Burlington's Paquette Arena was chilled to its usual meat-locker briskness when Betsey Krumholz and her husband Charlie arrived for their son's first day of hockey practice. It was an early morning in September 1991 as their son A.J. and a dozen or so other gear-clad kindergarteners scampered onto the ice. When the Krumholzes signed up their son for the "Mites" Division of the Burlington Amateur Hockey Association, they knew several parents would be sharing the coaching duties, which basically means teaching kids the fundamentals of the game. But they had no idea who else would be on their bench.
"We show up the first morning of practice and out skates the newly minted governor," Betsey Krumholz remembers. "It was surprising, to say the least." Little did she know then that A.J. could one day claim he learned how to face off from Howard Dean, the left wingman of the Democratic Party.
"Howard was out there in these beat-up old skates and this beat-up old bomber jacket, and he was having more fun than the kids," Krumholz says. "We would set up these milk crates with the hockey sticks lying across them to teach the kids how to take a dive head-first and use their pads effectively. And Howard would be the first one out there diving on his belly."
Where else can you find the state's highest elected official belly-flopping across the red line? Only in Vermont, as the Washington pundits might say.
And when push comes to shove, isn't that why so many Democrats have a problem with Dean -- because he's such a Vermonter? Dean's harshest critics within his own party harp on the fact that the Green Mountain State, with its socialist congressman, gay-friendly politics and white-bread demographics, is an unworthy training ground for a serious national contender.
But putting aside for a moment Dean's eagerness to throw off the gloves with President Bush over his tax cuts and the war in Iraq, consider this: Which is better training for cajoling a boisterous Congress to toe the line? A few congressional sessions of shmoozing with Dupont Circle lobbyists, or several Vermont winters of rousing the kids out of warm beds and onto a chilly ice rink at 5 a.m.? And when it comes to choosing a commander-in-chief who knows when to throw his weight around and when to clear the zone, it's no contest. Hire a hockey dad.
After all, the voice from the bully pulpit also needs to know how to sugarcoat the unpopular domestic policies. John Nichols is a past president of BAHA whose son Eric played on the same team as Dean's son Paul. When their boys were little, Nichols and Dean coached together. "Six-thirty in the morning on the little rink at Leddy Park and half of us are still asleep and trying to figure out how to motivate the kids -- there was never any question who was going to lead them," Nichols says. "What Howard brought to Saturday and Sunday mornings -- to this day I remember it vividly -- is that he always had that smile on his face and was a motivator of the kids."
Admittedly, Dean's early performances on the ice, like his early performance on the campaign trail, occasionally lacked polish. "Howard was demonstrating an edge-stop and -- I'll never forget this -- he comes skating towards the kids and, as he attempted to stop, he literally cart-wheeled on the ice," Nichols says. "I don't remember whether he hit his head or not, but he comes bouncing up like it never happened."
So Dean is no Scott Hamilton. But presidential races, like Stanley Cup series, aren't won with style points. They're won with tenacity. In youth hockey, stick season runs from the beginning of October until March, with even very young players lacing up the skates four or five days a week. That's a serious time commitment for any working parent, never mind a standing governor whose office is 40 miles away in Montpelier.
But neither his executive title nor the length of his commute kept Dean from fulfilling his hockey-parent obligations. "I may be the only presidential candidate in the nation who drove the hockey and soccer team carpools every week," Dean told the Coalition of Essential Schools in a November 2002 speech.
That's no empty boast, according to parents whose children carpooled with Dean. Mike Morin of Colchester has a daughter, Jessica, who played with Dean's daughter Anne on the elite North American Hockey Academy team in Stowe. "No matter where we were going -- Hanover, Glen Falls, wherever -- he was great about bringing other kids along," says Morin.
