Scheduling a Life to Make the Game
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 1998; Page A01
Seven-pound Kieffer Bellows was born healthy early this afternoon, approximately 19 hours after his father played in the Capitals' 2-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series, and 29 hours before the puck is scheduled to drop at Joe Louis Arena for Game 2. And after kissing his wife and seeing Kieffer for the first time, Brian was planning to fly back to Detroit in time for Thursday morning's pregame skate.
On the surface, perhaps, the Bellows's tale is a testament to the miracle of modern medicine, to a time when players can schedule childbirth on days between games. But it's a testament, too, to a significant change in sports management: that in an industry known for its high stakes and win-at-all-costs attitude, many owners and executives now recognize that their games are not always bigger than life.
In 1993, the Houston Oilers fined and threatened to suspend David Williams, an offensive tackle, for missing a National Football League game to remain with his wife for the birth of their son. One Oilers coach at the time compared football to war. "Something would come up," in an athlete's life said offensive line coach Bob Young, referring to his players as soldiers, "but they had to go." Some fans even agreed. Earlier that same year, the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux admitted that he might miss his child's birth because the due date was in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and, as he put it, "it's what we work for all year."
"That's unbelievable," said Capitals owner Abe Pollin, when told about Williams's situation in Houston. "The Stanley Cup playoffs are a game. A game. Having a baby is life. We all want to win, of course, but it's a game. Life comes first."
While inducing labor to make childbirth fit into an athlete's schedule isn't common, it is by no means rare. Nor is Bellows the first Washington athlete to take such an action. Last season, Gus Frerotte and his wife, Ann, induced labor on a Wednesday so Frerotte could return to practice the next day for the Washington Redskins' game that weekend.
This is how the Washington Capitals' organization responded to Bellows's situation in what is the biggest and most important series in the franchise's 24-year history:
At a cost of thousands of dollars, Pollin made his private plane available to fly Bellows to Minneapolis Tuesday night shortly after the game. The plane is waiting to return him to Detroit late tonight.
Bellows is one of only four Capitals to have won the Stanley Cup (with Montreal in 1993), and he scored the first postseason goal for the Capitals. Yet Washington General manager George McPhee, who signed Bellows, 34, to a late-season contract in large part to have a seasoned playoff veteran in the dressing room in high-stress playoff situations, made the arrangements for Bellows to leave the team just when the Capitals, now down 1-0 to the Red Wings, found themselves in exactly that situation.
Asked what all this said about the current state of professional sports management, McPhee smiled almost ruefully and answered: "We've finally caught up to the rest of society."
It's worth noting that McPhee's wife, Leah, is eight months pregnant, and the wife of Shawn Simpson, the Capitals' assistant general manager, is expecting a baby in the fall.
Coach Ron Wilson, charged with preparing this team for a Game 2 revival, has children now in college, but he can remember what it feels like to be an expectant father.
"This is one of the biggest moments in your life," Wilson said, "and God knows I couldn't live with myself if something happened and I'd said a game was more important than the birth of your child."
Perhaps that's why Wilson raised no objection when Bellows, an older player with tired late-season legs and limited energy, followed a mostly sleepless game night in Detroit with an off day pacing a hospital corridor in Minnesota.
"That's the way we we feel," Wilson said, "and I think when a team knows that is how you operate as an organization, it's a 10 times better atmosphere."
Yet Wilson will miss his daughter's high school graduation in California Thursday, while his team plays Game 2 in Detroit.
Joe Reekie and his wife, Elise, are about four weeks away from her due date, but recent complications have him concerned that he may be following Bellows any day now. But after seeing Bellows's case, Reekie finds it easier to commit to the pursuit of the Stanley Cup without worrying that he may not be there for his wife.
"When all's said and you're done playing hockey, you go home and it's your family who's always there," Reekie said. "I think it's a great thing the organization is doing for Brian. To be there, at the birth of your child, is something no parent wants to miss."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
Stanley Cup Front | History | Gallery | Fan's Guide | Red Wings