Hockey Tales From The Road

TORONTO (Dec. 25) — Merry Christmas. Hope you will chuckle at these yarns…

COLEY’S THERAPY: This travesty immediately followed my first game as a full–time hockey reporter — at the start of the lockout–shortened National Hockey League schedule of January–to–May 1995. I remember it, particularly, for Bob Cole, the legendary voice of the Leafs on Hockey Night In Canada.

It was January 20, 1995. The Maple Leafs and Kings had just played to a 3–3 tie at the Los Angeles Forum in the season opener for both clubs. Back in the day, reporters and broadcasters were permitted to travel on the team bus for rides to and from airports and arenas. No–such luxury exists today. On this occasion, given a large media contingent for the season opener, the Maple Leafs had ordered a separate bus. The players and coaches were heading to Los Angeles International Airport on one vehicle; the media, directly behind them. Or, so went the plan.

We were aiming to meet up for a charter flight to Oakland International Airport, whereupon another pair of buses would transport us down Interstate–880 (the Nimitz Freeway) to San Jose for the following night’s encounter between the Leafs and Sharks. I remember the media bus had myself; Leafs radio broadcasters Joe Bowen and Gord Stellick; the CBC telecast tandem of Cole and Harry Neale; a dozen or so producers, technicians and cameramen (including my old pal, Mark Askin, who choreographed Leaf games on TV); three scribes from the Toronto Sun; two from the Toronto Star and a reporter (Lance Brown) from CFTO, Channel 9. The weather in L.A. had been miserable for days; it was poring when we climbed aboard the second bus just after 11 p.m. Both vehicles were intended for the aviation/charter area of L–A–X, which was separate from any of the terminals.

Naturally, we didn’t consider that our driver had never made such a trip; what charter–bus company would assign a coachman unfamiliar with the route — explicitly ordered to follow a team of NHL players — at night, in one of the world’s most heavily traveled cities, amid a monsoon? Sadly, we on the media bus were destined to find out.

Compounding the mystery was the brief trek from the Great Western Forum (as it was known back then) to L.A. Airport. Anyone who strolled from the arena to the parking lot may recall being startled by jetliners suddenly appearing — no more than 500 feet overhead — on final approach to L–A–X. The runways were merely two miles west; the drive, roughly 3.8 miles from the Forum. Getting lost required some effort.


Post–game traffic along Prairie Ave., adjacent to the Forum, was still rather heavy and our driver kept in radio contact with the Leaf bus, about a block ahead. Then, two blocks ahead. Then, three blocks… and, before we knew it, out of sight. Again, there was no particular concern; how could a professional coach driver not find Los Angeles Airport from Inglewood? Well, our man either wasn’t professional… or had never–before driven in the L.A. area.

Within moments, it was clear the poor sap had not a clue.

Increasingly fearful radio calls to the Leaf bus went unanswered. Several blocks later, he pulled off the main road and we found ourselves in a remote parking area beneath an overpass of the Century Freeway. The Leaf bus finally answered his frantic calls and he was told to look for the “guard gate.” When the driver replied, “which guard gate… and where”, we knew we were in trouble. This feeling intensified when he made a right turn into the Korean Airlines cargo terminal. “Boy, what a road trip — Los Angeles tonight; Seoul tomorrow,” came a zinger from the back of the bus. It was now painfully evident that our trusty chauffeur had lost direction… and his morale. Sensing this, Cole left his perch beside Neale and moved up to a vacant seat, across from me, at the front of the vehicle.

Bob then did his level–best to keep the poor driver from breaking down.

“Come on now, we should be able to find the guard gate; you know this city,” he offered in his familiar cadence.

Apparently enjoying his broadcast partner’s angst, Neale maintained a stream of wisecracks. Backing out of the Korean Airlines lot, the driver pulled up to another gate and made a desperate call to the Leaf bus. No reply. While sitting there, we had a great view, through the night–time rainstorm, of the south runway and main terminals at L–A–X. Suddenly, an Airbus lifted off, right to left, no more than 500 feet in front of us.

“Whup, there she goes!” cried out Neale, implying the Maple Leafs charter had left for Oakland.

“Pay no attention to these people,” Cole stressed. “You can get us to the plane. We have confidence in you.”

