Friday, 10 April, 12:21am – I am now home from Toronto after flight delays in Dallas for weather, but owed those of you following the OGA Road Trip II a wrap up of the last portion of my trip.
As I packed up to go and wandered up the steps to the TSN booth, I got there in time for Gord Miller and crew to tell me we have to stand by for one last interview. I stepped back to get out of the way and watched as they brought Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller on the air. On cue, Gord opened up the interview by saying, ‘…We are here now with Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. Ryan, you survived for another day with the win. How do you like your chances (of making the playoffs)?...’ I could not hear Ryan’s response as it was feeding through Gord’s headphones, but Ryan spoke the team’s line that if they continue to win and have a little luck, they just might make it. An interview that took only about a minute to complete, Gord signed off with, ‘…Congratulations on the win and good luck….’ Some luck will be necessary along with Sabres wins for them to make the show. But one of the things I liked is that, with no malice intended, the broadcasters ask the hard question and put the players on the spot. Because there is no malice there, the players accept the query and provide the best answer they can for the moment. Gord said the players all understand how it is done, and they are well-grounded, which is why you don’t get the same ballyhoo of the NHL, NBA and MLB for the most part. He said even Sean Avery is, in person, a good guy.
Before we walked out, I heard Gord ask, “…Hey, Joe. Wanna go get a drink?...” I turned around to see it was Joe Nieuwendyk, a Stanley Cup winner. He politely declined as he had early morning business. I shook his hand and didn’t have time to say anything pithy, but he is one of my heroes from 1999 as well. A note about him later, too.
We walked down to the elevator, grabbing a former member of the Dallas Stars management. I fully admit I did not recognize him until Pierre told me who he was, strictly because I haven’t seen him play in uniform on camera. But I know he was one of the architects that helped get the Stars to their 1999 Stanley Cup victory, a personally rewarding experience for my brothers and I because I was living in Dallas at the time. You cannot talk of Dallas Stars' glory and fail to think of him.
We made our way to the elevators, jamming in tightly. I drew a snicker when I said I already sucked it in by starting to lose my hair 20 years ago and a receding hairline should count. On the bottom floor, we made our way down the concourse, linked up with Pierre, and passed the lucky fans waiting outside the Leafs' locker room for players to emerge. Lots of kids there, which is important to the future of Hockey. I have a soft spot reserved for kids because I learned in Germany, Iraq and Japan with the military that kids are kids the world over and despite what language they speak. We adults teach them to soar or fear, and for my part, I vote on soaring.
As if on cue when we stepped out of the Air Canada Centre, a man with his son on his shoulders and sporting Maple Leafs jerseys mixed in with us next to Pierre. He immediately patted the youngster on the shoulder and talked with him for a good portion of our walk to the hotel.
As we walked, I talked with Gord. He asked me questions about what I do in the military and spoke highly of those who serve in uniform. They all did, for that matter. But I got to tell him how much we enjoy them bringing us The Great Game. I know if they shut off the sound and just ran the tape, and if you know Hockey, you could tell yourself what is going on. But I found as the conversation continued later, it would be the intangibles we would miss were they not there.
Once we sat down for a drink, several different discussion threads came up. Those intangibles I mention above were an interesting story in styles for how broadcasters keep up with the play while on the air. They spoke of one old veteran broadcaster. His method for keeping up with which lines were on the ice was to have a sheet of paper with the line combinations on it that he marked as the game was in progress. When Gord said the game moves so fast these days, Pierre chimed in to say it is difficult to follow a sheet of line combinations as coaches are not shy about mixing them up as the game is in progress. He said your color man does that for you these days.
