Karen Crouse’s recipe for success: A passion for sports and writing (and knowledge) shines through in every article

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 25, 2015) — Her latest story appears on Page 1 of the International New York Times, bundled together with The Japan Times as a two-newspaper package available throughout the Land of the Rising Sun. In this piece, also displayed prominently on The Times’ website, she writes with clarity and depth about the state of men’s golf in 2015.

One brief passage, which appeared on the story’s jump page, immediately grabbed my attention because of its clever word play and broad viewpoint: “He has a twinkle in his eye, a strut to his step, a howitzer for a driver and 2.3 million Twitter followers.”

She was writing about Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old golfer from Northern Ireland.

She is … Karen Crouse, a 1984 graduate of the University of Southern California and former Lady Trojans swimmer.

She has paid her dues in this business, reporting for newspapers located on the West Coast and East Coast. Her career has included stops at the the Savannah (Georgia) News-Press, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, Palm Beach Post and The New York Times.

I recently conducted this interview with her.

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Who are three or four must-read sports journalists you read on a weekly basis? What makes their work appealing to you?

Anything by J.R. Moehringer, and if you read his piece on Alex Rodriguez in ESPN The Magazine, the reason why will be self-evident. His collaboration with Andre Agassi on Agassi’s autobiography is the gold standard of sports memoirs. I greatly enjoy our Sports of the Times columnists, especially Michael Powell, whose dexterity with the English language is laudable. His column from Madison Bumgarner’s dad’s home during the decisive game of the World Series was an instant classic. Sally Jenkins consistently writes thought-provoking columns, and her writing is so lyrical it could be set to music. I’ll read anything by Chris Ballard or S.L. Price in Sports Illustrated because of the depth of their reporting and the loveliness of their prose and I always look for Johnette Howard at ESPN.com.  I read a LOT of non-sports non-fiction. I just finished “Leaving Before the Rains Come” by Alexandra Fuller, whose writing is beautiful.

Do you have an all-time favorite favorite print journalist?

Jim Murray, because he could wound without drawing blood – he wasn’t vicious in his criticism – and his columns were unfailingly original, entertaining and artfully crafted. And a more humble person you will NEVER find.

Considering the ebb and flow of an NFL game (one of your past coverage beats) and a “typical” day of pro golf, how does your note taking, reporting, writing, interviewing … the whole enchilada differ?

In football, I filled my notebook with facts and numbers. In golf, my notes contain much more description of scenes, of player and crowd reactions, of dialogue. I have much more freedom in golf to find different stories because of the sheer number of players posting scores every week, and because they are in action from dawn to dusk, I have a lot more time to sniff out stories and report them than when I was limited to 15 minutes of watching practice, a half hour of locker room access or one game a week.

Is pro football and golf reporting equally intense, but different?

The misconception about golf is that it is a deadline dream job because it ends before dark. The reality, for me, anyway, is that I’m typically at the course from dawn to dusk most days, which is much longer than I spent at football stadiums on game days.  I love the freedom the sport affords me in plucking stories from all over the course. But one of my friends, after observing me at work one week, said it’s like I’m trying to write like (John) Cheever while keeping a wire service reporter’s hours. I’m not sure about the Cheever part, but the days are very long and four years into the beat, I haven’t really figured out how to strike a better balance.

What do you consider your chief strengths as a journalist?

My curiosity, my ability to ask good questions (which is a consequence of pretty exhaustive research, if I’m working on a profile), my genuine interest in what makes the people I’m writing about tick, my doggedness (a leftover quality from my competitive swimming days, I suppose), my desire every day to tell the readers something about my subject that they haven’t read before.

There are challenges, biases, and obstacles that female sports journalists have faced and continue to face that their male counterparts never do. But is there additional respect given to you when you identify yourself as a New York Times journalist? Does that open doors or provide greater access/opportunities that you wouldn’t have normally received in past newspaper jobs that you have had?

I definitely get calls back from people who almost certainly would have ignored me if I had contacted them when I was with any of my nine previous employers. I never take for granted the doors that open to me, if only a crack, because of where I work. And I never kid myself about why many people choose to talk to me – while I’d like to think it’s because of my sparkling personality or reputation (ha!), in many cases it is entirely because of I have the Times’ stamp of approval.

