November turned out to be a good month for the Hawks, record-wise, as the club went 5-1-0 at the United Center and 3-2-2 on the road for an overall mark of 8-3-2 for the month. The schedule included a 6-game road swing to Western Conference cities and took us out of the United Center for two weeks.
The first road stop was St. Louis for a November 3rd tilt with the Blues. Aside from the Hawks 3-2 win over the Blues with Patrick Sharp's pair of shorthanded goals to seal the win, the only memorable part of the trip for me was the afternoon of the game when I went for a walk to get a cup of coffee and check out the new Busch Stadium, located right across the street from our hotel.
It's a squeaky-clean, fan-friendly ballpark that Cardinals fans should be proud of, but its construction couldn't be completed until a portion of the old park was torn down. So right next to this beautiful shrine to the game of baseball sits a huge hole in the ground in downtown St. Louis.
As I walked along the outside of the new Busch Stadium, admiring the construction of the park and reading some of the inscribed brick arrangements that have been neatly placed within the sidewalk, I overheard a conversation between two Cardinals fans who mentioned the hole in the ground and how it looked like a bomb hit right next to the new park.
One of the Cardinals staff was close by and explained that plans for a new facility had already been drawn up and that construction was to begin sometime in the spring, which may or may not create a problem getting in and out of games next season. So Blackhawks fans who are also fans of the Chicago Cubs might want to take note and build in an extra 20 to 30 minutes of travel time, just in case you're thinking of a trip to St. Louis for a Cubs vs. Cardinals series next summer.
Every November, the Hawks embark on an annual trip that usually absorbs a week to 10 days, as the Circus takes over the United Center. Columbus, Ohio was the first stop on a 6-game road trip that would take the Hawks to Nashville, then Detroit, Calgary, Edmonton and, finally, Vancouver and cover the Thanksgiving holiday in the process.
The games against Columbus and Detroit were three days apart and both came the week of the annual college football grudge match between arch-rivals Ohio State and Michigan. Since we were in Columbus, home of the Ohio State Buckeyes, I did my usual prep for the game between the Hawks and Blue Jackets but couldn't avoid the avalanche of Ohio State-Michigan rivalry info everywhere I turned. Even though I'm not a fan of either school, I got an earful of what Buckeye fans felt was going to be a massacre of the Wolverines by the Buckeyes and was eager to hear what the Michigan fans had to say in response. I found out later that week.
Unfortunately for Hawks fans, the trip got off to a bumpy start as the Blue Jackets won the first game on Wednesday night in Columbus and then the Hawks dropped a hard-fought overtime loss in Nashville, the following night. Near the end of the broadcast in Nashville, one of the Predators staff brought 4 stacks of hot dogs up the stairs in front of us and up to our broadcast position, then walked over and laid them down between Troy Murray and myself, while we were on the air. I had no idea what this was about until Troy hinted that Nashville's play-by-play man, Pete Weber, had been watching our game the night before in Columbus and heard Blackhawks TV color analyst Eddie Olczyk talking about my appetite.
So Pete and Troy got together during the morning skate, cooked up the prank then laughingly watched as the Predators Media Relations assistant dropped the dogs down on the table in front of us and walked away. At the time I was really hungry too, but I had to wait until the next break to do anything. So at the break I picked up one of the dogs and inhaled about half of it with the first bite and listened while Troy explained everything.
As Troy finished explaining, I peered over my left shoulder only to see Pete Weber and Terry Crisp laughing and waving and I said to them, “Where is the mustard and relish?” We then returned to the airwaves and I mentioned to Troy that the hotdog's at the arena there in Nashville were good but couldn't compare to the dogs served up at either Wrigley or U.S. Cellular Field.
After a short flight to Detroit for game #3 of the 6-game set, we arrived at our hotel very late and had a peaceful night's sleep. At breakfast the next morning I noticed a group of Ohio State fans wearing their crimson colored jerseys and defiantly walking through the lobby. I expected sparks or maybe even punches to fly at any moment but everyone maintained decorum. Ann Arbor, Michigan is about 40 miles to the West of Detroit, but on football Saturdays, you could be hours getting into ‘The Big House,' prior to game time, even if you left early.
After the huge buildup prior to kickoff, many Michigan fans would say that it was a forgettable football game. But the game between the Hawks and Red Wings was equally unforgettable. To start with, an eerie feeling descended upon Detroit as it almost seemed that the city had forgotten that their beloved Red Wings were playing a hockey game at Joe Louis Arena against the Blackhawks later that evening.
