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A Californian Takes to the Ice : Rob Mandel Gets Assist From Parents in Hockey Triumph

July 23, 1987|MARTY ESQUIVEL | Times Staff Writer

As a youngster in Nuremberg, West Germany, Fritz Mandel and his buddies would go to a frozen pond, rip a branch off a tree, smash an old beer can and play their version of hockey.

That was as close Mandel could get to a sport he loved.

"I had no means to support my dreams," said Mandel, who now lives in West Los Angeles. "In those days, hockey was expensive."

It still is. But Mandel isn't one to let a dream die easily.

So when his son Rob at age 8 became infatuated with the game that's as Southern Californian as a polar bear, Mandel and wife Stephanie did everything to make his dream come true.

But it got to the point where Rob didn't want to just play hockey. He wanted to play hockey with the best and he wasn't going to get the caliber of competition he wanted in Los Angeles.

"I had a customer in Minnesota who'd been asking me for years to see their high school state hockey championships," Fritz Mandel said. "In 1983 I decided to go. It was amazing. They drew 120,000 people in three days. I said, 'This is the place for Rob to play.' "

So, at age 13, Rob gave up beaches for blizzards and moved to Minnesota. After a successful high school career he received a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, which in turn led to being drafted last June in the fifth round by the Quebec Nordiques.

Rob Mandel is not the first Southern Californian to be drafted by a professional hockey team. But it hasn't always been easy. Take the move to Minnesota.

At first, the Mandels thought Rob could live with another Southern California family that moved to Edina, Minn., for the same reason. But some angry Edina parents started complaining about outsiders moving in and an old rule was pulled out of the books.

In order for Rob to compete, he had to be living with a parent or legal guardian.

With a successful tool-making business in Los Angeles, Fritz Mandel couldn't leave. But Stephanie and 3-year-old son Eric packed their bags, moved to Edina and rented a condo.

Stephanie called it a sacrifice, but it turned out to be a pleasant one.

"I loved it there," Stephanie said. "I thought it was wonderful."

Some Edina residents didn't warm up to the Mandels quickly, though. Several letters to the local newspaper voiced displeasure at the thought of a Southern Californian taking a position from a local boy.

"Hockey is a total tradition for them," Rob said.

As a sophomore, Rob made the junior varsity but was quickly moved up to the varsity. Rapport with his teammates was never a problem. And then the Edina parents came around.

"When we left some said, 'I wish we could've hated you, but we ended up liking you,' " Stephanie said. "But I can understand that."

Three years with Edina netted Rob a state championship along with all-state honors. He was a key player for Willard Ikola, who has coached at Edina High School for 29 years.

For Ikola, the first mention of a Southern Californian transferring to one of the finest high school hockey programs in Minnesota drew skepticism.

"It did until I saw him play," said Ikola. "He was a fine player. He wasn't a hitter-type, more a finesse player. His biggest asset was ability to move the puck up the floor."

While Rob was learning the game, Stephanie found herself a couple of thousand miles away from her husband of 20 years. She saw him about once a month during the school year.

"That was the hard part," she said. "But he came out as often as he could for the big games."

"I knew it was a total, big sacrifice, especially with my dad out here," Rob said. "I'm just happy I had the opportunity to do it. I owe it all to them."

At Wisconsin he played in all 42 Badger games as a freshman. The Badgers play in the Western Collegiate Hockey Assn., regarded as one of the best in college hockey.

Rob, a defense man, will finish school at Wisconsin before exploring his chances professionally. Quebec will hold his rights until he graduates.

For now, Rob has other matters on his mind.

He was selected to the U.S. Junior National Team. Represented by 22 of the best amateur players in the country, it will be trimmed to 19 by the fall. In December, they will compete in the World Junior Championships in Moscow.

Rob said the team is a steppingstone to the U.S. Olympic Team. The 1988 Winter Games in Calgary are out of his reach, but the 1990 Olympics, being played two years ahead of time in order to create a two-year gap between the summer and winter Olympics in West Germany--home of his parents--is his goal.

"I would anticipate that he would be on the team," says his private skating coach, Gary Visconti, a 1968 member of the U.S. Olympic team that won the bronze medal. Visconti, who's coached Olympians in the '76, '80 and '84 Games, says Mandel needs aggressiveness but is a bright prospect.

"He has everything it takes," says Visconti. "He's got the body, the mental attitude and the dedication."

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