By Pete Chiodo
The Meadville Tribune
October 23, 2012 7:00 a.m. MEADVILLE —
Greg Carpenter was operating under the impression that he was going to the Meadville Area Recreation Complex on Monday night just to hang out with some of the players he used to coach on the short-lived high school-age hockey program, the Crawford County Cobras.
Of course, that was the impression he was supposed to have.
In actuality, the Crawford County Cobras recognition night, which preceded Monday’s hockey game between Meadville and Mt. Lebanon, was also an excuse to get Carpenter there so that the Meadville hockey community could finally recognize the man who is credited with bringing the sport to the city.
“He’s the Johnny Appleseed of hockey in Meadville,” said Dan Craven, a long time hockey coach, player and referee, and the organizer of last night’s festivities.
Carpenter, sitting in a wheelchair due to some significant health problems, was wheeled onto the ice and was joined by about 10 former Cobras players. And there, he was presented with a plaque and it was announced that the MARC’s recently renovated referees locker room would from now on bare his name.
Carpenter was, needless to say, surprised.
“Oh yeah. I just thought we were going to go out there and,” Carpenter gives a quick wave of hand, “‘Say, hello,’ and that would be it. But this was amazing, all of it.”
According to Craven, “We had to do something for him. None of us would be coming to the rink if not for Greg.”
The legend goes like this: “Basically, Greg was a guy that came in from Detroit, Michigan,” said Craven. “He comes to Pennsylvania ... and he realized that the rec center was there and decided we needed something to do with it. So he started to organize on-ice activities.
“He was the one that said, ‘Look, we’re going to formalize some drills. We’re going to split teams up. You run this team. You’ll run this team. I’ll referee.’”
According to Mike Fisher, the director of the MARC, “He was our first coach. He was also our first referee. They even say he taught us how to drive the Zamboni.”
This was back in the mid- to late-1970s, soon after the MARC’s ice rink opened its doors. Carpenter put out a call to any kid that wanted to learn how to play the sport of hockey.
“The first time I did anything with youth hockey, no one had played hockey, no one knew anything,” Carpenter said in an interview earlier this week, before last night’s surprise was sprung.
“I stepped on the ice for the first time with 62 kids. I was the only person at the time that had any hockey experience. Others came out of woodwork when they saw what we were doing. And some of the other guys’ experience ended up helping out youth hockey.”
Other community members signed on as coaches, like Tom Ford, Kevin Pipp, Jim Hickernell, John Bunce and Lon Sippy. Others assisted with the front office work, like Dave Bainer, Bill Dross, Joe King Sr. and Larry Sippy.
“You have to lay the groundwork, and you don’t lay the groundwork without a lot of help,” said P.J. Marsiglia, who attended last night’s ceremony. Back in the day he was known as P.J. Marsh and was a goalie for the Cobras and, later, the Meadville Bulldogs.
“But Greg was so instrumental in everything that we did. Greg laid the groundwork. He was there for everybody. I think he lived here at the rink most of the time, helping everybody out. He left such a lasting impression on so many young players.”
Carpenter’s legacy still lives on. That early hockey program evolved into the Crawford County Youth Hockey Association that still thrives. And he later initiated the high school-age program — the Cobras — that would years later turn into the eight-time state champion Meadville Bulldogs program.
“(Carpenter) did all the grunt work, getting the foundation laid,” said Bulldogs head coach Jaime Plunkett, who has headed up the team since the 1986-87 season.
“I was fortunate enough to walk into a good deal. But people like Greg ... were part of the foundation. They went through all the early stages and growing pains that new programs and first-year programs endure.”
After yesterday’s ceremony, Carpenter and some of the former coaches and players hung around at the MARC, shared some stories of the old days and had some cake.
On the cake was a caricature of Carpenter, in skates, of course, wearing the black and white stripes of a referee. His hair was long and black. So was the mustache.
It’s an image that many seem to share of this integral figure in Crawford County sports history.
“This was before the rink was enclosed,” remembered Marsiglia. “Greg had this really long, bushy mustache that came down to his chin. And you’d come to the rink, and it could be 10 or 11 o’clock at night, and you’d see this guy with the helmet on, long black hair coming out the back of it, and his mustache just frosted white. And he’s out on the ice skating.
“That was Greg.”