Friday February 19th, 2016

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Mid-afternoon outside Gila River Arena, four hours until game time, Coyotes against the Flames, but the opponent doesn’t really matter. The scene at this gate always looks the same. A folding chair straddles two yellow lines along an access road, toasting in the sun. The label on the back reads, “Louis M,” designated for the employee everyone knows. The cheery parking attendant two months away from his 90th birthday. The hardened World War II veteran who played baseball at the Polo Grounds.

The familiar man shuffling across the concrete to his station, two clipboards under his arm, radio latched to his hip, polo shirt slung over his shoulder, wispy white hair hiding beneath the black Coyotes hat.

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“The guy who runs everything,” head coach Dave Tippett says.

Lou Monaco moved here two decades ago, not long after the Coyotes arrived from Winnipeg, and at this perch he has watched an entire complex emerge out of the empty desert. In the foreground grew the Westgate Entertainment District, a sprawling complex of shops, restaurants and hotels. Across the street sits University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the Cardinals and two Super Bowls. Behind him, the hockey rink (née Glendale Arena, then Jobing.com Arena) broke ground in April 2002 and opened just after Christmas 2003. He waves the clipboards over there, urging a visitor to notice.

“It was all that, all raised from the ground,” Monaco says.

He is a fixture just like these buildings, the first face seen by players, coaches, owners, trainers, equipment managers, front-office officials and anyone else driving past the entrance gate before heading into the private parking lot down the nearby ramp. He checks names off the clipboards and hands out passes to anyone needing them. Once the last player arrives, always before 5 p.m., he directs traffic around the valet area until after the puck drops. Only then can he migrate inside to watch, usually with around six minutes left in the first period.

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He holds a similar gig with the Diamondbacks during baseball season. He used to do the same for the Phoenix Suns. He attends Coyotes practice when time allows, never bashful about sitting near the glass, and records games so he can watch after his shift ends, usually around 10:30 p.m. “He’s got more tapes than a damn Blockbuster,” one colleague says.

Before Glendale Arena officially opened, the construction crew asked Sweet Lou to autograph the last beam they put into place.

“Oh Lou? Great guy!” GM Don Maloney says, perking up at the mention of the name. “Always upbeat, always in a great mood. Love Lou. He cares about the Coyotes. Loves us.”

***

They love him too. Captain Shane Doan learned this eight years ago, at the nurse’s station of a local hospital. One afternoon, Monaco had been working his usual shift when a woman whizzed past, made a U-turn at the dead end and peeled back toward the main road. The driver was talking on her phone and didn’t see Monaco. Her car clipped him and fractured his hip.

After hearing the news, Doan went to see Monaco at the hospital. As he was leaving, a nurse stopped him. “I don’t meant to interrupt,” the nurse said, “but who is this guy you just visited?” As it turned out, Doan wasn’t the only local celebrity to check up on Monaco. Cardinals president Michael Bidwill and receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Suns owner Jerry Coangelo and Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez had all come too.

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Over the years, Gonzalez and Monaco grew particularly close. In the hospital, Gonzalez brought him a teddy bear dressed in doctor’s gear, wearing a stethoscope. The former MLB star routinely sent limos to pick Monaco up for Cardinals games, where he would sit in a luxury suite. One morning on his birthday, local television reporter Bruce Haffner took Monaco into the channel’s helicopter and flew over Gonzalez’s house. Waiting below was Gonzo, still wearing his pajamas, holding a sign that read, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY LOU!”

He claims he used to be shy, which is hard to believe now. Spend even a few minutes with Monaco and the stories spill out. His officially begins in April 1926, the same month the Montreal Maroons beat the Victoria Cougars for the Stanley Cup. As a kid, Monaco grew up riding the subway from Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge and into Manhattan, paying $0.75 for Rangers tickets at Madison Square Garden, waiting outside the Belvedere Hotel to glimpse any players who happened past.

In 1940, he won an essay contest in the Brooklyn Eagle—Topic: Why do you like hockey?—and worked for one day as a stick boy with the New York Americans, filling up water bottles for the franchise that went extinct the following season. In high school, he played second base for Harry Kane, the same man who coached Lou Gehrig at the New York School of Commerce. He played some hockey, but only in the streets.

On his 17th birthday in April 1943, some 16 months after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Monaco decided to enlist in the Navy. But he wasn’t required at training until June, so the teenager had time to kill. That’s when he saw an advertisement in the New York Daily News for open tryouts for the New York Giants. He and a high school friend went together, figuring at the very least they would leave with the experience of playing catch at the Polo Grounds. Instead, Monaco was offered an option to join a Class C team in Ft. Smith, Ark., or a local Independent League sponsored by the Giants. He chose the latter, but never told the club the contract was expiring before midsummer. So Monaco played ball until the Navy called.

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He trained in upstate New York, near the Canadian border, and then took a five-day train to San Diego. He served in the South Pacific, playing baseball against another military team that featured Pee Wee Reese, and landed on the beach of Okinawa on April 1, 1945. He was discharged in 1946, still experiencing some hearing issues the Navy never treated. Years later, Gonzalez would pay for an audiologist appointment and a hearing aid.

He married after the war ended, saw his only child, Joe, born in 1956, divorced in 1959, remarried in 1976 and divorced again in 1980. Now he lives with relatives and two big dogs in a quiet suburb. He worked hard back then too, maintaining a milk route at night and operating a store during the day. “I was just living the good life,” he says, although these days aren’t bad too. After living on Long Island until 1996, he joined his sister in Arizona and hasn’t left since.

***

Alex Prewitt/Sports Illustrated

Three hours until game time. The shade creeps past the chair and the action picks up. “Sweet Lou!” television analyst Tyson Nash says from behind his wheel. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson offers Monaco a wave as he zips past. Goaltenders Louis Domingue and Anders Lindback get fist-bumps. Rookies Anthony Duclair and Max Domi arrived together. “The young guns,” Monaco says as they approach.

At its essence, this is a simple job that pays minimum wage. Check the faces, wave them past. Often, Monaco requires rides to and from the rink, so he can avoid driving after dark. But he keeps working. He sees no reason to stop.

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“If you don’t show up for work one day, I know St. Peter came to get you,” one colleague once told him.

When asked if he ever gets sick, he replies, “Sure. In the off-season and on days off.”

Pretty soon, every player except Doan has arrived. When Monaco finally spots Doan’s truck, his eyes light up. They are particularly close, like Monaco was with Gonzalez when he played here; a few weeks back, when the Cardinals were in the playoffs, Doan gave Monaco a ride home from the rink. Doan rolls down the window and offers a handshake. Monaco asks to take a picture, so Doan steps from the car and poses on the pavement.

“Alright, Shane. Lots of luck tonight,” Monaco says.

“Thanks Lou.”

“Alright, I’ll see ya Monday.”

“See ya Monday.”

Like always, he’ll be there.

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