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November 9, 2004 - Esche drops puck for charity

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Esche drops puck for charity
NHL goalie hosting benefit hockey games
Tue, Nov 9, 2004

CRAIG MUDER
Observer-Dispatch

So far, Robert Esche is enjoying his time away from the NHL.

From spending time with his wife and daughter to a short trip on tour with musician Kid Rock, Esche is taking advantage of the NHL lockout to have some fun.

But this weekend, it's back to work on the ice -- to raise money for some special kids in the Mohawk Valley.

Esche's Chico and Friends Challenge will be held Thursday at the Utica Memorial Auditorium and Friday-Saturday at the Clinton Arena. The Philadelphia Flyers goalie, who grew up in Whitesboro, is bringing 30-or-so of his NHL friends to town for three 4-on-4 charity hockey games.

All proceeds benefit Esche's Save of the Day Foundation, which helps children with life-threatening illnesses in the Mohawk Valley.

"It's the first time I've been home during the fall in 12 years," said Esche, who has been locked out of his NHL job since Sept. 15 when the owners began canceling games due to a labor dispute. "I get to see the leaves change -- I've been in heaven.

"It's been weird, it's been different. Nobody is happy that we're not playing hockey, but we're not going to negotiate against ourselves and we're not going to accept a salary cap."

Esche firmly supports the union position against a $31 million salary cap, which the owners say is necessary for the health of the league. But despite being out of work following his breakout season, Esche is anything but idle.

His charity games this weekend are one of several Esche will play in over the next few months, including games in Phoenix in December for Flyers teammate Jeremy Roenick. Esche has spent the last two months planning for this weekend, securing commitments from NHL stars like Keith Primeau, Mark Recchi, Dominik Hasek and Jamie Langenbrunner while handling the logistics of bringing in, putting up (at the Turning Stone hotel) and moving around 30 hockey players.

"I've never played hockey at the Aud," Esche said. "I played a lot of youth hockey at the Clinton Arena, but I never won a game there. So it's going to be special for me, too."

Tickets cost $15 apiece, a third of which goes for insurance. Tickets can be purchased at the Aud box office, the Clinton Arena box office and by phone at 736-0710.

Esche seems intent on giving fans their money's worth. Offense will be the name of the game, with no red line to encourage long passes and no penalties -- just penalty shots called following every infraction.

And on Friday night in Clinton, Esche and his friends will honor the Clinton Comets by wearing Comets jerseys and bringing some former Comets onto the ice during a pregame ceremony.

"People forget how big the Comets were here years ago," Esche said. "I think all of the players today understand the sacrifices players made before us. That's what the lockout is about -- making sure the game is healthy and strong for years to come."

Meanwhile, hockey fans wait. Esche is coming off the best season of his career, going 21-11-7 for a Flyers team that advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. He followed that up with a stellar performance in the World Cup of Hockey in September, earning praise from many analysts as the best American player on the ice.

But with the real threat of the entire NHL season being canceled, Esche is planning ahead.

"I think a new league will come in, maybe the WHA," Esche said. "I might end up playing in the American Hockey League for a while this year. But none of us are sitting around worrying -- we're all going on with everyday life. The owners are the ones stuck with empty arenas. They've caused a lot of unemployment.

"I think we'd play for free, but the owners are making money hand over fist. And they have a obligation to fairly compensate their workers."

Contact Craig Muder at cmuder@utica.gannett.com

CHICO AND FRIENDS CHALLENGE

White team: Mark Recchi, John Madden, Craig Conroy, Jesse Boulerice, Tom Fitzgerald, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Weinrich, Shawn McEachern, Tom Poti, Jim McKenzie, Don Sweeney, Shawn Bates, Todd White, Hal Gill, Robert Esche.

Blue team: Tony Amonte, Adam Mair, Jamie Langenbrunner, Keith Primeau, Chris Clark, Colin White, Rory Fitzpatrick, Jay Pandolfo, Dan McGillis, Chris McAllister, Eric Boulton, Mike Grier, Andrew Peters, Dominik Hasek, Martin Biron.