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Happy to be back: tales from the NHL lockout

Photo: Paul Sanoya/AP

Famed Zamboni driver Al Sobotka tended to Joe Louis Arena while waiting for the Red Wings to return.

Hockey people carried on during the NHL's long work stoppage, but their lives weren't quite the same. The 113-day lockout affected everyone from players and coaches to arena staff, support personnel, fans and a variety of folks who depend on the game for their livelihoods. Five people from various areas of the hockey world told us their tales. (And Adrian Dater has an inside look at the final hours and what life was like for the people at the bargaining table.)

The Anthem Singer

Rene Rancourt, Boston Bruins

After 1,600 Boston Bruins games, Rancourt, 73, found himself trying keep busy, and keep his voice warm, by being what he calls, "a hired wedding crasher. I'm usually a surprise for either the bride or groom."

Rancourt says his life was totally different from the times during the NHL season when he has three home games to prepare for by "exercising, stretching, vocalizing."

When Kate Smith was unable to sing before Game 6 of the 1975 World Series at Fenway Park, Rancourt, then a little known society-band leader, subbed in at the last minute and was the most valuable pinch hitter that night after Bernie Carbo. Rancourt knew he'd arrived durimg his rookie year at the mic when a man spotted him across a Boston street and started singing, "O Canada" to which Rancourt bellowed, in tune with the song, "Don't quit your day job, now."

As he gained popularity, the Bruins gave him a longer rug on which to make his entrance. Unaware of this, Boston forward Bob Joyce tumbled over the rug during the 1989-90 season and was never the same after tearing his shoulder.

Rancourt is paid by the game, so besides doing weddings, he also supplemented his income with appearances at nursing homes. He recalls exchanging waves with a woman in a wheelchair after he arrived at one.

"I asked her, "Do you know who I am?" he says. "She told me. "No, but if you ask at the front desk, I'm sure they can tell you."

The Public Address Announcer

Lou Nolan, Philadelphia Flyers

The dean of PA announcers saw a cruel corollary between his day job as a stockbroker and the negotiating cliff that stalled the hockey world. "Lockout and the economy," says Lou Nolan, laughing. "Which is worse? Boy."

Employed by the Flyers since their inaugural season in 1967, and their PA announcer since 1972, Nolan has been the arena voice at both the Spectrum and Wells Fargo Center for two Stanley Cup championships in his first three seasons and five subequent trips to the final. From his unique vantage point between the penalty boxes, he has had an owl's eye view of the spoils of pugilism from the Broad Street Bully days to the evening when a Flyer fan foolishly flipped over the penalty glass to scrap with Toronto's Tie Domi. Nolan used to wear a Groucho Marx nose and glasses on Halloween and was surprised to find Flyer enforcer Craig Berube wearing a disguise in the box after a fight.

"Enforcers are a unique breed," says Nolan. "If a young person needs a fight to be able to establish his reputation, he thanks one of the veterans for giving him the fight, even though he lost it."

During the lockout, the Flyers still paid Nolan, who also sells securities to banks as a vice president for Shay Financial Services, but he found he had too much down time and there was a void in his life. Rare is the Phily fan who hasn't bellowed, "the Flyers are going on the Peee-cohh power play" in their best Nolan-speak after an opposition penalty. "The camaraderie with the staff has grown over the years," he says. "When I started, we had a simple dot matrix scoreboard. Now there is a whole production staff with video and scripts. I really missed it."

The Zamboni Driver

Al Sabotka, Detroit Red Wings

Al Sabotka, 59, is the building operations manager at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena and the Zamboni driver at Red Wings' games. During his 41 years with the team he has become as essential to the games as the ice he manages,

but he is most often recognized for cleaning up and then twirling overhead the many octopi that fans hurl onto the ice at playoff time. "It's become part of the show," he says modestly.

The show has endured, despite the lockout. Without NHL hockey, the Joe hosted youth tournaments, events for season-ticket holders, corporate parties, and scheduled concerts and college hockey games. Sobotka oversees arena details from painting to seat repair and also cooks monthly barbecues for the team. Each meal requires 36 slabs of ribs with his spice rub, 25 pounds of burgers, eight chickens and 40 links of Cajun chicken sausage. With a full plate of responsibilities, Sabotka remained a full-time employee along with a dozen of the Wings' building staff, including electricians and engineers. "I felt bad for the (part-time) concession workers and cleanup guys," he says. "They are like family."

Sabotka earned high praise when the 1994-95 lockout forced a late start to the Stanley Cup Final in Detroit, where outside temperatures hit 98 degrees. "We used de-humidifiers and supplemental air on both ends of the arena," he says. "The players were surprised at how well the ice held up. We can do the same this year if we have to."

The Play-By-Play Man

Pete Weber, Nashville Predators

During his 39 years in the broadcast booth, including all 13 as the cheery play-by-play voice of the Predators, Pete Weber has rarely had idle days. "I don't think I've ever done this much shopping with my wife," he said during the lockout. In his extra time, he watched his alma mater, Notre Dame, defeat Navy, 50-10, in Dublin. (A master storyteller, he talked of his unbridled joy at finding a Tim Hortons restaurant during his visit to the Irish capital.)

A fulltime Predators employee, Weber did sports updates on the team's flagship station 102.5 in the non-traditional market of Nashville. "It's very important there to keep the game on people's minds even when they aren't playing," he says.

In November, the Predators held a youth hockey game at the local A-Game Sportsplex with coach Barry Trotz and his assistants working behind the benches, and an alumni game between retired players from the Predators and St. Louis Blues. "We haven't been around that long," Weber says of the Preds, whose first season was 1998-99, "but we did it."

And during Thanksgiving week, Weber hosted a show called Bumps, Bruises and Bedtime Stories at a local Comedy Club called Zanies with his broadcast partner Terry Crisp and former Predators Tom Fitzgerald and Stu Grimson. During the show, Fitzgerald told the story of a relationship between actress Alyssa Milano and fomer NHL defenseman Wayne McBean, one of Fitzgerald's old teammates, whose interlude apparently damaged some furniture at Fitzgerald's house.

"Not a total loss," says Weber of the lockout. "Now I can tell a new story."

The Coach

Adam Oates, Washington Capitals

One of the rare people who may actually have benefitted from the lockout, Adam Oates spent the first two months of what would have been his debut season as head coach of the Washington Capitals honing his craft as co-coach with the Caps' minor-league affiliate in the American Hockey League. With Hershey from its season opener on Sept. 13 until Nov. 21, Oates, 50, picked up some ideas for running a club while the Bears went 6-9-1. "It was my first time actually running the meetings," he says. "Running practices wasn't hard. Running meetings? Good to get that out of the way."

In particular, Oates can put his newfound knowledge to work on Washington's struggling power play, which has fallen to 16th in 2011-12 after leading the NHL in 2009-10. "First, a couple of key people were injured for a good part of the season," he says. When you lose [defenseman Mike] Green and [forward Nick] Backstrom for that many games, you power play has to suffer. But I also think you can spend too much time practicing it, overthinking it. These guys know how to make plays."

Oates should know. The undrafted forward was among the game's finest playmaking forwards, amassing 1,420 points in 20 seasons with seven teams and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year. He's also worked as an NHL assistant coach in Tampa Bay and New Jersey. He now recalls the lockout-shortened season he spent as a player in 1995.

"It was a track meet, a real race to get to the playoffs," he said. "Some guys were more ready than others. I think it will be like that this year. Some guys who've been playing in Europe will be ready; others will be rusty. Managing that will be a big job."

HACKEL: Short season will challenge NHL coaches

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