yet, they do.
"You see dancing bears anywhere?" a grinning Hewer asks after walking out with ...
"Absolutely nothing," Quilty says.
The team wires funds to the league, which issues the checks. Sometimes, it's all there. Sometimes, some get paid. Sometimes, nobody does. "It would be so nice if it just worked," Quilty says.
"Sooner or later, we'll have to make a stand," LeColst says. "We're not playing tonight."
No need on this too-perfect South Florida day. So after Hewer calls Boyer, puts the envelopes away and asks a passerby to spare a dime, the foursome trudges to the sand, finds a spot, takes a dip, grabs the Frisbee. The waves reflect in Quilty's shades, as he reflects on his roots in the "hockey tape town" of Renfro, Ontario. He has a health science degree from Potsdam State, and now thinks of real estate.
"One more year, tops," he says. "It's fun to have the dream. So many would love to play pro, and we're doing it in Miami. But it's time to join the real world. You can't support a family on this."
FEB. 10: A Wild RideThere has been no stand.
Not as of 1:25, as Lenny the driver steers out of the Miami Arena lot for a single day up and back to Orlando that's no sweat. It won't take 13 hours, like the ones to Pelham, Ala., to play the Slammers. It won't require Radisson reservations.
Equipment, coolers, donated Baja Fresh taquito trays? Check. Passengers? All here too, including massage therapist Tim Sleppy, who exchanges his services for advertising, and the only woman, trainer Danielle Henry, who has worked with the Sol, Heat, Dolphins and Hurricanes, but has never enjoyed anything so much. Players shower her with tips, making it tough for her to keep up her "tough chick" act.
"They're the true heroes of the sports world," Henry says. "The last samurai. The last pure athlete."
She has been amazed by something else. "All have beautiful girlfriends, even the ones who aren't lookers themselves," she says. "How in the hell? They're not getting any money out of this."
Especially lately. And they're grumbling. Perry, angry too, promises that Boyer now has checks that will clear, while welcoming all to confront owner David Waronker for an explanation. The players watch an NHL conditioning video called "Three Guys and a Goal." Some joke about their own beer-and-pizza regimens. None take notes. All laugh when one of the "Three Guys," Dallas forward Aaron Downey, says he hears "beautiful peacefulness" while fighting.
The bus stops for gas and snacks. Hewer lays in the aisle, Swider curls up, Weaver dozes against the window. LeColst, a diabetic, gets out a syringe and sticks himself in the stomach. An NHL Guide is passed around. An FHM mag, too.
Liam McCarthy finds his place in Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries. McCarthy wrote his Harvard thesis on birth order and is obsessed with politics. But he is here. On this bus. Doing what older brother Jeremiah does, at a lower level than the affiliated AHL. For less.
"I'm having a great time," he says. "With my degree, there will be something after hockey. I can do that the rest of my life."
He sends envious pals, "grinding out the work week," a weekly e-mail update. He says one of the best things about playing on a team like is how different everyone is. "For 60 minutes a night, we're all on the same page."
They arrive at the TD Waterhouse Centre 90 minutes before faceoff, meeting Boyer, in his pre-gel, white T-shirt, Bermuda shorts state. Just enough time for a few massages, Red Bull swigs and words from the coach. He tells the boys to bleep, bleep, bleepin, bleepin answer the bell, because D is the Seals' biggest bleepin weakness, so work their bleepin D, and bleep, bleep, bleepin answer the bell.
They will play before 7,000, a massive turnout compared to Miami. "An under-7 chess tournament crowd is better than Miami," Hewer says.
Waronker, watching with family, doesn't get why Miami has shunned such "perfect entertainment," admitting in his "worst dreams" it would average 1,250 a night, half of what he needs to break even. A developer from New Jersey now living in Celebration, he pulled Orlando out of the ACHL to found the WHA2, and Miami is the most disappointing of the four WHA2 teams he owns.
He suggests that maybe they'll do better next year, especially if the NHL strikes.
And he says the payment process is in transition: "These guys have to get paid. If anything, they're underpaid."
Not understimulated. This feels like a hockey game. Fights. Cheers. Taunts. A Pepsi shower for Tom Kotsopolous after a 10-minute misconduct. Fans told not to fight at home like these "highly paid professionals." A tie at 3, with Swider, Hewer and LeColst scoring. Overtime. A near-miss through Weaver's crease. An other-way breakaway. A T.K. slapshot.
A celebration, 61 minutes and 14 seconds in the making. A stand, of sorts, with the owner watching. A send-off by well-wishers, many female, giving credence to Darcy "Chief" Johnson's claim that they live like movie stars. A quick trip to Mickey D's and a convenience store, after Perry passes out $10 bills. A few iced-down limbs. A new batch of checks Hewer and Swider decide when and where to cash.
