WEDNESDAY. We are off to see Andy Hebenton, the iron man of hockey. In 22 years he has missed only two of his teams' 1,652 games. He played a record 630 consecutive NHL games before the Toronto Maple Leafs released him to the minor leagues in 1965. Hebenton, now 44, is scheduled to play tonight for the Portland Buckaroos against the San Diego Gulls. Andy makes the game, naturally. We miss it. Photographer John Hanlon and I are snowbound at Chicago's O'Hare Airport through the afternoon and evening. The weather grounds all flights that could have landed us in Portland in time for even part of the game. We try now for San Francisco. With midnight approaching, United has rescheduled our departure for the 1,652nd time.
THURSDAY. We have had a nightmarish few hours of sleep on the plane, but it is considerably warmer in San Francisco than it was in Chicago, Boston and Oshawa. We drive north on Route 101 to Snoopy Place in Santa Rosa.
Charles (Sparky) Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown and friends, is a frustrated hockey player from St. Paul. So frustrated that he has built his own $2 million rink—with Snoopy etched into the stained-glass windows—across the street from his private office building and private tennis court on Snoopy Place. Schulz, 51 and trim, plays in three hockey games each week and referees three others. "I'm a certified American Hockey Association referee," he says proudly in the lounge at the rink. "Like all officials, I've been hit on the shins on purpose and I've been spit—spat?—upon by players. But the parents are monstrous. One night I kicked a parent out because he called me a creep after I'd nailed his kid with a cross-checking penalty. I wouldn't have cared if he had said, 'The ref's a creep,' but he said, 'Schulz is a creep,' and that was too personal."
Schulz plays mostly in semi-organized pickup games with his son Monte, a couple of airline pilots, some local insurance brokers, the business manager of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat and his three sons and, as Monte says, "a lot of kids who bum around like me." "I haven't set up a league," Schulz says, "because that would establish rivalries. The games are rough enough as it is. I got butt-ended in the chest three years ago and it hurt for six months. And last week one of the guys tried to blind-side me into the goalpost because he didn't like the way I had knocked him over backward the week before.
"I find hockey to be a necessity. I go out on the ice for an hour and forget everything. What's really strange, though, is seeing these kids growing up and becoming better than me. Only a few years ago I used to go out to the garage and show Monte how to shoot. Now he's got a great slap shot and mine's, well, not so great anymore." Last winter Schulz played in the 40-and-over Senior Olympics hockey tournament in Los Angeles; he has no plans for a return engagement. "We got beat 15-7," he says, "but I played my heart out. I got an elbow in the eye and took an awful physical beating. I had muscle aches that didn't go away for four months." He laughs. "I wish I could find a tournament for 50-year-old players. Then I'd show them."
Not all of Schulz' aches are muscular. "I built this beautiful rink strictly for the use of the people of Santa Rosa," he says, "and would you believe they sent me a $40,000 tax bill the other day?" He is irate, too, at the way teams have destroyed the visitors' dressing room at the rink. "I've learned that you should give the visiting teams a rock room with a bare bench," he says. "If they happen to lose a close game, they feel they have to punch their sticks through the walls."
Schulz drives to Oakland Friday nights when the California Golden Seals play at home. "In a way the games are a big insult," he says. "They aren't on television here, but they are interrupted to let visiting teams fit commercials into their telecasts back home."
The Zamboni has finished resurfacing the ice, and Schulz leads 20 players out for a pickup game, which means 80 minutes of continuous high-sticking, tripping, boarding, elbowing and goal-scoring. He wears a helmet and a mouth guard and, "to show my great humility as a player," a New York Islanders jersey. Schulz' team wins 11-3. He scores one goal, on a deft deflection at the net, and collects three or four assists as well as some new bruises. "Not bad for a 51-year-old right wing," he says afterward in the parking lot. He laughs, then gets into his car. "Here's the world famous hockey player," he says, "driving from the game in his Jaguar."
FRIDAY. Getting from Snoopy Lane in Santa Rosa, Calif. to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame with its glistening trophies on Hat Trick Avenue in Eveleth, Minn. and then to Bob Zimmerman's old hangout in the back room at the Androy Hotel in Hibbing in six hours is, well, no easy hat trick. Bob Zimmerman never played hockey for Hibbing High School. "That's probably why he changed his name to Bob Dylan," says one of the Androy's cocktail waitresses. "If he kept the name Bob Zimmerman, people around here would still know him as the kid who didn't play high school hockey."
Just as high school football is religion in Texas, so is high school hockey in Minnesota, particularly here in the Iron Range, an ethnic caldron of Serbs, Italians, Finns, Slovenes, Croats and Swedes, with a few sprigs of Irish for seasoning. The Iron Range Conference is the best high school league in the country; Hibbing has won the state title the last two years and recognition as the No. 1 team in the U.S. The Bluejackets are currently No. 4 in the polls. Tonight they are playing the No. 2 team, the Virginia Blue Devils, from 20 miles down the road.