In fact, Dean took some flack from environmentalists over his choice of vehicles: a less-than-fuel-efficient '89 Chevy Blazer. But the former governor makes no apologies about his gas-guzzling ride. "Well, I drive an SUV. Naughty, naughty," Dean told Grist magazine in June. "But I have two children who play hockey and soccer, and there was no way I could do without a seven- or eight-passenger car."
And with Bush's foreign and domestic agenda having a rough season, whoever takes over next in the West Wing will need to know a thing or two about multi-tasking, a skill Dean has apparently mastered. "Howard was always there to help out with anything that needed to be done," Morin adds. "He came to practices, he came to all the games, he was always active with working the penalty boxes. And, of course, it was great having him there as a doctor just in case any of the players got injured."
While the Religious Right has condemned the former Vermont governor for signing the civil-union bill into law, anyone who accuses Dean of being weak on family values had better make a quick line change. During Dean's 11 years in office, Montpelier politicos all knew the governor's calendar was kept open to accommodate his children's athletic schedules, especially during the playoffs. That commitment hasn't wavered since Dean began running for president. The Dean For America Web site notes that his presidential campaigning is scheduled around his son's high school hockey games.
"He would religiously go to the games. It didn't matter if they were local or away," Nichols confirms. In fact, one year their sons' team won the state championship and went to Maine to represent Vermont in a New England regional tournament. "The bus left at 4:30 in the morning to get up to Bangor and Howard was there at the other end," Nichols recalls. "His schedule got changed. Only he would know the details, but I can't recall when he wasn't at a game, quite frankly."
Dean has also chalked up a few nifty assists for girls' hockey in Vermont. "Howard Dean was responsible for giving the Vermont High School Girls' Hockey League a real shot in the arm," notes Walter O'Brien, director of women's hockey for the Vermont State Amateur Hockey Association. During the 2000-01 season, Governor Dean offered a $10,000 grant to any school athletic program that started a girl's hockey team. That year, the number of Vermont schools with a girls' team jumped from four to 14. Today, there are 20, including the Stowe High School team O'Brien now coaches.
"I do know [Dean's] daughter's team, Burlington High School, upset my Stowe team that year in an overtime thriller, and he was at the game," O'Brien adds. "I joked later with the Burlington coach that the win was our gift of appreciation to Howard for his support of girls' hockey."
Though Dean was effective on the power plays, hockey parents who shared the bleachers with him all say he left the politics outside the rink, and vice versa. "One of the things that Howard really appreciated with his kids' involvement with sports was that we treated him -- and continue to treat him -- as a dad," says Krumholz. "He was not interested in talking politics on the sidelines. That was his respite and everyone respected that."
Which isn't to say that Dean's competitive nature didn't occasionally show through. "He was a very active cheerer," notes Morin. "He and I used to sit together and we were pretty vocal when our kids were playing. Our daughters would always look up at us and go, Oh, no!'"
While it rarely escaped notice which parent was traveling with a security detail from the Vermont State Police, Dean still scored high on the Harry Truman-Everyman scale. "I think maybe folks were a little bit timid at first about having the governor walking around. Then again, it was pretty cool," notes Mike Cabral of Colchester, whose daughters played hockey with the Dean kids. "He was just one of the parents who would call you up on the phone and say, Hey, we had a change in game time,' and things like that."
"He's definitely just your average Joe," agrees Tim Bilodeau, whose daughter played with Anne Dean. Like Bill Clinton, Dean seems to have a real head for the particulars. "He's articulate, and he's articulate about hockey as well. He has a fairly in-depth understanding of the game, like a lot of hockey parents do if you've been around the rink for a long time."
Not surprisingly, none of Dean's fellow hockey parents would speculate about his chances of putting one in the net in 2004. But political writers and cartoonists probably wouldn't mind the infusion of hat tricks, breakaways, penalty boxes, cross-checks and other hockey lingo that a Dean presidency might bring to Washington politics. And what hockey parent wouldn't relish seeing Marv Albert at the inaugural dinner introducing the 44th president of the United States with just four words: "He shoots, he scores!