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Slap-Shot: Greensboro’s New Mayor Takes to the Ice

by Eric Ginsburg

Nancy Vaughan hasn’t put on ice skates since she was in third grade, but she’s willing to try.

Sports seem to come naturally to her family — basketball for her father, hockey for her sons and tennis for her daughter — but even with both sons on hand, this seems a little risky.

As the newly elected mayor of Greensboro slips her feet into a pair of silver size 9 skates at the Greensboro Ice House, she calls her son John, 31, over to help her lace up.

Her husband, former state senator and lawyer Don can’t stay, but he’s here to take a family picture before Nancy steps onto the ice. After several half-joking comments about her skill level and hoping the facility has insurance, Don shifts the conversation to logistics for an upcoming family trip to a Carolina Hurricanes game.

As Nancy’s attention turns towards the ice, John is quick to point out her mixed up sports jargon, as she calls the “rink” a “court.”

It might be Nancy’s first time in the ice in decades, but this rink holds sentimental value for her and her family.

A plaque by the front door commemorates the city team and other supporters who helped the ice house open, filling an athletic and recreational need in the city. Nancy’s name, then Mincello for her first husband, is right near the top with the other city council members in 1998. Her husband Don is listed too — the two met while serving on council together and weren’t married at the time.

Nancy’s sons Michael, 29, and John play hockey here several times a week. John is at the Greensboro Ice House more frequently and worked here for four years, including as the hockey director.

“That’s why I’m here so much,” John said. “I just have such a deep love for this place.”

But it was Michael who pulled out a ring and proposed to his wife Nicole here while down on one knee, in the middle of tying her ice skates.

Nancy looks ready for battle. She’s wearing Michael’s hockey gloves and sporting a jersey with her sons’ last name, Mincello, on the back. Besides some sharp red and white, she’s wearing black from head to toe.

Flanked by Michael, Nicole and John, Nancy steps onto the ice, hugging the edge of the rink. Her sons intermittently sail off gracefully, circling back to check on her while Nicole hovers nearby. Prog-ress is slow around the oval. She falters, flailing a little but remaining on her feet.

It’s unclear whether Nancy regrets that she agreed to try this for the sake of a light-hearted cover story, but she seems like the kind of person who takes measured risks. Not to imply that she is set in her ways — people like that don’t agree to be photographed and interviewed while maneuvering around on two blades, and certainly don’t challenge a mayor they historically worked well with.

Nancy has been off and on council over the years, taking a break when her daughter, Catherine, was born 12 years ago. The move made sense for the family — council is much more of a full-time job than the pay indicates — but her sons call her “the Brett Favre of city council” because of it.

Still not a quarter of the way around the rink, Nancy ventures a few yards off the wall. She’s starting to get her bearings, but turns back to the comfort of the outermost edge before moving too far. Michael and John start to hover less, skating nonchalantly in no particular direction, sometimes moving backwards or coming to a hard stop and playfully spraying Nancy or Nicole with ice.

Before there was ice, there was a dead-end street. Michael and John started playing roller hockey on Hayfield Lane in front of their house when they were still in elementary school, and fondly remember rushing out to play whenever they could.

Their dad built the goals, and games became a neighborhood focal point. There were father-son games and intra-neighborhood bouts. One way or another, John said, the two boys were out there every day.

Michael, who played defense, had a tryout with the AAU Junior Olympics. John took up the goalie position, a move that surprised Nancy because he’s introverted and it didn’t seem like a natural fit. They’d later play roller hockey in a warehouse, and they traveled to tournaments in places such as Tennessee and Myrtle Beach.

John was surprised when his grandfather, former Atlantic Coast Conference assistant commissioner Fred Barakat, came to one of their competitions, but as he thought about it a little more, John realized they probably didn’t invite him earlier because he was so busy.

It wasn’t cheap buying gear or replacing wheels, Nancy said, but a much bigger potential barrier stood between the brothers and their love of the game. A planned neighborhood rezoning in the Jefferson Pilot Club area threatened to decimate nearby woods and the quiet alcove, a change that would mark a tremendous character shift for the community, Nancy said. The dead end would be no more, switching to a higher traffic through street.

And thus, through hockey and a desire to protect her neighborhood, Nancy became politically active.

Alongside other residents, she helped significantly alter the planned development, winning numerous concessions and making it less high density. Neighbors wanted someone to run for city council, and with encouragement, Nancy took on the challenge. She won.

A newspaper photo about the battle even showed the hockey net in the street.

After a few years hiatus, Michael started playing again when he was 24, going for “the real deal” this time — hockey on skates instead of wheels. John, who said he now plays five or six times a week, joined in at his brother’s invitation.

It took far too long. Every day, John regrets not returning to hockey sooner, he said.

They still play the same positions. It’s the biggest rush to be the last line of defense in a game, John said. Either he derives great pleasure when he can “ruin some guy’s day” by blocking a shot, or he lets himself and the team down. Regardless, it all comes down to him.

Hockey isn’t without its risks, of course.

