Sunday, November 13, 2005

Confessions From A Life In Hockeytown

(the following column can also be viewed at, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to and click on "Columnists")

To think that I once talked to Steve Yzerman out of pity.

It’s true. I found him in the Red Wings’ lockerroom back in October 1983, after a rare victory, an 18 year-old rookie with the funny last name that people couldn’t pronounce. If you think it unthinkable that we once didn’t know how to properly say "Yzerman," I can assure you it was the fact, Jack. Anyhow, as the rest of the press gathered around guys like John Ogrodnick and Brad Park, I noticed Yzerman, all by his lonesome, dressing, being wedged into his locker by the throngs of reporters and cameramen. He seemed beyond shy; lonely, even. So I decided to talk to him. I was there "working" for the Michigan Daily, U-M’s newspaper, courtesy of a free press pass from my pal Chris Gerbasi.

"Nice to get a win," I said, or something like that, to a kid who, little did I know, would grow up into a Hall of

He looked up at me, wide-eyed, unbelieving that someone wanted to talk to him. Then he sort of grinned and said something in reply, of which I don’t remember. And I didn’t think to take a tape recorder with me. Curses!

Three years later, I directed Yzerman in a public service announcement I wrote about promoting youth and amateur hockey. It was his first month of being captain of the Red Wings. "You sure that’s thirty seconds?," Yzerman asked me when I showed him the script. "It looks like ten." I assured him the amount of words I had written, when spoken at the correct rhythm, would encompass half a minute. It was his first commercial, I’m sure. We shot the spot. It worked. So you see? I launched that Hall of Fame career, I tell you.

To think that I once saw a fan dragging an entire row of chairs behind him at the old Olympia Stadium, with the apparent intent on taking the seats home with him. How he planned on jamming 12 red padded chairs, joined together, into his vehicle shall forever be preserved in a time capsule, I suppose. It was after the Red Wings’ final game at the old Red Barn, back in December 1979. I shouldn’t talk, really. For I tried to grab an out-of-town team name from the scoreboard that was mounted onto the facing of the balcony. It was "Los Angeles," I think. One of Detroit’s finest shooed me away. I never was good at thievery.

After the game, a thrilling come-from-behind 4-4 tie, my friend Bob Davis and I, along with a dozen or so others, waited outside the Red Wings’ dressing room. Our patience was rewarded. Out came the players, every one of them, wearing their overcoats and smoking cigars as if they had just won the Stanley Cup. It was a freaking tie against the bloody Quebec Nordiques. So easy to be satisfied back in the 70’s and early 80’s. Anyhow, I got just about everyone’s autograph on the front of the game program, including radio announcer Bruce Martyn.

"Great game, huh?," I asked Bruce. He, too, was chomping on a stogie.

"Yep....second half of it, anyway," Martyn said. The Wings fell behind 4-0, then caught up, culminating in Greg Joly’s end-to-end rush which produced the tying goal with perhaps two minutes remaining.

To think that people actually think Joe Louis Arena gets loud, even when Stanley Cups are won there. I will spot you every loudest crowd you’ve heard at the Joe, and it won’t hold a candle to the roar I heard at the Olympia when Joly scored that goal. It wasn’t just a crowd cheering. The floor shook and the old metal and wood of the stadium rumbled and it echoed and you would have thought the Red Wings had just saved the world as we know it with that single goal. I’ll never forget that noise.

To think that I actually stood in the Zamboni entrance of Olympia and watched the Red Wings -- on television. My friend Steve Hall played on one of those youth travel teams, and I was along to watch when their game was being played on Olympia’s sheet of ice. After the game, waiting for the players to dress, a bunch of us friends and families gathered around a small black-and-white set and watched the Wings play on the road. It was surreal, to be honest, standing in a near-empty Olympia, watching the Red Wings play in another town. See? I helped spawn JoeVision.

To think that I went to about six Red Wings games during the 1985-86 season, when they won just 17 games and gave up over 400 goals. Actually, I know why I went. You could find a seat, that’s why. We might be hockey mad in this town, but even a 17-57-6 team will try our patience. So I’d finish up my work downriver, hop in the Cavalier, and shoot up I-75 to catch the Red Wings game, by myself. Maybe 15,000 or so were there with me. The Wings would either give their opponents a hard time before collapsing into defeat late, or they’d get absolutely blown out. They gave up 10 goals in a game three or four times that season, you know. But you could get a ticket.

To think that I once told Terrible Ted Lindsay that I sometimes turned in around five AM. "Oh, living the good life I see," he said, chuckling. It was after the taping of Bob Zahari’s show when I worked for Maclean Hunter cable -- it’s Comcast now, of course -- and Z and I were shooting the breeze with Lindsay, who’d been the guest that night. Lindsay mentioned something about getting up at five AM to do his exercises and workout. That’s when I made the crack about going to bed when he was waking up. Today Ted is 80 and is still working out, keeping his slight body fit and who knows, maybe he’ll live to be 100. The jury is still out on my life expectancy, however.

To think that I once calmed Jimmy Rutherford before his coaching debut. It was back in 1991. Rutherford, the old Red Wings goalie, was GM of the Detroit Junior Red Wings of the OHL. A couple days prior, he had fired coach Andy Weidenbach, and decided to take over the duties himself. I was directing the TV broadcasts of Junior Wings games back then. But on the night of Rutherford’s debut behind the bench, there was a terrible snowfall and the team bus carrying the Jr. Wings’ opponents was running awfully late. So all there was to do was wait. I caught Rutherford pacing in the hallway outside the dressing room.

"Of all nights for this to happen," I said, smirking.

He forced a nervous grin, arms folded as he paced. "I just want to get the game started," he told me. We chatted for a few minutes. I could tell he was glad he had someone to talk to at that time.

The game eventually did start, and the J-Wings won, I believe. My pregame talk must have, ahem, worked.

Yes, to think that you can find yourself in some interesting situations, if you hang around the rink long enough. Must be something in that paint they use to turn the ice white.

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