• WHA? As a PA announcer in the World Hockey Association, my safety was in question
• D’oh! The Stanley Cup-clinching overtime goal this reporter missed
• All the news that fits: covering college hockey for the NY Times
People who have trouble ice skating sometimes say, “My ankles are weak.”
Mine weren’t, despite the look of that photo above. My mom wanted me to wear thick, warm socks, so the skates were a size too big, and my feet slid around in them. “Pond hockey” on Packanack Lake in North Jersey was where it began for me. It didn’t go far, though, because my town didn’t have a youth hockey program. So I got no coaching. I’m a self-taught hockey player. And, as most self-taught golfers or tennis players will tell you, there’s only so much you can learn that way.
Anyway, I played intramurals in college and in beer leagues ever after. When I arrived in Cincinnati in 1975, I was pleased to learn the city was about to get a team in the new, rival league to the NHL, the World Hockey Association. That’s where I befriended John Hewig, my partner in many crimes and misdemeanors since.
As the Stingers’ marketing exec, he hired me to do the public address announcing at Riverfront Coliseum. I was news director at the top radio station in town. If John thought the team would get better coverage as a result, he was told – as was I – by my GM that there would be no such quid pro quo!
The cacophony of sound that causes earaches at today’s sports arenas wasn’t much of a thing back then, but I did pump it up when the goal light went on: “Stinger goal scored by number 9…..Rick….DUDLEYYYY!!!”
Embarrassing confession: I had to announce the time of the goal in terms of how far into the 20-minute period it came. But the scoreboard would show how much time was left in the period.So, if the clock stopped for a goal at, say, 14:37, I’d have to subtract that from 20:00 to announce, “Time of the goal: 5:23.” But I suck at math and couldn’t do that quickly enough. So I constructed a small, hand-written chart showing every calculation: 14:37 = 5:23…14:36 = 5:24, and so on. Problem solved. Math-phobia side-stepped.
I had a great seat at center ice and actually got paid to watch pro hockey and talk once in a while. I brought a camera one night but only managed to get this bad shot of Gordie Howe, who was, I don’t know, about 93 years old at the time, playing for the Houston Aeros with his sons, Mark and Marty:
Once, I was almost assaulted by a visiting player. The Quebec Nordiques were the opponent. There’d been a bench-clearing brawl and afterward the ref was sorting out the penalties. He came over to the scorer’s table, where I sat next to an off-ice official, leaned into the hole cut into the plexiglass surrounding us and asked me to get on the phone and call up to the press box to ask who had been the first player to leap off the bench into the fray. That player’s team would receive an extra two-minute bench minor penalty and the other team a power play. (Why they asked me to make the call, I don’t know. And why they would take the word of the Stingers’ Hewig on the other end is a mystery as well.) Hewig said, naturally, a Quebec skater was first off the bench.
Paul Baxter, an extremely pugnacious and temperamental Nordique, was standing just on the ice-side of the glass from me and as I passed the word to the ref and hung up the phone, his eyes bugged out at me. He slammed his stick over the top of the plexiglass, splinters and stick parts flying everywhere. I threw up my arms in surrender and pointed to the press box, as if to say, “Don’t look at me! The guy upstairs made the call, I didn’t!” Baxter went into the penalty box, too.
The Edmonton Oilers were in town another night. Wayne Gretzky hadn’t joined them yet, but a guy who would become his “protector” (read “goon”) was on the team. He was Dave Semenko, a 6’ 3” 215-pound enforcer with a bad attitude. In those pre-jumbotron days, the Coliseum only had a scrolling LED message board. Very low tech. At some point in the game, in which Semenko was making regular trips to the penalty box, the message board read, “Is that ‘Semenko’ or “Cement Co.?’ “
Referee Bill Friday skated over to the scorers’ table and told me, “Get on the phone, call the press box and tell Hewig, if that sign appears again, it’s a two-minute bench minor for the Stingers!” We laugh about that to this day.
I am chagrined to report I missed one of the more famous goals in hockey history. When I was news director at WMMR-FM, Philadelphia, the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1980, facing the New York Islanders. A rock radio station, MMR didn’t do a lot of sports coverage, but all the city’s teams were on a roll around then (the Eagles went to the Super Bowl, the 76ers to the NBA Finals). So I went to games and afterward phoned in to the DJ on the air at the time and gave informal wrap-ups. I got credentialed for game 6 at Nassau Coliseum and drove up for the contest, in which NY could capture the Cup with a win. Regulation ended with the teams tied, 4-4. I went into the press room during the intermission, maybe to call the DJ on the air. Most likely to get a sandwich. I was a little slow in departing, and just as I was entering the tunnel back to the auxiliary press seating, there was a huge roar. Bob Nystrom had scored for the Islanders. I got to watch the replay on the jumbotron.
While my career choice of journalism rewarded me with loads of wonderful hockey-related moments, it was hockey that helped me land a gig many reporters covet – and something I only dared dream possible: a regular byline in the New York Times.
My friend, Bill Brink, a longtime editor at the paper, knew that I liked hockey so much I would frequently attend the Division 1 NCAA Frozen Four tournament as a civilian. The Times had lost its writer of the weekly College Hockey Notebook and he asked if I wanted to take over. Would I ever! Ever since high school, when we had to have a Times subscription for Social Studies class, and I would read the sports pages in study hall, I had appreciated the paper’s coverage of the college game, even if it was only on one day of the week, and during the season. (I speculated it was a nod to the Ivy League grads who took jobs in New York City; they wanted to keep tabs on the ol’ Crimson, Bulldog and Big Red icers.)
So, for two and a half seasons, I wrote a short weekly feature on a coach, player or team that was making news, plus notes and stats from around the college game, including the women’s teams. I worked from home and did telephone interviews, but I also got sent to a couple of Frozen Fours and two Beanpot tourneys in Boston. There I filed game reports on deadline, which, in the case of close games or overtime periods could be frazzling.
Then, in mid-season of ’05, I was informed the Notebook was going to be published no more. Was it something I said? Or, rather, wrote? No, I was assured, it was a casualty of the Internet’s impact on daily newspaper journalism. Ad sales were down, so page space was shrinking. The sports department had less room and had to prioritize its coverage. Interest in college hockey, which is less even than that for NHL hockey, wasn’t sufficient to justify a weekly notebook. Ah well, it was fun while it lasted.
Okay, so the byline was waaay down there in the basement. But it was still a NY Times byline!