Men’s Hockey Receives Belated X-Mas Gift – Flyers Goalie Robert Esche Joins Staff

Men's Hockey Receives Belated X-Mas Gift - Flyers Goalie Robert Esche Joins Staff

Jessie Markovetz

Most sports fans hold their athletic heroes in the highest regard. It is easy to explain then why ticket prices have become astronomical in recent years and why lines are seemingly endless for an athlete’s autograph session. There is, however, little sympathy for athletes from fans. While a fan might empty out his or her pockets just to be in the same building as a professional athlete, it is unlikely that the complaints or cries of any athlete will fall upon sympathetic ears.When Minnesota Timberwolves superstar Latrell Spreewell stated that a contract offer worth over $4 million for one year wasn’t enough to feed his family, his fans, who on average earn less than one percent of that figure, couldn’t care less. In the same state, Minnesota Vikings star Randy Moss stated that a $10,000 fine “wasn’t s**t to him.” And he was right. What’s $10,000 to somebody who just signed a nine-figure deal over 10 years. Still, Moss did not do much to ingratiate himself to many of his fans with his comments.With escalating athlete salaries and increasing detachment between players and fans at the forefront of the North American professional sports scene, the National Hockey League (NHL) owners declared a lockout on September 15 that will likely cancel the 2004-2005 season, although some players and owners are holding out hope that perhaps an abbreviated season can be played. Not surprisingly, players have found little sympathy from fans. The 2003-2004 season saw decreased attendance and decreased television ratings as well as a Stanley Cup finals match-up between Calgary and Tampa Bay that hardly registered a blip on the sports radar. When and if the NHL returns to action, it will have to deal with a diminished and disoriented fan base that sees the lockout as a squabble between two groups of millionaires.There are, however, some players who just want to play hockey. Take Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Robert Esche for instance. Like every other NHL player, he misses the fast-paced action. But you won’t find the 26-year-old netminder on television complaining about his salary or flaunting his wealth. Instead, you can find Esche at Starr Rink. For every Spreewell or Moss, there is an Esche who reminds the fans that not all athletes are just about the money.After participating in this summer’s World Cup for the American team, Esche, who now lives in Westmoreland, couldn’t stay away from the ice. Esche’s close friend and fellow NHL superstar Joe Nieuwendyk had been volunteering for the Cornell men’s hockey team as an assistant coach. Nieuwendyk, who has won three Stanley Cups, is a Cornell graduate; Esche, on the other hand, has no direct Colgate ties, although he grew up outside of Utica. His father, however, is a close friend of head coach Don Vaughan and a connection was made. Now, Esche is a volunteer who has the opportunity to practice with the men’s hockey team, particularly with senior goaltender Steve Silverthorn as well as emerging first-year goaltenders Justin Kowalkoski and Mark Dekanich. For Esche, it is a chance to stay fresh and to keep hockey in his blood during the prolonged lockout.”I’ve been able to share some things with the players here,” Esche said. “I have been privileged to work with [Philadelphia Flyers head coach Ken] Hitchcock, whose knowledge I have been sharing with these players. It is also a good way to get some ice time. After the World Cup, I had a bad hip injury, so this is a great way to get back in shape.”Esche, obviously, is not simply a bystander. He straps on the orange and black pads he has worn during his two seasons with the Flyers and a Colgate practice jersey and lets some of the Raiders’ best players take their shots at an all-world goaltender. The respect is mutual. Since Esche began practicing with the Raiders last Wednesday, players have been found staying late after practice to shoot extra pucks or just to talk hockey with the NHL superstar.Unfortunately, however, much of the hockey discussion is Esche’s life has focused on the NHL lockout. As the Flyers’ player representative, Esche, along with loquacious teammate Jeremy Roenick, have been two of the most outspoken NHL players throughout this entire process. Esche stated that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is a “madman.” He has, however, apologized for this remark. Roenick was spotted at an NBA game holding up a makeshift sign stating “Wake Up Gary.”While at Colgate, it is still difficult for Esche not to think about both his role as the Flyers’ player representative and the bright lights of an NHL arena. Esche is hoping for a quick return to NHL action.”I’m trying to remain optimistic,” Esche said. “I really don’t know. [From Wednesday’s players-owners meeting], there were some good things taken out of it; there were some bad things. We’ll have to wait and see what the owners are really going to do, because unfortunately for the fans and for the other players out there, we’re not going to be accepting a salary cap.”The advent of a salary cap seems to be the main sticking point between the owners and the players. When the Major League Baseball Players’ Union went on strike in 1994, the salary cap was at the forefront, and to the dismay of the owners, such a cap was not added. The result of the strike was the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.”We’ll talk about anything else,” Esche continued. “You want to talk about revenue sharing, luxury tax, whatever you want. We are willing to give back 24 percent of our money. If [the owners] don’t want to talk in those terms or in that language, then unfortunately, I think the season will be cancelled.”With prospects of an NHL season grim, Esche will likely spend the rest of the season with the Raiders. Esche was in attendance last weekend when the nationally-ranked Raiders defeated conference foes RPI and Union on the road. The Raiders are now 9-1 in ECACHL play and are ranked in the top 10 in the country. In his first week here, Esche has been not only impressed by the Raiders’ play on the ice, but also the way they interact off of it.”I’ve learned from Ken Hitchcock what makes a team successful…and it’s more than talent,” Esche said. “This team has a lot of players who are willing to buy into [Coach Vaughan’s] system. Over the course of a season, you’re going to get frustrated at your teammates, but I think they all buy into what the coach says: their practices, their work ethics and maturity I haven’t seen from boys their age. I really like the team chemistry. It seems like they are very well put together.”Esche has even found some similarities between some of the Raiders and members of the Flyers. “[Sophomore] Marc Fulton reminds me a lot of [Flyers forward] Johnny LeClair,” Esche joked.While Esche may have evolved into a superstar goaltender with the Flyers, he is using his time away from the limelight to share his knowledge with a group of younger players, reminding himself what it’s all about – the hockey.