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Marquette Monthly
July, 2000
 

Lookout Point
The Hottest League on Ice - Leonard "Oakie" Brumm

I'd been told to expect heat, but heck, that would be almost welcome after being born and raised in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where winters are long, cold and snowy. The work would be tough, building highways in the Kuwaiti desert, especially since it wasn't in line with what I wanted to do with the rest of my working life.
  My degree from the University of Michigan was in Physical Education. I'm a hockey man. I always wanted to make my living in coaching. Not that I haven't had my opportunities. I've been pretty successful, too. I've coached in Michigan, Wyoming, Alaska and Iowa, progressing from junior leagues to the college level, and even semi-pro, Senior A, United States Hockey League. In fact, five of my teams in that league were championship teams, and I was named Coach of the Year four times. When I was a player-coach, I was held in high enough regard to be invited to play with the League All-Star team against the Russian Olympic team.
  So, when I was approached by an American construction firm with a Kuwaiti government contract to build highways and bridges, naturally my first reaction was to tell them they were crazy. My second reaction was to jump at the opportunity when Ifound out that I would be paid about four times the going domestic rate for people with my supervisory and administrative skills. In addition, I would get free housing, transportation and air tickets for my wife, plus other perks not usually granted in the American construction industry.
  I grew up in a construction family, and in my youth I learned the trade well. It made me enough money to pursue the sports career I had always wanted. In fact, it often got in the way of my aspirations, because people kept offering me salaries I couldn't refuse to work on projects around the country. This one was different only because of the weather. Well, the weather and the big money. I figured I could stand the heat, all things considered, since at the time, it was the kind Mother Nature provided—not the military heat that exists today.
  I arrived in June of 1982 completely naive about the desert and its people. The company greeter met me as I deplaned, and as soon as he had collected my luggage, we headed out of the air-conditioned terminal building to the waiting car. The wave of hot air, even at night, hit me like a blast of bulldozer exhaust. By the time we had walked the four hundred or so feet to the car, I was wringing wet and already questioning my judgment. If the temperature was 120 degrees at this time of night, how in the hell did people handle construction work in the daylight hours? I'd just have to find out. I couldn't just walk away now. They had already spent a fair amount of money just to get me here.
  The next morning, the brightest sun I had ever seen already was blazing in the sky when the company's vice president in charge of the Kuwaiti project picked me up for my first on-site visit to the job. Heat waves bounced off everything in sight, making it seem that the world was on fire. I was sure that this blowtorch in the sky would burn a hole through my head before I reached the car. My mouth and lips already were so dry that I couldn't have spit if my clothes were on fire. I silently wished that I could just head for the airport and grab the first flight in the general direction of Northern Michigan and the cool breezes of Lake Superior. It would be difficult to complain about the frigid storms that blow at gale force from the lake in the winter ever again.
  A few minutes in the air-conditioned refuge of the vice president's car brought me back to the job at hand, and we visited three of the separate projects that eventually would be joined together to form a national freeway system. With each stop, though, my resuscitation by the cooler air of the car was less complete. My boss, noticing my disorientation, had mercy and returned me to my house to rest until tomorrow, my first day on the job.
  I stretched out on the floor under the air conditioner and thought about Frances. My wife always had been an adventurer, as excited as I was at the prospect of each relocation in search of the perfect coaching job. She always had loved our travels and the opportunity to make new friends. She hadn't hesitated for a minute to jump at the chance to join me in this strange, exotic place. "Boy, is she ever gonna be ticked off," Ithought. I was too worn out to think about it any more, so I satisfied myself by remembering that Frances wasn't coming until August. I still had time to warn her. Maybe I'd even do it in person. The jet lag took over and I fell into a long, deep sleep, waking just an hour before my driver was to arrive to take me to the job.
  There would be no air-conditioned car this day. The open windows of the pickup truck only served to direct the flow of blast- furnace-hot air at my body, intensifying the level of discomfort. Once delivered to the job site, and introductions out of the way, I set about the job I had been hired to do. I found myself embarrassed at the number of trips I had to make into the small, air-conditioned office shack to cool down. By noon, there wasn't a dry spot on my body. The organization of the job was on my mind, my physical strength was a thing of the past, my heart pounded from fatigue, I was burned everywhere my skin was exposed and I was sick to my stomach from the sloshing mixture of water and Pepsi I had been guzzling all morning.
