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L.A. Blades' Charron Is Man From Uncles : Hockey: With Jim Craig and his brothers serving as mentors, center learned about skating and life.

August 03, 1994|MATT WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Craig Charron had retired from hockey by the time his uncle's team defeated the Soviet Union in one of the United States' greatest victories on the ice.

"I'd been playing hockey since I was 6," Charron recalls. "I got sick of it. I took a year off when I was 11."

That was 1980, and from the rafter seats at Lake Placid, N.Y., Charron watched U.S. goalie Jim Craig--Uncle Jim--shut out the Soviets for 10 of the longest minutes in Olympic history.

The United States won, 4-3, and, high atop the stands, a career was reborn.

Charron, with his mother, Anne, Jim's oldest sister, remembers thinking: "This is a pretty good sport."

Back in Easton, Mass., after a hero's welcome parade for the whole Craig family, Charron unretired.

*

One-quarter inch might be as tall as this paragraph. People grow that much on an inhale.

But to Craig Charron, the newly rediscovered spark in the L.A. Blades' roller hockey offense, one-quarter inch is the distance between him and a straight-out lie.

"I'm 5-foot-9 3/4 to be honestly truthful," Charron says. "I always say I'm 5-10, because, you know, I hate saying three-quarters all the time. But I'm actually nine and three-quarters."

In 11 games with the Blades since returning from an injury, Charron has 19 goals and 15 assists, and has led the Blades to the best record in Roller Hockey International.

Charron is like countless players in hockey's minor leagues and RHI--a tick too slow. A nod short on fundamentals. An ounce lacking in want-to.

Charron was born to be a shrug short of 5-10, which to Anne Charron meant he could quit right away, which he tried, or could work that much harder.

That's the lesson Anne Charron taught her brothers and sisters--Jim Craig among them--when their mother died. The same lesson she passed on to her children.

"My mother was the driving force behind my hockey," Charron says. "I was always kind of a late bloomer, always smaller than the guys I was on the ice with.

"Smaller guys try harder."

*

The swamp was about one-quarter inch short of perfect.

Shallow and thick with vegetation, it froze weeks before any body of water deserving of the title "pond" in Easton, Mass. Reeds from the murky water stuck up through the ice all winter, creating perfect, built-in cone drills.

And the swamp was right behind the house that the Craigs called home.

Anne, Jim and the rest of the Craigs grew up in that house next to that swamp, surrounded by other houses filled with aunts and uncles and assorted relatives.

Jim, Dan and Kevin had the swamp on their own terms. But Anne, the oldest and self-appointed matriarch after their mother's death, ran the house.

"My mother was pretty much the mother to her brother and sisters," Charron says.

When Anne Craig married Maurice Charron, she moved from the Craig house to the one next door.

Jim, Dan and Kevin were still playing hockey on the swamp when young Craig arrived.

"That's how my stick skills got so good," Charron says. "My uncles would take the puck and they wouldn't let me go in until I got it away from them. And that would always seem to take an hour. Then they would make me take it and I would try to keep it from them. So I got good at keeping the puck away from bigger guys."

Says Jim Craig: "We started him in our basement. When he was ready, we moved him to pond hockey. My brothers and I tried to be his mentor."

Charron says he thought of them more as brothers than uncles.

"They were the ones I played hockey with and they looked out for me," he recalls.

One by one, the uncles left to play college hockey, Dan to Massachusetts Lowell, Jim to Boston University and Olympic fame. That left the pond to Craig, and Craig to Anne.

*

Under Anne's urging and needling, Craig was a local standout entering high school.

But she died from cancer in Craig's sophomore year.

"After she passed away, I felt like I had to take care of my brothers and sisters," Charron says. "They'd sneak out late past my dad, then I'd be the one staying up, waiting. I'd say, 'Where have you been?' And they'd say, 'You're not my father!'

"But my mom took care of her brothers and sisters after their mom died, I felt like I had to look out for mine."

Which left who to look out for Craig?

"My brothers and I took him under our wing," Jim Craig says.

In college, Charron once needed money for books. "I was real embarrassed to call Jim, but he said, 'If you had gone to somebody besides me, I would have been so mad at you,' " Charron says.

Dan helped Craig get admitted to Massachusetts Lowell, where he played as a walk-on. Charron started all four years.

"My coach at BU said that he was the biggest steal Lowell ever got," Jim says. "Its frustrating for me and for Craig. There isn't a team in the NHL that could not use him."

But the NHL does not take seriously centers listed at 5-10 who insist it's closer to 5-9 3/4.

"Here's a guy who's all heart and only wants to play," Craig says. "You want to see a guy like that make it."

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