A STRIKE THAT STRUCK HOME
The tri-city Americans of the western (junior) Hockey League were dressing for practice in Kennewick. Wash., (the other two cities are Pasco and Richland) on Dec. 29 when Bill LaForge, the new director of hockey operations for this club of 16-to 20-year-old aspiring pros, stormed into their locker room. "The first thing he said was, 'Shut up!' " recalls goalie Olaf Kolzig. "The guy I was talking to, defenseman Steve Jaques, didn't even know who he was, so he kept smiling. Mr. LaForge said, 'Wipe that silly smile off your face.' "
Three Americans said LaForge. 38, a onetime Vancouver Canucks coach who has a history of browbeating his players and encouraging goon tactics, then prodded and pushed one player with a hockey stick until he rose quickly enough from the locker room bench upon command. LaForge denies touching the player. Later, after taking over coach Rick Kozuback's practice and lecturing the team on his smash-face philosophy of hockey, LaForge told the trainer to paint three X's on the team bench to mark seats for those who were playing poorly, and to hang boxing gloves in the locker room so that bickering teammates could settle their differences. At a team meeting after practice, LaForge spoke figuratively of slitting opponents' throats and compared hockey to being "dropped in Vietnam." Says Kolzig, "We just wanted to play hockey."
Which is why the team refused to do so. Following an overnight meeting, all but two members of the team did not show for the Dec. 30 game against the Portland Winter Hawks, forcing its cancellation. The next day, after receiving telephone assurances from WHL president Ed Chynoweth that he would mediate the dispute, the players bused to Portland, where they won 8-4.
On Jan. 2, the Americans, who had sought LaForge's dismissal, settled for a promise from owner Ron Dixon to remove LaForge from the team's day-to-day operations. According to Dixon, LaForge will keep his title, but scout from Edmonton. The three players who led the walkout have accepted Dixon's mandate of 10 hours of community service, though as Kolzig says, "I don't think we should be punished for doing what we think was right."