Blackhawks radio broadcaster John Wiedeman will check in periodically with his personal reflections from the road this season. Read Part I here.
The October schedule took us to Philadelphia at the end of the month and as we checked into our hotel, the broadcast crews and members of Blackhawks management decided on a place to meet for dinner. The restaurant was only a block from the hotel and a few hours later we gathered there for what I consider the best meal of the year, so far.
The special of the night was a 16-ounce prime rib with baked potato and I ordered it up the way I usually do, medium-well. Others had surf-n-turf, salmon, lobster bisque, salads, etc... To say the least, everyone ate their fill on an evening that included plenty of laughter, storytelling, good-natured ribbing and a surprise.
It seems that prior to ordering, one of the members of our party tipped off the waitress that it was Troy Murray's birthday. So after the meal had been eaten and the table cleared, a birthday cake with one sparkler-like candle was brought out from the back, presented to our table, and placed in front of Troy as we all sang the traditional happy birthday song.
Troy was all smiles and actually chuckling as the song ended in applause and suggestions of "speech, speech" and "How old are you, Troy?" Everyone expected Troy to address us with something like: "Thank you very much for remembering; you're too kind," etc... Instead, Troy couldn't talk because he was laughing too hard. But he finally stopped, smiled and stated: "This is nice, but it's not my birthday." At that particular moment, everyone looked at the opposite end of the table where Eddie Olczyk was sitting. Eddie held his hands out to his side and said: "Hey, don't look at me." At this writing, the culprit is still at large.
A few nights later we were in my old neighborhood, Long Island, for the first visit by the Blackhawks since December 2003. The Hawks played the Islanders that evening but the day was difficult for me personally because after spending five years of my life on Long Island and making a number of good friendships and associations, the distractions of time away from my work to spend it with old friends were innumerable.
As I looked around the old building I used to inhabit for work, many memories came to my mind and the Islanders fans were a big part of them. I owe a debt of gratitude to the Islanders organization for giving me a second chance in my career back in 2001 when it seemed as though it was all but over. Had it not been for that break, I wouldn't be back in Chicago now.
That day I must have heard the old expression "cut the chord" about 20 times from friends and associates, but that was to be expected. The Hawks lost that night to the Islanders, but as I sat on the charter heading back to Chicago, reflecting on the day, I knew that even though the change was difficult, it was the right move for my family and me and was a decision from the heart. I have no regrets about the move and knew that when that day was over I'd feel a sense of closure. Since that day I've felt like I finally belong back in Chicago, a city I had to leave in 1992 in order to begin a journey that I'm happy to say eventually brought me back.
In November, we headed out West for a five-game road trip. After back to back shootout games in Phoenix and Anaheim, the third stop on the swing was Calgary. As luck would have it, our hotel was situated right next to a YMCA, so I decided to take advantage of the proximity of the facility and workout there for a few days.
It had a nice basketball court, weights and cardio equipment up above the courts. I've never been very good at basketball (just ask my high school buddies), but I do use the sport to warm up before working out. The first day there at the Y, a 16-year old kid came out on to the floor and asked me to go 1-on-1 with him. I politely declined a number of times but the kid wouldn't let up.
Finally, I agreed to play him a game to five just to shut him up. The kid was a few inches taller than me and fairly stout, but I assumed that since he was from Canada and only 16, he was probably a novice at basketball and I could go half speed, humor him, get through a game I'd probably lose anyway and then go lift.
The kid, as it turns out, had some serious game. He beat me 5-2 without breaking a sweat, so I challenged him to best two out of three with the games to 10. He immediately agreed and it was game on. As I wrote earlier, I've never been a very good basketball player, but I was determined not to go down without a battle this time.
With the rules being"make-it, take-it," I hit the first three buckets to take a 3-0 lead. From that point on I may as well have bought a ticket because the kid reeled off the next nine buckets in a row with drives to the hoop around the old man and 3-point shots that would make college scouts salivate. I hit one more long shot by accident to make it 9-4 before he finished me off with a left handed dribble-drive and easy lay-up with his hand well above the rim.
All I could do is stand there with a dumb look on my face and watch as the kid easily put the game away. Afterwards we shook hands; he thanked me for playing him and then out of curiosity I asked him how he got to be such a good basketball player in a country that lives and breathes hockey. He told me he wasn't from Canada, but had emigrated to Calgary from Greece and learned how to shoot hoops from members of the Greek National Basketball Program. We're supposed to have a rematch in early February. Hmm... I better find some hardwood and work on my dribbling and shooting.
After the game in Calgary we bussed up to Edmonton instead of flying there as the cities aren't very far apart. It was a late-night bus ride and everything went smoothly until the bus driver had to divert from the main highway onto a side road because of heavy snowfall. No problem, right?