  And then I saw it. Across the road and down a quarter of a mile. Was it a mirage? Could it be real? It was. A bona fide oasis in the middle of the desert—THEKUWAITICEARENA—I saw the words on the front of the building. Iknew that I was done working for the day, and I would have told someone if I wasn't already slurring my words like a drunken sailor. With the last ounce of strength I could muster, I walked to the doors of the arena, praying they weren't locked. As I stumbled against the doors, a young Kuwaiti coming out held the door for me as I fell through into the building' s lobby. The cool air hit me like a huge shot of adrenaline. My heart stopped pounding, my vision returned to normal, my stomach began to settle down. Through the entrance to the ice surface, I could see kids skating. I was saved! Thank you, Lord!
  O.K., so I drew a little attention when I crawled over the dasher boards and stretched out, face down, on the ice. The kids gathered around, giggling and whispering in Arabic as I flopped around from my stomach to my back. I swung my arms up and down like kids at home do in the snow, making "angels," oblivious to the youngsters around me until an adult appeared and asked in English, "Sick, mister? You sick?"
  "No," I answered, "I just had to cool down. I'm O.K. now."
  He rolled his eyes as he spoke in Arabic to the skaters. "American, mister, American?" he asked. My affirmative nod generated wild laughter from the throng of kids, who were sure that only an American could be crazy enough to act this way.
  I made at least two trips to the arena each work day after that, and began skating almost every night. The constant sixty-five-degree temperature of the building gave me new life, and Ibegan to think my decision to come to Kuwait wasn't so bad after all.
  I couldn't speak a word of Arabic, and Ihad been warned not to approach the people here in the typically friendly American style, since cultural differences were so pronounced that such an approach might be misunderstood. So for several days I skated quietly by myself, wondering if this arena could possibly house some kind of hockey program. It wasn't likely, but the mere existence of a high-quality ice arena in the middle of the hottest desert on earth wasn't likely, either.
  The Kuwait Ice Arena was a ten-million-dollar structure with two ice surfaces—one for men and the other for women, since the sexes could not mix under Muslim law—a nice restaurant, 4,000 comfortably padded seats, and in a country where the facilities are generally in need of upkeep, decent restrooms. It served as one of the few places for Kuwaiti teenagers to gather and look each other over. The Arab girls could only look, since the boys were forbidden from asking them out, but the British and American expatriates were fair game.
  I had taken off my skates and made my way to the restaurant one night for a sandwich and a cold drink. When the waitress appeared, the man at the table next to mine translated when he realized that the language barrier was an impediment to my getting served. My new friend, Swedish but eloquently multilingual, introduced himself as Mike Lundstrom.
   As we talked, I discovered that Mike had been hired by the Kuwaiti government to organize a hockey program, the goal of which was to eventually produce an Olympic hockey entry from this nation. He already had chosen his initial players for the Kuwait team. But now he was at a standstill with the program for several reasons. He was leery of the Arabs and their culture, and his Arabic was good enough to order in a restaurant but not to coach. As a compromise, he was trying to do it in English. A Swede coaching Arabs in English! Last but not least, he was not at ease trying to contact the potential hockey players from other Western countries who were working or going to school in Kuwait.
  Before the evening was over, I had agreed to help him organize the "expat" players from other countries, and somehow we were determined to get an ice hockey league going in the middle of one of the hottest deserts in the world. Mike couldn't pay me much by Kuwaiti standards, but it certainly was an opportunity to spend a lot of time in the sixty-five-degree air of the rink, instead of the constant 100 degree-plus temperature outside.
  I decided to advertise in the two English language newspapers for ice hockey players, the emphasis on the word ice, since there were many Indians and Pakistanis in Kuwait whose national sport was field hockey. With people here from all over the world, I didn't need to cause any more confusion than the language problem already presented. I posted tryout notices on the bulletin boards at the American and Canadian Embassies.
  The list of respondents read like the service roster of the foreign legion. A radio operator from the American Embassy who had played in high school in Rhode Island, a code clerk from the Canadian Embassy, several British and Belgian high school kids, two Dutch sewer contractors, some French engineers, two Finnish cooks, a SwissAir pilot, four Czechoslovakian construction workers, a Czech lab technician, a former British SAS trooper now training Kuwaiti Army personnel, a Yugoslavian student, two Egyptian computer programmers, two Austrian electricians, a Danish waiter, three Russians, one Pole, one Norwegian, one Korean, one Scot, a Pakistani, a South African and a partridge in a pear tree. It would be interesting teaching this "team" the basics of the game, as there were no two players who matched up in age, size or ability, much less language. Besides this group, there was another batch of inexperienced Canadian and Americans who showed up for tryouts, more for something to do than for a real interest in the game.
