He lost his job and he gained a family

SAFETY HARBOR — A 41-year-old father picked up his 13-year-old daughter one recent afternoon here at Espiritu Santo Catholic School. On the way to her soccer game he showed her the starting lineup he had written out on his clipboard.

"What do you think?" Jay Preble said.

"You're the coach," Rachel Preble said, and smiled.

Jay is coach, Jay is Dad, Jay is Jay. What Jay is not anymore is the public relations director of the National Hockey League's Tampa Bay Lightning.

Before he was laid off last April, this would've been a Lightning game day, 9-to-5 and then the game, home by midnight maybe. Now, though, just before 4, he stood on the sideline at Canal Park in nearby Oldsmar, the girls gathered around, and he gave them a pep talk.

"Everyone," he told them, "is going to have to work a little harder."

These past nine months of joblessness, he says, have been the worst of his life, and he means that, but he also says they've been the best, and he means that, too. Here is the other side of the unemployment nightmare. It's not always a nightmare.

At Canal Park, he rooted, clapped and cajoled.

"Good ball, Brenna!"

"Get ready, Sophia!"

"Good job, Rach!"

"Keep it up! Keep it up!"

During the second half, the wind picked up, the temperature dropped, and from the sky came a combination of spitting rain and a peeking sun.

• • •

Preble, the son of a pilot who flew Eastern Airlines DC-9s out of Fort Lauderdale, moved here to go to the University of South Florida, where he majored in public relations.

He covered high school football in Pasco County for the Tampa Tribune and wrote about the Lightning games for the Associated Press before being hired by the team in 1996 to do PR.

His dream job. He was 27.

The perks? Chartered jets, fancy hotels, the reflected glory of professional sports. Because of the Lightning, he has been to the White House, to the Jay Leno show and inside the payload of the space shuttle Discovery. The Stanley Cup once rode shotgun in his Nissan Altima.

Last year, though, the team's new owners decided they needed to cut costs, and some middle management had to go, about 25 people, and Jay was one of them.

The first two days, his phone didn't stop ringing; when it stopped, though, it stayed silent.

"Just like that," he said.

The loss of a job is a loss. Loss of money always. Loss of identity often. Studies show, or at least many do, that a parent's unemployment ripples through a family like cracks in concrete: Structure goes down, tensions go up, children suffer at home and in school.

Jay has been married to Kathy, who teaches middle school English, for 14 years. Rachel is 13, and Sarah is 10.

The past nine months of changes have meant no more meals out, no more trips to Busch Gardens, no more $7-a-week allowance. Rachel babysits and walks some neighbors' dogs for three bucks a walk. She saves what she earns.

Jay interviewed for a PR position at the Museum of Science and Industry that he didn't get. Earlier this month, he started his own company, Preble Public Relations. He's optimistic because he has to be.

He's still struggling, he said, with some natural post-layoff identity issues: If he's not "Jay Preble, Tampa Bay Lightning," who exactly is he?

They're making it financially, so far, because of his $300 a week of unemployment, and financial aid from Espiritu Santo, and also the fact that they have no car payments. They have Kathy's salary plus some tutoring she does plus even working a couple of nights a week as a waiter at a local restaurant called the Whistle Stop. If Jay worked those shifts they'd lose his unemployment.

This can't go on forever.

Still, though, with this trauma has come some clarity. Jay realized what he had been missing.

• • •

The flip side of one man's dream job was for his family the following: The perks were also the faults.

Jay was at every one of his daughters' soccer games he could get to, he was at every school event he could get to, and he was at every family dinner he could get to. Which wasn't much. On the road, he saved his NHL travel money, a $75 per diem, and that went to groceries or gifts for the girls. He called home in the time slot that was after school for them and before the games for him.

It's not that he didn't care. It's that he wasn't there. One year for Halloween, Kathy and the girls dressed up their dog as dad, shirt and tie and all. And even when he was home, his BlackBerry was never off, because he was always on.

There was the time when Rachel was little and Sarah was a baby and he was in Austria for two weeks of training camp.

There was the time when Kathy was on the phone with strep in her throat and tears in her voice and he was out to dinner in San Francisco.

And there was the time, just last year, when Rachel hadn't been picked for a top-flight state soccer program, and she was on the phone bawling, in the back of a car being driven by somebody else's parent, and he was in a locker room in an arena in Prague.

"I should've been there," he said, now, later in the evening, on the sidelines of another soccer field, watching his daughters practice for their Clearwater club teams.

The other day, Rachel told him she didn't want him to get another job, which was kind of a joke, but also kind of not.

"I don't want to be selfish," she said. "But I want him to be home."

The shift for Jay came during the holidays. Before then, he said, he would've taken his old job back; after that, not anymore. There was no hockey game to get to on the Friday after Thanksgiving. There was no game to get to on Dec. 26. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, he was home. The post-layoff Prebles say this past Christmas was their best Christmas ever.

Jay would not have left his job. Somebody had to make that decision for him.

"A blessing," he said.

• • •

Later that night. The Whistle Stop.

Kathy's day had started at 4:30 in the morning with her jog, after which she taught a full day of school, after which she took Sarah to her soccer game, after which she went home for a few minutes to change clothes before coming over here for her dinner shift, near the end of which she stood next to the bar and said this:

"This has not been a bad thing.

"Our family is better off."

Both girls make great grades. Rachel recently won a geography bee. The family tension those studies predict? Kathy feels like she has less to juggle. Jay went as her date not long ago when the school had its annual fundraiser dinner. First time in nine years.

"We were living separate lives," Kathy said, "we really were, and we were floating in and out, and I had that thought that this was passing him by, these girls growing up.

"It was no life," she said. "It was not a way to live."

But somewhere along the way, she said, she got used to it. They all got used to it. The whole family did. Too used to it.

Some research suggests that harder times make for healthier people. Accidents go down. So do heart attacks. Death rates fall when unemployment goes up. The researchers wonder about the frenzied workaholic lives people lead.

"It's not all happy for Jay," Kathy said at the Whistle Stop. "But he's taking care of us in another way. I think there are different ways you can take care of people.

"I prefer this," she said, "over that."

Up above her right shoulder, on the TV above the bar, the Lightning score scrolled across the bottom of the screen, another game, another night, a loss for one team and a win for another.

"It's really kind of an epiphany," Kathy said.

"What were we doing for so long?"

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

He lost his job and he gained a family 01/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 11:29pm]

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