Just because there’s a Hockey Hall of Famer in our family, doesn’t mean our home life is any different from yours.
I mean, we still have to take out the garbage once a week, do the laundry, water the plants, pay the bills. And, just as in your home, I’m sure, the phone will start ringing in the morning and it’ll be the bank or the car repair place or the guy who’s coming over to fix the doorbell.
Or maybe it’ll be Brian Burke. Or Dave Taylor. Or Gary Bettman.
Or Wayne Gretzky.
That’s the kind of thing that happens, I’ve learned, when you’re married to a hockey writer. And not just any hockey writer, but this year’s winner of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award from the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto for bringing “honor to journalism and to hockey”: The Times’ own Helene Elliott.
Helene and I are probably the only couple on our block with his-and-hers satellite TV packages -- the NHL for her, the NBA for me -- and we plan our nights accordingly. I find myself negotiating for 20 minutes of Knicks-Celtics if I’ll let her watch the third period of Red Wings-Canadiens.
We were both born and nurtured amid the sports-mad atmosphere of New York. I remember exactly where I was when the Mets won the ’69 Series; she remembers where she was when Pete Stemkowski beat the Chicago Blackhawks in triple overtime. We both kept score by the radio, collected the same yearbooks and media guides. When I moved out to California just before we were married, I had to part with some of my most prized possessions for the sake of garage space (a familiar catchphrase in our house was, “No, honey, you don’t need four copies of the Cincinnati Reds’ 1993 media guide.”)
I can tell you why Helene is a Hall of Famer, because I’ve seen it every day for the last six years: Tenaciousness. A near-obsession with thoroughness and accuracy. A crisp, vivid writing style that makes the story come alive. The total respect she has earned from owners, executives, coaches and players. An unceasing work ethic and a years-long cultivation of rock-solid sources.
Helene tends to downplay her role as one of the pioneer female journalists in American sports. But make no mistake, when she and her sisters were starting out in the late 1970s, many locker room doors and press boxes were still closed except by court order.
In a 1978 interview in People magazine (from which she was bumped from the cover in favor of Lenny and Squiggy), she said, “Women have enough constraints without being made to stand outside for two hours before we can see the players.” But she added, “Imagine getting paid to do all the things my parents yelled at me not to do.” So as far as her legacy as a trailblazer, let’s just say that my wife has done a lot of things simply because people told her she couldn’t. (I hope marrying me wasn’t one of them.)
My wife was there, on deadline, when the New York Islanders put together their four-in-a-row Stanley Cup dynasty, when the 1980 Miracle on Ice became a reality in Lake Placid, N.Y. (one of nine Olympics she has covered), when the New York Rangers ended their 54-year dry spell ... and for the West Coast boom when the Gretzky-led Kings and the unlikely Mighty Ducks each came within a eyelash of bringing the Stanley Cup to Southern California. Away from the ice, she was The Times’ point person on the NHL labor crises of 1994-95 and 2004-05.
Helene will never react in knee-jerk fashion to a breaking story or major issue. She’ll work the phones and her sources ... double-checking, reconfirming. But when she knows she’s right -- just knows it -- she’ll stand alone. Last winter, on that February weekend when the owners and players met in a last-ditch attempt to save the locked-out season, TV screens everywhere were cluttered with talking-head Chicken Littles screeching, “The settlement is imminent!” But she knew, and wrote, different. In a late-night phone call to me she sighed, “Not only is a settlement not imminent, but there’s a 50-50 chance the whole thing will blow up.” By Sunday afternoon, it had.
Or several months later, long after a season had been lost, when she broke the story in The Times that a framework for an agreement had been hammered out and that the formal announcement would come in the next few days. She was vilified in two countries as not only a wishful thinker but an irresponsible journalist. After all, what could some woman from California know about hockey labor? One Internet zealot, without naming her, denounced the “stories that broke in Los Angeles” as “untrue,” “fabricated” and “making it up.”
It made for a dicey couple of days around the house, but I asked Helene only one question: “Everything you’ve written about this thing for the past year and a half has been dead on. What makes you think you possibly got it wrong this time?” A few days later, she was shuttling between Toronto and New York, covering the dual news conferences where the settlement was announced. It’s not my wife’s nature to gloat, but nobody had earned a better right.
One morning the phone rang and it wasn’t the doorbell guy or Dave Taylor. It was Kevin Allen, president of the Professional Hockey Writers Assn., calling to tell Helene that she had been elected to the sport’s highest honor, the first woman named to the media wing of one of the “Big Four” team sports halls of fame. It was a particularly busy morning, and Helene was working on two or three stories at once, so it wasn’t until about a half-hour later when she said, “That call a while ago? It was Kevin Allen. I won the Ferguson Award.” Then she went right on typing, while her husband made loud shrieking noises.
So perhaps what she has done, how much it means, still hasn’t sunk in. Maybe it will tonight, when the Hall of Fame formally presents her with the Ferguson Award. Or maybe a little later, when we walk through the Hall itself, see the Cup, look at names such as Hull and Howe and Orr and Richard. Or in the media wing, where, amid the Foster Hewitts and the Red Fishers and the Bob Millers and the Jiggs McDonalds and all the others we grew up reading and listening to, there she’ll be; my wife, the Hall of Famer.
If anything, it won’t make the phone stop ringing.
Hey, Gretz, how are you? Yeah, she’s right here.*
Dennis D’Agostino was the 2000 winner of the Splaver/McHugh “Tribute to Excellence” award from the NBA PR Directors Association for long and distinguished service to the league and media. He is the author of “Garden Glory: An Oral History of the New York Knicks” (Triumph Books, 2003).
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Class of 2005
The Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony is today at 4:30 p.m. PST at BCE Place, Toronto. A look at the inductees:
* Valeri Kharlamov: Played 14 years with CSKA Moscow (Central Red Army) in the Soviet league; played in 436 regular-season games, recording 293 goals and 214 assists while helping the Red Army team win 11 league championships; participated in 11 consecutive World and European championships and helped the Soviet Union win gold on eight occasions.
* Cam Neely: Played 10 seasons for the Boston Bruins, recording three seasons of 50 or more goals -- including 50 goals in 44 games during the 1993-94 season -- the third-fastest of all-time; played 726 NHL regular-season games, scoring 395 goals and adding 299 assists.
* Murray Costello: Played professionally with Chicago, Boston and Detroit; became president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Assn. (now Hockey Canada) in 1979, holding that position until his retirement in 1998.
* Sal Messina: The New York Ranger analyst for more than 30 years is winner of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for his work as an NHL broadcaster.
* Helene Elliott: Times’ writer who has covered hockey for three decades is winner of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for her writing.