  The Kuwaiti government provided all the equipment necessary to outift the teams, so we were able to begin working out. Ten of the forty original players washed out the first day, completely unable to skate. I demonstrated the simple drills rather than try to verbally explain what I wanted—it took less time that way. Within a couple of weeks, my "team" was shuffling through the drills pretty well, but there was little, if any, teamwork developing. The French wouldn't work hard, the British and Belgians were afraid of getting hurt, the Slavic players tried, but had trouble adapting to the different conditions and style of play, and the Arabs were slow. The one bright spot was a kid from South Africa. His serious desire and untapped natural talents were the motivation for the others to keep coming back.
  While I tried to weave a team out of this melting pot, Mike Lundstrom and his assistant were convassing Swedish expatriates to form another entry in the league. They ended up with a group of fairly good players, and with the help of a Swedish company in the area, outfitted them in uniforms bearing the Swedish national colors. Not only did Mike procure the most experienced players from his group of Swedes, he also took care of the league's medical needs from among this group, since a number of doctors were among their ranks.
  The big problem for all three teams was, as is common to hockey clubs everywhere, the development of decent goalies. My best candidate was a young Canadian oil field worker. His biggest problem, though, was that every time someone scored against him, he wanted to fight. Another prospect for a goalie was a Scottish parts man from Kuwait Caterpillar. He had played a fair amount of hockey in his youth, but he was older and more frail now. Frail to the point that every time he stopped a shot, he would yelp with pain. Not that he was afraid—just not as capable as he had been once of taking punishment.
  Since both of these men presented a problem for me, I decided that I'd better have a third candidate ready to tend the goal, and decided on a young Palestinian who claimed to have gone to school in the U.S. and the Soviet Union. He wasn't much of a skater, but he came to practice every day with a good attitude. At least he knew that as a goalie, he was supposed to try to catch the puck when it came at him between the posts, which was more than most of the Arab kids knew.
  Just as I began to think that my group was starting to jell as a team, some of my American and Canadian players were sounding off about the number of players that I was keeping on the team. They seemed to think that they should be in a position to monopolize ice time, not having to sit out any portion of a game. Working with Mike Lundstrom, a reorganization was attempted, the plan being to use some of the Swedes, Americans and Canadians to organize a fourth team. While the idea was sound, it quickly failed largely because the Swedes thought they were akin to Olympians, and their national pride demanded that they be a part of an all-Swedish team or none at all. This left me with too few players to effectively run two separate squads. If anyone was injured or failed to show up for a practice, even the simple drills couldn't be properly accomplished. So, in spite of the potential of losing players, I reassembled my ragtag group into a single team and prepared for our first game against the Swedish entry.
  We were soundly defeated by a score of 10-2, somewhat embarrassingly in front of a large crowd of enthusiastic spectators. Aside from the hockey-smart Americans, Canadians and Swedes, the makeup of the crowd was largely Arabic and less than understanding of the ways of the game. In fact, a few skirmishes started by some of my overzealous young Canadians generated calls to the local police department, and some fast explaining by those of us in charge was in order. With a warning to control our activities, though, they were soon on their way.
  Our next practice session was, by necessity, my time to lecture my players on the merits of avoiding stupid penalties. "If you guys were as good as you seem to think you are, you'd be playing in the NHL instead of spending your days in the desert." My North Americans hung their heads in shame, while my Europeans and others just looked at one another, wondering what I was saying.
  The next game was against Lundstrom's Kuwaitis. My Canadian hotheads managed to keep at least one player in the penalty box nearly the entire game. My goalie was especially trying my patience, swinging wildly at anyone who had the unmitigated gall to score against him. Again, the violence triggered calls to the police, who showed up en force, expecting to be called on to quell a riot.
  Mike Lundstrom approached me with a stern-looking Arab in tow just after the game. "Leonard, this is the head of the Kuwait Sports Committee. I'm afraid he's got a message for you," Mike said nervously.
  The man, who had been summoned by the police department, soberly said in heavily accented English, "Mr. Brumm, I am here to inform you that any further violence on the part of your team members will leave us no choice but to deport the offending players and you, as their manager, from our country. You must get your gangsters under control immediately." The message was short and sweet, and having delivered it, the man turned and walked away.
  O.K., my wife had just joined me. In fact, largely because we were in Kuwait, my daughter Pam had accepted an offer to teach here and also had arrived, and now I was going to be deported? Not a chance. Iwent directly to the locker room and dismissed the goalie, announcing to the rest of the players, "Anyone who wants to fight can go with him. I'm not getting paid enough to have you guys threaten my livelihood." After all of my extensive experience with Canadians in both the Northern Michigan- Ontario League (Sentinels) and the Iron Rangers (USHL), I wasn't about to let some young punk wannabes from the plains of Alberta get me deported from the richest country in the world while losing the best job I had ever had. I'd fire the whole team before I let that happen!
