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Fay Gets Ferguson Award From Hockey Hall

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but simply moving on with dignity despite that fear.” Pat Riley, NBA coach

Dave Fay, the late Capitals beat reporter for The Washington Times, was not much of a basketball fan, and he probably couldn’t have told you that it was Pat Riley who uttered the words quoted above. But Dave lived those words and lived by those words, especially in the last years of his life.

Family, friends, colleagues and fans. Representatives from all four of those facets of Dave Fay’s life were on hand in Toronto on Monday when the Hockey Hall of Fame honored Dave with the most prestigious honor a hockey writer can attain, the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award. Dave covered the Washington Capitals for the Times for the better part of a quarter century until he finally succumbed to cancer this past July.

Two tables full of Fay’s family, friends and admirers listened as Eric Duhatschek of The Toronto Globe and Mail – a Ferguson recipient from a few years back – remembered Dave reverently and fondly. Dave’s wife Pat then spoke with great humor and strength of her husband and his dedication to the game he loved, and she accepted the award in his honor.

She spoke of Dave’s reaction earlier this year when he learned he’d been chosen as the 2007 recipient of the Ferguson Award.

“I can’t tell you how thrilled David was when he was notified that he won the award,” Pat began, “Since he was the first writer from the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area to do so. He was ecstatic the day he got the call, and if you know anything about Dave, you know that that in itself was a major feat.

“The phone didn’t stop ringing; the e-mails were coming in fast and furious. And at the end of the day, I asked him how he truly felt about the award. He replied, ‘I am honored and humbled to receive this award, but,’ in true Fay fashion, he finished with, ‘what the hell took so long?’”

Those of us who knew Dave know that as a perfect Fay response. We also know he was a Hall of Fame guy long before he became a Hall of Fame writer.

I knew Dave Fay for a dozen years, and I never knew him before his first cancer surgery. When I began covering the Caps in 1995-96, Dave had already undergone his first surgery, an operation in which part of his forearm was removed and used to rebuild the part of his tongue that had been removed. He got well past the five-year mark generally considered to mean that he had beaten the disease, only to have it come back on him twice more after that.

Lesser men would have bowed out much earlier, but most of us are lesser men than Dave Fay. He lived with the disease for years, but never let it define him and never used it as an excuse. It never stopped him from driving to practice day after day, a round trip of 92 miles from his home in western Maryland. Dave also routinely drove to road games in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, Long Island and Carolina. His work ethic was unparalleled.

I can still remember our first press box encounter early in that ’95-96 season. Dave was reminiscing about former Leafs great Darryl Sittler with another denizen of the press box at the old Capital Centre, and he was struggling to come up with the name of the Boston goaltender that Sittler had victimized for his six-goal, 10-point outburst in 1976.

“Dave Reece,” I piped up, from my seat in the next row. Dave stopped dead in his tracks and looked at me. Glared at me. I felt terrible instantly, thinking I had overstepped my bounds by speaking when I hadn’t been spoken to in what was a new and very unfamiliar environment for me at the time.

Turned out he wasn’t upset, just surprised.

“You’re too young to know that,” he jabbed.

“I’m older than I look,” I replied.

Not long after that, Dave requested that my press box seat be moved next to his. It was an honor, or so I thought, but it turns out he just wanted to make sure he sat next to someone who wouldn’t start rambling about baseball or something else that had nothing to do with hockey. There’s nothing worse than being in a hockey press box while someone jabbers on about something totally unrelated, and Dave never suffered such fools.

We both liked watching, taking notes, observing, looking for the little things in and around the game and sharing them with each other. I thought I knew the game pretty good, but I learned a lot more watching Dave as he began picking out the pieces that would go into his game story the next day. I sat next to Dave every night until I started working for the Caps in 1999, at which point I moved back a row in the box.

