By CHRIS LEVITT
Over 30 years of friendship and laughter and precious memories resurfaced last weekend for nearly 20 Sun Val-ley Suns hockey alumni during the USA Hockey Over-50 Na-tional Hockey Championships staged in suburban Tampa Bay, Fla.
"Used to Be Suns," was what it said on the George Gund Cleveland Barons replica jer-seys worn by the alumni—jer-seys that summoned up memo-ries of the late 1970s Sun Valley uniforms. The team played three games at the tourney and won only one. Winning wasn't the whole point.
Suns reunion organizer Glenn Hunter of Ketchum said, "We played and lost two good games, then we finished the tournament well. It was great to get a 5-0 shutout in that final game. But the guys just loved the whole thing and had a great time."
Taking to the ice at Tampa was the entire rookie class of the 1978 Suns team, which in-cluded Hunter, Bobby Noyes and Dave Hutchinson, all still local residents, along with Mark Broz of Boise, Patrick "Frank" Kearney and Joe McCarthy.
Former Wood River resi-dents who made the trip in-cluded Dave Reichel, Tim Rap-pleye, Banjo Williams and George Arnold. Rounding out the team were current Sun Val-ley residents and past Suns stars Dale Johnson, Tim Jene-son, Brad Dredge, Rick Bour-bonnais, Steve Morcone, Mike Punnett and Terry Heneghan.
The reunion came together through the hard-working ef-forts of Hunter, who was in-vited to play in this annual na-tional event in Florida a few years back for another team. In fact, four of the 19 former Suns players last weekend had com-peted in the tournament before, but 15 had not.
Hunter knew the tourna-ment would be a vehicle to re-unite old friends in a hockey atmosphere.
Some of the initial greetings between former teammates were priceless, particularly since many hadn't seen each other for over 20 years. The theme of, "You haven't changed a bit," was echoed for as many beers as it took to finally let the truth out.
Unlike past competitive years, when the players were younger and when most of the hockey humor was directed pointedly at someone else, the barbs and bits of wisdom were self-effacing, drenched in memories.
Maybe it's a matter of ma-turing, although, as always-mischievous Broz said when told the tournament was called the Adult National Champion-ships, "wait until they find out we're not adults yet!"
But one needs to recognize the love these 50-and-older men have for the game, and also appreciate the lifetime friend-ships that come from continu-ing to play a tough, incredibly demanding sport when most normal folks would have long ago moved on to safer forms of entertainment.
Of course, Tampa wasn't Sun Valley in any respect. Suburban Tampa might as well have been suburban "Anytown USA," its rinks buried deep in the burbs of Americana, com-plete with its strip mall culture.
Maybe the blandness was the perfect setting for a hockey reunion that was long on hang-ing-out familiarity.
Everybody seemed to know everybody inside the rinks. The competitive hockey community could honestly be ground zero for the "Six degrees of Kevin Bacon" syndrome that inexpli-cably bonds people together. Nearly everyone on the Suns had a connection to someone on one of the other eight teams in Tier 1 Division.
The games themselves, and the Cubba-Cabana
Usually in bed by 10:15 p.m., the "Used to be Suns" had to play their first game last Thursday at that very hour, and they had to face off against the defending national champi-ons, The Heartland, in the opening game of a three-day national championship.
It turned out to be a classic Suns game, a 3-2 loss against the team that eventually won the national tournament. Heartland had savvy 50-and-older skaters led by ex-Minnesota North Stars and 1984 Olympian Steve Jensen. The game was as exciting and fast paced as any game that took place 30 years ago in Sun Valley.
To a man, this group of Suns agreed it was the most physi-cal, and fair, game they played since their Sun Valley days. A total 16 penalties were handed out with Heartland collecting 10 of them. The game was not "chippy" hockey, just fast paced, tough in the corners, sticks working hockey. The Suns led 2-1 after the first, were tied 2-2 after the second and gave up the tie breaking goal with 1:40 left in the third pe-riod.
If not for the outstanding play of Boise-based goalie Ken Hilgert, the score could have been 7-2 or worse. Solid play in even-strength hockey kept the Suns in the game. Scoring for the Suns were Brad Dredge and Patrick Kearney, with Kearney's goal set up on a nifty pass by Dale Johnson.
The disappointment of los-ing the first game was short lived. The parking lot of the rink following the opening night loss provided the scene for the post-game, post-midnight tailgate party. There was nowhere else to go in a neighborhood that shut down for the night well earlier than that.