I’m not sure I’m automatically accorded more respect because of where I work. If anything, my work and how I carry myself is more closely scrutinized by people inside and outside the business. I’m keenly aware there are many people who would love to have my job, and who think they would be better at my job, and so in some respects I feel like I have to work harder than ever to prove to outsiders that I’m worthy of occupying such a prized position. I remember not long after I was hired by the paper, I was covering a football game and a fellow sportswriter, a man, congratulated me on the job and said, “I didn’t know they were looking for a woman to fill that position.

”Bless him, but it never occurred to him that the editors might have thought I was the best hire for the job. He assumed that if I was hired, it was because I was a woman and the paper was looking to diversify its sports section.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in this profession?

Treat the people you cover the way you’d like to be treated. Remember they are people first, athletes second. Don’t assume anything.

Maybe the biggest thing I’ve learned, and perhaps this is unique to me, is all these years I’ve been digging into people’s lives and asking all kinds of questions, it is ostensibly because I’m trying to make sense of their lives, but what I’m really trying to do in a very elemental way is make sense of my own and our collective lives.

A  mentor’s words of wisdom?

Don’t try to fit in because it’s your differences that set you apart.

Perfect is the enemy of good.

Steer clear of the comments under your stories

A past lesson you learned that served you well for future work?

At the 2012 Masters, I was misquoted in a national sports blog – in the headline, no less — and suffered greatly for it. It was an invaluable experience, being on the other end of an interview and seeing firsthand how your words can be a boomerang that knocks you off your feet. It gave me a greater appreciation of how vulnerable people become when they entrust you with their stories and their beliefs. The experience strengthened the empathy I already felt for the people I cover.

These days, because of their prolonged time away from the game, how much of a void is there without Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa winning frequently and traveling the world over for the LPGA? Which LPGA golfer now in the game do you feel has the greatest potential for legendary status?

Lydia Ko is 17 years old and already No. 1 in the world. Never mind Rory McIlroy, Lydia may end up being the next Tiger Woods. She has said she plans to play until she is 30 and then embark on another career.  She has a bubbly personality, a beautiful swing and is as gracious as Lorena, which is saying a lot.

Who has a better sense of humor in a one-on-one setting with a reporter for an interview — Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps?

I’ve been told Tiger has a wicked sense of humor, and I don’t doubt it. I’ve seen shades of it over the years. But since I’ve never had a one-on-one with Tiger, unless you count walking and talking to him as he strides purposefully to the practice range or his car, I’ll have to say Michael.

Has there been a years-long Phelps boom in increasing popularity in swimming that’s clearly noticeable in terms of participation numbers

There has been a noticeable Michael effect. There was a definite spike in club swimming participation after the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. I didn’t appreciate how much he transcended swimming until he showed up at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medina Country Club outside Chicago to play in the pro-am and drew a larger gallery than any golfer, Tiger included. Michael made swimming look fun and effortless. Of course, the rub is that anybody who gets into it on a year-round level quickly discovers the sport can be very time intensive and demanding, and the sensory deprivation can be so great — staring at a black line for hours on end is not everybody’s cup of tea, and so while Michael may have brought a lot of people to the pool, he alone cannot make them love the grind. That has to come from within and not everybody is wired that way. For that reason, I’m not sure the sport will ever take off, though when you see teens  like Katie Ledecky and Michael Andrew, there’s reason to hope.
in the U.S.

Are there female U.S. Olympian swimmers who also ought to be recognized for helping achieve this?

Natalie Coughlin has been huge, Missy Franklin, by her actions and her attitude, has won over a generation of impressionable youngsters while endearing herself to the casual fan.  Katie Ledecky, through her humility and her dominance, is raising the profile of the sport stateside.

