Longtime area youth coach Fenstermacher honored by Chips

Bob Fenstermacher, a longtime youth coach in the area, watches the ice while serving as an honorary bench coach for Manistee during Saturday’s win against the Mid Michigan Storm at West Shore Community Ice Arena. (Matt Wenzel/News Advocate photo)

Ten years since he was last behind the boards, Bob Fenstermacher stood on the bench Saturday afternoon.

He didn’t call out line changes, give instructions to players or get in the ear of officials.

Fenstermacher’s role as an honorary bench coach for Manistee was ceremonial, a way of paying tribute to a man who has spent the last five decades fiercely passionate about youth hockey in the area.

It was a deserving honor for an individual who admittedly didn’t know much about the sport until his early 30s.

“We were always a skiing family and my boy didn’t like to ski,” Fenstermacher said, recalling his first trip to the rink. “After that, I bought some skates, made a damn fool of myself and stayed there to help. I didn’t even know how to skate at the time.”

HUMBLE BEGINNING

Fenstermacher, 83, who grew up in Greenville, moved to Manistee in 1960 and got involved with hockey a few years later. The conditions were much different than they are today, namely frigid play outdoors at Sands Park with rudimentary equipment.

“When we started out, Century Boats gave us pieces of carpeting the guys would put in the fronts of their pants and you taped a magazine around your shins,” Fenstermacher said. “The kids didn’t have helmets. Gradually things got going.”

There were also late-night trips to flood and freeze the rink and even in-game maintenance.

“Sometimes we had to quit in the middle of the game and shovel the snow off just to keep going,” Fenstermacher said.

The outdoor elements certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the players, including one former goalie.

“‘Your feet are only as cold as you want them to be,’” current Manistee coach Jeff Patulski recalled Fenstermacher telling him as a young netminder. “And as a little kid, your feet get cold playing goalie. You wanted to cry in the worst way, but you didn’t.”

EVERYONE PLAYS

Although he wasn’t involved with hockey as a kid, Fenstermacher played high school football … sort of.

“I never missed a practice in football and I never, ever played in a game,” he said. “I always felt bad about that. I worked just as hard as anyone else, but I was a little crapper. They had a winning team and they weren’t going to break it up. I can understand that.”

But Fenstermacher also believed that commitment, regardless of skill, deserved a reward, and he employed that when he began coaching.

“Everyone played an equal amount of time at their starting level,” he said. “As they got older, we tried to instill in them you’re not going to play an equal amount of time, but we did have kind of an unwritten rule that any player who attended every practice and put everything he had into it, would get into the game. I kind of carried that over to the larger kids. It cost us a couple games, but everyone understood at the start that anyone who attended every practice and really worked at it would play in the games.”

MAINTAINING A PROGRAM

Even when he didn’t have a child playing hockey, Fenstermacher stayed with the game.

“After my son got through and went to college, I just kind of hung with it,” he said. “That program gave me more knowledge about myself. I could never, ever give those kids, teach those kids as much as they taught me about living and life.

“When you get those parents out to support, even after their children are gone, if they would only stay with that program and help, it will give them the greatest feeling they’ve ever had.”

Given his level of commitment to hockey, Fenstermacher also made sacrifices along the way and thanked his wife of 63 years, Jean, and his family, for tolerating his hockey addiction.

“When you’re raising your kids and trying to get them through school and what have you, it takes quite a bit,” he said. “When you get as involved as I did, which was probably too involved, it actually takes away from your family and your time.”

Fenstermacher, who coached kids from the age of 4 to 17, led a team that played in the Northern Michigan Outdoor Hockey League.

“As the program grew, (former Ferris State coach) Rick Duffett … came up and said this is a program really in its infancy,” Fenstermacher recalled. “He said it may go and it may not go. It’s a program that’s very possibly doomed for failure in these small communities, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

THE PAYOFF

On Nov. 17, 2006, Manistee officially became a varsity program when the Chippewas dropped the puck for a game against Detroit County Day. The team, which is funded independently, started as a five-school co-op with host Manistee, Mason County Central, Ludington, Hart and Shelby and added Manistee Catholic Central this season.

“There were a lot of people who kept (the program) going when it was in its infancy and it’s one I felt was really needed,” Fenstermacher said. “There were a lot of kids that were a little slow to pick up on it. Now that it’s co-oped and it’s getting some recognition, there’s more and more kids in it and kids from other schools are looking at it.”

Fenstermacher repeatedly pointed out the countless individuals and organizations that contributed to youth hockey over the years.

“There’s all this stuff coming out about I did this and I did that; I didn’t do this alone,” he said. “There’s just no way I could describe or thank all the people that did all the things to help.”

That being said, Patulski targeted Fenstermacher as a key figure.

“He kept travel hockey going in the 90s when a lot of people lost interest,” Patulski said. “Bob would always step up with his van and say I’ll take the kids to Ferris or Muskegon or wherever it took.”

Manistee coach Jeff Patulski (right) presents Bob Fenstermacher with an autographed picture of the team following Saturday’s game. (Matt Wenzel/News Advocate)

END OF COACHING

Fenstermacher’s last game as a coach came shortly before a life-changing event in 2003.

“I had a heart attack coming home from a game. I tried to bust my way into the cemetery out here … but I couldn’t get through the gate,” Fenstermacher recalled with a laugh. “It was about two years before I could do anything.”

Patulski, who was coaching a team out of Muskegon at the time, was also helping Fenstermacher with the West Shore Wildcats.

“He had had a heart attack before the car accident,” Patulski said. “He was out there skating around with a heart monitor on. You couldn’t keep him out of the rink.”

BACK IN THE GAME

Although the accident ended Fenstermacher’s coaching career, he’s been a constant fan at Manistee’s home games and was a key figure in getting West Shore Community Ice Arena built.

“He was relentless,” Patulski said. “He did a lot behind the scenes, even when it came to building this rink here. Bob laid the ground work for a lot of donors. He didn’t close the deals, but he opened a lot of doors.”

On Saturday, the flier on the doors at the rink billed the game as “Bob Fenstermacher Night” to honor the longtime coach.

Former player Sam Lipps escorted Fenstermacher to center ice for an honorary faceoff with Chippewas Yari Lynch and Nick Kacynski. Fenstermacher spent the entire game on the bench watching play while occasionally shutting the door after line changes.

“In my own way,” Patulski said, “I wanted to thank Bob for all he’s done for the kids.”

Following Manistee’s 4-0 win against the Mid Michigan Storm, Patulski presented an autographed picture of the team to Fenstermacher, who got choked up during the moment.

“It was great,“ Fenstermacher said of spending one more game on the bench. “It was hard to keep my mouth shut.”

Once a coach, always a coach.

 

Leave a Reply