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July 23, 2014

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Ice Ice Billy

Like a good neighbor, your teammate is there

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Chris Francis (8) celebrates after scoring a first period goal against the Florida Everblades during Game 2 of the Kelly Cup Finals on Tuesday night.

Dennis is my neighbor. And quite frankly, I don't know what he does all day.

This is what I do know: Whenever my garage door is left open, he calls. When my sprinklers don't shut off, he leaves a voice mail that says, "Man, they are having a day out there!" And when my dog Kimi Räikkönen escapes, Dennis rounds her up.

Dennis has his life. But the only piece of that life I see is when Dennis is being a great neighbor.

Since early October, the players of the Las Vegas Wranglers have had their lives, together, away from the fans, their families, and in most cases their homes. Behind the scenes, practicing and traveling, studying game video, and spending more time on an exercise bike in one day than I have in all of 2012 – so far at least.

They have shared hours upon hours on top of days and smothered by months. Some mornings that began at 5 am ended at the same hour the next day. They've shared practices and games, wins and losses, injuries and health, and all mostly outside our view.

I have been involved in professional sports since 1987 or so. And I have been in the baseball clubhouses or hockey locker rooms the entire time. There have been four, perhaps five championship series events in those years. I own a championship ring from baseball's 2000 Atlantic League Nashua Pride with a team assembled by manager Butch Hobson, owner Chris English and myself.

This 2012 Wranglers room feels like that 2000 Nashua room. If you are pulling for the Las Vegas Wranglers in the current ECHL Kelly Cup Championship Series, that's a good thing.

I dare you to define "chemistry." It's a word not unlike any word from a foreign land that has no strict, laconic English translation when applied to a collection of people. It's as elusive to define as it is to obtain. And yet without it, all of the skill in the world remains untapped, and not invited to shine.

For this Wranglers team, one senses that its foundation is built of priority. Knowing that when hard times inflict one it affects all. Any day or moment, something that any of us may be taking for granted can be lost.

It's a perspective of life itself, and knowing the concept of "now" is a true reward from the short time these players will share together in their lifetimes. The room drips of purpose and commitment, professionalism and business, and of life.

This is my testimony.

The St. Baldrick's Foundation reminds us that there is a world of cancer. There are players' visits to local hospitals and schools that remind them that accidents happen, and innocents get hurt.

But there is also joy, like the birth of Reese Rose Mougenel, born earlier this season to Wranglers head coach Ryan and his wife, Kim. There are conference championships. There are records that are broken, and there are birthdays.

And, ironically, there is the bittersweet joy for the players by participating in St. Baldrick's.

In the arena, the lights come on, and fans get to cheer a team that Mougenel has built – sometimes by the gut-twirling process of subtraction. These men genuinely care for their team, the organization and the town for which they represent.

It's a team of individuals that, if one were forced to define, collectively understand that there are no shortcuts, no entitlements, and embrace the strength that struggle brings. And while there is struggle in losing, there is also struggle in winning – and that embracing the latter may make the difference.

Like Dennis my neighbor, we don't really know what these players do each day. We just know what we see when the arena lights come on. Anything good that we get to see, we see for a reason.

And although what we don't see is only theirs to know, it can be promised that a look into anyone of these player's eyes will give all you need to understand.

Billy Johnson is the president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Wranglers.

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