As a young man 30 years ago, Russ Liekhus of Omaha felt like — well, like H-E-double-hockey-sticks — when he lost his buddy's special puck.
Russ and three other guys had been hitting slapshots on the iced-over lagoon at the Central Park Mall (now known as the Gene Leahy Mall). The puck, with an Omaha Knights logo, held sentimental value for his friend, T.A. Johns, who wasn't there that day.
Years earlier, when he was a boy, T.A. had gotten it on fan-appreciation night at the old Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum during a Knights hockey game. The Knights disbanded in 1975, but going to their games with his dad P.J., a barber, was the beginning of T.A.'s lifelong love of sports.
It was about 1983 when Russ asked to borrow the puck for an outing at the mall. T.A. replied: “You can use it, but don't lose it.”
At the lagoon, someone fired a shot across the ice into a concrete wall, and the puck popped into the air — before dropping straight down, disappearing into a small space between the wall and the edge of the ice. It was irretrievable, and Russ felt terrible.
A few years later, T.A. moved to Phoenix. He and Russ, pals since they were classmates at South High, have remained friends. But the long-lost puck would come up in conversation.
They're turning 50 this year, and T.A. flew in to meet Russ for the opening weekend of the College World Series. After the Indiana-Louisville game on Saturday night two weeks ago, they and others repaired to Mr. Toad's Pub in the Old Market for a beverage.
For those present who didn't know, T.A. good-naturedly recounted the saga of the missing puck. Russ listened “probably for the 30th time.”
T.A. then added that he had read in the online edition of The World-Herald before arriving in Omaha that, as part of the mall's renovation, the lagoon had been drained.
“Are you kidding me?” said Russ, who had missed the story. “Let's go!”
Like Shakespeare's mischievous Puck, “that merry wanderer of the night,” they hurried in the darkness a few blocks to the mall at 1:30 a.m. Russ jumped a barricade and into the drained area that was far more wet than dry, especially after the previous night's big rainstorm.
With the national baseball tournament under way, a World-Herald headline had dubbed the mall “Mudville.”
Russ knew where the puck had disappeared — on the north side of the lagoon, west of the footbridge. He began digging with his hands in the mud, but it was too dark to see.
The pals returned Sunday morning. Excitedly, Russ found a puck and tossed it up to T.A., watching from above. They washed it off — but there was no Omaha Knights logo.
Like Casey at the Bat, Russ had struck out.
T.A. returned to Arizona, but Russ couldn't get this out of his mind. He was on a mission, even if trying to find a puck in the muck after three decades now meant more to him than it did to his buddy.
“I didn't realize how much this bothered him over the years,” T.A. said. “I've always kind of jabbed him about losing my puck, but it wasn't that big a deal.”
Russ said that in their long friendship, the two haven't exchanged a cross word — except that he'd never heard the end of the lost puck.
A lot had happened in their lives since that hard rubber object was lost. Each man became the father of two children, and their dads died within months of each other in the late 1990s. T.A. is an IT consultant, and Russ is maintenance supervisor for the Bemis Bag Co.
Five days after striking out in his puck search, Russ returned to the mall about 4:45 p.m.
“If I was caught and got a ticket for trespassing,” he said, “it would be worth it.”
He came prepared that Friday afternoon, packing a shovel, a hard hat and a safety vest, just so he could “dress the part” of a construction worker. Once he arrived, though, he decided against that ruse and descended in search of a buried treasure.
With a screwdriver 2 feet long, he quickly began jabbing the mud. Finally, he hit something and dug down at least a foot, prying up an object. He could have puckered up and kissed it.
“Looking me in the face was the Omaha Knights logo,” Russ said. “I was freakin' out. I jumped up and cleaned it off.”
As he tightly held his prize, he was a mess from the soupy, smelly earth, and soon so was his car.
Instead of immediately calling his friend, he waited and shipped the puck to Arizona. When T.A. arrived home from work late Thursday, he saw a text from Russ: “You have a package.”
With his wife and daughters watching, T.A. picked up a box that had been left at the door and said, “I think Russ found it.”
After the package was opened, the longtime friends got on their phones and shared a good laugh — and good friendship.
T.A. was glad to have the puck back, acknowledging, “I'm the type that likes to hold on to something and not let it go.”
He also felt good for his long-suffering buddy in Omaha, who had felt guilty all these years for losing the puck.
“I'm glad he's got some relief now.”
Finding the lost item surely gave him that. For Russ Liekhus, there was joy in Mudville.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified T.A. Johns' father.