By CEAN BURGESON
I shook hands with President Clinton once, met movie and TV stars when I worked in Los Angeles, and have interviewed celebrities and politicians alike.
But last Friday, I felt a little out of my league.
Through a good friend, I was able to squeak my way into the top booth at Centre Ice during the second day of Red Wings training camp in Traverse City. In that lone suite the arena boasts, I stood with some of professional hockey’s elite.
On my left was Ken Holland, the Red Wings general manager, and arguably one of the best GM’s in professional sports. To my direct right, stood Red Berenson, former Stanley Cup winning professional hockey player, professional hockey coach of the year, and current coach for the University of Michigan hockey team, who’s brought his team to the NCAA tournament in each of his last 17 seasons.
To my right was Bob McNamara, former Notre Dame goaltender, and championship-winning general manager of Detroit’s AHL affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins. Next to him was Mike Babcock, Detroit’s head coach — enough said. In front of me was Jimmy Paek, assistant coach for the Griffs, the first Korean to play in the NHL and have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, and who also holds the honor of listing both Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky as teammates. The rest of the group was made up of scouts and other notable Wings’ staff.
The true kicker was this; as I made my way from the inner suite — where a breakfast of eggs, ham, and pancakes was lovingly cooked up for guests to enjoy — to the outside rink viewing area, a quiet, unassuming man with a baseball cap, held the door open for me. He’d been looking out the window of the suite at the veteran players and prospects as they ran their drills below.
When he turned away from looking out of the window, only then did I realize who he was. “Played much golf lately, Mr. Howe?” asked my friend. “No, my shoulder’s been bothering me,” he said.
As we passed by, I said “hello, Mr. Howe,” and he held the door for me. GORDIE HOWE held the door for ME.
As I occassionally glanced at the hockey legend, separated from me by only a thin pane of glass, I wondered what he was thinking as he watched Holmstrom, Datsyuk, Lebda, Chelios, Draper, Zetterberg, and the others glide effortlessly on the ice, putting perfect passes on the tape, and shooting the puck for the corners along with the rookies and prospects who were desperately trying to make the last few spots on this year’s roster.
Did he wax nostalgic? Did he wonder how they would have stacked up in his day? Was he imagining what it would be like for him to play the game today, with shoot-outs, trapezoids, and collective bargaining agreements?
Oh, how I wanted to ask him these questions — but my sensibilities took control of me, and I left him alone. Just being able to say my hushed “hello” was fine with me.
I want to emphatically thank my friend, who allowed me a tiny glimpse at the inner workings of the Red Wings’ front office, but I won’t mention his name — so he isn’t inundated with requests by other die-hard hockey fans.
Because, last year when I went to training camp, or Hockey Town North as they call it, I went on a press pass. I had a good time, got to talk with staff and players, and felt that I had a fine experience.
But it in no way compared to being in the booth with the company I had found myself in on Friday.
Even though I was a guest of the management staff that day, I still went down to the main level to pick up my press pass, in case I needed it later. It was then that I realized how well-off I had it.
While I was down there, some self-important twenty-something with a “press relations” badge scoffed at me when I asked where the press kits are. “I don’t know,” he told me.
I walked around and looked for someone else who might know, and they directed me back to “Mr. P.R.” again, so I went back and this time asked him for my press credentials.
He said, “oh, I didn’t know that’s what you were looking for.”
Why the hell did he think I was asking for a press kit, then?
At that point, Mr. P.R. started to grill me on sports reporting etiquette like I had just fallen off the turnip truck. “You know that you can’t go certain places right?”
“Yeah, I’ve been here before, I think I can handle it,” I said.
“And you can’t just walk into meetings.”
I started to imagine my hands tightening around Mr. P.R.’s neck.
“I think I can handle it,” I told him as I yanked my media credential out of his hand. Then I quickly tucked it into my pocket so nobody could see, walked out of the door, and up the hill to the back of the building, where I slipped in through the emergency exit and back to the suite with Ken, Mike, Red, Bob, Jimmy and Gordie.
As I looked out over the sheet of ice where the Wings were running drills, I saw all the other media guys milling around with their tape recorders, reporter’s tablets, and their video and digital cameras. All I could think was how that could have been me — and I was truly thankful once again for the opportunity, and the access, I had been given.
For a hockey fan, and as a journalist, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I relished every minute of it as I listened, speaking very little, and merely took it all in. I was a fly on the wall, enjoying every nuance of the discussions between the coaches, management, and other staff about the players and prospects, golf, food, fly-fishing — but mostly pure hockey talk — that went on in that inner-sanctum.
When it was over, it all seemed like a dream. A very good dream. One that I will re-visit again and again.
Cean Burgeson can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org