Long before the phrase "Rio Nuevo" became part of the vernacular in the Old Pueblo, a true downtown success story was born.
It was 1979 when a dreamer from Illinois arrived in Tucson with his wife, Paula, to bring collegiate ice hockey to the desert. Some people laughed, but Leo Golembiewski—or Coach G., as he is called—made his dream a reality in the form of the University of Arizona Icecats.
The team draws locals downtown to the Tucson Convention Center Arena on some Friday and Saturday nights in the fall and winter. Coach G. says that last year, more than 80,000 fans came to watch the Icecats. They have been playing at the TCC—and bringing people downtown—for 30 years.
Even more impressive is the fact that Coach G. has kept hockey alive in Tucson—a town that suffers from basketball madness. Very little newspaper ink and TV coverage are given to the team, nor are they given a penny from the university. Money comes from sponsors, advertisers, season tickets, individual ticket sales and souvenirs.
"It's a Horatio Alger story of a guy who came here ... and has dedicated his life to the game, to people and to the kids," says Golembiewski. "We're proud of what we've accomplished and more proud of the success kids have had in the classroom. ... We graduate virtually 100 percent of our kids every year, which, I think, being an educator, is huge."
Read Coach G.'s bio, and you'll see notable accomplishments: A nominee to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, more than 600 collegiate victories as a coach, named to the Midwest Intercollegiate Hockey League's All-Star team, an invitee to the St. Louis Blues pro training camp, inducted into the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame, a master's in education. He's also writing a book called American Dream: What the Hell Was I Thinking? with an intro by Don Rickles.
Coach G. taught American government at Salpointe Catholic High School during the Icecats' early years. While he wore the hats of teacher and coach then, today, he wears many hats: coach, general manager, scheduler, recruiter and fundraiser. "It's a 12-month job," he says.
Coach G. names Scotty Bowman—the coach with the most wins in NHL history—along with former NHL coach Jimmy Roberts and Hall of Fame goaltender Glenn Hall as influences.
"The biggest four-letter word we've tried to impress upon players in my 38 years of coaching—including seven years as a high school varsity coach—is you want the players to care. A better way to put it is to give a damn," says Golembiewski.
The team has been successful following Coach G.'s ethic—to be willing to work until you drop. The Icecats won a club national championship in 1985 and have appeared in eight Final Fours and 10 Elite Eights. He says the Icecats have the top attendance figures in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, of which they are a Division I member.
Coach G. jokes that one of his favorite sayings is, "I only walk on water when it's frozen." But he turns reflective when thinking about his dream. "Hockey's been tough. It's been a lot of work, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. I tried to make a difference in people's lives. ... It's a dream fulfilled, but it's still ongoing."
At a recent Friday night game against Arizona State University, Coach G. stood behind his team, arms crossed. From my view in the stands, he looked to be scanning the ice and his players as the game began. The Tucson Arena—or "The Madhouse on Main Street," as he calls it—was rocking with fans ready to cheer the Icecats and boo the Sun Devils.
I sat back in my seat and marveled at all things hockey—the sound of skates as they sliced through the ice, the slap of a stick hitting the puck, the slam of bodies against the boards. I saw fans with "ASU sucks" written on faces, backs and clothing. Classic rock songs blasted in between plays like an '80s revival. People ate massive nachos and drank cold beer.
Ah, to be at a hockey game.
For those not aware of Coach G. and the Icecats: Take a ride downtown, and support this team. They are a success story Tucson can revel in.