By Dan Saevig
The Toledo Blade
TOLEDO, Ohio – The missing front teeth sure make them look like hockey players.
So does the banter in the dressing room.
But as Rick Judson laces up a pair of skates, the Toledo Storm’s veteran center isn’t thinking about the upcoming game against Peoria.
The fact that he’s helping a player tie his skates is a giveaway that this is not the ECHL.
Any lingering doubt is erased when a mother pushes a baby stroller into the dressing room.
On this evening, the focus is on Judson’s other club – Tam O’Shanter Team No. 25 – and his part-time job: volunteer head coach.
The Storm veteran has spent many of his nights this winter teaching his son Regan and a group of 7 and 8-year-olds how to play the sport.
It’s mite hockey and a mite more than the Lambertville native expected.
“I signed on to be an assistant coach this season,” Judson said. “I said I’d help out when I could because with the Storm, we’re gone a lot on the weekends. Then Tam O’Shanter called and asked if I’d be the head coach if they’d find a good assistant.
“I said, ‘OK.’ ”
Judson hasn’t regretted a moment of it, even if the schedule hasn’t always cooperated.
The first half of the year, the 35-year-old said he made 95 percent of the games and practices. With the Storm on the road much of the past two months, his attendance has been cut in half.
“This is the kind of guy he is,” said Heath Dennis, a Tam O’Shanter employee who assists Judson in coaching the team. “The Storm had a Friday night game in Peoria. The bus got back to Toledo at about 4:30 a.m. and there was a home game that night. We had a practice Saturday morning at 6. Sure enough, we were able to come here and count on Rick being with the kids.
“He does everything he can for these players.”
What Judson may have missed in quantity has been made up in quality, according to one parent.
“I think it’s awesome that he’s doing this while playing for the Storm,” said Jennifer Matney of Holland, whose son is Nolan Gay. “He spends a lot of time working one-on-one with each kid. He’s got the respect of all the kids. My son really looks up to him. He gives them something to work for.”
There’s no worry about Jack being a dull boy at this age. Mite hockey is not about work. It’s toothless grins, rugby-like scrums and bodies toppling like bowling pins that were struck by a ball from Walter Ray Williams Jr.
The key is to learn the basics – skating, shooting, passing – and to have fun.
“I like him,” said Alex Huffman of Whitehouse. “He taught me about staying back on defense and how to skate backward. He’s a really good coach because he plays for the Storm and the Storm is really good.”
In this game, one of the first shots is taken by the opposition. Judson’s goalie smothers the puck with a glove hand and then looks behind just to make sure there’s nothing in the net.
As the coach sets his pairings, one youngster yells, “I want to play offense, I don’t want to play defense.”
Judson smiles and reminds the child that everyone has to have the chance to skate up front.
Turning to a bystander, Judson grins and whispers, “They sound just like first-year pro players.”
Thirteen years have passed since Judson left the University of Illinois-Chicago and joined the Storm during its inaugural 1991-92 campaign. The Red Wings’ draft pick, a 1987 graduate of Bedford High School, has played in the American, International and United hockey leagues, more than 700 games in all.
Most of that time – parts of nine seasons – has been spent in Toledo. The Storm’s all-time leader in points (435) and assists (242), he set the franchise record for goals (193) on Feb. 25.
A father of two who’s retiring at the end of this season, Judson isn’t sure what he’ll be doing next winter. He’d like to coach, perhaps as an assistant in the pro ranks.
At the very least, he wants to help Regan and others who love the game as much as he does.
“What’s really gratifying to me is to see these kids at the beginning of the season and to see them now,” Judson said.
As the game continues, a couple of youngsters on the bench begin chatting up Judson and the Storm.
“We’ll talk about my game after your game,” Judson says. “You guys worry about your game.”
It’s good advice.
At the end of a line change, three players race to get off the ice. Naturally, each wants to use the same door to the bench.
Of course, all attempt to enter at the same time.
In a flashback to The Three Stooges, the first makes it through the door. Barely.
The second is jammed into the dasher and squeezes his way in.
The third – Judson’s kid – collides with the other two. He pulls a Steve Fossett and takes off on a solo flight, stopping only when the landing gear – his posterior – hits the frozen runway.
It’s hard not to laugh – kids and coaches.
“This is when hockey is supposed to be fun,” Judson said. “To see them smile and want to come to the rink everyday, it’s neat to be a part of that.”