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Jim Lorentz hooked on teaching hockey to kids

Jim Lorentz woke up about 5:30 a.m. Sunday, giving him enough time to grab his Blackhawks hoodie and baseball cap before heading for the door. He made sure he was properly dressed in team colors for the morning chill and the 8 a.m. faceoff in Hamburg Town Arena.

Lorentz these days is an assistant coach in the house league at the Pee Wee level, teaching 11- and 12-year-olds the fundamentals of hockey and a few things about life. He was bouncing around the hallway leading to the dressing rooms after a 2-1 win over the Kings, far more elated with the process than the result.

“This has really been a good experience for me,” Lorentz said while sitting in an old locker room. “It’s been a lot of fun. I just want to keep going.”

At age 68, Lorentz is humming along with the same passion for hockey he always had while sharing his knowledge with anybody willing to listen. The runts he patted on the head while whispering advice into their ears Sunday were barely out of diapers when he worked his final season as a Sabres broadcaster.

Many parents were too young to remember him as a player before he retired in 1978. Truth be told, the kids he’s coaching this season would need to ask their grandparents to tell them about Lorentz winning the Stanley Cup for the Bruins with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito in 1970.

The game remains in his blood all these years later, making Lorentz a hockey lifer on a certain level. However, he would be first to say the game is merely a vehicle for him to teach life lessons. Perhaps someday his players will realize that he took as much from his experience with them as they did from him.

“I love the kids and working with them,” Lorentz said. “I knew I was going to enjoy it. I knew that for sure. But I have enjoyed it 100 times more than I thought I would. We have such a great group of kids. The coaches, not just on our team but the other house-league teams, are doing it for the right reasons.”

In 2007, after 43 years and some 3,500 games as a player, coach and analyst, he hung up the Gone Fishin’ sign in the window and disappeared from public view. For years, the avid fisherman has left his condominium in Hamburg and spent his summers in New Brunswick chasing salmon.

In August, he was fishing in Canada when he was lured back to hockey. He was in New Brunswick with his son, Jim Jr., and former Sabres center Tim Connolly when they were asked to speak to the local junior team in Miramachi. Lorentz left the old arena longing for the sounds and smells of amateur hockey.

See, he was still hooked.

Lorentz sent an email to Tom Zdrojewski, president of the Hamburg Hawks house league, asking if they needed coaches. Zdrojewski didn’t respond because he figured it was a hoax. Jim Lorentz, that Jim Lorentz, wanted to serve as an assistant coach … in the house league … in Hamburg?

“They thought it was a prank,” Lorentz said with a laugh.

If they knew Lorentz, who enjoyed teaching hockey almost as much as he enjoyed playing, it would have made sense.

Lorentz coached the Buffalo Junior Sabres to a championship in the early 1980s, a few years after he retired. He didn’t pursue a coaching career because he didn’t want to relocate his family.

Rather than teach players, he taught Western New York. Known for his competitiveness and smarts during his career, he spent nearly a quarter century providing insight into the game as a commentator. A generation of hockey fans who didn’t play learned X’s and O’s of hockey from listening to him.

“I never forgot that experience when I was coaching,” Lorentz said. “The coaching part, much to my surprise at the beginning, really got inside me. Working with kids was always my main focus. That’s what I liked. I loved the hockey schools. I loved everything about coaching.”

Lorentz didn’t hear back from Hamburg for more than a week, so he called Zdrojewski. He asked specifically to coach in the house league because it’s often overlooked, or looked down upon, by many wrapped up in travel leagues. Zdrojewski immediately assigned him to the Blackhawks under head coach Bob Flett.

As you would imagine, Hamburg coaches and parents have been thrilled with him sharing his expertise. It’s why they asked him to also help out with a select team that plays against other teams from local house leagues. He jumped at the opportunity to double his fun and coach two teams.

It couldn’t have worked out any better.

“People thought it was a joke,” Flett said. “It was great. He’s trying to teach the kids the right way to play hockey, which a lot of kids don’t know. … I’m like a fan. I’m like a little kid when it comes to this.”

Lorentz, who has forgotten more about hockey than most coaches will ever know, tapered drills and practices to his players. He stuck to the basics of skating, shooting and positioning with an even temper, which allowed him to connect with kids. Now, he’s enjoying the rewards with watching them improve.

He’s also made some friends along the way. One is Joey Szuflita, an 11-year-old forward from Eden who scored the winner Sunday. Joey also happens to be a fly fisherman, giving him an instant connection to Lorentz. The two already made plans to go fishing when the weather breaks.

“He’ll say to him, ‘What you did was good, but if you did this it could be better,’ ” his father, John Szuflita, said during the game Sunday. “I tell my son the stuff he’s teaching is gospel. I tell the kids, ‘You don’t realize how fortunate you are.’ He’s done it all. It says something about him that he’s volunteering his time.”

Lorentz would argue the opposite. The kids are giving him their time and keeping him feeling young and involved. For all the negative things you hear about youth hockey, from the nutty parents who think their kids are destined for the NHL to the cost and time commitment involved, this is hockey done right.

The kids are listening and learning. They’re seeing their effort and progress show up on a scoreboard that matters little. They’re having fun playing a game and making friends. As he walked out of the arena and into a chilly morning Sunday, it was evident that nobody is having more fun than Lorentz.

“It’s really gratifying to see how hard they try right from the beginning, when we first had them, until now and see the improvement,” Lorentz said. “Really, to me, that’s what the whole thing is about. I’ve already told Hamburg I want to do this again next year. Oh, yeah, I’ll definitely be back.”