Beating the drum slowly for a lost teammate
By Stu Hackel
This is a post I knew was coming and I've dreaded writing it. It's about my friend Augie Cardinale, with whom I played hockey for around 20 years until he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last September. As you may know, that diagnosis is pretty much a death sentence and Augie passed away on Tuesday. I got the call as we were getting ready to go on the ice for our usual Tuesday night game. After I relayed the news, the room went silent for about two full minutes, and if you've ever been in a recreational hockey dressing room pre-game, you know that never happens. But Augie was loved by everyone who ever laced 'em up with us.
The thing was, Augie was the worst player out there.
My guess is that lots of hockey groups have Augies in their game, a guy who skates poorly, has stone hands, doesn't always react quickly to game situations and isn't particularly aware of where everyone is on the ice, including himself. On Tuesday nights, he'd always end up way behind the rush into the offensive zone or be very late getting back to defend. When he was at his worst, it was like his team was killing a penalty whenever he was on the ice. For years he was my linemate and he was bewildering to play with. He often looked bewildered on the ice, too. All I could do was tell him, "Augie, just go to the net. Screen the goalie or get defensemen to go with you. We'll get the puck there."
Sometimes it even worked.
Guys like Augie often get treated like pariahs by other players, but that wasn't the case with him. When he scored, guys on both teams cheered. He was a central figure in our group -- in some ways he was its pulse -- and whatever frustrations anyone had about playing with him took a back seat to being his friend.
Augie had the biggest heart of anyone out there and a smile to match. He would be the first to welcome newcomers to our game, he'd help moderate any disputes that arose, and he had a generosity about him that was unsurpassed, a personal warmth that was infectious. He was as loyal a friend as anyone could want, always ready to drive to your house to help with some task. My inbox is filled with e-mails from our guys who shared memories of him, and one of them, Dr. Dave, recalled that after Phil broke Dave's leg one night in a scramble along the boards, it was Augie who drove him home after the surgery. He'd do that sort of stuff all the time and without reservation.
When we had problems getting goalies to show up, Augie volunteered to organize that part of our game and make sure we didn't have the problem again. We hardly ever did after that and, judging from my e-mails, our regular goalies are probably even sadder today because Augie was their primary connection to the game.
Now that all sounds great, but in fact, Augie was also sorta weird for a hockey player. He wasn't anything close to a stereotypical overaged jock, although he probably had a modest amount of athleticism. Maybe. Once upon a time. Sure, he liked his postgame meal and drink, as we all do, and no one was more enthusiastic about playing the game. But he also lived seriously wrapped up in, and trying to connect with, a spirit world of gods and goddesses, witches and warlocks, magic and mystery, spheres and zones, vibrations and signs. He was out there.
Hockey players generally like conformity and they call people like Augie "different." He was different, but he was also one of us -- he was a hockey player above all as far as we were concerned. And that's what makes our group, and probably many others like it, so special because while our shared love of the game brings us together, it also opens us all up to different viewpoints, lifestyles and experiences.
Augie didn't exactly keep his spiritualism to himself. Among his spiritual practices was organizing and participating in drum circles and he regularly implored everyone to join them. He really got into drums and when he learned that my preschool son "entertained" us at home by banging on assorted pots, pans and trash cans with chopsticks every night, Augie gave him a big African drum. I took my son to one of Augie's drum ceremonies shortly afterward. It was kind of strange and my son's interest in the drums faded shortly afterward. But the drum is still in my living room and it's not going anywhere.
More than a decade ago, the guys put together a team, the Blazing Saddles Hockey Club, to compete in the Montreal Can/Am tournaments each spring. (I wrote a post about that team a few years ago) and Augie was included. No one expected great play out of him, but he couldn't be left off. His on-ice contributions were often, uh, intangible, but in the dressing room before each game, after my coach's pregame talk, Augie would put a lighted match to some sage and let the smoke waft throughout the room, like a High Priest or guru burning incense, bringing the team closer to the spirits. It smelled awful, but some of the guys really got into it, especially our best player, George, who would demand that Augie bring the burning herb over so he could inhale it deeply and get the smoke on his stick. It must have worked. We won a few gold medals and a silver with Augie burning that stuff through the years, even the time someone called the fire marshal because they worried about the smoke and smell coming from our dressing room.
