By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 21) – There’s been all kinds of “heavy” in the hockey world since September, when the NHL lockout began. Once it ended, we had the Brian Burke melodrama. All scowl, no smile. So, with the 48-game sprint finally upon us, why not have a little fun?
I’ve been thinking the past few days about the weird and wacky moments in my life as a hockey fan – and the bulk of 30 years as a reporter. Some, I experienced first hand while hopping about North America with the Toronto Maple Leafs; others were related to me. All of them were funny. If you purchased either of my books on traveling with the Leafs in the 1990’s (best sellers once they hit the “Clearance” shelf), you may recall a tale or two. Chances are, you’ll be reading about them for the first time in this blog.
WHAT A GAS: In the early 1970’s, when I was in junior-high school, I would play around with the radio dial at night to determine which hockey games I could hear. After 8 o’clock, A.M. radio stations in the United States are required – by the Federal Communications Commission – to reduce the power of their signal, essentially so they don’t interfere with other A.M. signals. The actual term is sky-wave propagation, but we won’t get into that.
Bottom line is the power reduction allows A.M. signals to travel hundreds of miles further than during the day. As such, I was able to hear many of the powerful American stations – particularly WGR in Buffalo, WBZ in Boston, KDKA in Pittsburgh and KMOX in St. Louis. Their signals came through with fluctuating clarity and would often fade in and out. Pending weather conditions in Toronto, however, most stations were easy to hear.
Of particular delight was KMOX in St. Louis with Dan Kelly, my favorite hockey broadcaster of all time. Kelly, an Ottawa native, was the voice of the St. Louis Blues and he also called the weekly Sunday afternoon TV games on CBS. On the radio side, Kelly worked with Gus Kyle, who appeared in 203 NHL games with New York and Boston in the early 1950’s. Kyle was a bit wacky but a good compliment to Kelly, a traditional, no-nonsense broadcaster.
One night, the Blues were playing in Vancouver. The game started at 11 p.m. Eastern and I stayed up for most of it. Sometime in the third period, play was called and Kelly went to break with his patented out-cue: “This is St. Louis Blues hockey.” Normally, you’d hear a sponsored commercial. On this occasion, however, something happened at the KMOX studio and the commercial didn’t air. Kelly and Kyle, unaware of the technical glitch, were still on live microphones at the Pacific Coliseum when Kyle said, “Gee, Dan, I sure have the farts tonight.” I sat up in bed, not believing what I’d heard. But, seconds later, the puck was dropped and the broadcast continued as usual.
Kelly died of cancer in February 1989.
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On the subject of passing wind, I still laugh uproariously when recalling an incident after Game 4 of the Leafs-Detroit playoff series in 1993. It involved my mentor, the late Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot. Coach Pat Burns was fielding post-game questions in the media lounge at Maple Leaf Gardens when there was a sudden lull in the conversation. At that moment, a loud crackly fart emanated from the back-corner of the room. Burns quickly snapped his head in the direction of the blast and Proudfoot was standing with a crooked smile on his face. Other reporters discreetly shuffled to the opposite side of the lounge, fearing an after-shock.
Two days later, Jim and I were in Detroit for Game 5 of the series and were riding the downtown monorail (known as the “People Mover”) to Joe Louis Arena. Still mortified about his gas attack, Jim explained, “Gee, I tried to time it so there’d be enough noise to drown out the sound. But, just as I reached the point of ‘no return’, everyone suddenly stopped talking.”
Moments after arriving at the arena, Proudfoot and I walked past the corridor leading to the visitors’ dressing room. As the Leaf players warmed up for the pivotal match of the opening-round series, Burns was pacing back and forth, seemingly oblivious to anything else. We offered him a cursory wave and continued on to the media room for dinner. Not three seconds later, we heard the Leaf coach bellow, “No farting in the press box!”
