(Longtime The Hockey News contributor Jay Greenberg is the 2014 Hockey Hall of Fame Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award winner for excellence in journalism. We asked him to look back on his career and some of his highlights)
BY JAY GREENBERG
Let’s see if I can get this straight. They are giving me an award for watching Wayne Gretzky? For being in the house – for free – when the Rangers finally won after 54 years?
They are giving me the Elmer Ferguson, as if it was a big chore to watch George Ferguson? It wasn’t. Trust me, the heaviest lifting I ever had to do in 16 years on the hockey beat and another 22 as a columnist was squeezing a quote out of Ilkka Sinisalo. And now half the people congratulating me are saying my Hall of Fame honor is overdue?
Nah, the Sharks are overdue, not me. I am just a grateful kid who played with the radio dial as the Red Wings faded in and out on clear winter nights, a half-century later having Gordie Howe at my house as I work on a book with his son Mark. Did I say work? It can seem like it on deadline, but I really didn’t have one in my 14 years doing the Flyers, so how fortunate was that? For the afternoon Philadelphia Daily News, I could write until 4:30 a.m. and, much to my copydesk’s chagrin, often did.
Maybe that’s what they mean when they say I am overdue, but all I have been is fortunate. My first day at the Kansas City Star, two weeks after my graduation from the University of Missouri, the city received an NHL team and I got the beat because no senior staff member wanted it. A year later, the Philadelphia Bulletin chose somebody else to cover the Flyers, then called me back within two weeks.
Hey, being picked second never troubled Brendan Shanahan, so why would it bother me, a child practically born in the 35 cents section of the Cambria County War Memorial Arena in Johnstown, Pa., before Slap Shot put the place on the map?
Right time, right place? You bet. Five newspapers and Sports Illustrated put me on airplanes, paid for the lobster souffle (or at least part of it) at Chez La Mere Michel and gave me the space and authority from the age of 25 to chronicle the most exciting era in the game’s history.
I arrived to Philadelphia just in time to soak in the most charged atmosphere at a sporting event I ever have experienced, when the hated Flyers saved the NHL from mortification by the Soviets. I went to work in Toronto just as the Leafs were revived under Doug Gilmour and Pat Burns (and the Blue Jays were winning two World Series), then to New York three months before the Rangers finally did it.
My paper had the budget and the interest to put me at ghost level in The Forum for the single most dramatic sports event I ever have seen, when the best player in the game, Guy Lafleur, rescued a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup for the greatest team I ever saw, breaking the hearts of perhaps the most formidable also-ran of my time, the Bruins, who put too many men on the ice.
I was in the Saddledome for the most skilled and competitive contest I ever have witnessed, Canada’s 3-2 overtime victory of the USSR in the 1984 Canada Cup semifinal – and in Montreal and Hamilton for the most breathtaking series, won by Canada over the Soviets in 1987 in three 6-5 games.
I was sent to see things I still can’t believe, like Steve Smith putting the puck in his own goal in Game 7 against Calgary in 1986 and the Flyers going 35 straight games without losing, but coming up short of winning the Cup in 1979-80.
A spectacular accident of birth put Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, all-time top-four players, at their peaks at near the same time, my time covering the game. Thanks to the Toronto Sun, I had the opportunity to live two years in Hockey Heaven – Canada – and through the graces of the New York Post, work in the media capital of the world for 17. Because of The Hockey News, people in the game knew me and returned my calls.
By giving me this award, I suppose they are reminding me Mike Bossy more than just hung around the net; he made the Hall of Fame by converting. So I thank you all for the compliments, along with the opportunities. All I’m trying to tell you is that I was there for all 128:47 until Pat LaFontaine scored and loved every second of it.