Thursday, April 21, 2005

Hidden in Plain Sight

It’s 6:47 on a Friday morning and Dennis Maruk is wide awake, having just taken his last drag on a cigarette in an underground hotel parking garage. It’s cold outside. It’s also the peak of ski season, and the sun is peaking its head between the mountains on this Colorado valley. The ski lifts won’t open until nine.

He’s wearing a gray short-sleeved, collared T-shirt with black lettering Hotel Jerome Aspen on the left side. Underneath he has a black long-sleeved shirt. From the waist down he’s dressed in all black. Black pants, black belt and black shoes. His hotel uniform gives a stranger no clue about the uniform he used to wear. In fact, his small build combined with his thin, black-framed glasses and graying hair that is thinning in the back and his gray and white mustache make anyone who has heard about his past wonder. It is a past that he doesn’t discuss unless asked. As a bellman at the Hotel Jerome says, “I really like Dennis…. You’d never know he was an NHL star if he didn’t tell you.”

Maruk walks over and smiles and shakes the hand of a visitor. There is an obvious pride he takes in his job. He has worked at the Hotel Jerome for more than a year and a half, having spent the last six months in purchasing after working as a bellman.

Why did you decide to do this job? asks the visitor.

“It’s busy,” says Maruk, pausing and looking back at the visitor. “To tell you the truth, I like being a bellman better because I like people.”

But he takes his job seriously, constantly restocking shelves, bending and lifting boxes and bags and bottles and marking down the inventory on various sheets of paper.

“We’re the main force of the hotel if you think about it,” he says, walking up a wooden ramp into the purchasing office. “Because everything comes through here.”

Inside the office are two desks facing opposite walls with just enough room for Maruk to walk through. One desk is neat, with a few pieces of paper and a telephone for confirming shipping deliveries. The other desk is where Lynne, the other employee in purchasing, works. Essentially, she does most of the paperwork. However, she is out sick on this day, so Maruk is doing her job as well. Just like he was on the ice, he likes moving at a pace that would tire bigger, stronger men. As the visitor soon learns, what Maruk lacks in size, he more than compensates for with hard work and an endless supply of energy, which he says he’s had since birth.

“Lately it’s been nonstop,” says Maruk, who had been working alone while Lynne was sick, but does most of the lifting anyway. “As soon as you get one thing done, boom, you got another.”

He’s inside a big freezer, unloading lettuce and big red tomatoes for the chefs in the kitchen on the floor above. If it’s a box or two, he takes the stairs. If it’s a heavy load, he wheels a cart into the nearby elevator. “Hola, Dennis,” says a Spanish-speaking chef. “What’s going on, Dennis?” says another. Maruk addresses each one by his first name and throws in a joke before leaving…. Maruk greets truck drivers as they wheel in boxes of food and other orders…. He’s in the beer and wine room, grabbing bottles for the bartender in the upstairs J-Bar…. By the time he leaves, at 4 p.m., the only time he’ll have sat down was at his desk to confirm food deliveries and place orders, and in the Miner Diner, the employee buffet-style cafeteria for his half-hour lunch break.

That night he’ll eat dinner at Blake Hull’s house. Two weeks after Maruk moved to Aspen, Colo., in the summer of 2003, he met Blake, whose younger brother is NHL star Brett Hull, and they became good friends. Since then, Maruk visits Hull’s house, where they talk about hockey among other things. Besides good company, another incentive for Maruk to eat out is his living situation. He lives on the first floor in the Cortina, an old, run-down motel that has been converted into Hotel Jerome housing. Although it is a block from the Hotel Jerome – which has 91 rooms and faces downtown and Aspen Mountain – and rent is less than $200, the Cortina could be considered the housing projects of Aspen. Maruk has just enough room for his bed, television, microwave and a few belongings in his single room. There is no kitchen, just a shower, toilet and sink. Looking at him in this temporary setting makes his past seem like a different lifetime. And in some ways it is. His three children have grown up. He scored his last NHL goal 17 years ago. His mother is dead. And so is Reagan. In many ways, however, Maruk is still the same guy that dominated the Ontario junior league competition.