It became very apparent at this juncture that the tourna-ment was not all about hockey, at least not for the team from Sun Valley that collectively wore nametags saying "Hello, I'm Frank" during the game itself.
The tournament was far more about friendships and shared past experiences, most of which had a little to do with hockey and everything to do with the bonds of youth and the unique personalities that brought this particular group of Suns players together over 30 years ago.
Game Two played mid-afternoon last Friday was against a hard-skating and well-disciplined group from Detroit, like Heartland a team that had played together in the same region for years. Detroit ended up winning 3-2, eliminat-ing the Suns from qualifying for the championship semi-finals.
Boise skater Doug Mayson scored the first goal on a pass by former St. Louis Blues and Suns star Rick Bourbonnais. But the Suns' timing was a lit-tle off, certainly because the team hadn't skated together much at all. As Dale Johnson said, "Hockey is a game of inches. Every near-miss is just inches from changing the game."
Yet the Idaho squad stayed in the hunt. The flow started to favor the Suns as the second period wound down. On a rela-tively simple Detroit kick save from Dredge's shot, the puck came out cleanly to hard-charging Terry Heneghan—he of the Evil Knievel dew rag, the 30-year-old plastic Jaffa helmet and a full snow white beard. Heneghan stashed the errant rebound into the net, 2-2.
Unfortunately for the Suns midway through the third pe-riod the Detroit team slipped one past the Suns defense and went and stayed ahead 3-2, de-spite a furious, late Suns rally.
Now the real fun began. With the burden of expecta-tions lifted, and relatively sat-isfied with the effort of two close games in an 18-hour pe-riod the Suns regrouped back at the hotel.
Master-of-ceremonies Broz invited everyone up to his room, a room he called the "Cubba-Cabana", for his previ-ously scheduled weekend roommate John "Cubby" Burke.
Burke, a caddie on the PGA circuit and one of the original Suns in 1975, couldn't make it to Tampa Bay because a sched-uling conflict with his regular pro, Cameron Beckman, who was playing in the San Antonio stop of the PGA tour and needed Burke.
The post-game "Cubba-Cabana" was decorated by Broz and Hunter with old posters, scores of old Suns programs, and newly created posters de-picting several past Suns road trips including the infamous trip to Japan during the 1984-85 season.
Individually players brought other past memorabilia as well and for hours the beer flowed and the stories were told, and re-told and then re-shaped and further embellished with addi-tional piece of information bringing more and more laugh-ter.
It's difficult to put into words how 21 grown men, most now scattered throughout the country and all of whom have turned out to have had success-ful lives, can come to a Tampa Bay hotel to re-live moments in their lives that took place up to 30 years ago in a remote part of Idaho.
Most have children now who are the same age as their hockey playing dads when they came to Sun Valley, yet each story and recalled moment was as fresh as when it happened.
Saturday's final game against a team from Atlanta turned into the 5-0 Suns vic-tory. Leading the way was the fabulous Hilgert goaltending along with two goals each from Bourbonnais and McCarthy. Assisting on the "game-winning first goal," as he put it, was Broz. He made a nifty pass from the point to initiate the scoring.
At that point, Jeneson initi-ated the post-game, post-tournament and impromptu parking lot party at his rented van. Continuing the tropical theme, he dubbed it the "van-a-cabana". Members from two of the other tournament teams joined in, and for four more hours the stories and memories continued, complete with de-livered pizza and the foresight to designate drivers in advance who got everyone back to the hotel safely.
Probably for good reason life's natural progression doesn't allow too much living in the past. However, once in awhile you get lucky. And for a brief moment in time you can reach back and grab hold of the past. You can recall a time that brought so much joy and bring it up to the present.
That was the Big Chill in Tampa.
Editor's note: For those who don't remember Chris Levitt, he was "Sal Check," the Suns color commentator back in the 1980s when local radio broadcast Suns games. Levitt has been working for the past 19 years in advertising at Sports Radio KJR-AM in Seattle in the adver-tising sales end of things. Eight-een years ago, he joined forces with pro basketball player Detlef Schrempf and started his children's foundation here in Seattle. That foundation (detlef.com) is still going strong. Levitt is married to the former Mary Cay Kearney, who bought her husband the trip to Tampa as a Christmas 2010 gift. They live in Kirkland, Wash. and have three children: Patrick, 22, graduating in May from Wash-ington State; Lilly, 19, a sopho-more at WSU and Winnie a high school freshman.