John Feinstein Blog: A Love For Hockey
I was reminded again this morning about how much I enjoy hockey. I had tweeted on Tuesday–incorrectly–that I couldn’t wait for the Stanley Cup finals to begin that night. I had gotten ahead of myself: they begin Wednesday night–in about nine hours as I write this.
Mike Ross, who co-hosts a show on SiriusXM’s NHL radio, saw the tweet and dropped me a note asking me if I’d like to come on the show he co-hosts with Mick Kern to talk hockey. Not surprisingly, he wanted to know if I was a casual hockey fan or if I had real roots in the sport.
I spent a good 20 minutes on-air with Mike and Mick this morning and enjoyed every second of it. I don’t follow hockey day-to-day the way I do college basketball or golf, but I have a pretty strong sense of the game’s history and there are few things I enjoy more than the Stanley Cup playoffs–even if my Islanders haven’t won a series since 1993. And yes, I do want to write a book on hockey. In fact, as I told Mike and Mick, I’ve tried in the past to do one. More on that later.
My hockey roots go back to the old Madison Square Garden–the one on 50th Street and 8th Avenue. When I was a little boy, my dad would take me on Sunday afternoons to see the New York Rovers play–not the Rangers–the Rovers. When I was a little older I was occasionally allowed to go to Sunday night Ranger games because they started at 7 o’clock, which in those days meant I was home by 10 o’clock.
When the ‘new,’ Garden opened in 1968, I began to go more regularly. I was old enough by then to ride the subway without my parents–would I let any of my kids ride the New York Subway today at the age of 11? No way. It was different back then. With a student GO card I could sit in the blue seats for two dollars. Occasionally I would splurge and spend six dollars to sit in either section 406 or 430. They were at center ice. The GO seats, naturally, were behind the goal.
I loved those late 60s, early 70s Rangers. My heroes were Brad Park, Rod Gilbert, Vic Hadfield and Jean Ratelle. The latter three were known as the GAG line–Goal a Game–even though a team-sponsored contest named them, ‘The Goal-Digger line.’ Fans had already put GAG on them and it stuck. Eddie Giacomin and Gilles Villemure were the goalies. Marv Albert was a hero too–in those days he still did the Rangers in addition to the Knicks on radio.
But when the Islanders came into existence in 1972, I made a decision. I was going to be an Islanders fan. I was already a fan of the Mets and Jets–the Nets, believe it or not too–so the Islanders made sense. Also, I spent summers on the eastern end of Long Island so I liked to think of myself as a Long Islander. The Islanders were 12-60-6 that first season, the worst record in hockey history at the time. I went to 28 home games and loyally listened to Albert–Al–do the play-by-play on radio. Eddie Westfall was the captain; Billy Smith was the BACKUP goalie and Billy Harris was the future of the franchise. I bet several of my friends that the Islanders would win a Stanley Cup before the Rangers–a bold bet at the time if you think about it.
The Islanders got good very quickly. They drafted Denis Potvin and Brian Trottier, Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies. Bob Nystrom and John Tonelli became stars. In 1975, they beat the Rangers in a first round three-game mini-series–J.P. Parise scoring the winning goal in game three–in the Garden–11 seconds into overtime. Then they came from 3-0 down to beat the Penguins with Westfall scoring the winning goal in a 1-0 win in Pittsburgh in game 7. They almost did the same thing to the Flyers before Kate Smith intervened by singing ‘God Bless America,’ before game 7.
Then came the playoff disappointments–notably the loss to the Rangers in ’79–and then the critical mid-season trade in 1980 that brought Butch Goring from Los Angeles for Dave Lewis and Billy Harris. I hated to see Harris go but Goring WAS the final piece. The Islanders won the first of their four straight Stanley Cups that spring with Nystrom scoring the winning goal at 7:11 of overtime against the Flyers in game 6 on a Saturday afternoon in May. Tonelli fed Nystrom the puck but it was Lorne Henning who started the play.
During the two years I had a radio show on CBS, I ended the show almost every day with Dan Kelly’s call of that goal. That’s probably one reason why I don’t have a show anymore.
Actually, that’s only half a joke. I loved talking hockey on the radio and having hockey guests. My bosses told me constantly, ‘you can’t have hockey guests, except MAYBE during the playoffs. You lose your audience when you talk hockey.’
What did they want more of? The NFL–12 months a year. SEC football–only 10 months a year. That’s sports talk radio.
By the time the Islanders won that first Cup, I was working at The Washington Post–covering college football and basketball. But each April, I’d come home from the Final Four and be assigned to cover the hockey playoffs because no one on staff other than Bob Fachet–the Caps beat writer–liked hockey. In fact, one of the more famous newsroom moments from my early days at the paper came when Ken Denlinger, who was then one of the sports section’s two columnists, walked in one morning and announced, “I have built an insurmountable 1-0 lead on Kindred in hockey columns for this season.”
Dave Kindred was the other columnist. Denlinger’s prediction proved correct.
I got to cover the Islanders for a lot of the 80s–through the four Cups and five Cup finals, all the way to the four-overtime game 7 win in Washington in 1987. It was a delight–not so much because they were my team–but because it was a great locker room to work. Al Arbour was terrific to talk to and so was Bill Torrey. All the stars of the team were accommodating–yes, including Billy Smith–and I’ve never met a better man in any walk of life than Bob Bourne. Bossy was quiet, Trottier could be moody, but it was always fun to be around that group.
Of course it all came to a screeching halt in the mid-90s and being an Islander fan has been mostly pain-filled for a long time now. John Tavares and some of the young players have finally provided hope but I may never quite get over losing a 3-1 lead to the Caps in game 2 against a backup goalie this April, with a chance to go home up 2-0, and then losing the series in seven games.
And now the Coliseum is gone. It hurts just to think about it, so I won’t.
Oh, the book. For years I have searched for an excuse to spend an entire season going to hockey games and talking to hockey people. Six years ago, I thought I had the idea. The Penguins had beaten the Caps in a superb seven game conference semi-final series en route to the 2009 Stanley Cup. The teams had become bitter rivals and there was little arguing that Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were the game’s two best players and most compelling figures. They were so different in their upbringing, their personalities, their style of play.
Why not, I thought, a book chronicling a season in the rivalry–between the teams and the two superstars. I was pretty sure I could get cooperation in Washington. I’d covered the team for The Post and knew Ted Leonsis well and had a great relationship with George McPhee, the general manager. George said he’d do anything he could to help.
I knew no one in Pittsburgh, so I approached Gary Bettman. We went to lunch. He liked the idea. He put me in touch with Pat Brisson, Crosby’s agent. As has been the case so often in my career, trying to go through an agent proved to be a disaster. All I wanted from Brisson was to set up a meeting with Crosby so I could explain to him how I could do the book without demanding too much of his time in-season. I know how to do this I told him.
Brisson said he’d get back to me. He did: the answer was no–Crosby didn’t even want to meet with me. He had too much else on his plate.
Of course neither player has won a Stanley Cup since then. Karma perhaps?
Someday, I’ll come up with the right idea. And then I will call the book, ‘A Season on the Rink.’