Remembering Leo Durocher
As I sat at my desk this weekend, I could not but think about the Leo Durocher Memorial Tournament taking place over at Stanton Field. Two of Durocher’s sons, Daron and Tom, were participating as part of the Superior National Bank-Stanton squad.
I know that Leo created something very special in his baseball legacy. I know that it still brings a sense of pride to his family and friends, who get the opportunity to play in Stanton and on the field where he cultivated much of his special mystique.
I have had the pleasure of covering several games over the past five years at Stanton, and it is amazing to see the dugouts covered with some of the amazing Twilight League, but mainly the Durocher history.
However, baseball is not the first sport I think of when I think about the man I know as Coach Durocher.
You see, Leo was my travel hockey coach from the time I was a first-year squirt until I was a second-year bantam. He was the only travel hockey coach I knew, and most of the time, his sons Daron and Andre were my teammates.
I had a very successful final season in mites and when my father saw that there were going to be tryouts for the South Range State Bank Squirt AA team, he made sure I was at the rink to do what I could to make that team.
I remember not really understanding why that first tryout was so important. I had no idea it would set the tone for my career moving forward.
I made the team in my first year, and found myself playing left wing most of the season. Our team colors were the same as the Los Angeles Kings’ were, which was awesome, because Wayne Gretzky was playing for the Kings at the time, and he was already widely considered one of the best, if not the best, of all time.
I, however, was not. I had fun traveling and playing, but I did not have great offensive numbers during my first or second season with South Range.
I did learn about killing penalties, mainly because I was not a Top 6 player for Leo. It was frustrating, don’t get me wrong, but I accepted the role, mainly because I had no real idea what I was even capable of as a skater.
Leo and I did not interact much those first couple of seasons. I thought that he focused on the more highly-skilled skaters, and just kept me around to fill out a roster.
As I got older and moved up to the Jim’s Foodmart PeeWee AA squad, I began to understand that I was capable of playing the game at the same level as the higher-talented players who were also in my age group.
Plus, after two years of traveling all over Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and eastern Ontario, I felt like a part of this group. In my second year of PeeWees, I scored a hat trick in our first game of the season against Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. My linemates for that game were Dan Juopperi and Bryan Howard.
Shortly after that, Howard broke his arm in a practice and Juopperi and I were split up onto different lines. I still felt like I grew a lot that year, and yet, Leo and I did not interact much.
As a first-year bantam, our Superior National Bank AA team went through a rash of injuries, leading Leo to try Patrick Nettell, yes the Jeffers head coach, as a defenseman. Pat struggled in the role, leading me to ask Leo to give me a chance to try it. I was scared to ask him, mainly because we had not interacted that much in four years. However, once I did ask, he gave me a shot, and I found I loved it.
The following season, I was old enough to try out for the Houghton Gremlins. I remember going into Coach Don Miller’s office and asking him politely at the beginning of tryouts that he not take me because I had a chance to be a part of a special Bantam A travel squad.
Whether he agreed with me or not, I ended up back on SNB, and with Leo at the helm, we made a run to the state title game, where we lost by just one goal.
All through that season, Leo and I talked a lot. I gained a real respect for the man who had been my head coach for six years.
After bantams ended, Leo ended up as an assistant with Coach Miller at Houghton for the two seaons I played there as well.
I just could not get away from the guy.
Leo taught me a lot about hockey and life, considering he was a coach of mine for eight seasons. I owe a lot to the man I knew as coach.