Hewer wasn't supposed to be still riding buses, still playing Schnarples card games on the cooler, not after getting picked by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1998's seventh round, not after two good rookie camps. But he chose to return to a junior team rather than report to an affiliated club. Circumstances there changed. He didn't dominate. He didn't get another look. And he probably won't, now that he can't use 6-foot-4 frame as a fighter because of eye damage. He came to Miami, for one more season, if only because getting a work visa would make it easier to marry his American fiancee in Rockford, Ill. He has scored at will.
"When's she coming?" Henry asks.
"18 hours?" Hewer guesses.
"What you gonna wear?"
"Depends how much laundry I get done."
FEB. 28: Life Goes OnThis is the first home game in 20 days, after the Valentine's Day cancellation, due to unpaid rent or a scarcity of interns or some unrelated scheduling snafu, or something.
Much has happened. Cindy Hewer has come and gone. Second goalie Mark Gowen can't get back from Canada after a paperwork problem, which means Weaver's backup is a Pembroke Pines hockey teacher named Bruce Marks who, when asked for his age, says "old." Marks replaces the Manatees' backup on their most recent trip, the guy who played Jim Carrey's body double in Dumb and Dumber.
Kevin Swider has gone and come back, after four games in Fort Myers with the ECHL's Everblades, affiliated with the Carolina Hurricanes. By the second, he was on the top line and special-teams units. He posted four points despite a broken finger. He belonged.
Asked to stay, he turned it down.
"We tried to work it out financially," he says. "But I'd have to pay for my apartment here until the season was up."
Weaver is feeling down, with a groin pull and stomach flu. He allows some soft goals, taking out his frustration by pummeling a Slammer by his net with McCarthy's help, and even asking the official to toss him so he could get the new guy in the game.
Marks isn't all that's new this Saturday night. There are the mustaches on the members of the "Rat Line." And there are fans. At least a thousand. Some in groups, many in for free. But they're here. "These people must be lost," Sleppy says.
Some started by tailgating in the West lot, taking sparkling "Manatee Insanitee" hats from Hattie's trunk, leaving her the "Lettuce Score" sign. Inside, one boy holds up a "Weaver the Wall" sign. Another dangles a pocket calendar over a railing: "The green ones are home?"
After the 6-5 loss, a throng of Tamarac Roller Hockey players waits for Greg LeColst, calling him "Mr. Captain," before rushing into the room for more autographs. Scott McInnis, the Tamarac league president, says, "We've got to do it again."
But there are so many harbingers. Life Goes On as pregame music. New player Chad Cabana wearing "86." And no jerseys at the concession stand. "Looks like we'll be waiting until next year," merchandising manager Mindy Herris says.
There will be meeting Monday to discuss the team's future. Cain has already talked to coaches elsewhere: "I don't want to go. We have a team that can win it all."
The Manatees’ Oak Hewer celebrates a game-tying goal
March 2: `Done-ski'Hewer had started to think he could get 100 points, and maybe even that he had a chance of moving up. Now, staring into space, folding and unfolding his cell phone, he is thinking something else: moving out. It is Tuesday. The Manatees have just held another in a series of meetings.
"Done-ski," Weaver says.
At one point the day before, they thought they were safe.
"The most I felt like a team was yesterday," Hewer says. "We were saying, `We're staying. Now let's win this thing.'"
It had looked like Al Harper, incoming chair of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, could save them, with foreign investment helping him take Waronker's problem off his hands. But time had run out. Too much had gone wrong. Waronker had canceled the lease agreement, his right if the average paid attendance through 20 games was less than 1,500. Monday afternoon, the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority voted to sell the arena to have it torn down.
Now the Manatees staffers are cleaning out offices, and players are figuring out how to get out of their apartments by Friday. The owner wants them to relocate to the RDV Complex in Orlando, but they want their back pay before thinking about it. They're already thinking about Kalamazoo and Oklahoma City instead. Howard is already in Huntsville. Swider is going to Knoxville for the weekend, before returning to find another place to live. Quilty may get a "real job" down here. Thorimbert feels awful about getting players "to take a leap with us, and it basically went off a plank."
Boyer is considering business interests in Orlando, stepping back from hockey.
"Guys were getting it," he says. "They knew we had a chance. A lot of these guys were my friends that I played with. Friends for life. But they would come again if I called."
His friends have already left the building. Baja Fresh called.
March 6: Hit The RoadThere has been another call. A conference call. There is news. Hewer is ecstatic to share it. Before it changes.
"Gonna be road warriors."
They will finish their season, if only the seven road games, starting next Sunday in Macon. They will practice in Miami Arena, stay in their apartments, and still be playoff-eligible. That is, if they get paid before each week.
"Otherwise, we won't play," Hewer says.
But there are more calls to make first. Johnson, Cain, Howard and Socholotuk are already gone, to Long Beach, Huntsville, Cape Fear. Someone has to get the message to them. They have a bus to catch.
Web posted on Mar. 7, 2004
Tom Kotsopolous tries to get some rest on the bus ride from Miami to Orlando