BURNING EYES: This story dates to the 1970-71 NHL season and was told to me by Darryl Sittler, a Leafs rookie that year. After practice one day, a number of players were having a sauna at the Gardens when George Armstrong opened the door to come in. Armstrong had been captain of the Leaf Stanley Cup teams in the 1960’s and was now in his final professional season. He looked around in the sauna for a place to sit, which began a deluge of griping from teammates, who angrily informed him there was no room for anyone else. Armstrong responded by urinating on the coals and slamming the door shut. A cascading mist of bodily fluid engulfed the sauna and nearly asphyxiated the players, sending them in a mad dash for fresh air.
“It was awful,” remembered Sittler. “Our eyes were burning and the smell was just terrible.” Recalling the incident years later, Armstrong laughed. “There was plenty of f—ing room in the sauna after that!”
IN NEED OF POLY-GRIP: Before starting my radio career, I did part-time work for North York Rangers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League – one tier beneath the OHL. There were clubs in North York, Richmond Hill, Newmarket, Aurora, Hamilton, Cambridge, Orillia, Mississauga and Markham. One night, we were playing at the Hamilton Mountain Arena. There were roughly 15 rows of wooden benches surrounding the ice and a creaky old press box that hung directly over the seats.
One of our players – defenseman Wayne Davidson – was injured and sitting with us in the press box. At some point in the game, the referee missed an obvious penalty on Hamilton and Davidson rose to his feet, yelling at the official. Just as he leaned forward, his false teeth came loose and went tumbling downward. Somehow – and it was a one-in-a-million chance – the teeth went directly into the back of a woman’s dress. Not a young woman either; she was probably in her 70’s. The poor lady got up and began to scream. She launched into a wild dance to shake loose the foreign object.
Mortified, Wayne leaned out once again and said, “Ma’m, I’ll be right down.” The rest of us were laughing so hard we were crying. The woman was still jumping up and down when Wayne arrived. He explained to her what happened and actually reached into the back of her dress to reclaim the dentures. The woman began hitting Wayne with her purse as he scrambled away and back up to the press box. We were absolutely killing ourselves. It was a scene that would have been perfect in the movie Slapshot.
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GONDOLA MALAISE: On a Wednesday night in March 1978, Leafs were getting hammered by the New York Islanders at the Gardens. My father and I were at the game and it was so one-sided, we left midway through the third period. While driving home, we listened to the action on CKFH-1430, the radio station founded by Leaf broadcasting legend Foster Hewitt (thus the “FH”). In 1977-78, Ron Hewat called most of the games on radio with color-commentator (and CKFH employee) John McGilvary.
At one point in the final period, Islanders carried the puck up ice and Hewat suddenly stopped calling the play – right in the middle of a sentence. All we could hear was crowd noise in the background. Dad and I looked at each other, confused, when poor McGilvary came on in a panic. He clearly hadn’t studied the team rosters beforehand. “Uh, number five in blue shoots it into the Leaf zone and the goalie stops it behind the net” – that kind of thing.
Having done color commentary several times with Joe Bowen, I can only imagine the feeling had he suddenly walked away from his microphone in the middle of the play. McGilvary, therefore, was in a crisis. He began by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, you probably realize Ron Hewat is no longer doing the broadcast. He isn’t,” – and just as McGilvary said, “feeling well” – someone could be heard wildly retching in the background. McGilvary cupped his hand over the mike as poor Hewat heaved up in a garbage pail behind him. It sounded like he was dying. I’m sure it wasn’t fun for the broadcasters but Dad and I nearly drove off the road in hysterics.
SHOWER ECHO: Friggin’ Doug Gilmour. I can hear it to this day. When Leafs were still playing at the Gardens, the dressing room was much smaller than the oasis at Air Canada Centre. The showers, therefore, were close to the equipment and dressing stalls. Gilmour was not only the best player on the Leafs, but also the club’s top prankster. And, I took the bullet several times.
After a Leaf victory – the dressing room packed with media – Gilmour would be in the shower. He’d purposely wait for a female reporter to stand near me, and for a relatively quiet moment. Then, he would yell, “Berger, stop looking at my ass!” The echo from the shower room amplified the sound; the female reporter looked at me with revulsion, and I would die of embarrassment. Turning around, there would be Gilmour with that toothless grin of his.
