Kevin Haskin: Michigan coach runs into rough patch at Cup

Michigan coach Moe Mantha, a 12-year veteran of the NHL, wears an eye patch over his right eye following surgery to repair a torn retina last weekend at Heartland Eye Care.

Something about wearing a protective visor gets the blood curdling in some hockey players.


Moe Mantha did not figure he would ever hear that advisory again. He retired in 1993 after playing 12 years as a defenseman in the NHL.

But a week ago, Mantha suddenly could not see out of his right eye. He learned he was suffering from a torn retina, yet coached both NAHL play-in games the Michigan Warriors played in Landon Arena to qualify for the Robertson Cup.

In the meantime, surgery also was scheduled. At 7:15 a.m. Saturday, Rita Tablante, of Heartland Eye Care, performed the procedure to re-attach Mantha’s retina. The operation went well. A follow-up visit was even conducted Sunday.

Still, Mantha could not agree to completely follow his new doctor’s orders.

“She said you’re going to have to wear a helmet and a visor behind the bench,” said Mantha, “and I said, ‘No, Doc. I played 12 years in the NHL and I never wore a visor. You’re not putting a visor on me now.’ So we compromised with a plastic patch over my eye.”

Otherwise, Mantha was profoundly grateful.

Foreign city, foreign doctor, foreign hospital. OK, he probably dealt with all those variables as an NHL veteran who was taken with the 23rd overall pick in the 1980 draft by the Winnipeg Jets. Near the end of his career, Mantha played on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team.

But to experience an ordeal this frightening without getting popped — by puck, stick or fist — left Mantha, 50, a bit bewildered.

“You always get hits around the eyes, stitches, broken bones, that’s just part of the game,” Mantha said. “But I never had something quite like this. When you can’t see out of your eye, all of a sudden you start thinking. And I did see the doctor.

“She went unbelievably out of her way to take care of me, especially for a guy from Michigan who stands behind the bench to coach a game. She took care of me, so at least I know I’ve got one close friend here in Topeka.”

Being here for the Robertson Cup was somewhat unexpected in the first place.

Michigan is in its first season as an NAHL franchise. And to reach the season-ending tournament, it had to get past three Cup qualifiers from last season — Traverse City and St. Louis in best-of-five playoff series, then Bismarck in last week’s play-in matchup.

“For a first-year team, the bar has been set to try to again do what these guys did this year,” Mantha said. “It was a nice compliment for our guys.”

Not that everything went according to plan all season.

“We were on the bus one day after a game back in November. We got smoked like, six to nothin’,” Mantha recalled. “I told them, ‘Well, we can watch the tape, or we can watch a good ol’ classic, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,’ and figure out where we fit after this movie.”

Before this assignment, Mantha coached at various levels, beginning in the Philadelphia Flyers organization.

The NAHL is a much different level, naturally. And, it is a much different commitment for Mantha.

Not only does he coach the Warriors, he is a minority owner.

He takes great pride noting that Robert Tadazak will next play collegiately for Army “and after that, here’s a young man who’s doing something for us, his country, down the road.” Another Warrior, Mike Szuma, will move on to play for Frozen Four finalist Michigan.

Throughout the season, Mantha has shared experiences and details regarding both commitment to, and respect for, the sport of hockey. He realizes each player has a dream of reaching the NHL, which was once his reality.

Along the way, if he can stress a point while wearing an eye patch, why not?

“I look like a one-eyed pirate right now, but that’s how we deal with adversity,” Mantha said. “I told them, ‘You guys go out and play the game, and I’ll make sure to do what I can do to get you guys going.’”

Kevin Haskin can be reached

at (785) 295-1159


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