Larry LaRue

Hockey fan in Pierce County gives jerseys back to player, 20 years later

The first eight years of his life, Brent Breeze loved football, baseball, basketball — and played each.

Hockey? Not so much.

“I saw hockey on television and thought it was really boring,” he said.

Then a friend of the family took a 9-year-old Breeze to watch the Reno Renegades.

“After that first game, I was hooked. Hockey was all I could talk about, and the goalies were my favorites,” he recalled this week.

One of those goalies was Len Perno, then a 23-year-old New Yorker chasing the dream of playing professional hockey. Even while doing so, Perno said, he realized he had a responsibility to his fans.

“In the back of my mind, I knew we could have an impact on a young kid, that you had to carry yourself in a certain way,” Perno said. “I interacted with a lot of kids; I wanted them to love the game as much as I did.”

At the end of the 1995-96 season, the Renegades were so broke they couldn’t pay their dry-cleaning bill. So the team abandoned Reno, Nev., and the jerseys it had sent to be cleaned.

Breeze’s family friend — the one who introduced him to hockey — ran the dry-cleaning shop.

“The owner was like an uncle to me; he’d taken me to all these games,” Breeze said. “He gave me two jerseys with Perno’s name and number on them. I wore them all the time.”

A few years later, Breeze moved north to Milton and started high school in Fife.

Perno went on to get a cup-of-coffee shot at the American Hockey League with his hometown team, the Rochester Americans.

The young fan didn’t forget the former minor-league goalie.

“I played hockey at the Puget Sound Hockey Center, and my coach liked me at forward,” Breeze said. “But I wanted to be a goalie. At practice, I always wore Perno’s jersey.

“I played goalie from 13 to 17, when I kind of flamed out,” Breeze said. “The higher you go in hockey, the more you see guys with really great ability. It made my respect for the game — and those who play it professionally — grow.”

After high school, Breeze went to Tacoma Community College but wasn’t sure where he wanted to take his education. In 2007, at 21, he enlisted in the Army.

“Greatest uniform I ever put on,” Breeze said. “I did my basic training, and it was off to Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne. I spent about two years there, then was assigned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for another two years.”

Now 28, Breeze remains on active reserve. The Army helped him find his direction.

“It made me a stronger person,” Breeze said. “And I worked on a lot of radios, some computers, and when I came home I knew that’s what I wanted to pursue as a career.

“My cousin works for Microsoft, and as a career field there are so many different paths. You can be a developer, programmer, database guy — it’s limitless.”

He’s taken online classes, sometimes one or two a semester. He worked in a warehouse. Next semester, he’s transferring to DeVry University’s Federal Way Campus.

He has a job in technical support for Insynq, a cloud computing company based in Gig Harbor.

Last Christmas, Breeze and his dad were talking about hockey, and the son had an “Aha!” moment.

“I still had the jerseys, though I hadn’t worn them since I’d stopped playing hockey,” Breeze said. “I told my dad, ‘I bet I could find Len Perno online in 15 minutes.’ It took me two.”

Perno, a 43-year-old father of two, was running his own company in Rochester, The Perno Group, which recruits employees for a variety of businesses.

“I emailed him with a photo of his jerseys and asked if he’d like me to send them to him,” Breeze said.

Perno was amazed. For years, he’d been seeking mementos from his days in the now-defunct West Coast Hockey League. He had surfed eBay for Renegades jerseys, to no avail.

“It was pretty shocking. I’d pretty much given up on finding those jerseys,” Perno said. “To have a young man reach out to me after all that time? What a surprise!”

The two men never talked, even by phone.“I’m not much of a talker,” Breeze said.

But he mailed the No. 28 jerseys, refusing even to take money for postage.

“They were his jerseys, and he earned the right to wear them.”

Perno’s 13-year-old son, Lenny, wears one jersey or the other all the time, his father said. He plays hockey — goalie, of course.

“I just felt it was something I should do,” Breeze said.”I wish I could have seen him open that first email. I took good care of those jerseys, because they meant a lot to me as a kid.

“Now they’re back where they belong. I like that.”