As a break from bankruptcy cases, 47-year-old judge dons goalie pads

March 15, 1992|By Robert Markus | Robert Markus,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- The shooter fired the puck past the goaltender's head, skated past him and headed back the other way. Suddenly, he stopped, skated back to the goalie and, mouth agape, inquired: "Judge Ginsberg?"

"He was utterly shocked," recalled Robert Ginsberg, who quite likely is the only 47-year-old federal judge playing organized hockey on a regular basis. "He started apologizing for shooting high."

Ginsberg, a goalie in the Chicago Park District masters hockey program, plays twice a week at the McFetridge Sports Center on Chicago's Northwest Side.

He skates with an eclectic group, one reason he enjoys it so much. His fellow goalies include "a didactic feminist artist" and "a radio personality who's the public address announcer at Comiskey Park, and a Buddhist of Japanese heritage."

Other players include a Kane County public defender, a builder of 12-meter yachts, an ironworker and a former University of Michigan place-kicker. "We just lost Father Murray," Ginsberg said. "He's been transferred to a military hospital in Minnesota."

Ginsberg, a bankruptcy judge, played junior varsity hockey at Brown, then dropped the game for several years before moving to the Chicago area 10 years ago.

"I literally left my skates at Brown," he said, "and never went back to pick them up. When I came to Oak Park in 1981, Paul Hruby, who runs the hockey program there, heard I was a retread goalie."

Ginsberg, a practicing attorney at the time, was persuaded to put on the pads.

"I got out there, and it really felt good, and I thought, gee, maybe I should have kept playing." But after the first shot at him, Ginsberg said, "to myself, 'Now I remember why I gave up this game up.' "

Ginsberg plays hockey for the exercise.

"I hate aerobics, and I hate jogging," he said. "At my age, it's the only exercise I get. But it's also a great catharsis. When I became a judge, the one thing nobody told me was it's so physically draining.

"There are 10 of us bankruptcy judges, and it's an exciting place to be, but we're working awfully hard right now. It's not a case where you schedule a trial for 2 1/2 months from now. You don't plan in advance. They come out of nowhere. You can come to work in the morning and find a case in your court and go to trial the same afternoon.

"That's why it's so nice to be able to relax and forget everything. Hockey's the one thing that helps me forget everything else for a couple of hours."

Ginsberg describes himself as just a so-so goalie at Brown, and he doesn't think he has improved much with age.

"Of the five goalies in our league, I consider the other four to be better than myself," he said. "I'm by far the oldest."

Asked to describe his style of goaltending, Ginsberg said: "I use the basic guess style. I'm at the stage of life where the only hope I have is to outsmart 'em. I try to guess where they're going and get myself over there -- and if it's the other way, it's the other way."

He seems to be guessing right more often lately and says he has no intention of hanging up his skates again "as long as I can still do it."

"Right now, I'm playing better than I have in the past 10 years," he said. "I lost 20 pounds over the summer. I've relearned some things I forgot. I position myself better, and I come out and cut off the angles more. I still have a tendency to drift back into the net.

"I just wish I knew in college what I know now. I also wish I had the reflexes now I had in college."

He cites cable TV for his recent improvement.

"When we moved to the city we finally got cable TV, and I'm able to watch a lot of hockey and see how the pros do it," he said. "I'm a devoted Blackhawk fan."

When he was at Brown, he recalled, the Providence Reds were a New York Rangers' farm team.

"Eddie Giacomin would come through and give us a lesson on occasion," he said. "But he usually worked with the varsity goaltenders, and I mostly just watched.

"Once Gump Worsley came through on a rehab program and taught us a few things. He had some real interesting views."

Of course, being a federal judge, Ginsberg never would whack a shooter's ankles with his stick as he skated by.

That's not what the masters league is about, anyway.

"There are amazing people here who I'd never get to meet except in this environment," said Ginsberg. "They're not going to embarrass anyone. We have a woman jewelry designer who the guys try to help and teach her to play better. Nobody tries to skate around her on breakaways and embarrass her.

"They don't come in and launch a slap shot from 10 feet away because they're not out to hurt someone, even though we do have some people who have played professionally."

They occasionally do play outside teams with different agendas, and Ginsberg recalls a game against one of the top amateur teams.

"Their coach was a good deal more aggressive," he said. "We could hear the things he was yelling to his players. We beat them on sheer intelligence.

"We played DePaul and they cleaned our clock, but that was fun. We played a Canadian team in a tournament, and I think I stopped something like 65 shots . . . nine went in. My wife asked me later, 'Wasn't the puck supposed to be at the other end sometimes?' "

His family, he said, is not as enthusiastic about his avocation as he is.

"My kids are embarrassed," he said. "My wife doesn't say anything. It's hard to explain why your 47-year-old husband is out playing like a 12-year-old."

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