Born in Toronto on Nov. 17, 1955, Maruk grew up in a large family and wore hand-me-downs. Of his three brothers and four sisters, he was in the middle. Maruk lived in a hockey hotbed, where most kids started playing at age 6. By the time he was 8, all his friends played hockey, so he figured he should grab a stick and participate. He didn’t just participate. He had discovered his natural gift. That year, his first season of organized hockey, Maruk led his local Minor Adams team in scoring. And while he still enjoyed box lacrosse and baseball, hockey consumed most of his free time.

Surprisingly, he only attended a single hockey camp growing up in Toronto, and it only lasted one day. But he used his innate talent and tireless work ethic to progress. He learned from watching hockey on television. When he didn’t have organized practice or games, he’d play street hockey right after school with older kids. Then, when it got dark and the older kids left, Maruk shot pucks alone into a small net at the corner of his street under a light. He’d stay out there until 11 o’clock and then his parents, Anne and John, would get upset because they wanted him in bed for school the next morning.

Although Anne and John scolded Dennis for his late night hockey routine and neither ever wore a pair of skates, they always supported him through his entire career. They both were in the food business, working long, hard days. But they found time to watch most of their son’s games. Two of Dennis’s brothers played hockey, too, and had to find rides to practice. Dennis often had special treatment and his parents would drive him. It created some dissension among the brothers, but his precocious ability was obvious.

It didn’t take long for Maruk to earn a reputation as an aggressive playmaker and crafty goal scorer. Soon he rose through the ranks of the Toronto Marlboros organization, the Junior A farm team for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Marlboros organization had a Junior B affiliate called the Markham Waxers. Players advanced to Junior B, then Junior A and then, if good enough, the NHL.

Although he had just turned 15, Maruk was called up to play for Markham. Back then, Markham was a small town near Toronto. The team’s general manager, Gus Badali, who later became an NHL agent for stars such as Paul Coffey, Wayne Gretzky, Dale Hawerchuck, Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman, had an eye for talent. He wanted Maruk on his team even though he’d be competing against much older players. Maruk didn’t disappoint. He was one of the league’s best offensive players as a centerman and was named rookie of the year.

Hockey was only part of the equation. It was the start of a friendship between Badali and Maruk. During a conversation one day, Maruk, whose parents were Ukrainian, told Badali about his mother’s pierogis. A few days later, Maruk gave him a batch of Anne’s pierogis to take home. Badali must have enjoyed the homemade Ukrainian dish – flour turnovers with potato stuffing with sour cream, salt and pepper and fried onions on them – because he still remembers them today. When Anne passed away, Badali came to the funeral.

During the 1971-72 season, the Waxers were a young and speedy team, especially on offense. Three of those players on the front line were the smallest guys on the team – Maruk, Bruce Boudreau and Richard Nagai. However, they more than compensated for their lack of size, winning the Ontario Junior B Championship in what many people at the time considered the best junior hockey in Canada. That year, Maruk was called up to Junior A, and played eight games with the Marlboros before heading back to Markham. During that brief stint with the Marlboros, Maruk first began thinking about realistically making the NHL. On weekends, he rode the subway to Maple Leaf Gardens to watch NHL games, and was in awe of Bobby Hull’s physical talent, in particular the way he could shoot so fast.

That year at Markham, many fans and opponents were in awe of Maruk. In a 12-2 win, he tallied four goals and seven assists. And he led the league in scoring, beating teammates Boudreau and John Stewart, who were also centermen, on the final game. Did Maruk score 8 points that last game? Or was it 9? Or 10? Whatever the total, he needed every point for the individual title. But winning the Ontario championship was more important to him.

Those good times, enjoying the game and living at home, would soon change. In August 1972, the Marlboros traded Maruk to the London Knights, another Junior A team, for Mark Howe. Howe’s older brother Marty was playing for the Marlboros. Mark had been drafted by London, but his parents, Colleen and Gordie, wanted their sons to play together. Plus, London head coach Bill Long wanted Maruk on his team knowing he led the Junior B league in scoring. Thus, the trade.