The driver turned around and began heading toward yet another gate. As we passed through, his waffling became more pronounced. He inched the bus forward and stopped… inched forward and stopped. “Another hundred or so lurches and we should be there,” offered Askin, which brought a death–stare from Cole and a howl of laughter from Neale. Unexpectedly, the long–lost Maple Leafs vehicle re–established radio contact, informing our driver to “keep going and look for the last building on your right.” Neale, still in full clown–mode, replied “he’ll probably drop us at the the first building on our left.” To which Cole answered, “hey, you’re doing alright. Forget all the blather behind you. You’ll get us there. I know it.”

Finally, we pulled up to a fourth gate that led to a Northwest Airlines DC–9 with a bus parked next to it.

“That’s the one,” radioed the Leaf driver and our odyssey was over.

“You mean, we’re here already?” mocked Neale, as we got up to leave. “Stop it, Harry,” replied Cole, who gave the driver a pat on the shoulder. “Good job. It’s tough out there tonight, with the weather,” he praised. Neale also greeted the disheveled coachman. “Just tryin’ to keep you loose. Thanks for the drive.”

The rain was pelting down harder than ever as we mounted a portable stairwell and entered the DC–9. The Leaf players and coaches were comfortably strapped in their seats. I’ll never forget Dave Andreychuk looking at me as if to say “where the hell have you guys been?” As it turned out, our bewildered bus driver had not delayed the flight. I looked out my right–side window at the poor equipment and training staff. Brian Papineau, Jim Carey (not the actor) and Chris Broadhurst were busily loading equipment bags into the cargo hold. They were drenched.

Adding to our adventure, the captain warned that the 50–minute flight would take us through an area of thunderstorms northeast of Los Angeles. He wasn’t kidding. That old jet bounced around like balls in a lottery machine before settling down in the second half of the trip. We flew to the north of San Francisco then turned back south directly over the Golden Gate Bridge. In a spectacular approach to the airport, we followed the water over Alcatraz and the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. I still remember looking at the lights of San Francisco shining brilliantly through broken cloud out my right–side window. Three minutes later, we were on the ramp in Oakland… with two more buses waiting to drive us south, to San Jose.

In case you’re wondering, we flew to Oakland as a result of noise–abatement. San Jose International Airport is close to the center of town and, therefore, has curfew restrictions. It was 1:45 a.m. when our jet touched down.

A POSTSCRIPT TO this story occurred just more than 11 years later. Cole and I were on the same evening flight from Toronto to Ottawa, April 20, 2006, for the start (the following night) of an opening–round playoff series between the Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning. I was covering for The FAN–590; Bob would call the games for Hockey Night In Canada. As always, I stayed at a Holiday Inn Select hotel off the highway in Kanata, close to what is now the Canadian Tire Centre. Bob was at the more–luxurious Brookstreet Hotel, several miles north.

As we awaited our luggage at the airport, I told Bob I was renting a car and would drop him off at the Brookstreet. He thanked me and said, “you know where it is, right?” I answered affirmatively, though I wasn’t certain which local street led to the property. I did know to get off the westbound Queensway (417) at the “March Rd./Ottawa Regional Rd. 49” exit. Unfortunately, that’s all I knew.

Roughly 45 minutes later, Bob and I were driving around, aimlessly, in pitch–darkness.


“Hang in there, Coley, I’ll find the place,” I assured without a smidgen of confidence. I pulled over to the side of the road and made a call on my cellphone. “Alright, Bob, I’ve got it now.” Twenty minutes later… more darkness. I wasn’t sure we were still in Ontario, let alone near Kanata. Through the entire wayward trip, Cole sat quietly, while wishing, I’m certain, he had hopped into a taxi at Ottawa Airport. At one point, he said, “y’know, Howard, this is starting to remind me of that bus ride in Los Angeles way back when.” Though still uncertain of my whereabouts, I burst out laughing. Thankfully, we soon came upon a directional sign to the Brookstreet and I dropped off the Hall–of–Fame broadcaster (now 90) a few minutes later.

“See, Coley, I told you I knew where it was.”

“G’night, Howard,” he replied.

“G’night, Bob.”


