NORWALK — Jerry O'Hagan approached hockey practice the way he does a wall of flames on his job. He dove right in and got crazy, his breath white in the cold, and suddenly the heat was on.
The 22-year-old Inglewood fireman bolted onto the rink in search of human targets. The hissing of his skates blended with that of the other skates, the blades scratching the gray ice and churning it into fine snow.
Bodies fell under his assault.
Sweat broke out on foreheads.
O'Hagan's brusque manner assured that this would be all business, not some mid-week holiday on ice.
It was 11 in the morning at the Norwalk Ice Arena, home of the Southern California Blazers, a team of firefighters from Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, who each summer play three games against a San Francisco team in the Firemen's Olympics.
They practice weekly for seven months for those three games, although they also try to schedule some practice games.
They play to help those who forever tug at their hearts--burned children.
The games with San Francisco will be played July 8 to 10 at the Norwalk Ice Arena with the proceeds (tickets are $2, and nightly crowds between 1,000 and 1,500 are expected) going to the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation, a nonprofit charity that supports seven area hospitals.
The men could play softball to raise the money, which might seem like more of a pleasant change from their high-risk profession. But, said Mike Bryant of Pomona, "Everybody can play softball, but how many people can play hockey? This is more of a challenge.
"A firefighter's job is physical, and this is another way to get out your frustrations. And a lot of us grew up playing youth hockey."
O'Hagan, whose lament before practice was, "No one hits anymore," wrestled red-haired Kevin Tuohy of Mission Viejo into the boards.
A stick flashed and found flesh.
Paramedics on Hand
Tuohy skated to the bench. Blood from his eyelid trickled down his cheek. Not to worry. Several of the players are paramedics.
"As long as I can see, I'm all right," said Tuohy. "I've got to go out and get beat up some more."
To O'Hagan he said, "You're a killer."
O'Hagan, an Inglewood paramedic who also plays hockey in a Burbank league, had successfully lighted a fire under his teammates.
Center Dale Hayes missed a shot, and he slashed his stick in anger against the already well-gouged side wall.
Players started hitting one another. The collision of pads echoed through the dim, barnlike building along with the hissing, the clacking of sticks against hard rubber pucks, the chattering of teeth and the whistle of Art Brewster, the team's 68-year-old coach.
O'Hagan broke a stick during a skirmish and threw it aside.
"First casualty," he said. He had forgotten that Tuohy had that honor.
Brewster, a short, red-faced man in his third season as the Blazers' coach, was bundled in a blue parka.
An old defenseman, Brewster coached some of the Blazers when they played youth hockey. He said he fit right in because he was once a volunteer firefighter in Mendon, Mass.
The Blazers, he said, have three or four players, including O'Hagan, who would be good semi-pro players. Then there are players such as John Balich, 32, of Los Angeles, who took the game up at 28 and has developed into an acceptable performer. Finally, Brewster said, there are the neophytes who come out like they do "on Sunday morning on a frog pond back East."
Spence Waldo of Long Beach headed for a drink of water and a cigarette. His bulky, thigh-high goalie's pads made him waddle.
"This is the highlight of my week," he said.
Waldo has been with the Blazers since their inception nine years ago. He is 39, the elder statesman on a team made up mostly of men in their mid-20s.
"When we started, we all played in blue jeans with taped-up brooms," Waldo said. "Maybe two guys had had skates on before (he wasn't one of them). We were a real riot."
The Blazers now wear pro-style black and yellow uniforms.
Bribed into playing goalie--"They said I wouldn't have to pay ice time dues"--Waldo bought more than $500 in equipment and began stopping pucks.
A scar on his forehead reveals that he hasn't stopped all of them.
"They shipped in a plastic surgeon from UCLA," Waldo said, recalling a long night in an emergency room.
He takes the games with San Francisco--the Blazers lost two games and the third was a tie last summer--seriously.
"It's as big as the Super Bowl to us," Waldo said. "When you're on the ice, it's a death fight."
One year, the keyed-up Waldo arrived at a game with a swollen hand after having accidentally put his fist through his windshield while driving to the rink.
After practice, the team walked next door to the Suede Saddle, which bills itself as the "watering hole for the Southern California Blazers" and specializes in hot lunches, shuffleboard and Patsy Cline on the jukebox.
As she sang "I Fall to Pieces," the Blazers, in jeans and T-shirts now, drank pitchers of beer, ate french fries and talked about their jobs.