In October 2006, when we started OFB, I decided that the very first figure from the Capitals’ past I wanted to interview was Kevin ‘Killer’ Kaminski. My interest was partly out of respect and affection — no Capitals’ player I’d watched since 1974 matched Killer pound for pound in guts and courage. But I was also curious: what exactly does a Killer do years after his playing career has ended?
Turns out, Killer, who played with so much heart and passion and courage, wanted to try and impart some of that in younger hockey players. So he started coaching. Turns out, too, that not many folks in D.C. were asking about it.
I tracked him down as head coach of the Youngstown Steelhounds of the Central Hockey League. I found contact info for the team’s staff on the team’s web site, and I shipped off an email to the team’s PR guy, identifying myself by name and blog affiliation, seeking an interview with the head coach, figuring that would pretty much be the end of my pursuit. But about two hours after that email a secretary in my office interrupted a meeting I was in to inform me that “a Killer is on the phone for you.” That’s exactly what she said. I remember it like it was yesterday. Funny, too: in that novel and bizarre moment, I sorta sensed that my life was about to change, that blogging about hockey in Washington was gonna get fun, fast. I still love telling my friends this story.
For the next hour on the phone Killer and I strolled down Memory Lane of Landover, Maryland. He treated me as if I were a 25-year veteran of the Washington Post. It wasn’t so much that he answered every question of him I had, with warm reflection and inspiring passion for our game, it was that he was, frankly, elated to be engaged with someone in Washington who remembered him, in the city that was his hockey home away from home. And it was from this remarkable initial conversation that I learned a lasting and important lesson about the athletes of our sport: they play in our cities and as fans we tend to commoditize their residence — are they playing well?; are they overpaid?; what have they done for us lately? But for the athlete, the residence here is signature — the dream of being a big leaguer realized. And for a player like Killer especially, Washington was uniquely embedded in his hockey heart: no organization believed in him like the Caps did, and he literally surrendered his health while wearing Washington’s sweater.
I remember hanging up the telephone for my call with Killer that autumn afternoon in 2006 and feeling like a lottery winner. An ex-Cap who was a hero to me as a fan had just engaged me as what seemed rather like a friend. I wrote up my story and it did what I wanted it to: it occasioned powerfully warm reminiscence of Killer’s guts and blue collar glory among OFB’s elder readership. My blog in its infancy suddenly seemed to have a spirit — and precisely the one I was seeking.
I could tell, too, that Killer appreciated the coverage. He began ringing me on my cell phone from his interminably long minor hockey bus rides across the U.S. with his team, looking to kill some time and just chat pucks. You know how with address fields in cell phones you use shorthand or nicknames for family and chums, and how those monikers appear on your phone’s screen when they call? Even years later I never quite lost a sense of marvel every time “Killer” would appear there on my phone when he rang me.
A couple of years ago OFB banded together with a few other local hockey blogs, the Capitals, and the Hershey Bears and organized a fundraiser at Clyde’s in Chinatown for the Wilson High hockey team. Wilson was the District’s only public school with a hockey team, and a Washington Post feature brought word of the loss of their coach to pneumonia, and serious financial hard times. Things looked seriously grim for the team. As a D.C. native and puckhead, this story was a sucker punch to my gut. I couldn’t not try and help. I got great help from the other blogs, amazing support from both the Caps and Bears (Hershey’s entire team signed a goalie stick and donated it to our event), and just two days before the fundraiser, I got a call in my office from Killer.
I wanted him to know that times in Washington were changing when it came to hockey, that high school hockey here was fairly flourishing, and that in the instance of the District’s lone public school puck program, we were gonna fight to keep it going. ‘When’s the fundraiser?’ Killer asked me.
‘The day after after tomorrow,” I told him. ‘I’ll ring you to tell you how we fared.’
The very next morning a box sized for a large television arrived via FedEx in my office. It had come from Youngstown, Ohio. Inside was a treasure trove of signed memorabilia from Killer’s playing career in D.C. as well as fashion and other trinkets from the Steelhounds. Killer was still going hard at his adversaries, apparently. At the fundraiser, I was in a circle of bidders around large signed color glossies of Killer in his bloodied Capitals’ sweaters. Those photos fetched hundreds of dollars by themselves. Our event overall raised thousands for Wilson. They’re still skating.
(Speaking of charitable impulses by hockey blogs, please consider stopping by tomorrow’s night’s big shindig at the Front Page in Arlington hosted by Russian Machine Never Breaks. I think I’m gonna bring a Killer to it.)
At 4:00 today my friend Killer will touch down at Reagan National for his first visit to his hockey home since he left it as a player. He’s gonna take in a couple of Capitals’ games this weekend. He follows the team pretty closely. Tomorrow night we’ll drive over together to the WTOP studios and stroll down Memory Lane again on ‘Saturday Night Caps’ with Jonathon Warner and Ben Raby. I’m looking forward to driving around town a bit this weekend with a Killer in my car.