The boys told lots of stories, some of the highlights were:
I offered that the GM’s position has to be one of the toughest ones in Hockey right now what with the cap and all. I said I thought it was a reason more players did not get moved at the Trade Deadline and asked if it might impact off-season trading. One of the guys said there will still be movement despite the cap, it just makes getting the deal done a bit tougher. Speaking of deals, the Jarome Iginla to Calgary for Joe Nieuwendyk trade came up. Everyone at the table said that was a brilliant trade all the way around because it solved Dallas’ short-term need, brought them the Stanley Cup and provided Calgary with a franchise player. (You may or may not recall, but at the time, the phrase was ‘…Iginla who?...’ What you may or may not know is he was NOT the player Calgary was trying to get from Dallas for Joe. Dallas won that battle at that time and sent Iginla instead.) I also asked what team management looks at as they watch their team on the ice? The answer was that it depends on the time of the season because the team’s – and players’ – character change over the course of 82 games. We see that as scoring streaks and slumps, for example. This runs contrary to the coaching staff who are concerned with who immediately hits the ice for each game.
There was a conversation about how tough Hockey players are. The guys told of a certain Sutter brother playing for Chicago in a Playoff Game Four taking a slapshot from a teammate that ran up his stick, hit him in the face and collapsed his sinus cavities. They told him after the game that he could not travel with them on the plane as the pressure would put him in so much pain he would not be able to stand it. He insisted otherwise. So they put small balloons up his nose and inflated them to keep the pressure from collapsing the sinuses and cut back on the pain a bit and he flew out with the team. He missed Game 5 – you can guess with a lot of protesting – but was in the lineup for Game 6.
That brought up a sidebar commentary from Pierre and Gord about character. Hockey players, unlike a lot of other athletes, when asked what needs to happen for the team to win begin their answer with, “WE need to….” This is one of the reasons I love the sport – it is about selfless sacrifice for the good of the whole. Locker rooms in the NHL are less opulent than ones right down the concourse for other sports. I was told Dallas’ room was designed by Bob Gainey without dividers between players’ stalls and with everyone’s bench facing inward. In that space, they are family. I have thought for a long time that the ONLY player that can win a game single-handed is a Goalie. That’s really wrong because there IS a team out in front of him, and at least one of his teammates has to score (never mind Billy Smith and the handful of other goalies who scored into empty nets). I also know it is a TEAM that raises the Stanley Cup and skates it around the rink.
We had a brief discussion about Montreal. Just about everyone at the table agrees they need to pull up their boot straps and win to keep the team management around. All at the table, however, agree THAT is the place to take in a game and get the feel of how Canadians love Hockey.
Pierre speaks highly of Luke Schenn, the rookie defenseman for Toronto, saying exemplifies Hockey character. Keep an eye on this player in the future as you might see the makings of the next Pronger/Lidstrom hybred.
Lastly, the Playoffs. For a quick insight into how these guys work, think of the consummate road warrior about to gird himself for battle. The regular season will end Sunday evening, and the NHL will be on the phone with all of the networks, working out who has what game and when. Sometime very early in the morning on Monday, the guys will get emailed what their schedule will be and they will set all of their travel plans on Monday, hitting the road on Tuesday. All with families, they and their team will be on the road for all but perhaps a couple of days from mid-April until the Cup is raised. Gord and Pierre, for example, covered the three preceding series and then did the coast-to-coast-to-coast runs back and forth from Ottawa to Anaheim. There should be a new frequent flyer class for these guys…
It was time to break up the group at the bar. Everyone had morning flights and, at a bit after midnight, Pierre still had to get up and start his morning radio show appearances. I cannot say enough how honored I was to walk among these men last night. They are nothing if not classy, and the kind of down-to-earth folks anyone could talk with.
Until then, safe travels, boys!
In closing, I would like to say to those reading this that I know I probably sound like one huge, name-dropping SOB. If you knew me, you’d know two things: 1) I am enthusiastic about things and people I believe in; and 2) I wanted you all to know a bit more about why this game, and the folks associated with it are so great. Frankly, I could have been anybody they invited up north and they would have treated them the same way. I appreciate the experience, I hope I did you all justice, and I am looking forward to another run...