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We landed in Calgary once and I needed to interview Gilmour about some important matter. While standing at the luggage carousel, awaiting our bags, I asked if I could speak with him and he sounded hesitant. “Howie, I’m tired after the game last night, let’s do it another time.” I began virtually pleading with him to re-consider. Finally, Doug said, “Okay, call my room when we get to the hotel and I’ll meet you in the lobby.”
I hopped on the team bus and it headed toward the Calgary Westin. We checked in and I went upstairs. After getting settled, I called the front desk and asked for Gilmour’s room. “Oh, I’m sorry,” said the operator, “we have no one by that name with us.” I couldn’t understand it. “Could you please look again? He plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs and I just checked in behind him.” After a brief pause, she reiterated, “No, sir, we don’t have a Doug Gilmour registered in this hotel.” Naturally, I was frustrated and I went to the lobby to wait for another Leaf player, as I needed a pre-game interview.
Dave Andreychuk got off the elevator and I said, “Isn’t Gilmour in the hotel?”
“Yes, of course he is. He’s in the room right next to me.”
Now, I was totally perplexed. There was a man standing behind the front desk. I told him about the phone-operator twice looking for Gilmour’s room and asked if he could check again. After going through the register, he confirmed there was no one by that name in the hotel.
I threw up my hands and went back to the room.
Later on, I ran up to Gilmour and we got on the team bus to the Saddledome. “Doug, what happened to you today? I called your room twice and the lady said there was no one registered under your name.”
“Naw, that can’t be true,” he replied.
“Yeah. Even the desk manager couldn’t find it.”
“Aw, Howie, you must have made a mistake.” Then he laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I asked. He explained and I was ready to kill him. Turned out Gilmour – for reasons of privacy – always checked into a hotel under the pseudo-name Jake Robert.
“Thanks a lot, Doug.”
“No sweat, Howie,” he grinned. “Call me tomorrow.”
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Another time, we were in San Jose. Rich Sutter had just become a Leaf. After the morning skate, I interviewed Sutter for my pre-game radio show. It was in the hallway outside the Leaf dressing room and deathly quiet. Rich talked softly, so I had the microphone practically down his throat. Unbeknownst to me, Gilmour was standing 10 feet away, working on his sticks. He waited for a brief lull in the interview – came up closer – and said, “Howie, get that microphone out of my butt!” I rolled my eyes and Sutter laughed. Then Gilmour began cackling when I played back the tape and realized he had screwed up the entire interview. But, it was hard to stay angry at the little rat.
UN-WELCOMED FEET: In early November, 1995, Leafs were on a three-game trip to Winnipeg, Vancouver and Edmonton. After the game in Vancouver, I was on the team’s charter flight up to Edmonton. We arrived just after 1:00 a.m. and took a bus to the Westin Hotel. Room keys were laid out on a table and the players went upstairs, but I had to check in at the front-desk. After a long day, I was looking forward to collapsing into bed. I got up to my room; opened the door, and noticed a large pair of feet sticking out from under the blanket. “What’s going on here?” said a man with a gruff voice. “Oh, pardon me, sir. The desk gave me the wrong key. Sorry to disturb you.”
I went back downstairs and explained the situation. The desk manager apologized profusely and assigned me another room. Up I went again in the elevator; got to the door and turned the key. This time, I saw two humps in the bed – clearly a man and his wife. “Hello? Who is it?” said the lady. “Oh, I’m so sorry Ma’m. I got the wrong key when checking in. Please accept my apology.” Now, I was steaming mad. I got off the elevator; stomped toward the front desk and yelled, “What the f–k’s going on here?!” Pat Burns happened to be in the lobby. “Geez, Howie, what’s the matter?” he asked.
The desk manager also had a quizzical look. “For crying out loud,” I snarled, “don’t you have a vacant room in this damned hotel? I’m waking up half the guests.” He threw his head back and said, “No… again?” This time, the manager accompanied me up to another room and knocked. I held my breath as he carefully opened the door. Thankfully, there were no big feet or humps. “The room’s on me,” said the manager and I fell into bed – exhausted.