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 Maple Leaf Gardens when George Armstrong opened the door. Armstrong had been captain of the Leafs during their 1960’s Stanley Cup dynasty and was now in his final pro season. He looked around in the sauna for a place to sit, which brought 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. A cascading mist of bodily fluid enveloped the sauna and nearly asphyxiated the players, sending them in a dash for fresh air.

“It was awful,” remembered Sittler. “Our eyes were burning and the smell was terrible.”

Recalling the incident with me years later, Armstrong laughed.

“There was plenty of fu–ing room in the sauna after that!”

The Chief, God bless his soul, was one of a kind.


HELLO CANADA AND RAZOR FANS IN THE UNITED STATES: This goes back to the latter part of the 1960’s and an overnight train ride from Toronto to Chicago. The Leafs were en route to a Sunday game with the Black Hawks at Chicago Stadium. Having played at home hours earlier, most amid the Leafs entourage had turned in for the night. But, still awake were veteran defenseman Tim Horton and his youthful blue line mate Jim McKenny.

They cooked up a devious plot involving the man that invented hockey broadcasting, also soundly asleep.

“Tim and I had a few beers… okay more than a few… and we decided to shave Foster Hewitt’s balls,” McKenny once told me through tears of laughter. “We assembled a razor, a bowl of water and a can of Foamy. Ol’ Foster was out cold, snoring in a lower berth… and very reachable. Of course, neither of us could pull it off alone. One had to hold down Foster while the other did the handy work. Just before we pulled back his sleep curtain, I chickened out. The thought of hearing that familiar nasally voice yelling while we trimmed his 70–year–old crotch was a bit too much for me. Being a veteran of nearly 20 years, Tim could get away with a stunt like that. I would be sent to Siberia by the Leafs for taking part. The rest of my hockey career was more important than getting Foster to wake up the entire sleeping car. Tim was disappointed but we put the shaving stuff away and went to bed.”


UN–WELCOMED FEET: In November 1995, the 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 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 in 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 front 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–ck’s going on here?!” Pat Burns happened to be in the lobby. “Jeez, 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 back his head and said, “no… again?” This time the man accompanied me up to another room. And, he 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.


OH, THAT KILLER: Any person that spent time around the Leafs between 1991 and 1997, as did I, knows that Doug Gilmour cemented his Hall–of–Fame career with two of the greatest seasons in franchise history: a record 95 assists and 127 points in 1992–93, followed by 111 points in 1993–94. That person would also know that Gilmour was among the top pranksters of the era — yours truly, his unavoidable victim now and then. Such as the time the dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens was jammed nearly wall–to–wall with reporters after a game. Unlike the virtual fortress at Scotiabank Arena, in which players are far from sight when showering and coiffing themselves, the shower stall at the Gardens was just off the main room. On this night, I was standing with my back to the shower next to a drop–dead–gorgeous female reporter who I didn’t know. We were making small talk when a familiar voice behind me — amplified by the shower room echo — yelled “Berger, stop looking at my ass!”

Everyone, including my beautiful reporting colleague, turned around to see Gilmour, a towel around his waste, gazing at me with a toothless grin. To say I nearly died of embarrassment is an understatement.

A few years later, in March 1995, we were in San Jose the day after veteran forward Rich Sutter had been acquired by the Maple Leafs (for cash) from Tampa Bay. I attended the morning skate at the SAP Center then interviewed Sutter in the corridor outside the dressing room for my pre–game show. Little did I realize that Gilmour was behind us, working on his sticks for the game that night. My five–minute chat with Sutter was nearly over when a figure appeared to my right and blasted into the microphone “Berger, get your head out of my butt!”

It totally destroyed the interview as there was no way for me to edit tape. Dougie stood there cackling while Sutter smiled and shook his head. Once Gilmour was mercifully out of sight, Rich was nice enough to re-do the chat.


IRISH, JEWISH, GERMAN: As I’ve written in prior blogs, there was a constant war between Pat Quinn and myself during his first four seasons (1998–99 to 2001–02) as coach of the Leafs. Quinn generally despised the media and I was a reporter for The FAN–590. It was fundamental guilt by association. This did not apply in the few instances we ran into each other away from the glare of TV lights and microphones. In media scrums, however, we quarreled (which made for good sound–bytes that I always used on the air and likely ticked off the big Irishman even more). One day, after a Leafs morning skate in Carolina, I exited through the media gate of PNC Arena and came across Quinn chatting with my ol’ pal, Mike Zeisberger, then of the Toronto Sun (today, with

“Hello Howard,” said Quinn with the enthusiasm of a man about to prep for a colonoscopy.