At first, Maruk was angry and refused to go to London. He wanted to play for the Marlboros, live with his family and be near his friends. After all, he was 16 years old. It was a big decision. He’d have to live with a family he didn’t know in an unfamiliar city 120 miles from his home. He thought about quitting hockey. He had long talks with his parents and older brothers and sisters. They told him it would be a tough adjustment, but his friends in the Toronto area would still be his friends.

Maruk decided to play for London. Although he suffered homesickness and grew frustrated at times, he didn’t let it stop him on the ice, scoring 46 goals and dishing out 67 assists in 59 games. He won the Emms Family Award as rookie of the year. The Knights lost to Peterborough, coached by the legendary Roger Neilson, that year in the semifinal series. Bruce Aberhart, a London teammate, recalls Maruk getting leveled by Bob Neely as soon as the puck was dropped that first game, and says it intimidated Maruk for the rest of the series and was a major reason for the loss. Maruk says he and the team played well, but that Peterborough team was very good in a league where at least 80 percent of the players went to the NHL.

The next year, Maruk produced similar offensive statistics. Before the season, the Washington Capitals had its training camp in London. So the two teams played. The Capitals won, but Maruk scored four goals. After that game, Maruk thought he’d be drafted in the NHL as an 18 year old. He wasn’t. So he returned and broke several records while compiling 66 goals and 79 assists. He won the Tilson Trophy, given to the league MVP. Maruk seemed like a top NHL prospect. But he knew scouts still underestimated him for one reason: his size. The California Golden Seals selected him in the second round with pick No. 21.

“Every night that he went out there he was a threat to score goals,” Badali said. “He was just a dangerous, dangerous hockey player. A lot of people would say, though, ‘I don’t know how far he can go, as far as the pros go, because he’s only 5’8”.’ But Dennis proved everybody wrong at every level that he went, that size was not a factor, that he could handle bigger and older players, and he did it.”

Even though fellow rookie teammate Bob Murdoch gave Maruk the nickname “Pee Wee,” after seeing former Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese on television, Maruk never felt like a 5’8” and 175-pound guy on the ice. On Nov. 18, 1975, the day after his 20th birthday, he scored four goals in a 5-3 win at Pittsburgh. Fans admired his style of play. Maruk was voted Most Popular Seal. He also had style off the ice, supporting a Fu Manchu mustache. He enjoyed changing his appearance. His blackish brown hair was long. Then he had a beard and then a perm and then… whatever was hip at the time.

As many of his former teammates attest, Maruk was always “just one of the guys” off the ice. But he had a different lifestyle than many of them back then. In his first year pro, he had married Joanni, a girl who followed the team in London. A few years later he had two children and adopted a girl from Korea. So for the rest of his career, he was a family man.

After his rookie season, the Golden Seals moved to Cleveland and became the Cleveland Barons. He says he learned something from every coach he had. He continued to impress fans and players with his offensive wizardry, and improved his defense. In 1978, he played in his first All-Star game.

Despite his individual success, Cleveland had a lack of fan support and financial trouble, so it merged with another struggling team, Minnesota, in June 1978. The new team played its games in Minnesota and kept the name North Stars. Maruk was one of five players protected by Minnesota in the dispersal draft, thus becoming a North Star. His stay up north was short. Minnesota traded Maruk to the Washington Capitals for a first round pick.

For the next five years in Washington, he was among the NHL’s top scorers. Many fans and teammates remember the game in 1979, where he scored four goals against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden. He had his most productive season in 1981-82, setting several franchise records that still stand, such as single-season goals (60) and assists (76). Also, for the second straight season, he had four hat tricks. Maruk joined elite company in reaching the 60-goal mark in a season. The only players before him to reach that plateau were Phil Esposito, Reggie Leach, Steve Shutt, Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky.

Individual success only goes so far, and Maruk did not have a strong supporting cast throughout his pro career, especially early on. By the spring of 1982, the Capitals had their eighth straight losing season despite Maruk’s gaudy offensive statistics.