John once took a shot to the neck between his pads. Laughing as he retold the story, Michael points to the spot about a yard from his skates at the rink where it happened, while John just shook his head.

The shot was probably 95 miles an hour, Michael says, one of the hardest he’s ever seen. As everyone crowded around John, lying on the ice, Michael skated over and asked, “Do you want me to call Mom?”

After one successful lap, Nancy moves more assuredly off the wall. Another half lap later, she takes a short break, leaning on the wall near a penalty box and watching her family members move about the ice. She’s glad Nicole agreed to join the family here, on a bench across the rink near the skate rental booth. She’s sweet, Nancy says, and as Catherine recently said, if Nicole and Michael ever get in a fight, Catherine is on Team Nicole.

The respite over, John grabs two hockey sticks so Nancy can get down to business. With the stick lending some additional balance, she begins passing a puck back and forth with Michael.

There are a few wind-up slap shots that miss the puck entirely and a decent amount of wobbling, but Nancy starts to get the hang of it quickly. Her aim sharpens, and she sails a shot halfway across the rink at John, who is talking with two employees at an opening to the ice.

There’s plenty to learn, but Michael helps her with her hand positioning, convinces her to try a little backhand shooting and teaches her a few terms like “throwing sauce.”

He’s impressed. “You’re getting some power behind that!” Michael remarks.

There is still a learning curve — a few of his passes drift past her, including between her legs.

“John definitely didn’t get his goaltending skills from you,” Michael jokes.

He advises her to try shooting from the wrist instead of pulling back for a slap shot to improve her accuracy, but Nancy is more partial to the powerful hit.

“Am I tiring you out?” she asks. “Yeah,” Michael says, chuckling. The two keep passing as John returns, texting while skating, lingering at his mom’s slide before slipping away again. Nicole hangs nearby, spectating as Nancy and Michael move in relaxed circles and continue passing.

Nancy gravitated towards basketball as a kid and the sport has always been her favorite, an unsurprising fact to anyone that knows anything about her father. In addition to serving as the assistant commissioner and director of men’s basketball for the ACC, Fred Barakat coached basketball for a few colleges in the northeast and made a name as a player, too. When Nancy was in third grade and he worked at the University of Connecticut, she would skate at a rink near their house.

Though Nancy didn’t really start watching professional hockey until her sons drew her into the sport (as her daughter Catherine is now pulling her into tennis), she knew of the Hartford Whalers from childhood years in Connecticut. In 1997, the team relocated to Greensboro briefly before moving on to Charlotte and changing its name. Nancy went with her family to watch at the Greensboro Coliseum while the professional team was in town.

“I heard words during that game I’ve never heard since,” Nancy said.

NANCY VAUGHAN WAS SWORN IN AS THE MAYOR OF GREENSBORO ON TUESDAY

Similar to his part on council in establishing the hockey rink in town, Don’s relation-ship to hockey appears to be an off-ice experience. He’s been more than just a spectator though — he played the role of a non-speaking juror in the National Lampoon’s box office bust Pucked. For $125, Don filled in as the minor character for four days, Nancy said, and even bought a few shares.

Various scenes were filmed at the warehouse Michael and John played in, as well as the ice rink, but despite the presence of actor Jon Bon Jovi, the movie tanked. Once, at a film store, Nancy saw a bunch of cop-ies for $5 and bought them to support the local production. An employee, who said they’d already been marked down because nobody would buy them, was puzzled by her interest.

The pace slows somewhat, transforming from a Hockey 101 training to a gentle familial moment. Nancy chats with her sons and daughter-in-law, but turning to retrieve a stray pass, she starts to slip. John rushes over to help her, though she’s already caught herself.

“It’s like the secret service,” Michael jokes about how they protectively hover over her.

A little later, Nancy says she’s getting the hang of this winter sport.

“The balance thing is coming a little,” she says.

Does she feel good about her skating?

“Good would be an overstatement,” she remarks.

Still, she’s enjoying herself.

At least until things start winding down and Nancy takes her gloves off.

“These gloves are a little stinky,” she says, offering a whiff of the odor emanating from the depths of the padding. Don’t blame her though, she says; it’s Michael’s fault.

Michael and Nicole need to leave, and after posing for a group photo, everyone makes their way off the ice.

“I’m glad we did this,” Nancy says. “This is a fun thing to do on a Friday afternoon.”

“I do this every Friday!” John quips, adding that he wakes up at 4 a.m. for work and the midday pick up game is a respite from his schedule.

Nancy is sitting on the bench, tugging on her skates before returning her rental. The shift manager on duty inquires about the “photo shoot” that unfolded on the ice, and is told that it’s for YES! Weekly and that she was recently elected mayor.

“The mayor of what?” he asks. After some amazement that the mother of two regulars, one of them a former employee, will be leading Greensboro, he asks Nancy for her autograph.

She’s surprised, and doesn’t think he’s actually serious at first. Requests like this may become more common with her new job title. While she isn’t as practiced on the ice as her sons and can’t know exactly what the new position will hold, she’s already laced up her skates. !

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