And now … a bit of word association and descriptions that immediately come to mind from your experiences observing them and interacting with them over the years…

-Paola Boivin – one of my best friends in or out of the business, writes with humor and compassion

-Bill Plaschke –likes to tug at the heartstrings

-Edwin Pope – a sports journalist legend

-Donald Sterling – personifies a very small subset of Los Angeles

-Elgin Baylor — underappreciated

-Phil Mickelson – a born entertainer

-John Daly — complicated

-Arnold Palmer — beloved

-Jacques Rogge – the Beijing Olympics on his watch taints his legacy

-Gary Hall Jr. —  showman

-Don Shula  — old-school

-Joe Namath – misunderstood

-Teemu Selanne – a prince of a player and a person

-Jackie MacMullan — fierce

-Linda Robertson – wonderful writer, one of the best in the biz

-Jim Murray – singular talent; my favorite writer of all-time

-Bruce Jenkins – terrific wordsmith, I’ll read ANYTHING he writes on baseball

-Natalie Coughlin – admirable longevity and I’d eat meals she concocts!

-Federica Pellegrini – broke freestyle barriers with the help of the buoyant suits

-Pat Summitt – the all-time greatest college basketball coach of either gender

How many Olympics have you reported from?

Nine (every Summer Olympics since 1992 and every Winter Olympics since 2006)

Which assignment(s) brought you the greatest thrills/adrenaline rush to watch and report on them?

The Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup Finals run in 1993 – I hadn’t covered much hockey and was thrown into this incredible postseason run, starring Gretzky and including series in Toronto and Montreal, cities that are the cradle of the NHL.  And Michael Phelps collecting his eight golds  in the 2008 Olympics. I started swimming competitively after watching Mark Spitz win seven golds in 1972 so to be able to cover the man who supplanted Spitz in the record books for The New York Times felt like my sporting life had come full circle.

And which off-the-beaten path Olympic stories are among your favorite stories you think you’ll be recounting to family, friend and colleagues in 20-30 years from now?

At the very first Olympics I covered, in 1992, two of the U.S. Olympic team members were swimmers I had grown up training with in Northern California. So it was kind of surreal to be covering their races as a journalist. And Mike Bruner’s victory in the 200 butterfly at the 1976 Olympics is a result that will always be near and dear to my heart. He let me interview him for an eighth-grade project before the Olympic Trials. I brought a copy of the interview to the Trials, which I attended with my father, and he later credited the interview with putting him in the right frame of mind to make the Olympic team.

What do you think is the biggest misconception the general public and/or sports fans have about a sports reporter’s job?

That it is glamorous and easy. That we come at our jobs as fans when, in truth, most of us bring to the workplace the detachment of anthropologists observing unfamiliar tribes in their natural habitats.

What are three must-read sports nonfiction books and three non-sports books you would recommend to anyone to read?

“Open” by Andre Agassi with J.R. Moehringer; “Swimming to Antarctica” by Lynne Cox; Jim Murray, “The Last of the Best, Seabiscuit” by Laura Hillenbrand

And a sampling of my favorite non-sports books; “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs; “Gold” by Chris Cleave; “Glass Castle”s by Jeannette Walls. “The Skies Belong to Us” by Brendan Koerner. “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert. “The Good Spy” by Kai Bird. “Fire in the Lake” by Frances Fitzgerald.

Is Dan Jenkins’ sense of humor (http://www.golfdigest.com/golf-tours-news/2014-12/dan-jenkins-fake-interview-with-tiger) something that Tiger will refuse to relate to? Or was Tiger’s reaction to what Jenkins wrote a by-product  of his drop in win totals and simply a public way to blow off steam?

My sense is that Tiger Woods’ inner circle was more upset by what Dan wrote than was Tiger, who I really, truly (believe) does not seem to care what anybody writes or says about him.

You’ve written, I believe, several thousand articles now during your colorful career in this business. Can you think of three or four stories that resonated the most with readers (and your professional colleagues)?

These are some stories that resonated with readers and that I’m also proud of because of the positive impact they had on their subjects:

In 2005, during the first month of my first Jets season, I wrote a profile on the receiver Laveranues Coles in which he talked about for the first time publicly being sexually abused as a child. After unburdening himself of this secret, his personality blossomed. I had a Jets front-office official come up to me a few years later and tell me that that story helped Laveranues come out of his shell and set him on the path to becoming one of the most beloved (instead of misunderstood) players in the organization.

While with the Palm Beach Post, I did a project in 2004 on the 1976 U.S. Women’s Olympic swim team and how the members were among the first competitors to face a playing field tilted against them because of competitors using performance-enhancing drugs. The anchor of the piece was Shirley Babashoff, who might have equaled Mark Spitz’s Munich gold medal outlay in Montreal if not for the fact she was going up against East German competitors pumped full of steroids. Shirley was famously reclusive, but I persuaded her to talk and the result was a really powerful piece that I hope gave people who don’t see understand why athletes using PEDs is such a big deal a different perspective.

