Thursday, December 02, 1999

Crafty Mantha turns Ducks into swans




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Moe Mantha was down a goalie Wednesday morning, so he propped a tire in front of the net.

        Coaching minor-league hockey means always having to improvise. Being down a goalie sometimes means a job well done. Mantha's Cincinnati Mighty Ducks spent part of Wednesday's practice taking slap shots at a Bridgestone All-Season SF-408, because Aren Miller had been called up earlier in the day by the Detroit Red Wings.

        Another day, another empty locker at Cincinnati Gardens.

        “These kids have all this talent and all their dreams ahead of them,” Mantha said. “My job is to polish their skills. My job is to make their dreams a reality.”

        For three seasons, Mantha, 38, has polished more persistently than a buck private at boot camp. He has sent 25 different Mighty Ducks to the National Hockey League during that span, a development record that suggests mass production but reflects close attention to small details.

        Mantha's official title is head coach, but his job description entails a variety of tasks for which he has little formal training. He's a man players can turn to when they need heat in their apartments or checking accounts opened or immigration papers filled out. He is mentor and role model, scoutmaster and surrogate father. He keeps files on his players to help remember their hobbies and has a framed print above his desk depicting a frozen pond pickup game to remind players of their roots.

        He is sincerity on skates.

Hockey in his blood
        Mantha is third-generation hockey. His great-uncle, Sylvio, was a Hall of Fame defenseman with the early Montreal Canadiens. His father, Moe Sr., was a mid-'50s member of the Cincinnati Mohawks. His own career spanned 12 NHL seasons, including successive stints with the Pittsburgh Penguins of Mario Lemieux and the Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky.

        Later, when Mantha moved on to the Philadelphia Flyers, Gretzky scored a goal by bouncing a puck off Mantha's shin guard. It was an embarrassing moment but a useful memory. When Mantha speaks from experience, he can drop names that make his message resonate.

        “Mario Lemieux used to stay after practice shooting puck after puck after puck,” Mantha said. “The reason Wayne Gretzky was so good was that he worked on the little things.”

        If he was never a Great One himself, Mantha was always a guy who could be trusted to guide younger players toward the right path. In Pittsburgh, management prevailed upon him to open his home to the young Doug Bodger. Bodger came for two weeks and stayed for two years.

        When foreign players encountered language barriers, Mantha would serve as their cultural liaison. He would take them to restaurants and translate the menu until they gained the confidence to order on their own.

One rare moment
        Professional hockey is a bottom-line business, and players are rarely kept for the sake of chemistry. Still, a man sometimes can make an impression on the ice simply by the way he carries himself. When Mantha's playing days were dwindling in 1992, the Flyers thought he had a talent worth nurturing. He was told he could be traded, waived or hired as an assistant coach with the Hershey Bears.

        Mantha chose coaching, but not before he nearly undid a career of good deeds and “honest” play before the 1992 Winter Olympics.

        Mantha was seen as a stabilizing influence on a young American team but was prompted to play against type during a pre-Olympic brawl with the host French team.

        “A guy happened to spit on my sweater,” Mantha said. “For the last 37 minutes, I kept telling him, "I'm coming. I'm coming.' He kept saying, "NHL tough guy.'”

        The fight began as time expired, and the U.S. delegation was so chagrined by the spectacle that Mantha nearly was dropped from the team.

        “They were going to send me home,” he said. “My comeback to everyone in the room was, "You don't spit on the red, white and blue and get away with it.'”

        It was a good answer and evidence of good aptitude. Coaches need to think fast on their feet.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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