Those tournaments featured a skills competition between games, a breakaway/shootout sort of thing. It was a chance for the other teams' best players to show off their moves. We always entered Augie and then piled into the stands to cheer him on. The sight of him lumbering down the ice in super slow motion and then pushing a weak shot goalward threw a few goalies off, but it was also great comic relief.
I never could figure out if Augie was a willing foil or took it seriously, but it didn't matter. He was proud to have a role with us and we were proud to have him -- and never more so than in 2005 when he scored the winner in the gold medal game. He remembered to go to the net and the medal was ours.
Every June, Phil would organize a Blazing Saddles victory party with all the local hockey players invited, whether they played with us or not. About five years ago, Aug brought about a dozen drums to Phil's house, got us together on the backyard deck and we played them until our hands were raw. Augie couldn't have been happier, having finally pulled two big strands of his life together, at least for a few hours.
Augie loved those Montreal trips, but they ended badly for him, and I guess I was at fault. He bought new skates one year and just couldn't move at all. He tried breaking them in on Tuesday nights, but he'd get on the ice and stand still. By then, we had become regular winners and I wanted to keep it going, so after I only used him a couple of shifts in the first game of the tournament he walked out on the team and took a train home. We ended up capturing the gold medal, but his feelings were hurt. Some of the guys were angry at him for jumping ship, but it didn't last. Eventually everyone patched things up, the friendships were too strong. But I couldn't celebrate that victory as much as the previous ones.
We have a holiday party every December and without fail, Augie would duck out and Santa Augie would appear in full costume with a bag full of exotic gifts he had purchased during his travels (Augie went all over the world) or from an obscure Army-Navy store. Some of them were useful, like sandals for the shower. But most of the time they were wacky: Canteens, battery powered head lamps, mosquito nets for your face, Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses, elf's caps, wooden frogs that made a "ribbit" sound when you scraped them with a stick, kūfiyyāt (the traditional Arab headdress). The crazier the better. Santa Augie's visit was always the highlight of the night.
But things started to go wrong a couple of years ago. His wife Mary became ill with a rare respiratory ailment. Her condition deteriorated quickly and she died, plunging Augie into a dark sadness. The day after she died, he showed up at the rink ready to play and everyone cheered his entrance. Being with us and playing the game was his solace. But then, a couple of months later, we lost one of our guys, Ron Jankowski, whose heart failed and he just dropped on the ice and passed away. Augie and Ronnie were close and that made things worse. We had a little ceremony for Ronnie on the ice the following week and Augie brought a huge Indian drum to play at the conclusion. Kneeling on the spot where Ronnie fell, he pounded away, conjuring up Ronnie's heartbeat and then, like Ronnie's heartbeat, he stopped. It was hard to skate that night.
We hung a banner in the rink with Ronnie's name on it and Augie paid for it himself. Wouldn't take a penny from anyone. He played his big Indian drum that night at our little ceremony, too.
Augie's sadness continued, though, which was completely unlike him. He talked about not wanting to live any longer. We'd spend hours at the Grill after our games and at other times, too, trying to boost his spirits as he'd often done for some of us when we were down. His grief was powerful. But we finally started to make a little headway last summer. Then he began to lose weight.
The rest you can figure out. He had surgery, but it didn't halt his slide. Frankie and I visited him a few weeks ago at his home. I noticed as we walked in that he had a room filled with African drums he had bought. He'd been donating them to a school in the Caribbean. One of our guys, Gary, who owns a shipping company, was handling the transport. I walked into the living room and Augie was there, but he was shockingly unrecognizable. If you passed him on the street, you'd never have known it was him. Only his voice tipped us off to who he was.
Augie had a sense of what was ahead, but he still wanted to know how the turnouts had been on Tuesday nights. We've had bad winter weather almost every Tuesday this year and I told him the turnouts weren't great. "How can people not play hockey?" he asked with astonishment. Coming from a guy who would never play again, it hit me pretty hard.
The room on Tuesday nights hasn't been the same since Augie left. The game is little better, but there's not one of us who wouldn't trade that to have him back. We went out to the ice after I got the call last Tuesday and had a moment of silence. The game lacked its usual energy.
Maybe we'll do something more this coming Tuesday. Maybe someone will play one of those drums for Augie.