We arrived at the Joe as the score was being decided in favor of the Buckeyes on the gridiron up the road in Ann Arbor and all I could think was that this could turn out to be a very bad day for the sports fans of Eastern Michigan. As it turned out, I was right. The Hawks took an early lead on the first of Rene Bourque's two shorthanded goals, followed by Patrick Sharp's career-night performance that included an even strength goal, a shorthander and an empty netter to complete the first hat trick of his NHL career.
The 5-3 final score seemed surreal with the Blackhawks beating the Red Wings the way they did and for the fourth straight time in the 2007-08 season. After sending our broadcast to its first post-game break, I removed my headset and listened and watched as the big, stunned crowd quietly exited the building. Wow! This was the game that told me the Hawks were not only for real, but were a tough team to put away.
Thanksgiving is truly one of my favorite holidays. For the past twelve of fourteen Thanksgivings, the Blackhawks have been on the road because of the aforementioned circus, with the 1994-95 and 2004-05 lockout seasons as the only exceptions. Fortunately, the Blackhawks organization, as usual, steps up and provides a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings for those who are away from their families that is genuinely appreciated!
The Blackhawks began their Thanksgiving celebration in Calgary where they downed the Flames on Thanksgiving evening 2-1 in a game where a pair of unassisted, shorthanded goals were the difference in a game played on unusually imperfect ice for the Saddledome.
Rockford Icehogs callup Jake Dowell scored his first NHL goal, a shorthander, on a breakaway as one of the Flames players skated right by the loose puck on the way to the Calgary bench only to turn and see Dowell scoop it up, skate in and score on Mikka Kiprusoff. Then Patrick Sharp added his league-leading 5th shorthanded goal on another odd play, as the puck bounced over a Calgary player's stick at the point and Sharp raced to it, scooped it up and beat Kiprusoff as well. It was the third time this season that the Blackhawks had scored more than one shorthanded goal in a game.
Since we were bussing up to Edmonton the following day, we were able to stay in Calgary that evening and savor the win a bit with a post-game get together. The TV crew was kind enough to let me tag along and we gathered at a nearby Italian restaurant, ordered, ate, drank our sodas and laughed and laughed as Eddie Olczyk regaled us with his stories. Eddie's been around the NHL as a player, coach and broadcaster, and is respected for all of his experience, his knowledge of and passion for the game of hockey and his quick wit. Eddie can also cultivate a good practical joke or two and make you believe someone else was the perpetrator. I speak from personal experience on that score.
As for spirited banter, we've had a go-around or two regarding a multitude of subjects and I usually let Eddie have the last word, just so I can hear him say something that will invariably make me, and everyone else, laugh. I even picked up Eddie's tab as a show of appreciation for his friendship and for his blather.
The next day the Hawks practiced at the Saddledome, boarded two chartered buses and rolled North to Edmonton. Instead of riding on the same bus as the team, coaches, training staff and management, we were on a second bus that was specifically arranged for the TV and radio broadcasters, TV production crew and anyone else who wished to join us. Oddly enough, as we left Calgary, the temperature was in the 20's, but when we arrived in Edmonton, about 200 miles to the North of Calgary, the temperature was in the mid 40's. Go figure.
It was unseasonably warm that day and the 4-hour bus trip through Alberta's countryside was relaxing, enjoyable and scenic. The majestic Canadian Rockies were visible way off to our left (at least 20 to 40 miles away) for nearly the entire trip and the snow-capped peaks were an awe-inspiring sight even at a distance. As we watched what had to be the 9th consecutive episode of the HBO hit series, ‘Entourage,' we rolled into Edmonton in mid-afternoon with the knowledge that a Thanksgiving feast was waiting for us at the stately old Hotel McDonald.
At 6 pm, everyone gathered for a Thanksgiving feast that no one involved will soon forget. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, five different types of salads, rolls, cheeses, vegetable trays, fruit trays, three different types of desserts, every non-alcoholic beverage imaginable and regular and decaf coffee at the end of the meal. The entire Blackhawks team was in attendance at the meal along with nearly everyone else in the traveling party. We dined, talked, laughed, gave each other good-natured grief and just enjoyed the fellowship of a dedicated group of men, a winning organization and a positive atmosphere that comes with success through hard work.