“Y’know, Pat, it’s really puzzling why we can’t be more friendly,” I offered.

Quinn glanced in my direction.

“I mean, look at me and Zeis. I’m a Heeb and he’s a Kraut. Yet, we get along famously.”

Zeisberger turned white and smiled weakly. Quinn burst into a quick laugh.

Which was entirely my objective.


HEAVY STEPS… VERY HEAVY: This story involves former Leaf defensemen Jim Dorey and Mike Pelyk, teammates from 1968–72. Dorey continually suffered from minor back ailments and often worked out the kinks. As he did quite hilariously during an exhibition game in Halifax prior to the 1971–72 season. Dorey came off the ice with a knot in his upper back and looked around for trainer Joe Sgro, who was busy attending to another player. Taking matters unto himself, Jim spotted a rather portly usherette in the aisleway between the players’ benches.

He tromped over in his skates; laid down at her feet and asked the woman to walk on his back.

“She was a big moose,” recalled Pelyk, who watched in amazement. “At least 200 pounds. Most of us couldn’t believe what we were seeing. That woman could have started on the defensive line of any football team. She was big enough to crush his ribs. But ‘Flipper’ (Dorey’s nickname) got up after a few minutes and seemed just fine.”


Dorey remembered the incident with a laugh.

“Heck, no one was paying any attention to me when I got back to the bench, so I looked after myself,” he said. “The usherette had no problem with my request. She was a big, beefy woman with large feet. That’s why I chose her. I needed someone who could put a lot of pressure on my upper back. She sure as hell did that.”


CALIFORNIA SEWAGE: Back to Jim McKenny, who turned 77 this month. The Leafs had defeated the Seals in Oakland during the 1969–70 season, McKenny’s first full year with the club. Given a mid–morning flight the next day to Los Angeles, the players went out afterward for dinner and late drinks. In the wee hours, McKenny and teammate Bruce Gamble (Toronto’s No. 1 goalie after the 1967 expansion) were walking back to the Edgewater Hyatt House, talking casually. They crossed Hegenberger Rd., adjacent to the Oakland Coliseum–Arena, home of the Seals. At one point, McKenny asked a question and Gamble — who had trailed him slightly — did not reply. McKenny asked again, figuring Gamble didn’t hear. Still, no reply. Jim then turned around… and Bruce was nowhere to be seen. How could a teammate suddenly disappear? Seconds later, McKenny heard Gamble cussing profusely. The sound of Gamble’s voice got louder as he climbed out of a shallow sewage drain.

“It was dark and the road was barely lit,” McKenny recalled. “Bruce couldn’t see that a manhole cover was missing and he fell right in. I went back a few steps and saw him coming back out all full of smelly gunk. My God, did he reek. I didn’t want to laugh because I figured he’d kill me, he was so mad. But, damn, it was funny.”


CRACKLY COLUMNIST: On the subject of odors, I still howl when recalling an incident after Game 4 of the Leafs–Detroit opening–round playoff series in 1993. It involved my mentor — the late Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot. Coach Burns was fielding questions in the media lounge at Maple Leaf Gardens when there was a sudden lull in the conversation. At that point, a loud, crackly fart emanated from the back–corner of the room. Burns quickly snapped his head in the direction of the blast, where Proudfoot was standing with a crooked smile on his face. Other reporters discreetly shuffled to the opposite side of the lounge, fearing an aftershock.

Two days later, Jim and I were in Detroit for Game 5 of the series and riding the downtown monorail (known as the “People Mover”) to Joe Louis Arena. Still mortified over his gas attack, Jim explained to me, “Gee, Howard, 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.” I shook my head and laughed.

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, 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 Leafs coach bellow, “No farting in the press box!”


2 comments on “Hockey Tales From The Road

  1. I’m waiting for the fire Keefe column. I can’t take much more of this. I’m starting to miss Babcock.

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