In 2010, I did a series of pieces for the Times on the challenges faced by women whose prime years as child bearers coincide with their prime years as athletes. I did a piece on the golfer Cristie Kerr, who was considering surrogacy; on the tennis player Gigi Hernandez and the golfer Jane Geddes, who adopted two children after Gigi battled infertility; on the driver Sarah Fisher, who retired from racing so she could try to start a family, on Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a WNBA player then with the (New York) Liberty who experienced motherhood right out of high school, scuttling her college plans, and then again after she was established as a professional.

Also in 2010, I wrote a profile of the swimmer Amanda Beard in which she talked for the first time about her struggles with drug abuse, bulimia and cutting. The story led to her writing her autobiography for Simon and Schuster.

In 2008, I wrote a really fun profile of Kurt Warner and I included 8 Family Rules for being a Warner. It also was developed into a book, which Kurt and (his wife) Brenda did with the help of a ghost writer.

In 2012, I wrote an essay for the New York Times sports section about how I became a sports journalist and told the story of interviewing Mike Bruner when I was a youngster, and how impactful it was when he credited the interview with his making the Olympic team. That story really resonated with readers and colleagues alike, I think because it’s such a pay-it-forward type of story, a really feel-good tale for these tough times in journalism.

During your times covering the NHL, was Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux the more magnetic superstar in your view?

Definitely Wayne, because even though he is a shy man, when he had the puck on his stick your eye was inexorably drawn to him.

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Follow Karen Crouse on Twittter: @bykaren

Here’s a link to her New York Times archive: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/c/karen_crouse/index.html

Appreciating Igor Larionov and Ron Francis (circa 2002)

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on June 3, 2002.

Larionov, Francis remarkable contrasts
By Ed Odeven

Two aging stars. Two inspirational leaders. Two players whose value to their teams extend far beyond the stat sheet.

Without a doubt, these are the common characteristics shared by Detroit’s Igor Larionov and Carolina’s Ron Francis, the oldest players on their respective teams that clash in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals tonight in Hockeytown, commonly known as Detroit.

As much as the deft-passing centers have in common on the ice, the personal backgrounds and experiences of Larionov and Francis are as different as “Sesame Street” and “Seinfeld.”

Larionov, 41, was born and raised in the now-dismantled U.S.S.R. during the days of the Cold War. He made his NHL debut with the San Jose Sharks at the age of 29, an age when many players are already contemplating a second career.

Francis, 39, grew up in another hotbed of hockey, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. He made his NHL debut as the ripe old age of 18 in 1981 with the Hartford Whalers. (Yes, those Whalers, who during the 1970s won the World Hockey Association’s equivalent of the Stanley Cup while playing in Boston and going by the name of New England Whalers. And now, Francis is back in his second tour of duty with the franchise, except now the Whalers, err, Hurricanes call North Carolina home.)

Larionov helped lead the Soviets to numerous World Hockey Championship gold medals and Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988. But his biggest battles were fought off the ice.

Before the collapse of Russia’s communist regime in the early 1990s, Larionov voiced his opinion, attacking the principle pillar of Russian society: our way is the only way.

“It is easy to fight on the ice,” ex-Red Wing Slava Fetisov told The Detroit News in 1996. “But not many people fight the Communist system.”

Fetisov along with Larionov paved the way for the future influx of Russians in the NHL.

“”He stood up for himself and other guys,” Fetisov said. “He never gave up. That means more than fighting on the ice, no?”

Pundits and scholars recognize Larionov’s influential place in the Soviet Union.

“Larionov is the most important athlete in the history of Soviet sport, leading the campaign for Soviet athletes to play abroad without defection,” Robert Edelman, the author of “Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the U.S.S.R.,” said in a 1995 interview.

Francis never battled an oppressive regime. Instead, he’s quietly made opposing players shake their heads and slam their sticks in frustration during 21 years of on-ice battles. A model of consistency and unselfish play, Francis has amassed 1,701 regular-season points during his career, which places him No. 5 on the league’s all-time scoring list.

