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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Coach Moe

In the world of public relations. a lot of what I do is calculated and timed. The emotion is removed. It is what it is. That is not what this post is. This post is about a man who helped me continue my career, and looking back on it, probably started it. This man's name is Moe Mantha.

I remember walking into the little office we were stuffed into when I was with the Flint Generals, only this time, the Generals were gone, the walls were bare, the banners had been removed, and I was 19-years old and out of a job. This meeting I was having was with the Michigan Warriors, a tier II junior team that had been relocated from Marquette, Michigan to be the main tenant at then, the Perani Arena. My meeting was with a gentleman named Bobby Dodge, a local business man who was a member of the Flint Generals ownership group. Bobby had been hired by the Warriors to do some consulting work, So I was chatting with Bobby and starting to the get the impression that the Warriors were not going to hire any former members of the Generals staff (and I would not have blamed them). Bobby ended up offering me the job as broadcaster, paying a little over minimum wage and I jumped at it. (Any broadcaster reading this would understand).

A day or two later I came in to meet the coaching staff. A tall, burly man walked in. He put his hand (or bear paw) out and said, "I'm Moe Mantha." I wanted to say nice to meet you, Moe, but the hand shake/vice grip he had me in was a little distracting. We talked for about 20 minutes about the direction of the program and what our message to the fans/public would be. Nothing crazy. Just a quick chat.

As the season began, things were not going so well for the former Marquette Rangers, now Michigan Warriors. We made a couple moves at the trade deadline, and brought in some top-tier talent. Ryan Green, now at University of Windsor, was acquired from Port Huron and the boys were all in. Behind one of the best goaltending performances I have ever seen, the Warriors went on an unprecedented run that propelled them into the 2011 National Championship Game. Moe was struggling. He needed surgery on his right eye. He was sensitive to light and noise. Not something conducive to coaching a hockey game. Moe battled and so did his players. We were 20 minutes away. Up 2-1 with under six minutes left, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs scored three times in 3:52. I was numb, It took me 20 minutes just to begin packing up in that Topeka press box. My colleague Arch Ecker, who was calling the game for Fairbanks, walked over and shook my hand. That meant a lot to me. Arch is a good friend. I walked downstairs and found Moe, I shook his hand and thanked him. He said, "We will see ya next year." Being 18 my rookie year with the Generals, there was so much shit that went down that year I will take with me to my resting place. To hear Moe say confidently that I would be back was soothing.

I came back for a second season. This year was much different. We went from an old team to a very young team. It showed. Without Robert Tadazak (Retired) in net, without Scott Henegar (Huntsville, SPHL) as captain, the team struggled to mesh. Moe was dealing with some health issues during the season and I knew it was really killing him not being at the rink and even missing a couple games behind the bench. This year was strenuous on Moe and our relationship. No matter, he was always honest with me, good or bad, and I still respected the hell out of him.

After one more year with Moe in 2012-13, I decided to explore some other options. I wanted the responsibility of moving away and living on my own so I took a hockey broadcasting job in Odessa, Texas. It was a numbers game, I won't shy away from that. Moe and I both knew the Warriors were going to have a good team in 2013-14. That's how juniors works, but in the NAHL, it's a two-year build instead of three in the OHL. Meanwhile, in Odessa, the Jackalopes, well, no bueno. 15 wins in 2013-14 made for a long year and perhaps some buyers remorse on my part. It didn't help when I saw the Michigan Warriors were blowing through the NAHL Playoffs. A sweep of the Janseville Jets and an upset of the Port Huron Fighting Falcons got the Warriors and Moe into the Robertson Cup Tournament again. Unfortunately, it was the same result for the Warriors. Fairbanks beat them in the Semis. I called Moe to congratulate him. He answered, "HEY, JOEY BAG OF DONUTS." I don't think he knows how to say Battaino. We talked for awhile. I told him about how things were going in Odessa and he sharply put, "Grass is always greener." He never pulled any punches.

In 2015, we both found ourselves out of work. The Michigan Warriors had gone dark with the OHL's Plymouth Whalers relocating to Flint and I was fired from Odessa. With no one else to blame for another 15-win season, I was sent packing. I called Moe. He was headed up to Sturgeon Falls for some fishing and to tend to his father's golf course. I told him I'd help him out anyway I could. Imagine, a 24-year old sixth year broadcaster telling a 12-year NHL veteran with 20+ years of coaching experience that i'd keep my eyes and ears open. Little did I know, Moe would be the one helping me out...again.

Moe ended up coaching a first-year NOJHL team. I got an interview with the Saginaw Spirit. Moe had been interim head coach there once before in 2004, so he knew ownership over there. I interviewed twice. I really felt like it went well, but I think if you really want something, you can be blinded by your own ambition sometimes. I guess Team President Craig Goslin thought it went pretty well because he phoned Moe in July 2015. Craig said, "Moe, tell me about Joey Battaino." Moe says,"Who?" "Joey Battaino, ya know, your broadcaster for three seasons in Flint?" "OH...JOEY BAG OF DOUNTS?" (I told you he didn't know my last name).

I didn't know that phone call had taken place until two weeks after I was hired as the Director of Broadcasting and Communications for the Saginaw Spirit. It was really a dream come true to be back in Michigan. Moe had a huge part in that. My first press release as PR Director of the Spirit was to announce that we had hired Moe Mantha as a Northern Ontario Scout. I hadn't seen Moe all season, as he was coaching his NOJHL team. In Saginaw, the Spirit had dropped eight in a row and fired Greg Gilbert. Moe Mantha was given an opportunity to come back to the OHL and the Saginaw Spirit. Tuesday, I walked into his office in the locker room at The Dow. He had the biggest smile on his face and said "HEY LOOK, IT'S JOEY BAG OF DONUTS".

In an attempt to lighten up the room, Moe told the boys about our journey and my nickname. Moe threw on a suit and met with the media before practice. He was always good about that. As the press gathering commenced, Moe ran back to the room to put his track suit and skates. During the presser, Moe said, "I'm going to make some mistakes and I hope they (the players) cover for me, They will make mistakes and I will cover for them." Knowing Moe, he has something up his sleeve for the first practice. He's a character, I'm watching practice and I'm noticing that the bottoms of the track suit look a little funny. They were backwards. Moe skated the whole practice with his pants on backwards. None of the boys said anything to him, I mean, he busted his ass to get there for the skate. So maybe in a hurry, he just messed up. Finally, as everyone is exiting the ice, a player says, "Moe, you know your pants are on backwards?" Moe smiled and said, "Ah shit boys, it looks like I made my first mistake."

With the ice broken, the Spirit went on to win two of three games at home, beating Sarnia and shocking the Erie Otters, who are the No. 1 team in the Canadian Hockey League.

Moe is a great coach because he lets players and staff be who there are. He is able to do that because he is comfortable in his own skin. I can't speak for all the players Moe has coached, but I know for a fact that the players in my three years in Flint revered Moe Mantha and still talk to him to this day. I know that because I still talk to those players to this day, Our work environment was a family atmosphere.

Now I get the opportunity to work with Moe again. With him on an interim basis, I understand it could only be 13 games. That's the business. But I don't care if it's 13 games or thirteen hundred games, Moe's demeanor on and off the ice makes him one of the best people I have ever worked for and it's and honor to work with him again.

By: Joey Batatino

This is an opinion piece and the thoughts and descriptions in no way exemplify those of the Saginaw Spirit, the Ontario Hockey League, or the Canadian Hockey League.        

Photo Credit: Saginaw Spirit.

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