• I got mugged by the Hanson brothers from “Slapshot”
• Hung out with Gretzky, Messier, Huddy and Lowe at their Edmonton bar
• Scored on an assist from Rod Gilbert. Honest
Any reporter worth their salt gets amped up covering the stories that bring them in contact with some of their personal favorite subjects. Full contact, in the case of a piece I did on the three characters who did more to make “Slap Shot” an enduring film favorite than Melinda Dillon’s nude scene with Paul Newman. I took the Hanson brothers down to my local rink at Chelsea Piers . . . with predictable results:
If you’re not a fan of “Slap Shot,” you’re not a hockey fan (and why are you reading this?) The full CNN piece I did on the Hansons should explain their place in the hockey firmament. And why – if you look closely when we come out of the locker room – I’m wearing a fake-nose-and-eyeglasses:
In the winter of 1983-84 I told my editors at ABC Radio News I had an idea for a multipart story about the responsibility of pro athletes to be good role models. . .or not. This had been triggered by a cocaine scandal in Major League Baseball. I proposed spending some time with Wayne Gretzky who was at that time re-writing the NHL record book and owning a reputation as a “character” guy. (I had a notion I might go up to Edmonton, where he played for the Oilers, and maybe uncover some dirt. . .the “real” story about the “Great One.”) No such luck.
My visit spanned four days and two home games of the Oilers who had, in the previous season, lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the NY Islanders. At the first practice skate I attended, defenseman Charlie Huddy noticed me as he was heading to the ice and decided my scraggly beard and receding hairline made me look like the Islanders’ belligerent goalie, Billy Smith, who had been hacking at the ankles of Oilers near his crease. “Hey! It’s Smith! Get him!” he joked, and lunged at me, as teammates laughed. I liked the guy right away.
I interviewed Wayne, his teammates and coaches, determined his “too good to be true” image was indeed true, and produced a series that later won a couple of awards from the International Radio Festival. I went with Gretzky and Mark Messier to Mess’s high school in an Edmonton suburb where they played in a charity volleyball game. You should have heard the screams from the high school kids for their famous alum and his glittering teammate, both of whom were bound for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
After the second game at the old Northlands Coliseum, Huddy invited me to the Oilers’ favorite bar. Now, Edmonton has a sizable downtown and some decent nightlife, but when Huddy’s directions led me to their hangout, it was, to my surprise, in a suburban strip mall. And not exactly a glamorous joint. When Kevin Lowe, a defenseman with his name on the Stanley Cup six times, arrived, he went straight behind the bar and started mixing drinks. “What’s that about?” I asked. Huddy said, “It’s his ‘hobby.’”
This radio piece about Gretzky and sports role models is eleven and a half minutes long. Think of it as a short podcast:
Back in the 1980’s I started playing beer league hockey at Sky Rink, at that time Manhattan’s only indoor ice, located on the 16th floor of a building at 33rd and Tenth Avenue. (They had to originally deliver the Zamboni — and replace it once — using a giant crane outside the building.) As a walk-in player, I was placed on a team made up of other walk-ins that the guy running the league assembled. We were nominally known as the Barons, but we weren’t organized in the sense that other teams I would play for over the years were made up of friends, who came up with unique names and uniforms. These Barons were just thrown together to play once a week and got to know each other individually over time, with players coming and going.
One night one of the guys brought a friend along with him. That was done occasionally and nobody had a problem with it. Midway through the game the guy said to me, “You know who that is I brought, don’t you?” It was Rod Gilbert, believe it or not, a NY Ranger in the ‘60s and ‘70s who’s in the Hall of Fame. Turns out there was going to be an old-timers’ game at the 1990 NHL All Star Game, and Gilbert wanted to get on skates a bit and get ready for it.
How could we not notice? Well, hockey helmets allow a player some anonymity, and Gilbert had also been playing it very low-key. He didn’t want to stand out in a beer league game so he wasn’t shooting. But, as I now watched him from the bench, I could see how he was controlling our game. He even got frustrated once, motioning impatiently to a player who wasn’t where he should be. The next shift I went out on the ice, Gilbert was set up down below the right circle, looking for someone to pass to. I took off from my D spot and steamed (haha) down the crease toward the goal. Gilbert slotted the puck right onto my angled stick blade and straight into the upper right corner. Yes. I can say, proudly, for the rest of my days: I scored on an assist from Rod Gilbert.