And there I was again, sitting alone in the third row far away from the "real media" at the Coliseum on a Friday off from work. I had done this once before in March when Paul Maurice was running the drills and Cliff Fletcher sat quietly holding court in the stands.
I remember two things most vividly about that practice; first the ear-piercing, high-pitched whistle of Paul Maurice that blew constantly until I thought my ears would bleed. And secondly, the man I was there to see completely ignoring me. Was I in for another morning of audio abuse and emotional anguish? I hoped not.
At 11:30 a.m., new coach Ron Wilson led the Leafs onto the ice one at a time. It was quiet, too quiet. But the silence was broken by three boys running through the seats and down to the glass. Like a bad habit, ex-Islander Jason Blake skated to the bench, did his calculated number of stretches and series of quick starts and stops in the eight feet of ice directly in front of my face, all without saying a word.
There is over 250 feet of fresh ice, for six years now; he has always chosen the one area where I and my camera could not miss him. Like a shark in a tank, he darted back and forth inches from the glass, never making eye contact until just as in the Boston Aquarium; the pattern was broken by the banging on the glass of precocious children trying to get his attention.
“Blakie! Blakie!” And just like that shark in the tank, he bristled and skated away towards the bench. The children followed, not to be ignored. “Blakie!” He gave in to their demands for attention,“What’s up little Sillinger?” The exchange lasted only a few seconds and then for entertainment value, Blake slammed a fellow team mate into the boards with a loud crash that made me flinch in my seat. The boys giggled and ran off.
The melodic tone of what sounded like a train whistle broke the icy air’s silence and in an instant, the entire Leafs squad, all in their blue practice jerseys skated quickly around the ice perimeter for one lap and then stopped.
I am used to seeing practice at Iceworks and the Islanders in their different colored jerseys, I could only wonder if this monochromatic design keeps the media from determining line combinations. That is pure conjecture on my part as I never even pay attention to those things.
Watching and snapping photos, I noticed how very young some of the Leafs squad looks. The other thing most notable to me is the lack of direction they were getting and the amount of fun that some of the kids were having. Yes, I said “FUN.” There was smiling and giggles and a certain amount of horseplay. This didn’t seem like serious business, this seemed relaxed. But it was the day after a holiday and they were one enemy turf.
As I wasn’t smart enough to bring a copy of the Leafs roster with me, I jotted down the numbers on the back of the helmets; 14, 80, 41, 84, 23. My notes have a circle around 23 with the note, “Boy, can he skate!” I didn’t realize it was Ponikarovsky until later. And to be honest next to 14, Matt Stajan, I did write “really cute.” So sue me. I'm a blogger, I don't have to be 100 percent professional!
Luke Schenn, the boy who could have been an Islander, was also on the ice even though he is on their IR list. And 44, and that ridiculous porn star mustache of his, was also quite noticeable. Probably because I just can’t stand him. I mumbled under my breath every time he skated by.
By 12:01 p.m., what seemed to be a minor Christmas miracle occurred. While lined up with his teammates at the glass two feet from my eyes, Jason Blake actually stopped, made eye contact with me, waved and mouthed “Hi.” Attempting to disguise my sheer surprise at the occurrence, I waved like a two-year-old and said “Hi” back. Knowing my eyes cannot hide anything, I’m sure they were screaming, “Well it’s about freakin’ time, dumb ass.”
He hasn't acknowledged me from the ice since August of 2004 when I showed up in Columbus for the World Cup exhibition game even though my camera and I were at every home game thereafter and numerous practices. It just wasn't something he did. Whether it was out of professionalism on the ice, not understanding who I was or just being cold and obnoxious, I have no idea, and I probably never will.
I wish I knew what Jason said to the players next to him about me. I can’t read lips so I don’t know if it was good or bad, but at least it wasn’t funny as none of them looked my way and broke into hysteria. For that, I was grateful.
The seemingly robotic drills continued and I watched our ex-star closely to see how he is REALLY doing. He can still fly, and he still skates beautifully. He still misses the net A LOT the first time, but he managed to pot every rebound.
The whistle sounded once again, and in unison, the team skated quickly around the perimeter once and then stopped. Did you know there are little NHL logos on the Plexiglas in the lower corners of each pane? I didn’t until then.
Many of the veterans skated off towards the locker rooms followed by the “real media.” I sat alone in the cold watching the few players that remained take face off practice. I had never seen that before, and did find it somewhat interesting.
I began to feel a little lonely as I hadn’t seen any familiar friendly faces that I usually run into at these things; the PR guys who are usually wandering around were busy entertaining the media, my blogger buddies were working and my phone wasn’t ringing. It was just me, my camera, my note pad and some guy with a video camera that seemed somewhat lost.
I started to pack up just as one of my media friends walked out of the tunnel. “Dee! Sorry, I got your text message but I couldn’t respond. I was interviewing Jason.” Considering that was what I had really wanted to do, I stifled the desire to say “Son of a Bi***h!“ out loud. The five questions that I've carried around for four years, that I now have on my digital recorder will continue to wait to be answered by him.
“How was your Christmas?” The question brought me back to the moment. We made small talk for a few minutes and then we talked about the Islanders' 10-game losing streak.
“I say it goes to 12. I’m thinking an even dozen.” I said only half believing myself.
“Oh no. They’ll win tonight. I can guarantee it.” He said confidently.
“Guarantee? There are no guarantees in this game.” But he insisted.
Ultimately, he was right. Having not seen the Islanders practice on Friday I had no idea that Rick DiPietro was a possibility for the evening game. But with DiPietro returning to the net as the Islanders fan’s belated Christmas present, the Islanders managed to pull out a 4 - 1 victory to break a 10-game slump.
I’m glad that ear-piercing whistle of Paul Maurice’s is no longer running the Leafs’ practice. I can’t believe no one shoved it down his throat. And I’m glad that Jason Blake looked as good as he did.
As we head into the New Year, I wish our ex-Islander well and hope he can have an injury-free balance of the season with decent stats for the year. Actually I want that as much for him as I do for me, just so that I don’t have to hear Garth Snow tell me again, “See Dee, what did I tell you?”