That’s not all.

Francis is No. 2 on the league’s all-time assists list (1,187 helpers), trailing only the inimitable Wayne Gretzky (1,963). Midway through his career, Francis was a key player for the Pittsburgh Penguins who won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992.

Remarkably, even at this stage of their careers, Larionov and Francis are still dominant playmakers.

“He’s smart, but gritty. He plays different than anybody I’ve ever played with. He makes passes in different directions, not just straight ahead,” Detroit captain Steve Yzerman said during a recent discussion of Larionov.

Said Carolina’s Martin Gelinas: “Ron will say something when it needs to be said, but he has a very calming influence in the room. “He always goes about his business in a quiet manner, but it’s always effective.”

So, instead of just being marveled by the exploits of the game’s younger stars, give Larionov and Francis their due. For different reasons, these dynamic veterans have led amazing lives and continue to perform amazing feats on the ice.

“Gordie, Gordie, Gordie!”

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Nov. 10, 2014) — Before Wayne Gretzky thrilled the masses with his out-of-this world hockey skills, Gordie Howe was “Mr. Hockey,” a beloved figure throughout Canada and beyond. Howe’s tough-guy demeanor, ability to put the puck in the net, deliver a bone-rattling check – and take a hit — and lead his team to Stanley Cup titles were all legendary exploits during his quarter century in a Detroit Red Wings sweater.

And as far back as I can remember, I recall my Uncle Jack telling hockey tales, and Howe’s name was always a part of those stories.

How couldn’t it have been?

Gordie Howe is 86 now and recovering from a recent stroke. Despite his advancing age, his ties to the current Red Wings remain as strong as ever. To this day, he likes to dish out advice to players, telling them to “shoot the puck,” Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg told The New York Times last week, adding, “If you don’t shoot, you can’t score.”

That, of course, sounds like Howe. He was always a bona fide competitior, and didn’t retire until he was in his early 50s.

As the news headlines detail Howe’s health issues, including dementia, I’m reminded of the first hockey game I attended in person, a special treat a few weeks before my 8th birthday. It was a charity event called Masters of Hockey, established by the Phil Esposito Foundation, held at Madison Square Garden in March 1982, on a Sunday. Details of game day are sketchy. I remember carrying around some souvenirs, including a game program, eating popcorn and drinking hot chocolate, as well as munching on a Blimpie sub (Was that tasty sandwich scarfed down before or after the game? I can’t recall. But I remember being so excited, wanting to talk about the game to classmates the next day.)

But I do remember that Uncle Jack was happy to watch many of his older favorite players, including, as online research confirms, Esposito, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield and … Gordie Howe skate, pass the puck, take shots and attempt to relive their glory years in the NHL. Sitting beside him and I were my cousins Paul and Craig at MSG. And as the action unfolded before our eyes, and the players skated close to our section of the famous arena, Uncle Jack reminded us to chant “Gordie, Gordie, Gordie!” when he was visible. It was a chant that could’ve been shouted in the years just after World War II in Motown, but was still fun for fans to scream on this upbeat Sunday night in Manhattan.

And so we chanted “Gordie, Gordie, Gordie!” with all our might.

We weren’t the only ones.

 

 

 

Willard Reaves’ humble beginnings

Before St. Louis Blues winger Ryan Reaves’ career as a pro hockey player was launched, his father, Willard, made his mark in the CFL and played in the NFL, too. He then became a sergeant in the Manitoba Sheriff Services.

Here’s a look at the elder Reaves’ life a decade ago, 15 years after he played in his final NFL game.

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 1, 2004.

Headline: Reaves doesn’t shy away from limelight

By Ed Odeven

As a pro running back, Willard Reaves was never shy about praising the valuable but oft-neglected efforts of his team’s offensive linemen. As a public figure, the Flagstaff native and former NAU back, is quick to mention the impact Jesse Rodriguez has had on his life.

More than 30 years ago, Reaves, was a ninth-grade student at East Flagstaff Junior High School and took a public speaking class taught by Rodriguez.

“I was a homeroom rep in student council and one of the things that he wanted to get us familiar with was not to be afraid to speak in public,” Reaves said Friday from his Winnipeg, Manitoba, home. “I learned my speaking through him and some of the techniques the class was being taught.”

