By Lee Samuels
We have covered and written about hockey in Las Vegas for over 20 seasons – first with Vegashockey.com, now with Vegashockey.net – and have seen the greatest hometown players and covered the biggest of games. We learned how the best coaches listen and deal with their player, parents and the little ones which brings us to this scene a few years ago at the SoBe Ice Arena Pro Shop. You will see how this hometown coach handled the biggest question of all during Christmas week…
THE COACH WHO BELIEVED IN SANTA CLAUS
It was Christmas week, icy cold outside the ice rink doors and skaters were getting set for the holiday and to gear up for the big Vancouver International Tournament that weekend. The Pro Shop at the Santa Fe Stations Ice Arena was crowded and busy two days before Christmas. Dave Francis, the best blade sharpener in town, had a blowtorch lit with a hot white blue flame crackling while working on a pair of skates. Hockey dad Steve Allen was over by the rack of hockey sticks looking for a gift for his son Jason. Gramps was at a small table wrapping holiday gifts for the UNLV players. Coach Rob was talking to a few parents about the big trip to Canada. Then….
Then skater Jimmy Samuels came in with his cousins first year skater Ryan, 6, and little sister Leah 4.
“Coach, you don’t believe in that Santa stuff do you,” Jimmy said. “I mean I know, but they are asking…”
Jimmy looked towards Ryan and Leah who looked back with kid excitement.
“Santa is on his way, right?” Jimmy asked.
That’s when the holiday music stopped and Dave Francis turned off the blowtorch, raised his protective goggles and looked towards coach Rob. Steve Allen put the Nike hockey stick back into the rack and looked over. Gramps stopped wrapping gifts and took a hard look at coach Rob. We were there with our blue line notebook and a peppermint mocha in a red holiday paper cup.
Of all the questions for the skipper…
All eyes were on coach Rob…..and there was something about coach Rob and the spirit of Christmas that no one knew, except for me.
“My sister wants a dollhouse, one that has a big front door. She has Barbies,” said Ryan, the older brother.
“A dollhouse…,” said coach Rob.
At the very instant, with all in the Pro Shop, coach Rob flashed back when he was a kid and was asking the same kind of questions. He grew up in Chisholm, Minnesota. It was ice cold on Christmas mornings. His mother and father didn’t have a lot but did the best they could do back then. One of Rob’s gifts was a pair of skates, wrapped real nice. They were the skates his older brother wore the previous hockey season.
We thought of the year our family didn’t have a Christmas tree…at least we didn’t have one on Christmas Eve. My dad and I went late-night tree shopping in a little town called Pennsville, N.J. It was freezing cold. We stopped at the only tree lot which was open. The owner said he sold his last tree. I saw some big branches. He said I could take them.
When we got home the house was dark. My brother and sister had did a search – no decorations, no gifts, no tree. When you are still in grade school you begin to worry.
But the next morning there was a real tree lit, there were gifts, and Santa had eaten the Christmas cookie and drank a glass of milk.
“So coach is Santa coming to Ryan and Leah’s house or not?” asked Jimmy.
It got real quiet in Pro Shop.
“I know their parents Mary Catherine and Jay very well,” said Rob. “I can assure you Santa will be there.”
The little ones got excited and Jimmy took them away out of the Pro Shop and into the ice arena.
Dave Francis smiled gently and relit the blowtorch. White and blue sparks crackled as Dave worked on a pair of skates clamped onto his red skate machine. Gramps got back to wrapping gifts. Every UNLV player would get one. Hockey dad Steve Allen said “…that was a close one coach.”
“I had the same questions when I was that age,” said coach Rob, sighing.
He left the pro shop, walked into the ice arena, turned right and left through the rink doors.
It was cold outdoors on that Christmas Eve.
Long before coach Rob Pallin was a hockey coach in Las Vegas he worked on the front desk at the Flamingo Hotel Casino on Las Vegas Blvd. My wife Mary Margaret also worked there. Every year, about this time of the year, the Flamingo had a holiday party for the staff and their families. One year a Santa couldn’t make it. Rob said he personally would make sure the little ones would have their Santa.
(Lee, the editor of Vegashockey.net, is also the author of the holiday classic The Kid Who Never Scored a Goal)