FRANTIC LEAFS COACH: This story is a wee-bit embarrassing but it also generated convulsive laughter. At the beginning of December 2008, Leafs went out west to play Los Angeles, San Jose and Phoenix. The L.A. and San Jose games were on consecutive nights, then we had a day off in Phoenix before the Leafs-Coyotes match. That night, Cliff Fletcher invited all Leafs personnel and traveling media to his palatial estate in Scottsdale for a party. The players stayed for about two hours and then headed back to the team hotel in Glendale, across from Jobing.com Arena. Management, coaches, training staff and media hung around until the wee hours.
At the time, Brian Burke had been general manager of the Leafs for less than a week and Ron Wilson was in his initial season as head coach. It was their first social gathering and they captivated us with stories from their Providence College days. At some point in the evening, I walked out to Fletcher’s backyard, which stunningly overlooked the lights of Phoenix. There, I came upon David Shoalts of the Globe and Mail, who was relieving himself in the bushes (he’ll kill me for this). I asked Dave why he chose that spot. “Well, there’s only one bathroom available to us in the house,” he replied, “and I nearly passed out when I went in there a few moments ago.”
I laughed and walked back in to join the others. About five minutes later, Mother Nature knocked on my door, and knocked hard. I was in a crisis and I prayed that no one was occupying the lone bathroom. Thankfully it was vacant… and the stench that drove Shoalts into the garden had dissipated.
But, not for long.
Regrettably, I did a similar number on the room. My god, it was lethal. At that point, I was in a quandary. There was no chance another person could have walked in there without becoming violently ill. And, my biggest fear was opening the door to find either Burke or Wilson waiting outside for a “visit”. I frantically searched for can of Glade or Lysol without luck. I then opened the cupboard-door beneath the sink and noticed that Cliff’s wife, Linda, had a tray of mini perfume bottles. I took out three or four and liberally sprayed them about the room. Sadly, it didn’t help.
After 15 minutes, I realized it was unfair to occupy the lone lavatory much longer. I said a quick prayer and opened the door. To my immense relief, neither the GM, coach, nor anyone else was on deck. As I walked back toward the livingroom, however, I caught a glimpse of Wilson heading for the “danger zone”. A wall partially separated us, so he didn’t see me. Ol’ Ronnie wasn’t feeling much pain at that juncture (Cliff and Linda had wine and beer bottles all over the house) and we all remember how the coach had a loud, piercing voice. I paused just a moment as Wilson approached the bathroom door. Not three seconds later, I heard, “Holy sh-t, who died in here?!”
I entered the livingroom and held my breath because I didn’t want to burst out laughing. It wasn’t the type of environment to tell a story like that. Further testing my resolve was Wilson, who returned moments later, wincing in apparent pain. “Jeezus, someone really sick was in that bathroom,” he groaned. I was close to turning blue.
RON WILSON: “WHO DIED IN HERE!?”
We sat around for another couple of hours listening to Cliff’s hockey stories. I’d rented a large S-U-V at Phoenix Airport and had enough room to drive my media colleagues back to Glendale. Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star sat next to me. In the back seat were Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun, Sheri Forde of TSN and Dave Shoalts. Crouching in the trunk-hatchback area was Mike Traikos of the National Post. I couldn’t wait any longer. I told the Wilson story and began the trip back to our hotel. But, we were all laughing our guts out and I had to pull over on the 101 loop. My eyes were so wet from tears I couldn’t see the damned road. We sounded like a pack of hyenas.
Two years later – in January 2011 – Leafs made the identical trip: Los Angeles and San Jose in consecutive nights, then a day off in Phoenix before playing the Coyotes. Again, Cliff and Linda hosted a party at their home in Scottsdale. Wilson was in a dandy mood, as Leafs provided him his 600th career victory as a coach in the NHL the previous night at San Jose. Late in the party, Ron was sitting with four or five of us media wags and I felt it was the right moment to tell him the bathroom story from two seasons back.
“Oh ho… no way!” he laughed. “Did I really yell that out?”
Yes you did, Ron. Loud and clear.