Fast forward to 2004 and Reaves is a sergeant with the Manitoba Sheriff Services and a well-known figure in his adopted hometown.

“I didn’t want to play professional football,” Reaves admitted, chuckling. “I wanted to be a police officer in Flagstaff. That was my lifelong dream. I never, ever changed my dream.”

It did, however, take the advice of Scott Ross, his best buddy at Coconino High School, to convince him to first pursue a career in football.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to make it in professional football. I don’t care about anybody else. They don’t have what you have. You are going to make it in professional football and you’ll see that.'” Reaves said, recounting Ross’ words. “I just looked at him and said, ‘Oh, really.’ I guess what Scott was saying was true.”

The prediction was precise. Reaves earned all-state honors and Phoenix Metro’s player of the year award while he played at Coconino. He starred for the Lumberjacks from 1977-80, earning All-American honors in 1979 after rushing for 1,084 yards. Reaves played two season for the Green Bay Packers, five with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers — highlighted by his 1984 season in which he rushed for 1,733 yards and 18 TDs earned the league’s player of the year award and “smashed a couple of records,” he says, pausing to laugh, “more than a couple.” — and then two years with the Washington Redskins. He retired in 1990 after a final season with the Miami Dolphins.

Public speaking has been a big part of Reaves’ live ever since. Instead of shunning his fame, he has embraced it.

“It’s been great because now I speak before thousands of people,” Reaves said.

The biggest thrill he’s ever gotten standing in front of the podium occurred in January 1985, when he was the keynote speaker in Toronto at the Conn Smythe celebrity sports dinner, an annual event in Canada attended by thousands of celebrities, including Canada’s deputy prime minister. Dan Marino was the other featured speaker that night.

Oftentimes, Reaves speaks at charity fundraisers and school functions, such as career day. A motivational speech he gave at a Winnipeg high school plagued by gang influences stands out as a memorable event in Reaves’ live. After positively inspiring one young male student in the audience to clean up his act, he began attending classes regularly, dropped out of his gang, went on to have perfect attendance and later earned a college degree in engineering.

The biggest surprise? Years later, Reaves bumped into the former student at a mall and met his wife and young son, whose middle name was Willard, in honor of Reaves.

“I think I’ve done a really good job with a lot of people here,” he admitted proudly, “and people are still coming up to me to say thank you for it.”

Even though he’s achieved fame and fortune, Reaves has never forgotten his humble roots or the value of common courtesy.

“Because you choose a profession (where) you are in the public eye, by golly, you have to give yourself to the public. … Allow the people who have enjoyed watching you play football the opportunity to just come up and talk to you,” said Reaves, whose parents, Jim and Vera Peeler, still reside in Flagstaff. “I retired in 1990 and there are still people coming up and talking to me about this, about that.

“I am recognized on every corner of Canada, and that’s something I’ll cherish and try to protect as much as I can.”

Reaves and his wife, Brenda, have three children: daughter Regina, 21, who lives in Phoenix, 21; and sons Ryan, 17, and Jordan, 14. Ryan, a 6-foot-1, 194-pound right wing, plays for the Brandon (Manitoba) Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League and is a bona-fide NHL prospect.

“When he gets on the ice, you can feel a complete change in the other team’s approach,” the elder Reaves said, describing what scouts say about Ryan, “It’s more stand-offish. They don’t want to ruffle his feathers too much. … He changes the game completely around. When he’s off the ice, they go back to their regular plan.”

Like father, like son. Willard Reaves was a physical, imposing force on the football field. Off the field, he lets his actions do the talking.

Coyotes visit Flagstaff school

Coyotes go back to school to rebuild NHL’s goodwill

Sept. 10, 2005
Ed Odeven
AZ Daily Sun sports column

“Did you have fun?” a man asked.

“Yeahhh!” they shouted in unison.

This was the scene at Killip Elementary School’s gym Wednesday afternoon, where a group of more than 40 students met Krys Kolanos and Matthew Spiller of the Phoenix Coyotes.

The pros were in town as part of the hockey club’s statewide “Coyotes’ Caravan,” a program designated to provide elementary school students with educational and safety material and give them a close-up look at the sport of hockey. Asking players questions and getting their autographs are two popular aspects of the program. (The team also visited Prescott and several Valley-area locations during the past week.)

