A youth hockey season is full of unexpected surprises. Some are just more unexpected than others.
You don’t need to tell that to the parents and players of the Grosse Pointe Spartans, who were stunned one night when a 6-foot-3 man dressed in a gorilla suit burst into an East Lansing, Mich., hotel lobby during the Sparty Invitational tournament.
It was a startling sight as the big ape jumped around the lobby, joking and jostling with the players while driving everyone else bananas.
What was even more shocking was the man behind the mask was none other than a 17-year Major League Baseball veteran who hit one of the most famous pinch-hit home runs in World Series history.
You could almost hear Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully’s famous call – “The Impossible Has Happened” – echoing through the hotel lobby.
Kirk Gibson, a man who earned a reputation as one of the fiercest competitors in Michigan sports history, also has a playful side, as the Spartans’ faithful found out.
“Nobody in a million years would have thought it was Kirk, and it took a couple of days for everyone to find out who it was,” Spartans coach Robb McIntyre recalls.
“But man it was funny. He can still have a lot of fun even though he’s probably the most intense guy I've ever met.”
It’s a rare glimpse at the 2011 National League Manager of the Year and current Arizona Diamondbacks dugout boss who is known more for his competitive nature than his comedy act.
So many years later, a smile creases his 5 o’clock shadowed face as he thinks back to the scene in the hotel lobby.
“I ran around and scared the daylights out of people,” Gibson laughs while sitting in the dugout at Coors Field in Denver late last season. “Nobody really knew who it was as I was screaming at people.”
In between his stint as one of baseball’s most feared hitters and one of its best managers, Gibson spent several years helping turn Grosse Pointe into a youth hockey powerhouse in the state of Michigan. The Spartans went on to win five consecutive state titles from 2001-05, two of which came during Gibson’s involvement.
Geoff Welsher, who was at Michigan State University when Gibson was an All-American wide receiver, remembers how intense of a competitor he was. Yet he got to see another side when his son Geoffrey played youth hockey for Gibson.
“He just had a way with kids,” Welsher says. “It was just a real fondness that he had to make an impression on kids and to put a brick in the foundation of them to hopefully make another Kirk Gibson-type, high-performing player.”
However, Gibson says his youth hockey coaching philosophy went back to his days as a young ballplayer when his coaches gave him one opportunity after another.
“Ultimately in baseball I had an opportunity to reach my potential,” says Gibson, a career .268 hitter who had a knack for coming up big in the clutch, including with the Detroit Tigers during the 1984 World Series.
“Everyone kept giving me an opportunity when I didn’t do well, or I failed, and they built my confidence up.
“For me, I felt I took an oath as a hockey coach that I had to help those people and instill confidence in them. My goal in hockey, or whatever I do, is to give the people that we can touch the opportunity to make themselves better and reach their potential. It may not be in hockey, it may not be in baseball, but in life.”
“The kids are younger, but it is the same. It’s all about motivation and getting them to buy in. It’s all about putting your guys in position to succeed.”
Gibson stressed mental toughness to his Spartans squad, just as his mentor and former coach Sparky Anderson did during his playing days in Detroit.
McIntyre, who credits Gibson with molding him as a young coach, believes that Gibson manages in the big leagues the same way he coached in Grosse Pointe.
“I have to think he’s probably going through a lot of the same stuff with what we went through with Squirt hockey players,” says McIntyre, who now coaches at the University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe Woods. “It’s just a lot bigger and a lot more zeros on it.”
Gibson, in his third year as Arizona’s manager, first started managing in the majors while he was still coaching youth hockey. He served two seasons as an assistant coach for the Tigers before becoming a bench coach for the Diamondbacks in 2007. Three years later he took over the reins and became the first first-year manager to take a last-place team one year to the playoffs the next season.
The 1988 National League Most Valuable Player says coaching youth hockey was certainly similar to coaching in MLB.
“The kids are younger, but it is the same,” Gibson says. “It’s all about motivation and getting them to buy in. It’s all about putting your guys in position to succeed.”
Regardless if it’s youth hockey or professional baseball, the games are about much more than simply winning and losing.
“It’s about the game. It’s not about me. It’s not about you or one player,” Gibson says. “It’s about the game of baseball. It’s about the game of hockey. It’s about who we are collectively in society. How can we become givers, not takers?
“Those good guidelines and principles are created through being a good teammate, and it spills over to productivity in our society.”