Saturday, December 01, 2007
Jacques, Boris and the dangers of minor league hockey
It’s a wonder any sports franchise lets me buy ticket.
I recently went to see the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Detroit Red Wings top farm club. Of course they lost, since I am a jinx to any team I seem to care about. The Griffs even did so in grand fashion, tying the game late then coming up short in a shoot-out, setting a franchise record of 10 consecutive home losses.
But as bad as the Griffins are, they can’t even come close to the former Flint Bulldogs, who we christened the worst team in the worst league in professional sports when it debuted in the Colonial Hockey League in 1991.
The horrid Bulldogs did provide one of the most glorious nights I’ve ever spent watching minor league hockey – where I brawled with a mascot and apparently shamed a coach into giving up his job.
For this story to make sense, you have to know the cast of characters.
First you have me, who considers hockey a worthy off-season diversion and doesn’t mind watching a couple goons drop the gloves between goals.
You have Skip Probst, founder of the Colonial League and owner of the Bulldogs. We liked Skip, who filled the void after the Flint Spirits – the Rangers’ farm team with Mike Richter in the net – departed after the 1989 season. The start-up Colonial League was an independent league home to an occasional prospect, but more often castoffs who had bounced around the minors.
Our favorite player: Jacques Mailhot. Jacques had actually played five games for the Quebec Nordiques in the NHL in 1988-89, but was better known for piling up tremendous amounts of penalty minutes. Here is his Hockey Legends page.
Some teams had enforcers who used their brawn to protect the goal-scorers from getting too roughed up by the opposition. But I think Jacques just liked to fight. He would do things like skate past players and wipe his glove in their faces as he passed, just in hopes of drawing them into a brawl, asking, in his thick French-Canadian accent, “Do you want to dance?”
Naturally, we embraced Jacques as our hero.
Even before the first game, we gave him the nickname “Mad Dog” and made a sign with interchangeable numbers called the “Goon Meter” that we planned to use to keep track as Jacques piled up the penalty minutes. We had three digits, because we expected lots of penalties.
I worked for the Flint newspaper at the time, and our friend Bill covered the Bulldogs. My buddy Will and I would attend games at home and tag along with Bill on some of the closer road games.
We started wondering about Jacques after the team’s first-ever game. Amazingly, he scored the franchise’s first goal and somehow managed not to get called for a single penalty.
After the game we were waiting for Bill to finish talking to a player near the team bus. Jacques walked over when he saw me holding the sign.
“How come you didn’t change the numbers?” he asked.
“Well, you didn’t have any penalty minutes. Did we miss something?”
“Oh,” Jacques said, disappointed. “I thought you were keeping track of my goals.”
Nevertheless, we had plenty of opportunities to change the numbers as the season progressed and Jacques found dancing partners. Many of them. He was among the league leaders in penalty minutes. And after a big fight he’d stand in front of the opposing beach and gesture like he was fastening a belt – like the championship belt worn by boxers. The fans would go nuts, as would the other team.
We were thrilled. Jacques’ only request, passed through Bill, was that we change the name of the sign. Calling it a “Goon Meter” implied that he was a one-dimensional player. And as we learned after the first game, Jacques fashioned himself as a goal scorer who just happened to get into a lot of fights.
Not wanting to offend our hero, we recast the sign “Penalty Meter” and continued to haul it to games around Michigan and Ontario.
And the goonery was the only thing for Bulldogs fans to cheer for, because the team was dreadful. Never once did I see them win, at home or on the road.
Jacques had piled up 237 penalty minutes in 21 games – with 15 goals, as he would like you to know. But, his antics off the ice apparently weren’t much different from those we saw during the games, and he and Skip were not getting along. There was some loud meltdown during a practice and the owner-coach decided he had enough and cut Mailhot – who told all to Bill for a story.
Clearly, this was an outrage. Like any good Mets fan, I am nothing if not loyal. This would not stand. A group of us from the Journal decided to attend the first game after Jacques’ dismissal. I bought some paint and poster board, sat on the newsroom floor and created a sign reading, “Dump Skip, Not Jacques.”
