Long before there was a vision for a Franklin Fire hockey team, Blake Lobel had always loved sports.
He earned three varsity letters as a wrestler at California’s Diamond Bar High School, followed by a San Diego State football career good enough to earn him a tryout with the Indianapolis Colts.
Lobel went deep into camp with the Colts, but he didn’t make the final roster, thus ending his formal athletic career in 2005.
But the competitive drive never died.
This June, after much work and planning, Lobel, a Franklin firefighter, joined with other area firefighters and finally hit the ice for games this June.
Here’s the story of how Lobel, fellow Franklin firefighter Daniel Smotherman and their teammates got started, and what they hope the effort will become.
Starting from scratch
In 2017, co-worker Seth Frost brought up the idea of starting a team based around the city’s firefighters. Lobel, who’d never done more than casually ice skate as a kid, was immediately sold.
Initially, 15 or 20 firefighters expressed interest. But reality set in, and the group became those three, Smotherman, Shane Wyatt, Kevin Davenport and Ryan Naylor, plus, Ryan Sullokowski of the Williamson County Rescue squad.
That posed problems. Hockey is a physically-demanding game, which is why NHL teams dress 23 players for a game.
So, Franklin Fire Department members reached out to friends a handful of volunteer firefighters for help. It’s not strictly the “Franklin Fire”–it’s currently a spin-off of a second team started by the Nashville Fire Department–but the team dresses 12 to 17 men, which is enough to play. (Nashville Fire Hockey’s Facebook page may be found here.)
Games last 42 minutes instead of the professional regulation of 60, but intermissions are just a minute or two, leaving little time for players to catch their breath.
Second, the team was short on experience and talent. Naylor, whom Lobel and Smotherman seem to regard as the prize of the group, played club hockey at Florida State. But, he’d last played 20 years ago.
It’s an understatement to say the group started with the basics.
Lobel and Smotherman, a former lacrosse player from Independence High (he’s also new to hockey) joke about watching YouTube instructional videos that remind them to remove their skate guards before taking the ice.
“I’m one of those kind of people that like I have to be super prepared,” Smotherman said. “And so I read and watch and do everything I could and make sure I don’t look like an idiot.”
Chemistry is also important, and most of the players on the team had never skated together before their first game.
Finally, training and equipment is expensive.
A full set of gear—even used, which is how Lobel and Smotherman have purchased it—can easily run $700 or more. (For Lobel, who wears a size 15 shoe, that can be a challenge.) Training, which comes in the form of “Stick Time,” a venture sponsored by the Nashville Predators, runs $7 a session. Add league fees and team jerseys, and it’s easy to spend over $1,000.
In addition, some games come at the cost of vacation time.
The season started June 3. Six games in, the squad is still winless in the Centennial Sportsplex Summer League.
But the players haven’t lost heart.
“We have good sparks. Every game, we’re getting better. We stay in our zones, we’re getting more aggressive,” Lobel said. “The camaraderie is there. It’s a fun atmosphere. It does get disheartening about losing, but we’re out there to have fun. It’s just an addition to the tradition and brotherhood and sisterhood in the fire service.”
Compounding the problem is the fact that the players are competing against others a level above where they should be. Adult amateur hockey is divided into classifications; “D” is the lowest level, and that’s where they are but their team plays against “lower-C” competition.
The team knew it would be overmatched, but it beat the alternative of not playing. The group had waited six months before it could find a league.
“There was only one spot open, and it happened to be lower-C. It’s like trial by fire. You learn as you go,” Lobel said.
“Spots are like gold. If you’ve got a spot (in a league), you don’t want to let it go,” Lobel adds.
Lobel and Smotherman find humor in the situation, joking that their guiding philosophy is, “don’t mess up.”
Lobel is a gentle soul, but his size and the physical, competitive nature bred into him from football has caused some issues. The team plays in a “non-checking” league, and even though he’s respectful and conscientious of that, collisions happen.
One opponent about half Lobel’s size learned that in a recent game as both went for a loose puck.
“He had maybe half a stride on me, and we get up there and he gets up to the puck and trips and I’m right behind him and I trip and I don’t necessarily fall on him, I trip and catch air and land on him,” he said. “And all I hear is the whole bench go, Oh! and, I’m kind of whispering, ‘I’m so sorry.'”
“It happens,” Lobel adds. “And he was cool about it. … I knew they joked about crushing souls and everything, (but) that’s not the way I wanted to do it.”
“I think I’ve said “sorry” already about 50 times in three games,” he says.
Defeating the silent killer
So, if you’re a firefighter with no hockey experience… why hockey?
The demands of the job alone are tough. Firefighters frequently take second or third jobs to make ends meet. Many have spouses or children who compete for attention over whatever free time remains.
The answer’s in the job itself.
On the surface, firefighting is becoming “safer.” In a study released by the National Fire Protection Association in June 2018, just 60 firefighters died on duty in 2017. That’s the lowest number on record since the NFPA began the study in 1977, and, the sixth-straight year where that number fell below 70.
But Lobel and Smotherman refer frequently to the stress of the job, which they call “a silent killer.”
“A guy or gal will get off shift, (they’ll) go home, they’ll be found unresponsive when his wife comes home from work, and he’s had a cardiac event just due to the stress it’s put on individuals. I’ll go to sleep tonight and I may get up three, four times and it’s zero to 100 every time,” Smotherman said.
“I don’t have time to really wake up (when) the lights come on. And I’ve got 60 seconds out the door ready to go and be able to think coherently enough to respond to whatever is going on.”
The job takes a toll on the body. According to the same NFPA study, firefighters are nine percent more likely to be diagnosed for cancer, and 14 percent more likely to die from cancer, compared to the general population.
That’s where hockey comes in. Five seconds of talking to either Lobel or Smotherman is enough to pick up on the passion each have from their new hobby. And the fitness aspect is hard to beat.
“It’s fun,” Lobel says. “You meet all these guys. It’s a great workout. Every time I step on the ice, no matter how long I’m out there. It’s at least 1,000 calories. At minimum. But you don’t (realize it.) You think you’re gliding. You’re not. Yeah, your legs are smoked.”
The team is part of a joint effort with the Nashville Fire hockey team. But this is just the first step in where the group wants to go.
“The team, when we break off will be Franklin Hockey,” Smotherman said. “And that, you know, it could just be guys that live in Franklin. It could be guys that work for Franklin, or just people who want to go under that name. We’re trying to be a fire department, first responder-based team.”
How you can help
The Franklin firefighters want to use this as a tool for raising money and awareness for causes.
“We also want to be philanthropic with the community, whatever we’re doing at the time,” Lobel said. “We do the Christmas drive every year. So we’d like to do things in our community. We want this part of that as well.”
The group isn’t picky about who it helps within civil service, whether that’s fire fighters, medical personnel, police offers or teachers.
“We want to help who needs help. Because obviously some day, we may need it,” Lobel said. “Anybody’s job it is to help you and your life, one way or another, we want to help.”
In a literal sense, the team does not represent the city or use its logos, nor is it financially backed by the city. But it has the full support of the union, which the group hopes will eventually include funding.
“Hockey’s not the first (funding) goal (of the union), which I’m fine with. But funding would help get us on our feet with gear and ice time. We want to help get them on ice and enjoy the camaraderie and brotherhood and sisterhood,” Lobel said.
If you’d like to learn more about the team, or help in any way, visit the team’s Facebook page (linked here) or contact Lobel at Blake_Lobel@hotmail.com.