The Fresno Falcons — Up Close and Personal

By Brian Covert

FRESNO — The scene is a chilly Selland Arena midway through the Fresno Falcons hockey team’s successful 1983 season:

Fresno’s premier player, Reino Siipola, No. 10, has just been put in the penalty box for fighting. The opposing player who caused Siipola to be penalized then becomes an open target for a swarm of Falcons players — and Falcons fans as well.

“Just wait till Reino comes back out!” shouts an excited fan, sitting a few rows above the ice. “Just wait!”

Soon enough, the fan is shrieking in ecstasy as Siipola comes back onto the ice and nails the targeted player in a gnashing of fists and hockey sticks. The fan is elated and comforts himself in his prediction. “See?! I told you...,” he says to some friends sitting nearby.

Score one for the local hockey fan — one of many strong motivations behind the Falcons’ current first-place position in the Pacific Southwest Hockey League.

Coming off their 1983 season with a 13-3-2 record, a league title and two championship playoff wins, the Falcons looked to the 1984-85 season with high hopes. Those hopes were soon shot down as the actual season began last November. The team was stricken with injuries. To top it off, two key players, Siipola and defenseman Frank Frievalt, decided to leave the team to pursue outside business interests. Even with a batch of fresh, new players added to the team, the old Falcons magic seemed to be gone for good.

But as fate would have it, the Fresno Falcons are now back on their feet and heading upward with a 7-2-1 record after a two-game series sweep of the Los Angeles Bruins last weekend.

Much of the continuing success of this Fresno “Cinderella team,” if you will, is due to the return of Siipola and Frievalt to the lineup and the reactivation of goalie Mike McCollum to the front line.

“We’re putting just about everybody back, we’re not gonna make any more changes,” said Falcons coach Darryl Lauer. “The team is starting to play very well right now. They’re starting to play good defense, especially with Frievalt back, our best defenseman. I look for another good game tonight,” he said prior to a Saturday game with the West Covina Blackhawks.

Lauer was later dismayed at the outcome of that game, however, when a technicality in the league rules gave the Falcons their first tie game of this season, rather than a deserved victory.

Lauer has been the Falcons coach for the last two years. Before that, he spent eight years coaching youths in junior hockey leagues. Lauer said watching local San Joaquin Valley youths develop into mature hockey players is a rewarding process.

“There’s a lot of enjoyment in coaching kids; you get to see a lot of their improvement. This type of hockey (such as the Falcons) is also rewarding, after having played 13 years and coaching the last couple of years. Let’s put it this way: coaching’s a lot easier on the body,” he said, laughing.

“Sometimes I get a little involved and excited because I’m not playing anymore, but it’s understandable,” he said. “Basically, it’s when the Falcons are not playing well that I really wish I was playing again.”

To maintain the Falcons’ strength, Lauer combines the aggressiveness of local youths and the expertise of the team’s veterans. Lauer recently recruited goalie Eric Errotabere, 18, and defenseman Georg Wenthe, 20.

“We’re basically trying to replace a little bit at a time, and keep the team right around the top where they always have been,” he said.

Lauer, 32, said amid all the hard work, there’s “never a dull moment” in coaching the Falcons.

“You’ve got some personalities here that you wouldn’t believe. Too bad you can’t come to the game and spend a couple hours with these guys afterward at the bar. You talk about ‘Slapshot’ material!” he said jokingly. “Hockey players are a rare breed.”

Lauer said if he had to give a Most Valuable Player award to one of his players at this point in the season, it would be to Hank Taylor for his contribution in a Friday night game with the Blackhawks. Taylor made four goals and four assists in an 11-1 stomping over West Covina.

While Taylor may deserve the MVP for his performance in that game, another player — Reino Siipola — surely deserves commendation for his outstanding 1983 season with the Falcons, when he set both team and conference scoring records.

At the beginning of the 1984-85 season, Siipola announced his retirement from the Falcons after 11 years with the team. He wanted to devote his time to his construction company in Clovis. The retirement lasted only four games into this season, though, as the Falcons got off to a shaky start and Siipola got nervous about not playing.

“I was thinking about the demands of running a company plus playing hockey,” Siipola said. “I really enjoyed playing, but I was between a rock and a hard spot, in a way. After the season started, I was able to come and watch the games, so I realized that I probably could work it out. Also, I had a lot of jitters when I was sitting up in the stands.”

Siipola, 33, returned to the lineup in the center position, and helped to add that much-needed stabilizing force to the team.

“It was actually kind of good for me that I didn’t play the first four games because I saw what it was like not to play,” said the blond-haired Canadian citizen.

“I grew more enthused and pumped up about playing. We’ve got a lot of good friendships going. (Being out of the game) you miss playing, you miss the friendship of the team, the competition in the league.”

Some of those intra-team friendships, it turns out, happen to be among siblings. Siipola’s younger brother, Esko, 30, also plays with the Falcons, as do brothers Hank and Greg Taylor.

Reino Siipola had a brush with professional hockey when he attended the Los Angeles minor league camp in 1972. He remained there for two years before an injury kept him off the ice for a year — ending his chances of getting on a pro team at that time.

“Any pro affiliations or connections I did have didn’t work out because of the injury,” he recalled. “It’s just one of those things, but you look back sometimes and wish the cards were a little different.”

With the Falcons’ season ending in a March 22-24 series against the Golden State Condors, what does the future hold for one of the Falcons’ key players?

“I want to continue playing the best I can,” Siipola said. “I consider myself to be pretty competitive and I play the best I can to try and help the team out.”

“I figure I still got a lot of years left,” he said confidently.