The highlight of that season, and one of his fondest moments, was playing in the All-Star game at home in the Capital Centre. Before the game, Maruk and the other all-stars were invited to lunch at the White House and shook hands with President Ronald Reagan. Since he was the only Capitals player, the media filmed Maruk or put a microphone in his face for the entire week before the game. He enjoyed the attention, but he was still the same Dennis Maruk.

“Dennis was just a great guy, a lot of fun, not a real cliquish guy,” says Peter Scamurra, a Capitals teammate who played against Maruk in the Junior A league. “Some of the more talented players hung out with certain guys and that kind of thing. Dennis was always just a great guy to be around, really down to earth.”

Just before the All-Star game, when his name was announced last, the fans rose to their feet and chanted, “Maruk! Maruk! Maruk!” He was happy Anne and John were there.

In the summer of 1982, there were rumors that the Capitals might fold or move to a new city due to lack of fan support. As a result, a “Save the Caps” committee was formed. It apparently helped. Washington made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, thanks to an improved defense led by Rod Langway, who had been acquired from Montreal in a trade before the season began.

Though Washington had its best season to date, and Maruk was admired by fans and teammates, he was traded back to Minnesota for a second round pick and cash. The North Stars general manager, Lou Nanne, said he had simply loaned Maruk to Washington for five years. But Maruk would never be as productive as he was for the Capitals. Of course, some of the best teams he played on were with the North Stars. But the Edmonton Oilers, led by Gretzky, were simply too tough. Maruk ended his NHL career as a North Star in 1989 because of a shattered left kneecap he had suffered the previous season. He never played in the Stanley Cup finals, but finished with 878 points. In 1989 he and Joanni were divorced.

While having a title would have been great, it wasn’t life or death for Maruk. And he says he doesn’t lose any sleep not being inducted into the Hall of Fame even though he believes he belongs.

“I did something as a kid I loved to do and made it to where a lot of other kids never get to do and play 14 years,” he says. “So I think my Hall of Fame or my Stanley Cup is I achieved something that I think a lot of people didn’t think I would be able to achieve because of my size and structure, and I was able to play that long.”

Maruk played before players and owners argued over millions of dollars. His highest single-season salary was about $300,000. For being voted Most Popular Seal and winning the 3-Star Contest as a rookie, his bonus was a $300 check. He played when some guys didn’t wear helmets and face masks weren’t the norm.

Maruk is the only Minnesota player to win the Community Service Award three times. “I didn’t do that because I wanted to get an award,” he says. “I did it because I wanted to do it.” Much of his charity work throughout his hockey career and beyond involved playing in golf tournaments and signing autographs with some of his teammates. In the early years, Dave Gardner and Rick Hampton were two of the better golfers. So was Maruk, whose handicap dropped as low as six. Now he enjoys playing golf and watching it on television. And he is remarried.

After his NHL retirement, Maruk became head coach of a high school team in Chaska, Minn., a small town near Minneapolis. He coached there for five years. In 1997, he moved to Louisiana and coached a minor-pro team called the Lake Charles Ice Pirates. The following season, at age 43, he made a short comeback, playing nine games for Lake Charles. That same year, he was remarried to a woman named Kim. Above his desk in the purchasing office, there is an empty bulletin board, except for one photo thumb-tacked in the lower right-hand corner. The photo shows Dennis and Kim, smiling and holding martini glasses at Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Denver. Judging by the photo, he’s a lucky man.

He stayed with Kim in Louisiana as head coach, but the Ice Pirates folded. He then took the helm of the Baton Rouge Kingfish of the East Coast Hockey League, which was sold two years later. So why did he move from Baton Rouge to Aspen?

In February 2000, he and other former NHL players were invited to a charity event in Aspen. He and Kim enjoyed skiing and liked the area. A friend asked Maruk to move out west and coach his kids. With the Kingfish being sold, it wasn’t a difficult decision.

