2009 NEWS

2009 NEWS > 12/30/09

LEFTY'S BRAVE NEW WORLD

By Don Campbell, The Ottawa Citizen

In 1991, Tom Glavine still hadn’t hit the 50-win plateau, never mind even dreaming about No. 300, and Wayne Gretzky had only played three seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, when someone tossed the young pitcher an interesting question.

What might have happened, he was asked, if Glavine, a standout at centre in high school hockey, had chosen hockey over baseball and signed with the Kings, who had drafted him in 1984, the same year as the Atlanta Braves?

“I told them ‘99 would have had to learn to play left wing,’” Glavine laughs. “‘And then he would have only been known as the Good One and not the Great One.’”

Glavine, now just five years away from certain induction into baseball’s hall of fame, was only kidding, of course. Yet 18 years later, have a look who has a job in hockey — and who doesn’t.

Gretzky’s been out of work since he resigned as head coach of Phoenix Coyotes at the start of the NHL season. Glavine, meantime, is at the helm of the Atlanta Fire, a major atom A team that features his son Peyton and has arrived in Ottawa to compete in the Bell Capital Cup. The tournament begins today at 20 area rinks.

Glavine actually has three boys in competitive hockey: Jonathan, 15, who may veer toward lacrosse in high school; Peyton, 10; and Mason, 9. The latter two are also pretty promising left-handed pitchers.

Now that their dad is out of baseball, coaching hockey has become much easier. There are no more worries about missing the start of the hockey season while the major-league season winds down, or leaving the rink in mid-February for the start of spring training.

“I started helping out when Jonathan began playing in house league,” says Glavine. “Then he got into the travel team stuff and everything became more involved. I would always miss the first month, then the last couple of year-end tournaments. Now I have the time — and it’s something I really enjoy.”

The Fire plays out of the Cooler, a rink in suburban Atlanta, and mixes a regular season of 30-odd games with tournaments. This season, the team has already been to Orlando and later this winter will head to Nashville and Phoenix.

Until Tuesday, Glavine had never been to Ottawa. He thinks the closest he came was either the pitcher’s mound at Olympic Stadium, or a hockey rink in Repentigny, Que.

But even after 22 major-league seasons, 305 wins, five seasons of 20 wins or more, two Cy Young awards, 10 All-Star Game selections and a World Series championship — not to mention a World Series MVP award — Glavine can still recall playing tournament hockey as a kid against the Nepean Raiders, one of two teams the Fire faced Tuesday in pre-Bell Capital Cup exhibition games.

He can also recall his passion for hockey, which competed for his attention with baseball throughout his years at Billerica Memorial High School, just outside Boston.

During his junior and senior years, Glavine’s progress on the mound was carefully monitored by major-league scouts and many of the big Division 1 college programs.

Glavine says whenever a university recruiter would ask if he had any questions about his school, he usually said, “How’s your hockey program?” The answer was often that the school didn’t even have one.

In the end, Glavine settled on the University of Lowell, not quite half an hour from home, a school with a Division 1 team in the powerful Hockey East Conference and a credible Division 2 baseball program.

Just as important were the two coaches willing to permit Glavine to play two sports, flexibility almost virtually unheard of today.

Then came the drafts in June 1984. The NHL went first, and Glavine was selected by the Kings in the fourth round, 69th overall. That was five rounds before Los Angeles picked Hull Olympiques winger Luc Robitaille, an eventual hall of famer who scored 668 goals in a 19-year career.

The major-league draft followed soon after and the rebuilding Atlanta Braves made Glavine their second-round choice, No. 47 overall.

By the time the Kings called later that month to begin to work out the details of a deal, Glavine was already on a plane for his minor-league debut with the Gulf Coast (rookie) League Braves.

Less than two seasons later, Glavine was at Double-A with Greenville and Triple-A at Richmond. He made his major-league debut in August 1987.

Hockey was never part of Glavine’s off-season training. Not that he didn’t want to put on the blades; the Braves thought the risk of injury was too high and put a clause in his contract to keep him off the ice.

“People would often ask what I wasn’t allowed to do,” says Glavine. “It was almost easier to tell them what I could do. Hockey was one of the things I couldn’t do.”

So, from the time he signed with the Braves until the past few years, Glavine figures he skated maybe twice — once with the Bruins at a practice and once as part of a promotion. He’s started skating more regularly the past three or four years — he’s on the ice with the Fire all the time — and gets plenty of invitations to play in men’s recreational leagues. But he turns them down.

“I run into (ex-NHLer) Willie Plett from time to time and he always tells me it’s not worth it — that there will always be somebody out there who wants to make a point (to a former big-time athlete),” Glavine says.

If Glavine does need an additional hockey fix, he can always go to an Atlanta Thrashers game. In the team’s early years when his boys were younger, Glavine was a Thrashers luxury suite holder. He cut that back to season tickets and now is lucky to see four or five games a season. Life is just too busy, he says. Coaching and following all of his kids’ exploits take up a lot of time.

Glavine says he would like to have pitched a little longer when he rejoined the Braves from the New York Mets in 2008. He was trying to rehab from injury last year in the minors when the Braves called off his comeback. But he has no desire to rush into a baseball coaching position. He’ll consider guest coaching at spring training, but nothing approaching a full-time job.

“I have no desire to put on a uniform for 140-160 games,” he says. “I don’t want those six-, seven-, eight-hour days at the park. I did that as a player and now I enjoy being home.

“I don’t want to jump into something that’s a grind. I want something I will enjoy.”

For now, local hockey referees can only hope Glavine didn’t pick up too much from his longtime Braves’ manager Bobby Cox. Cox holds the all-time record — 159 ejections — for arguing with umpires.

Glavine, described at “very competitive” behind the hockey bench, had one such ejection last season.

“Ahh, it wasn’t my fault,” he says. “I took the fall for my son. The referee just thought I had said what was said.”