November 11, 2009
Brent Sapergia's phone started ringing at 6:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning, shortly after the video of his epic stick-tossing tirade behind the Louisiana IceGators' bench was shown on "Good Morning America."
This Associated Press clip called "Hockey Coach Lashes Out Over Ref Call" had gone viral; and Sapergia, who's also the Southern Professional Hockey League expansion team's president and general manager, was suddenly a YouTube sensation:
The tantrum occurred in the first period of a game played Nov. 6 in Pensacola, Fla. The Gatorade bucket hit the ice, then a medical kit and over two dozen hockey sticks. "If it wasn't bolted down, it was gone," he said. "At the end, it was comical. My assistant coach says to me, 'Hey Brent, you missed three rolls of tape down there.' "
Sapergia casually tossed the tape rolls on the ice before making his exit from the bench, having been ejected ... for the second-straight night. The Southern Professional Hockey League generally frowns upon such behavior, and it took the unusual step of banning Sapergia from coaching in the league "indefinitely" after the Pensacola freak-out.
"That's the thing that shocks me," he said through an incredulous chuckle. "It almost makes me think that it's personal."
Luckily for the IceGators, Sapergia had already lined up a new coach for the team: John Gibson, who was basically hired during the game after Sapergia left the bench. "Lo and behold, he got the job at least two periods before I was going to offer it to him," said Sapergia.
Why did the coach go nutty and litter the ice? He claims it was actually to protect his players. But others wonder if it was all a publicity stunt for a fledgling minor league hockey team.
Sapergia is a former pro player for 13 years who had contracts with the Philadelphia Flyers, Calgary Flames and New Jersey Devils. He fielded calls from all sorts of media about his tantrum on Wednesday after it aired on ABC and on Canada's TSN network; some of whom were less than understanding about his motivations.
"The guy from 'Inside Edition' was throwing rocks at me. As if I was part of the problem instead of part of the solution," he said.
Sapergia feels his actions were justified. The previous night against Pensacola, Sapergia said, he saw two players cut for 20 stitches without any penalties called. Last Friday, the penalties were already 7-2 in favor of the Floridian team in the first period when Sapergia said he saw one of his players take two crosschecks to the head -- one of them when he was without a helmet. The coach demanded a power play from the official, who instead issued a penalty to the IceGators.
"At that point I felt our players weren't being protected. Something needed to be done," he said.
His actions actually inspired his players, who rallied from a 5-1 deficit to eventually lose 5-4. "My players know that I have their back now," said Sapergia.
The SPHL has been around for six years, but it's the IceGators' first season in the league. (Another team called the Louisiana IceGators had played in the ECHL from 1995-2005, based out of Lafayette.) The team's first coach, Ron Handy, was reassigned after an 0-3 start to become an assistant GM "focusing on community relations and off-ice operations." Sapergia stepped behind the bench as interim coach, leading the team to a 2-2 record before Gibson took over.
(Out of curiosity: How's Gibson's throwing arm? "You know what? I asked him if he had ever done this in his career and he said he did," said Sapergia. "He tossed all the sticks and only got a one-game suspension for it.")
It's been a bit of a rocky start for the franchise, which has led to some speculation that Sapergia's tantrum was staged in order to create some interest in the team. The mega-popular Deadspin blog wrote about the video and wondered:
"Is it too cynical to think that the Bill Veeck of Southeastern Minor League hockey cooked up this rant to draw some attention to his floundering expansion team?"
Sapergia denies his actions were premeditated or a moment of self-promotion.
"People can say it was staged all day, but believe me: If I was going to stage it, I got another thousand things I would have done on my way off the ice there," he said. "Honestly, that's nothing you stage. It was about me feeling our players weren't being protected by the rules and the officials."
He said the attention the tantrum's received has surprised him, as it's not exactly the first time an agitated coach has littered the ice in frustration. He also said that any backlash for his actions is misguided.
"No one got hurt. No one got injured. If there's a black-eye, I guess it's me looking like a loon," he said.
"But if you show me a coach that never gets kicked out of a game, I'll show you a coach that doesn't care enough."