During the meal, comic relief was provided in the form of shoe-checks and yours-truly was the first victim. I had the good fortune to sit at a table with several fine gentlemen. Among them were new Blackhawks Director for Performance Development, Curtis Brackenberry; Assistant Coaches Mark Hardy, Ryan Stewart and John Torchetti; Goaltending Consultant Stephane Waite; Eddie Olczyk and Head Coach Denis Savard.
As I inhaled the first of a couple of plates of food, the guys at the table began to chuckle, then laugh out loud and before I knew it, Savard and a few others were clinking silverware against glasses in order to get everyone's attention for what I thought was going to be some kind of speech. But with all eyes focused at my position at the dinner table, Savvy politely informed me that maybe I ought to check my shoes. For a half-second, I froze, remembering how this used to happen to me in the minors whenever I ate with the team. As I slowly pushed myself away from the table and looked down at my shoes, a feeling of deja vu came over me. I cringed as I saw the tops of both of my shoes where enormous piles of whipped cream topping with some form of pudding mixed in for flavor rested comfortably.
By this time, the guys at our table were howling with laughter, so I thought it was time to be a good sport and give the rest of the boys in the room their money's worth. I stood up, took a step to my right and then one by one, showed the rest of the room my feet by lifting them up to my side one at a time. As the laughter momentarily subsided, I grabbed a couple of napkins and wiped off my shoes then sat back down to finish.
Others in the room were also victims as teammates were seen crawling along the floors with spoons full of salad dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy and other assorted concoctions that were destined for the shoes of some unsuspecting player. Seeing this, I figured that the boys were done pranking me and would move to other targets, so I kept on eating. Little did I know these same collaborators were busy cooking up yet another prank for me. As I finished my third plate I made the mistake of getting up from the table to get one of the delectable desserts that were available. I had a cup of coffee at the table to wash it all down, so I figured it was a good way to end the meal. Conversation at the table was the ordinary stuff, but I couldn't help noticing Ryan Stewart laughing uncontrollably at our table and wondered if he was laughing at one of the other pranks, or the one that was about to happen to me.
I soon found out as I finished off the desert, then the coffee, put on my jacket to leave the place and heard the sound of silverware tinkling in one of my coat pockets. I reached in, grabbed a couple of spoons and forks, chuckled a bit then put them on the table, shook my head and walked out of the room thinking that was the end. But at the doorway to the banquet room were two members of the wait staff who stopped me cold: “Excuse me, sir,” one of them said. “I think you have some of our silver and we would like it back please.”
Then she approached me, helped me out of my jacket, gave it a shake over the floor and forks, knives, spoons and even a couple of serving spoons all tumbled out of the rest of the pockets and bounced off the floor. I stood there with a dumb look on my face and then looked down the hallway only to see Mark Hardy, Ryan Stewart and Denis Savard all laughing hysterically at the scene. Others leaving the room burst into laughter at the scene as well.
As the coaches made their way to the elevator, I let them know, "It's a long season boys!” It's not hard to imagine what the conversational fodder was the following morning at the AM skate, but the evening of the Hawks game against the Oilers, a special tribute was prepared by the Edmonton organization in appreciation of the Canadian Armed Forces. It's one that I'll never forget.
5,000 Oilers season ticketholders gave up their tickets for that evening so that the Oilers organization could present them to the same number of armed forces personnel, many who had served in the Middle Eastern conflict and many who were en route there at the beginning of the new year. It was one significant way that Oilers fans could show their appreciation for the services being carried out by the armed forces and a morale booster as well. The military men and women all came to the game dressed in their military fatigues and it was truly a sight to behold.
The building in Edmonton, Rexall Place, holds just under 17,000 people for hockey and the 5,000 military personnel were spread around the building so that each section was represented. The Blackhawks and Oilers did their part as well, treating the troops to an outstanding hockey game that went all the way to the last shooter in the shootout before it was decided. Though the Hawks lost the game 3-2, the night will always be remembered by many for what took place afterwards, as all 5,000 of the troops were invited down to the ice surface for a group photo.
With the troops all huddling around but not obscuring the Oilers center ice logo, all 5,000 fit into the pictures as flashes went off repeatedly for a number of minutes. Troy Murray and I were in our post-game show and watching from our broadcast booth directly above the ice surface at center ice as the group was instructed to chant, “Let's go Oilers,” while videotape rolled on the group. An hour later we were off to Vancouver for the last leg of the trip.
