For hockey fan, paycheck is just icing
By RICK GERSHMAN
LUTZ -- Television no longer is the only way for sports fans to enjoy live events out of town. In the 21st century, every major pro league has a Web site that tracks live games in progress.
At nhl.com, a hockey fan can experience a game via computer, with information updated every 15 seconds. The site provides a wealth of information not readily available on a television broadcast, including a mountain of statistics and game details.
The NHL receives every live game detail within seconds of its occurence. To do this, the league relies on a team of six off-ice officials who plug information into laptop computers throughout the game.
This is where Ron Brace comes in.
Brace is an accountant who mostly works from his home in Lutz's VillaRosa neighborhood. But whenever the Tampa Bay Lightning has a home game, Brace dons his NHL tie and blazer and becomes the league's local Computer Guy.
In the Lightning's 10 seasons of existence, Brace has missed only one game. Those familiar with the franchise's often-horrific output might consider Brace's job cruel and unusual punishment. But Brace, a Canadian native and former hockey player, considers it the best part-time job ever.
"I just love this," he said. "If you love hockey, this is the perfect job. We have a great time, and we've been doing it together all along."
There are 13 off-ice officials in all, six of whom constantly update information on the laptops. Brace is the computer trainer and supervisor.
Virtually every member of the crew, led by Jim Galluzzi, has been in place from the beginning. Galluzzi, who owns four businesses in Merritt Island, drives more than 60 miles each way for every game.
For years, off-ice officials tabulated all game information by hand. When the NHL introduced its computer system about five years ago, Brace trained in Toronto and implemented the system at the Lightning's home, the Ice Palace in downtown Tampa. The NHL pays Brace $75 per game and includes him in its pension plan.
During Monday's game, Brace was in charge of tracking shots, goals and face-offs. When play stopped, he danced in his seat to the arena music, bobbing his head to Alien Ant Farm's cover of Smooth Criminal and tapping along with the Romantics' What I Like About You. Shots come fast and furious in hockey, and the officials rely on each other to keep up. They check replays on a VCR for accuracy. The information they gather must be timely and especially precise, as it becomes the league's permanent official record of the game. Print, radio and television media also rely on the information for their reports.
Brace, 50, grew up playing hockey in his hometown of New Brunswick, Quebec. His family moved to Boston when he was 10. Brace went on to play collegiate hockey there, at Northeastern University.
He has a good excuse for the one Lightning game he missed: He was cheering his son Paul in a hockey tournament in Huntsville. Brace has two children: Paul, now 22, and Kristen, 25. He also has two stepchildren, Joe, 15, and Jenna, 12, by his wife of four years, whose name still makes Brace laugh when he says it: Grace Brace. In his first year as an off-ice official, Brace spent almost the entire season as a penalty box supervisor. (The NHL appoints one official in each box to ensure players enter and exit the box at the correct times.) In recent years, whenever the Boston Bruins come to town, Brace hands off his computer and supervises the Boston penalty box.
That way, he explained, "All of my friends and family (in Boston) can get a kick out of watching me on TV."
The hard-core hockey fan has shared the penalty box with such legends as the rarely penalized Wayne Gretzky, Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux and Brace's favorite player, longtime Bruins star Ray Bourque.
"Some of them, you can tell they want to talk, some don't," Brace said. "All I got out of Gretzky was, "Hey, how're you doing?' "
He has had some more interesting interactions. At the Lightning's first home, the Expo Hall, Brace calmed down a Toronto Maple Leafs player who was looking to climb out of the box and into the stands. The player wanted to beat up a fan who was heckling and spitting water into the box. Hockey aficionados won't be surprised to learn the heckler was, in fact, a Maple Leafs fan.
Brace's duties are not quite so action-packed these days. But he does get to see a lot of great hockey -- and every once in the while, it comes from the home team. Tampa Bay won Monday's game 3-2 over the New Jersey Devils, and Brace tracked every goal intently. He had to -- that's his job. Hectic as it gets, Brace wouldn't trade it for anything.
"The first time I got a check from the league, I couldn't believe they were paying me for this," he said. "It's just too much fun."
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