Well, at least not until we got to within 20 miles from Edmonton. Just then the driver told us that he knew a shortcut that would save us at least 10 minutes. At this point in the trip we were all about getting to the hotel a few minutes early, so our driver took the shortcut. What we thought was going to be a backroad through farmland turned out to be a tour of a housing development in South Edmonton.
For some reason, the driver got us in there and then couldn't get us out and made turn after turn in an attempt to do so. As we passed the same house for about the fourth time, Tony Ommen, Blackhawks manager of public relations and team services suggested the driver pull over, call his dispatcher and get directions on how to get OUT of the development.
He did so and we were off but drove to a point where the driver didn't know whether to turn left or right at a stop light. Just then, TV analyst Eddie Olczyk spoke up and told the driver: "Hey, if you turn left up here we'll get right into the city of Edmonton." The driver did as Eddie suggested and in no time we were at our hotel in downtown Edmonton. In the lobby we asked Eddie how he knew about the turn and he simply shrugged, smiled and said: "I just guessed."
While in Edmonton for the Thanksgiving holiday we wondered if we could find a good old-fashioned American style turkey dinner with all the trimmings. So Tony checked with the hotel chef to see if such a meal could be cooked up for about 12 members of the Blackhawks staff on short notice. The chef, who was a native of Portugal, told Tony he'd do his level best to accommodate us and boy did he keep his word.
Truthfully, I didn't expect it to be much more than Turkey hash, some form of potato and, if we were lucky, some leftover gravy that was originally used for a beef dish a few days back. What was served was amazing! The chef presented us with one of the best road Thanksgiving meals in league history with tender turkey (white and dark meat) that your grandmother couldn't match, stuffing that actually tasted like stuffing made the old fashioned way, real mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, hot bread and a thin gravy that was the perfect capper.
Not to be forgotten, the desert was a choice between two kinds of pies: pumpkin and apple with both served hot, ice cream optional. We dined, talked, laughed, shared jokes and Thanksgiving stories as everyone ate their fill.
Afterwards we thanked the chef for his efforts, took care of the bill, and then went our separate ways. As full as I was I needed a walk, but we were in Edmonton where the temperature outside was sub-zero with snow and a howling wind. Fortunately, Edmonton's downtown has a tunnel system and I found myself exploring most of it for the next two hours as I attempted to walk off what I had eaten. Man, what a meal!
As December approached, my wife Kelly also neared her due date on the birth of our second child. It was a nerve-racking time for both of us because our schedule wasn't favorable for me being back in Chicago for the birth of our son Sean Patrick, and that was an event in our lives that I just didn't want to miss.
With no family living in the area, we were on our own for the most part and had to resort to the unconventional during that time in order for me to be be with my wife as much as possible, just in case she went into labor. With the Tony's help, I was able to make short notice travel arrangements in order to take game-day flights to Minneapolis (twice) and then St. Louis on the day after Sean was born in order to handle the broadcasts of Blackhawks games.
The traveling part was easy compared to the tension associated with waiting for the inevitable phone call to get home ASAP because labor had begun. Every time my cell phone rang I thought,"this is the call." That call never came but for about a week my concentration on my work was seriously tested. As an addendum, I should mention that I feel extremely fortunate to have a broadcast partner like Troy Murray and an executive colleague in Tony Ommen. Both men are qualified professionals who put the team first and do outstanding work. Without one or both of them, that time would have been a serious struggle for me and my family. Thanks guys!
On the subject of Troy Murray, I must state that it's been a pleasure to work with him in my first season with the Blackhawks on AM-670 The Score. Troy is a good guy with a good heart and is as passionate about the Blackhawks as anyone I've ever met. Check it out: Troy Murray has played more games in a Blackhawk uniform than either Jeremey Roenick or Chris Chelios and was a tremendous hockey player for the Blackhawks in his heyday.
As a color commentator and partner I've found I can rely on him for an honest appraisal (good or bad) of what happens on the ice with the Blackhawks. Friends of mine who have listened a number of times have told me they enjoy Troy's commentary and insight into what is really happening on the ice. It's been a lot of fun working with Troy on the air, especially during the times when he says something that makes me chuckle, because I'm usually so wound up after all the coffee I drink on game day.
Finally, I couldn't conclude this piece without mentioning how fortunate all of us with the Chicago Blackhawks are as we're flown to every NHL destination on a United Airlines charter. The pilots and flight crews have been nothing less than friendly and accomodating, while exhibiting class and professionalism at every turn.
Special mention should be made of the outstanding service we receive from the flight attendants who wait on us hand and foot. Nicole, Dee, Alicia, Vanessa, Angela and others have made our hours in the air enjoyable and something we all look forward to. Whether we're traveling away from, or back to Chicago, the ladies do a terrific job.
After working in the minors for nine years and riding drafty busses with frozen windows for up to 17 hours one-way, I can safely state that "Flying the Friendly Skies" suits me just fine. Thanks ladies, keep up the great work. We all appreciate your efforts.
Thanks for reading, everyone.