More Hockey Stories

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 23) — I was interviewed about my career in radio last week by @MikeInBoston of website TorontoSportsMedia.com (link here: http://bit.ly/1nuJFCm). It was enjoyable reflecting on the 23 years I spent, mostly covering hockey, at The FAN-590, Canada’s first all-sports station.

And, it got me thinking about the stories Mike and I didn’t get around to, even while spending three hours together. Given that many of you have responded favorably to the yarns I’ve spun on this website, here are several more from my term at The FAN between 1988 and 2011. These have been culled from the two books I wrote (in 1995 and 1999) about traveling with the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

TURBULENCE AND A FRUIT BASKET: In my early years covering the Maple Leafs, reporters were occasionally allowed to fly on the team charter, at the news organization’s expense. This was a matter of convenience and normally exercised during multi-city road trips. Travel was more of an issue back then as Leafs were still in the Western Conference. Every week, it seemed, the club was off to western Canada, Texas or California. On this particular journey, in April 1995, the Leafs played at St. Louis and Dallas on consecutive nights.

After a 3-1 loss to the Blues that Ken Daniels and I called on The FAN-590 (Joe Bowen did the game on TV; I don’t remember why Bill Watters wasn’t there), I hopped on the team bus to Lambert-St. Louis Airport. During the half-hour ride from downtown, and though it wasn’t raining, there were snaps of lightning all over the sky. Being a somewhat fidgety flyer at the time, I began to wonder about the plane taking off. What if we had to negotiate through all of the electricity? Almost always, I found these concerns to be more about fear than reality. But, not on this trip.

We boarded a Boeing–737 leased to the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, who were playing at home that night. All the seats were Executive Class width – two on each side of the aisle – with one row for every two on a commercial jet to facilitate leg-room for the elongated basketball types. As the plane taxied to the runway, the lightning bolts were still appearing every few seconds but the captain did not warn of any alarming turbulence, so I remained cautiously optimistic. But, five minutes into the journey, I immediately knew why there hadn’t been an announcement from the flight-deck (remember the old saying “what you don’t know can’t hurt you?”). To this day — and after something like 1,500 take-offs and landings — I still have not experienced the utter violence of that climb-out from St. Louis.

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It made me appreciate the sturdiness of the tin cans that ferry us all over the sky — but not until later. As we entered the clouds, the jet began wildly lurching up and down and side to side; it was like being in a juice blender. I had my head on the seat-back, begging forgiveness for any wrong-doing in my life to that point. The late Pat Burns, coach of the Leafs and also a white-knuckler in the air, kept looking at me from two rows up on the opposite side; his eyes the width of frying pans. The bronc-ride went on and on until the plane burst through the clouds and into clear sky. Then it stopped. Instantly. We went from tumult to tranquility in the bat of an eyelash. Moments later, the flight attendants came around with boxes of food but anything ingested at that point would have wound up on the person in front of me. Instead, I asked for a carton of chocolate milk and just tried to relax.

Upon arriving in Dallas after 1 a.m., I remember a stairway being led to the entrance at the front of the plane. I was directly behind Burns, who stepped out onto the porch and said “there’s no way we’re at the main airport — the downtown buildings are way too close.” Turns out the charter had landed at Dallas Love Field rather than Dallas-Fort Worth International (or D-F-W), 25 miles southeast. It was my first time in the city and being at Love Field gave me the creeps, remembering that President John F. Kennedy (and wife Jacqueline) had landed there prior to boarding the motorcade – 32 years earlier – in which he would be assassinated. To top off the evening, the Leaf bus was late. You had to see this disheveled group of famous hockey players sprawled along an airport sidewalk in the middle of the night.

Ultimately, we were driven to the Hyatt Regency Reunion, across from the arena where the Dallas Stars played from 1993 to 2001. I got my key and took the elevator to what I figured would be a standard room, with one King or two Queen beds. Instead, I walked into this immaculate, bi-level suite and noticed a large fruit arrangement with bottles of beer and mineral-water chilling on a table near the window. I thought to myself “Jeez, this is nice treatment for a first-time guest.” Opening a little card, it read: “Welcome to the Hyatt, Mike Kitchen. Enjoy your complimentary fruit and beverages.” I nearly keeled over from laughing. The hotel had mistakenly given me the suite pre-assigned to the Leafs’ assistant coach.

During an optional skate the next morning at Reunion Arena, I went up to Kitchen and inquired about his room. “Oh, nothing out of the ordinary,” he replied. “Why?”

“Because the fruit and beer in my suite were wonderful.”

After a momentary pause, he said “Aw, fu– you, Howie! I was wondering why I didn’t get that stuff. You little frickin’ weasel.”

I just grinned.

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MIKE KITCHEN (RIGHT) IN HIS CURRENT ROLE AS ASSISTANT COACH OF THE CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (SKATING WITH FORWARD ANDREW SHAW). I GOT HIS FRUIT AND BEER.

KITCH AND “BARE”–EZIN: Here’s another story involving Mike Kitchen.

In the summer of 1996, the Maple Leafs imported a compact left-winger from Russia named Sergei Berezin, who would enjoy a 37-goal season for the club in 1998-99. Berezin may have been the most notable puck-hog in NHL history — he wouldn’t make a pass at a Playboy Bunny. But, he had a good, heavy shot and could move rather swiftly for a player built nearly as wide as he was tall (5-foot-9, 195 pounds). Berezin provided the Leafs and their fans quite a thrill when he scored a powerplay goal in the final minute of regulation at Philadelphia on May 2, 1999. It enabled Leafs to knock off the Flyers in Game 6 of the opening playoff round that spring. But, my most vivid memory of Berezin dates to an unforgettable scene involving the rookie winger outside the visitors’ dressing room in Anaheim.