After his first few weeks living in Aspen, on the recommendation of a friend, Maruk became a bellman at the Hotel Jerome. He valeted cars, drove guests around town and checked guests in. Even now, some guests ask of his whereabouts. He also was hired by Aspen High athletic director Carol Sams as the new head hockey coach in 2003. And he and Kim opened a clothing and accessory store called Panache for a brief period.

His first season as Aspen High head coach was a success, at least on paper. The Skiers reached the state tournament semifinals and finished with a 14-5 record. After the season ended, Maruk traveled to Washington, D.C., in celebration of the team’s 30th anniversary. He was selected by fans onto Washington’s top 30-player list in franchise history. When his name was called out, they chanted, “Maruk! Maruk! Maruk!” Life was good.

Then in early May 2004, Sams told him he would no longer coach Aspen High. When asked about his experience as the Aspen High coach and why he was released, Maruk says he wishes not to comment. Whether it was parents upset that their child wasn’t playing enough or that his coaching style was too rigorous or different from past coaches is not clear.

This past winter, Sams said, “His coaching style was much different than we’d had in the past, and some of our boys struggled with that. He didn’t use a lot of systems when he coached hockey. The boys were really used to doing systems, and he, I don’t really know how to explain it. I think he just maybe expected the boys to play at a higher level than they really were capable of playing.”

When asked to elaborate on what “systems” were, Sams fumbled with the answer and concluded by saying, “I don’t know, it’s kind of hard to explain.”

A few weeks after his release, he told The Aspen Times, “I don’t have a computer at home, but they all have my phone number. We had a couple parents meetings and nobody said anything. I didn’t see any problems – I thought everything was going great…. I’m still shocked.”

He didn’t protest or complain. Instead, he coached a team of 9 and 10 year olds this year, while at the hotel, moving to a busier and more laborious job in the purchasing – five days a week from the crack of dawn to 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon. His junior team practiced every Monday at 7 p.m. and Wednesday at 6:30 a.m. Most weekends, he coached games.

On a sunny and cold Saturday in January, his team played a double-header against Vail at the Aspen Ice Garden, just a short walk from his apartment. In between games, he ate lunch with the players and parents downtown because it was one of the player’s birthdays.

At 11:25, Maruk showed up for the first game dressed in a maroon shirt and blue jeans, a black leather jacket and black shoes. He had worked all morning in purchasing even though someone could have filled in for him.

In the lobby, a brother and sister were chasing each other. They both were about waist high to Maruk. The boy was dressed in an Army-green camouflage outfit with a matching bandana and was holding a plastic pirate hook. The blond girl was wearing a red shirt and jacket, and waving a plastic sword.

“Are those your Halloween costumes?” asked Maruk.

The children stopped playing and looked up at him.

“You better be careful with that sword and hook,” he said, giving their mother a grin. “Because that’s why I wear these,” he said, pointing to his glasses. “I didn’t get hooked, but I got the sword.”

The mother reiterated Maruk’s message to be careful. He smiled.

His dedication to the kids is no more apparent than why he coached until the end of the hockey season. The last time he had seen Kim was in Thanksgiving because she returned to her native Louisiana to be among old friends and pursue her career in the casino business, where Dennis would join her at the end of winter. It’s funny how life works. More than 30 years later, the teenager who hated to leave his family to play hockey and thought about quitting the sport was now away from his family (in this case, wife and youngest child) because of hockey. He missed Kim, but he knew he had committed to coaching the kids. The end-of-the-season banquet, on March 22, was very emotional for him.

The next day he headed back to Louisiana, where he plans to stay permanently with Kim. They’ll both work at a new casino – Kim as retail manager and he as supervisor – that opens the third week in May.

For a man who has seen much of the world thanks to a rare blend of hockey skill and strong work ethic, Maruk wants to continue to travel with Kim. When he turns 50 in November, he wants to visit one of his favorite places, Italy. But he doesn’t know if it will be possible. He might be too busy working.

This story first appeared online in April 2005.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Old Man And The Sea

Ernest Hemingway's depiction of Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, is perhaps the greatest by an American writer. This novella captures a single bout between man and fish with the type of observations and descriptions that made Hemingway a brilliant writer.