Friday, January 10, 2014

A Capital at Heart: The Story of George Dobson

Nearly 25 years ago, I began my hockey playing days as an eleven year old kid at Herbert Wells Ice Rink in College Park, MD. I still remember the layout of the old wooden benches, the smell of the black rubber floor mats along with that unmistakable smell of 35 bags of kids' hockey gear. And I remember George.

At the time, George Dobson was just the omnipresent, massive, gruff and grumpy man who worked at the rink. While he didn't "run" the place, he ran the place. He drove the Zamboni. He fixed everything that broke. He managed the rink guards and seasonal staff. He walked around barking at everyone who worked at the rink. He barked at little kids for not picking up their sock tape or using said tape as a ball in an impromptu locker room hockey game. And when he barked it often seemed nonsensical, like he was speaking in tongues. You stayed away from George. George was just plain mean.

Or at least I thought.

Seven years later I began coaching the same Hockey Clinic at Wells that taught me how to play. While our little group of hockey coaches was somewhat sheltered from the rest of the rink staff, we still had some interaction based solely on necessities: we needed clean ice, clean locker rooms and access to other areas of the rink. As it turned out, when we were there, so was George. It didn't take long before I started incurring the wrath of the big man.

I got called out for not controlling the kids I coached off the ice. I got called out for not telling him a rink door stuck. I was yelled at for shooting pucks against the glass ("If you break my glass, you're coming in off the clock to replace it!"). For not shutting the penalty box door. For not having my class entirely off the ice at exactly 9:15. For nothing other than being the first person he saw. "I just got here" or "That's not my job" were not valid excuses. If he saw you standing around, he'd go punch out your time card. If you left your keys laying around, he'd hang them from the ceiling.

I'll be honest: as an eighteen year old college kid, I did not like George Dobson. Not one little bit.

When he wasn't at Wells, George moonlighted as the locker room attendant for the Caps, first at the Capital Centre/US Air Arena and later at Verizon Center. Mike Gartner to Alex Ovechkin, George helped them all. From my knowledge of the job, it seems pretty thankless: fetching tape, drinks, towels and other odds and ends for the players and coaches, filling up water bottles and later, picking up after the guys at the end of games and doing laundry. I'm sure you get the best and worst from a roomful of professional hockey players. If ever there was man suited for that sort of give-and-take, it was George.

George was strong. I mean ridiculously strong. I saw him do things with insanely heavy objects that forklifts can't do. I once saw him replace a pane of rink glass by himself (and that stuff is really heavy and awkward). On the ice, he was menacing. He didn't shake your hand, he engulfed it. Working at an ice rink for as long as he did, he learned to skate quite well. His natural strength meant that when he shot the puck, it was a rocket. One time while playing goal, George hit me in an under-padded spot with a simple wrist shot. I didn't walk right for a month. George was a natural athlete; fast, powerful and tough.

I mentioned before that George spoke in tongues. George was almost completely deaf and never really learned to speak correctly because of it. It wasn't until his funeral in 2009 that I learned he had been diagnosed as being mentally impaired rather than simply having a hearing disability and was treated as such for much of his early life. He was never given a chance at a good education. He even competed at the very first Special Olympics in Chicago in 1968 and won several gold medals in track and field.

I've heard a story about George that I have never been able to document but wouldn't doubt for a second. In 1979, with no formal hockey training and having never played on a real team, George traveled to Colorado Springs to try out for the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team. After practicing for the coaching staff, George was told he wouldn't be making the team. Not because he wasn't good enough, but because he was too physical for the style of game Herb Brooks wanted to play. I can imagine a bunch of Division I college kids, guys that went on to win that historic gold medal, coming down the ice and being destroyed into the boards by George. It's a true story, until I hear otherwise.

George was a tough man to know. It wasn't until I was well into my 20's that I began to appreciate his tough-love style. It kept some people away, as getting more than gruff replies to questions was rare. Communication was difficult, so he only really tried when he had something to say. It wasn't until late in life that he found love and became one of the best family men I've ever known; his wife and daughters meant everything to him. Having now started my own family, I can finally truly appreciate everything George did. He gave kids sticks and jerseys (I once saw him saw a game-used Ovechkin stick in half to fit a Mite). He made friends with people from all walks of life. To celebrate the birth of his first daughter, he brought us all cigars. Bubblegum cigars.

George left us too early, five years ago this past July. But to this day, we all still tell stories about George and laugh and cringe through them all. "If George was still here..." comes up every time something goes wrong at the rink and we can imagine his booming voice unintelligibly echoing through the rink. Needless to say, we still miss him.

1 comment:

  1. I played a lot of hockey at Wells in the 70's, for Capital Boys Hockey Club and Parkdale HS club team. As I read the article it slowly dawned on me: That's George he's writing about. Tears began to well up in my eyes. We all loved him. The things he did for us like allowing pickup hockey to go all night if we wanted. I didn't know he passed and I'm so sad I never saw him again. I'm not sure the Olympic hockey story is true but it doesn't matter. A finer human being never walked this earth.

    Dave Taylor