Apparently lots of people were just as upset. Flint can be a tough place, and hockey goons are held in great esteem. The atmosphere at the game was ugly. We snagged seats directly across from the Bulldogs bench, holding high our expression of rage.
Naturally, it caught Skip’s eye – which was the point – and he spent the first part of the game frowning and glaring. I was even able to get a “Dump Skip, Not Jacques” chant going in our section of Journal people.
And of course, the team was getting pounded, no doubt adding to Probst’s frustration. I saw him summon Boris the Bulldog, the team’s mascot, then point across the ice at me as he spoke.
Minutes later, Boris – I was never sure which unfortunate employee got stuck wearing the costume – appeared in the aisle at my seat.
“Gimme the sign,” he said.
“Skip wants your sign.”
“No way. I thought you weren’t supposed to talk in costume?”
“Really, give it up. Skip’s pissed.”
“No way. He fired my favorite player. What did he expect?
At that point, Boris took hold of the sign and tried to pull it away. I was actually having a tug-of-war with a guy in a bulldog costume. The whole section was booing. His gloves made it hard to get a good grip, and I pulled the sign away.
Then he grabbed my 1960s-era White Sox cap off my head and scampered back up the aisle. I wasn’t too upset. Theft is a crime, even in Flint, and there were about 5,000 witnesses.
I looked over, and Skip was shaking his head in disgust.
Soon, Boris appeared behind the Bulldogs’ bench again, waving my Sox cap. Then he gestured the cap with his hands, negotiating a trade of my cap for the sign.
I figured we made our point and nodded approval. Soon, Boris again came back down the aisle, handing me the cap as I handed him my sign. The mascot then made a big production of tearing the sign into big pieces and throwing them up in the air to a mixture of cheers and boos.
I was collecting the pieces when a kid came running down the stairs with a big roll of duct tape.
“You can use this to put your sign back together,” he said.
“Thanks!” I remember saying. “Where did you get this?”
“We brought it to the game,” he said. I do not know why someone would bring a big roll of duct tape to a hockey game. I figured it was just better not to ask.
We reassembled the sign, mostly, and held it high again as Skip seethed behind the bench.
Victory! And another loss for the Bulldogs – both on and off the ice. Apparently it was too much for Skip.
The next morning I got a call from Bill, yelling on the other end of the line. “YOU RUN THIS TEAM!”
Probst called a team meeting after the game and resigned as coach – retaining his ownership role, of course. He installed the team’s best player, Ken Spangler, as player-coach.
We were kind of bummed. Like I said, we liked Skip. He was a good guy, and bad hockey is better than no hockey.
The rest of the story…
The Spangler era ended after about a week, when Skip reinstated himself as coach when the team didn’t play much better. I ran into him in the concourse before a game, and he said, “Didn’t like that sign.” And I said, “Didn’t like that you cut my favorite player, Skip.” We had a nice chat. He was happy to have paying customers.
The Bulldogs lasted another season, then moved to Utica, N.Y. and soon folded.
The Colonial League was reconfigured as the United Hockey League, and Flint got a new team, the Generals, named after General Motors.
Jacques was quickly signed by the Bulldogs’ rival, the Michigan Falcons, who played in a Detroit suburb. There was a packed house the first time he came back to Flint, and I brought the Penalty Meter,” which, unlike the “Dump Skip, Not Jacques” sign, had been spared Boris’ wrath.
He ended up playing until the 1999-2000 season, finishing with the Central Texas Stampede of the Western Professional Hockey Association and a stint as player coach of a Pro Beach Hockey team.
And he even made national news in 1999 when a dance partner got a little carried away. Dean Trboyevich of the Anchorage Aces was suspended for the season, fined an undisclosed sum and put on probation for the 1999-00 season by the West Coast Hockey League for a cross-check of poor Jacques of the Fresno Falcons in February 1999. Fresno, Calif., authorities decided to drop felony assault charges against Trboyevich.
And I still go to an occasional minor league hockey game – but I stay clear of mascots.