In November 1996, the Leafs went on a four-game trip to Philadelphia, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix. After a 3-1 loss to the Flyers — the ending of which remains legendary for Felix Potvin whipping Ron Hextall in a fight between goalies — the Leafs flew to California. On the day before the game against Anaheim, Leafs held an afternoon practice at the Arrowhead Pond (now the Honda Center). There was nothing unusual about the skate or the post-practice routine of players showering, dressing and walking to the team bus. All Leaf players except Sergei Berezin.

I was already on the bus when I remembered leaving something in the arena. At the same time, Pat Burns sent Kitchen to fetch Berezin. So, Mike and I went back in together. I’m sure the Leafs assistant coach expected to see Berezin tying his shoelaces, ready to sprint to the bus. Instead, the rookie was still in the shower, rinsing soap from his body. Berezin did not speak English, nor did Mike speak Russian, and it complicated the situation. Kitch couldn’t believe his eyes. With the entire team and coaching staff on the bus ready to leave for the hotel, Berezin was still luxuriating himself. And as long as I live, I won’t forget what happened next.

Berezin came out of the shower and stood, naked and soaking wet, at the entrance to the dressing room. A female arena worker happened to walk by at that very moment and let out a screech. Exasperated, Kitchen made hand motions at the rookie to hurry up and get dressed. Berezin, however, had no idea what Kitch was saying. He continued to stand in the same spot — his head cocked to one side like a dog when someone makes an unusual sound. “C’mon, Sergei, we’re all waiting for you,” pleaded Kitchen, as Berezin looked on. Finally, Kitch threw up his hands and stomped back to the bus. I ushered Berezin into the room and pointed at his clothes, which finally got the rookie’s attention. “Ah, yes,” he said with a smile – proud, it seemed, to finally comprehend. He then quickly toweled off and dressed.

Under no circumstance was I leaving until Berezin had his suit on. We walked quickly to the bus together. Once on board, I remember how Burns — sitting in the first row — just glared at the rookie with a nasty expression. Berezin looked back; smiled and nodded. The coach could only shake his head.

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SERGEI BEREZIN ON AIR CANADA CENTRE PROGRAM FROM THE 1999 PLAYOFFS.

ALPO’S SCROTUM: Yes, here is another tale – though much more ghastly – involving a nude member of the Maple Leafs contingent.

After edging Detroit, 2-1, in the final home opener at Maple Leaf Gardens (Oct. 10, 1998), the Leafs embarked on an unusual trip to western Canada — beginning at Edmonton on a Tuesday and featuring a three-day hiatus before a Friday-night match in Calgary. It was Pat Quinn’s first year coaching the Leafs and he decided to take the club to nearby Banff between the Alberta games. We stayed, for two nights, at the Rocky Mountain Resort – an absolutely picturesque setting. I had a two-level suite with a bedroom loft and balcony that overlooked Cascade Mountain. It snowed non-stop but I remember there was no wind. I could stand on the balcony and virtually hear snowflakes hitting the ground. The bottom level had a fire-place with stacks of wood. Needless to say, a bit different than the usual hotel environment.

While in Banff, the Leafs practiced a couple of times at a local arena — an old barn with cramped dressing rooms. After one workout, I was standing with Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star in a narrow hallway outside the room where the Leaf coaches dressed, waiting to talk with Quinn. The Leafs had an assistant coach from Finland named Alpo Suhonen — best remembered, to this day, for Don Cherry’s quip on Coach’s Corner: “Alpo… isn’t that a dog food?” Suhonen joined Quinn’s staff at the urging of GM Mike Smith, a rather huge proponent of European hockey.

While Rosie and I were waiting, the door to the coaches room accidentally swung open, revealing a frightening picture. There was poor Alpo, buck-naked and bent at the waist, with his rear toward us. We were treated to a view of his hairy backside and dangling scrotum. I nearly threw up. Rosie went “Ahhhyyy!!” — causing Alpo to spin around with an angry look on his face and slam the door shut. Rosie took immediate exception. “Like I wanted to see that!” she snorted, which sent me into convulsive laughter. Some things can only happen to my pal, Rosie D.

It was a moment for the ages, but a sight I’d rather forget.

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ALPO SUHONEN — FULLY DRESSED.

OH SH–!!: In May 1995, the Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks engaged in the first-ever playoff series at the United Center, which opened during that lockout–shortened season. When traveling in the playoffs, the club brought along most of its front-office staff, including doctors, scouts and alumni. As such, former Leafs captain and Hall-of-Famer Darryl Sittler was on the trip.

After a morning skate at the United Center, I was on the Leaf bus across the aisle from Sittler — about one-third of the way back. Open next to Darryl was a small bag of chocolate chunks that the players mindlessly helped themselves to as they passed by. Sittler just looked up and said nothing. After settling in and chomping away on the delectable treats, several players could be heard saying “Thanks, Sit. This is good stuff. Got any more?” Sittler did not respond, or look back. Finally, as the bus was full, he turned around and said, with an ominous expression, “to be honest, guys, I’m not sure if this is regular chocolate or Ex-Lax.”

I glanced behind me as the entire team froze in mid-chew. Rookie Swedish defenseman Kenny Jonsson horked up into his hands. Someone else said “oh my God, no!” Stone-faced, Sittler continued to shake his head but couldn’t contain himself. Finally, he burst out laughing. “Just kidding, guys. Leith Douglas (one of the team doctors) brought this aboard. There’s lots more if you want it.” You could hear a collective sigh of relief then a bunch of guys yelling “Fu– you, Sit!”

Yup, the ol’ captain had pulled a good one.

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DARRYL SITTLER AT A RECENT ALUMNI GAME.

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