The Coyotes also visited Thomas K. Knoles and Marshall elementary schools and the Jay Lively Center for an open skate Wednesday.

The after-school program at Killip was split into two groups. The earlier group got to meet the players at around 3 p.m., while the later group had about 20 kids in it.

Bob Heethuis, the Coyotes’ radio play-by-play man, served as the master of ceremonies.

“How many of you have played hockey?” he asked.

A few hands were raised.

Moments later, Heethuis introduced Kolanos, a 24-year-old center from Calgary, Alberta, and Spiller, a 22-year-old defenseman from Daysland, Alberta, to the kids.

Their eyes lit up as Heethuis shifted gears from introductions — he revealed that Spiller is known as “7-footer,” because he’s nearly 7-feet tall with his ice skates and that Kolanos is dubbed “Special K,” because he’s a “special-type player” — to beginning the talk about equipment.

“Who wants to put on equipment?”

Nearly every hand went up.

Heethuis, however, decided it would be more fair to have a different volunteer, a less-eager participant, be part of this show-and-tell segment.

The kids decided on the fellow they call Mr. Trace, NAU senior microbiology major Trace Updike, a 23-year-old after-school counselor.

Kolanos put one piece of equipment after another — shin pads, hockey pants, shoulder pads, elbow pads, Spiller’s No. 6 white jersey and a helmet — on Updike. This was happening while Spiller explained what each piece of equipment is used for.

They left the ice skates at Glendale Arena, though.

But plenty of sticks were available for the students. First, they watched Spiller and Kolanos take turns passing a plastic puck on the wood floor and showing a few nifty stickhandling maneuvers.

“Do you guys want to do that?” said Heethuis, who got to ask his fair share of fun questions.

“Yeahhh!”

Several lines were set up. Kids took turns stickhandling, walking or running several feet with the puck near their stick, around an orange cone and back to the front of the line. Some passed the puck (or a street hockey ball), too.

After one kid’s sharp, on-target pass, Kolanos let him know he was impressed. “Nice pass buddy,” the pro said.

Martin Ortiz, 9, flashed a million-dollar smile after Wednesday’s second afternoon session at Killip as he discussed the fun he had.

“I never saw them play (before),” he said. “They are really cool.”

Destiney Evans, 12, agreed.

“They are very fun and I got their autographs,” she said, smiling. I learned a lot about hockey (today).”

Such as?

“I thought the equipment was one big (piece),” she added.

Cole Wilson, 12, and Garrett Wilson, 9, also enjoyed getting their autographs. Cole said he’d gotten autographs only once before — Arizona’s Miss America beauty pageant contestant signed something for him.

Savannah Goodway, who turns 10 on Monday, was asked what she liked about the players’ visit.

“Everything,” she offered.

Dianna Ortiz, 11, enjoyed the equipment demonstration.

“They showed me hockey sticks and named the things they put on (to play),” she said, grinning with delight.

Carlie Worrell, 10, summed it up this way: “It’s cool getting to see them practice.”

Earlier in the day, before they ate cheeseburgers at Buster’s Restaurant & Bar, I sat down with Kolanos and Spiller for a casual interview.

We started our talk by discussing the day’s activities. I asked them what it’s like to visit schools and meet kids.

“They had a few giggles when we dressed up the principal (to) put all the equipment on her and stuff,” Spiller said, referring to Knoles principal Mary K. Walton. “I think they really had fun with that.”

Kolanos said the students asked him and Spiller a variety of questions, ranging from their age, to their positions, to their daily routine, to how long they practice, and “everything there is to know about hockey.

“The kids were so excited to ask as many questions as possible,” Kolanos added.

The Coyotes’ training camp officially commences with a team meeting today.

Indeed, they are eager to get back on the ice after the bitter lockout forced the cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season.

“I think guys are really excited,” Spiller said. “It’s going to be a new league out there, new rules, and it’s going to be awesome for the fans, I think.”

Now both Canadian natives look forward to playing for the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, the Coyotes’ first-year head coach.

“He’ll be around to answer questions and he’s going to give you his two cents and it’s going to be a great experience for everyone,” Kolanos said.