Vancouver is my favorite road city in the NHL, hands down! Yes, I enjoy the warm weather cities like Los Angeles, Anaheim, Tampa and Sunrise, Florida; along with Dallas, Phoenix and Atlanta when the weather is good. But none of them compare to Vancouver for more reasons than I can write about here. The Blackhawks played the Canucks that night (second game in two nights) and I knew I'd have to get my work done efficiently if I wanted time to enjoy Vancouver's scenery.
The day was spectacular, not a cloud in the sky and temperatures in the low 60's. The afternoon of the game, I did my usual prep for the broadcast which usually takes 2-3 hours, then into my sweats and sneakers, find a cup of coffee and go for a good 2-4 mile walk to clear my head. Our hotel is situated right on the bay and there is a walkway that runs behind the hotel and right over to adjacent Stanley Park and nearly all the way around the Park along the water's edge.
Stanley Park is one of the largest city parks in all of North America and it rivals none in the way of walkways, cycle paths, jogging paths and even roadways that run along the water and through the interior of the park. Since I had only an hour to get a good stretch of my legs, I decided to walk along the bay and take in the sights, including a section of the park where several aging Native American Totem Poles are located. Right next to them is a gift shop where you can buy souvenirs and coffee. So I stopped in, bought a couple of t-shirts for my kids, got a refill on the coffee then hit the trail to get back to the hotel so as not to miss the bus to the Arena.
On my way back I passed a jogger who was wearing a Vancouver Canucks sweat suit and somehow looked familiar. Turns out it was Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault who typically runs several miles on game day. I waved hello to him and he returned the wave and he kept going. The Hawks lost to the Canucks that night 2-0 but finished the 6-game road trip with an even .500 record at 2-2-2.
After the game we adjourned to a late night eatery, then returned to our hotel as we were to fly back to Chicago early the next morning. Since it was the end of the journey, the thought of any more pranks never entered my mind. But it should have and the joke was on me again, this time at Vancouver International Airport. When I loaded my bag into the cargo bay of our chartered bus at the hotel, I naively left it to one side so that others could fit their bags in as well. Someone had to be watching as I did this because after they saw me stroll back into the hotel to pay my incidental charges, they unzipped the end compartment of my bag, dropped a little surprise inside and then turned the bag around so that the end with the surprise was pointing toward the middle of the bus.
When the bus arrived at the airport, everyone got off, went to their bags, picked them up and headed inside to immigration. I found my bag pushed to the back of the compartment so I crawled inside the cargo bay and dragged it out onto the pavement. The end of the bag hit the ground with a resounding ‘thud!' and at first I thought the load had shifted and all the weight was in one end of the bag. So I picked up the bag and tried shaking the rest of the contents back into position, but lost control of the bag because of the weight of what was inside and the bag hit the pavement again with another big ‘thud!'
I looked up and saw many of the players and several of the coaches and broadcasters doing their level best to squelch laughter, but once one busted out laughing, the rest followed. I then unzipped the end compartment, reached inside and found a granite rock about half the size of a basketball and weighing about 20 pounds. Without missing a beat, Eddie Olczyk, who just happened to be standing close by, intoned: “Johnny... did you buy a new pet rock?”
I chuckled at the incident then, but a few hours later I was cursing the still unknown assailant. After we landed at O'Hare and got off at our terminal, I walked out into the cold, snowy parking lot hoping to get into my car quickly, start it up, let it warm up and scrape the windows clean of the snow and ice that had accumulated a day before. But as I took my keys out and tried to insert the one that opens my car door into the lock, I couldn't get it to go in because it was bent and almost at a 45 degree angle.
As it turns out, the rock that someone had placed in my bag back in Vancouver bent several of my keys as well, including my car keys. At that particular moment, the rock prank wasn't funny at all! Fortunately, I was able to go back inside the terminal to the maintenance office and put the key in a vice and straighten it up so I could open my car and get it started.
Since that day I've quietly been searching for clues and information as to who might have been directly involved in the rock-in-Wiedeman's-bag caper. When I find out I'll get even in my own way. And remember, whoever you are, it's a long season.
OK, that's all for now. Hope you've enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Until next time, hope you all had a happy, safe and healthy holidays and we'll see you in the new year.