TIME WAS LONG FORGOTTEN UNTIL THE PHONE RANG.
Maybe good guys do finish first. Maybe all the years of quietly, doggedly, working to level the playing ice for thousands of needy kids in the San Fernando Valley earned Ronny Van Gompel this incredible trip down memory lane he's been on the past few months.
This trip that the Los Angeles Kings official timekeeper at the Forum has found himself remembering back to 1943 in Antwerp, Belgium - back to when he and his brother, Carl, were a couple of teen-age kids joining the underground resistance with other young men to fight for their country.
Back to the day when they ran up separate hills to escape German soldiers, and never saw each other again.
``I heard shots fired, and thought that they got him - that he was dead,'' Van Gompel said from his Burbank home Friday.
``Carl never made it home, I never made it home. We both got into a slight disagreement with the German army, and never saw one another again. I thought I had buried those years forever.''
But they returned with a phone call in July while Van Gompel was at home recuperating from open heart surgery, and working on plans to expand his HELP program - Hockey Equipment Lending Program, (818) 768-5819 - to reach more kids.
He was adding roller hockey equipment, and taking on a new partner - the Los Angeles Police Department's Jeopardy program, also aimed at getting kids off the streets and into sports programs.
``Is your name Van Gompel, and were you born on June 6th?'' the man on the other end of the phone wanted to know.
``Yes, but who is this?'' Van Gompel asked, getting irritated, and threatening to hang up.
``Do you have a brother named Carl?''
``Yes, but he's dead.''
``No, sir, he's my father,'' said the man named Ivan - Van Gompel's nephew.
``They'd been searching for me since 1960, and finally found me over the Internet,'' Van Gompel said, shaking his head, still not quite believing it.
When the family found out he was recuperating from open heart surgery, a niece, Gerda, was sent over from Belgium to help him.
``She wanted to know all about my life, what I had been doing,'' Van Gompel said. ``I told her about working as a timekeeper for 30 years with the National Hockey League, and my work with kids.''
About how he scrapped together $350 in 1955 to outfit 20 kids from the neighborhood with jerseys and ice skates - kids Ronny noticed didn't have much in the way of money or a man's guiding hand around the house - kids just hanging out, prime candidates for getting in trouble.
``I took 'em over to the old Schram's Hockey Rink on Vineland, and taught 'em how to skate and play hockey,'' he told his niece. ``I taught 'em that there is no `I' in team.''
Later, he would expand and take in more kids with his HELP program for kids who couldn't afford to rent hockey equipment, let alone buy it.
The concept was simple and to the point. Keep your grades up, and you could use all the equipment you wanted. Let them fall, and you lost the privilege until you improved your grades.
It all goes back to his philosophy that you don't get something for nothing, Van Gompel told his niece. That you had to work for it. Only then would you really appreciate it.
She told him about the former star of the Kings, Wayne Gretzky, and how when he set the record with 802 scoring goals, one of the first things he did was give Van Gompel 802 pieces of hockey equipment for the kids in HELP.
Gerda listened and shook her head. Isn't it amazing? she asked her uncle. What he had been doing in America all these years, his brother's family had been doing in Belgium - providing sports equipment for poor kids wanting to play baseball and basketball.
Van Gompel smiled. ``Yes, isn't it,'' he said, feeling better than he had in years - ``Feeling like I was watching that old TV show, `This is Your Life,' '' he said Friday.
The phone rang again in Ronny Van Gompel's house the other day. It was Gerda from Belgium, thanking her uncle for the boxes of sporting equipment that had just arrived from L.A. Gear and the Eastern Co.
Boxes filled with basketball shoes and baseball equipment - with a card that read ``From the poor kids of California to the poor kids of Antwerp.''
Yeah, maybe good guys do finish first.
MEMO: Dennis McCarthy's column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
Photo: L.A. Kings timekeeper Ronny Van Gompel runs a hockey equipment program for kids in the Valley.
Michael Owen Baker/Daily News