  Mike and I knew that we had to install better officiating, too, to keep order on the ice. We went to a friend of mine named Terry Rich, who was working at the same company as me. He was a civil engineer from Cincinatti, Ohio, who had years of experience as a high school baseball, football, basketball and soccer referee. Terry was highly intelligent and extremely interested in the hockey program. The only problem was he could not skate! We temporarily solved the refereeing problem by going over the rules and demonstrating the different penalties, and then we let him referee from a high seat in the scorer's box. Surprisingly, this worked very well. (I've often thought that the pro leagues should try this. Their refereeing is uniformly so lousy that it could not get worse and would probably be better!)
Meanwhile, every chance that Terry got, he practiced his skating. After about six months he felt confident enough to referee on the ice, but we decided to let him get his feet wet with some team scrimmages before we threw him into the arena for actual league play. We set up a schedule for officiating that called for Mike and I to reenforce the officiating when our respective teams weren't playing.
  The game schedule was set up so that each of the three teams played each other twelve times in the season. As was expected, the Swedes dominated early on, but as the season progressed, both the Kuwaitis and my team, the Diplomats, provided a little better competition—but not before the frustration of being outclassed caused some additional tension with unnecessary penalties and unduly rough play.
  Crowd interest stayed surprisingly high throughout the season, probably due to the sight of the players in their weird-looking pads bumping into each other, sometimes even intentionally.
  Lundstrom and I decided in mid-season to hold a clinic to teach interested spectators the ins and outs of the game. On the appointed evening, it took only minutes to realize how impossible a task we had set out to perform. We had no one to translate into Arabic, much less Urdu for the Pakistanis, Hindu for the Indians, Farsi for the Iranians, and God knows how many others.
  In keeping with the norms of the game, we held a playoff tournament at season's end. It was to be a round robin affair, with each team playing the others twice. The Emir's Cup, a highly valuable gold cup, was donated for the tournament and was won by the Swedes, as everyone expected. The Arabic newspapers covered the playoffs, giving us hope that crowd interest would be there the following year.
  The season had barely ended when we decided that we would institute new rules for the following year, limiting the amount of physical contact that would be allowed, thereby eliminating the government concerns about the program. At the end of that first season, in May of 1983, the temperature in Kuwait was a fairly constant 150 degrees in the sun. It was almost as hot outside as many of the moments we had experienced in that first season of desert hockey.
  The league continued to progress, making gains in crowd interest and hockey proficiency with each new season. By the end of the third season, my Diplomats had made so much progress that we actually became the force to be reckoned with in the league, winning the regular season crown and the play-offs. This turn of events may have been related to the departure of Mike Lundstrom. He was replaced by a Canadian named Don Ferguson, from Montreal. Don's dedication also freed me up to seek better publicity for the league, as he would watch over practice sessions while Isought out reporters. With a little baksheesh (bribe), they would print virtually anything that was written for them. It confounded the players that newspaper accounts of the league and its games could be so accurate when they never saw the reporters.
  The game was stirring up so much interest that in 1986 I organized the Kuwait Summer Ice Hockey School, utilizing an American named Don Pratt, a recent graduate from an Eastern college visiting his parents in Kuwait for the summer, as our chief instructor. That particular year, the war between Iraq and Iran caused some new impediments to the hockey program. The fighting grew so intense on the Fao Peninsula that the shelling easily could be heard and felt in Kuwait City. The earth sometimes shook so hard that the dust and blown sand would be shaken from the arena's rafters to the ice below, making it impossible to continue play.
  I always have had a good sense of timing. In the spring of 1987, my senses told me it was time to leave Kuwait. I thank God today that Ilistened to my senses.

Epilogue
There were many practice sessions in those early days of the Kuwait National Hockey League when I chided my team members, telling them often that they looked dead on the ice. That was a choice of words Iprobably would revise today, knowing now that, upon storming his troops into Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein turned the beautiful Kuwait Ice Arena into a morgue, a depository for the victims of his atrocities.
  Mike Lundstrom left Kuwait, returned to Sweden, started teaching school, and began coaching youth hockey. He must have been very good, because in 1995-1996 he coached Lulea, of the Swedish Elite League, to the championship. He then moved to France, where he was coach of the French national team in the 1997 World Championships.
  I returned to Kuwait three times after the war. The ice rink had not yet returned to use by the last time Iwas there, in 1994. In the past few months I have heard from various sources that it is now functioning again, with a Canadian in charge. The hockey results are "promising," but it is a totally new start.
  After my five years in the desert heat, every time Ireturn to Marquette I feel cold, regardless of the time of year. One does not realize what a Winter Wonderland Marquette is until he or she has been away for some time!

—Leonard "Oakie" Brumm

 


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