So much of the hockey beat life is spent waiting. Waiting for practice to start. Waiting for meetings to end. Waiting for locker room doors to open. Waiting for games to start. Dave made the waiting fun, made it bearable. We’d catch up on each other’s families, trade barbs, play little jokes on each other, share notes, catch up with everything else that was going on around the league.

When the locker room door opened, I learned even more about Dave and more about writing. Dave talked to everyone. He talked to fourth-liners and healthy scratches and superstars and assistant coaches and equipment men. He never talked down to anyone, he always showed genuine interest in everyone and he always listened.

I’ve seen writers – beat reporters and bloggers both – write some fairly nasty things about athletes in my day. Some of those scribes never or rarely set foot in a press box or a locker room, or ever bothered to talk to the very person they were slamming in print or online.

Dave could carve a player and/or a team with the skill of a surgeon, but he never did so gratuitously. If he wrote something less than complimentary about a player on Tuesday, he’d walk right up to that player on Wednesday and begin talking to him. He never once hid behind anything he wrote, and because of that he earned and held the undying respect of the players, the coaches and the brass.

“Dave also understood better than most that the job of covering a team wasn’t necessarily about leading the cheers,” said Duhatschek on Monday. “I used to have this argument with Gary Roberts all the time. Smart guy, but he could be very dismissive about journalism. He would say, ‘All you guys really want to do is criticize.’ And I’d correct him and I’d say, ‘No, our job is to critically evaluate.’

“That’s a small but important distinction. To critically evaluate means that you’re prepared to praise a team when it’s called for, but you also reserve the right to tweak them when that’s the proper response as well. It requires first an understanding of the game and then a commitment to write what you see honestly.

“Dave was greatly admired and respected by the people in the Capitals organization just for that reason, and I know it’s because they respected his opinion and understood that when he gave it to them a little bit, that his comments were justified.”

“Dave was great,” said former caps defenseman and 2007 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Scott Stevens. “He was very fair to me. He was an interesting fellow. We spent a lot of time just chatting and I enjoyed Dave immensely. He was a great man and the game will miss him.”

Jason LaCanfora, the former Caps beat writer for The Washington Post who now covers the Redskins for that paper, was one of countless people who were influenced by Dave’s writings over his quarter century on the beat.

“On his first day on the job,” related Duhatschek, “which in Jason’s case was the start of the 1999-00 season, he and Jeff Halpern, who was the first player from the Maryland area to make it to the NHL and was a rookie at the time, compared notes and found that they shared a common experience. They had read Dave’s articles as kids and learned to see and understand the game through his eyes. This is the kind of impact that Dave’s work had and I can’t think of a greater legacy than that. We all want our words to influence and lead the public conversation about the game. And Dave did that.”

Click for larger image.
After Dave’s second surgery, he went months without eating. He was able to eat only with the use of a feeding tube, and it was very frustrating to him. My wife is a speech pathologist who works with head and neck cancer patients, and she started bugging him to come see her. She was convinced she could get him to eat.

One of the highlights of my life was when Dave and Pat came to my house on a Saturday afternoon and sat in my kitchen. I don’t get to see my wife at work, and it was a pretty emotional experience to watch as she was able to “teach” my friend how to eat again. He ate a banana and some pudding, his first solid food in five months. Before long, he and I were having meals together on the road and in the press room, just like old times.

A few days after Christmas last year, the Caps played a home game against the Montreal Canadiens. After the game, I sought out Dave and told him I’d see him in New Jersey, the Capitals’ next destination. He said he’d be there, but that he had a doctor’s appointment earlier in the day. I asked him if it was anything to worry about, and he dismissed it, as he did with most of his own troubles and worries.

“I hope not,” was all he said.

Dave didn’t show up in New Jersey, and he wasn’t in New York the next night, either. This worried me; I knew he would never miss a game if all were well. The Caps returned home to face the Coyotes on New Year’s Day, and I sought out Dave right away.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

The look on his face told me it wasn’t. He shook his head silently, and I thought of Riley’s words.

I didn’t see nearly as much of Dave as I would have liked for the next six months. We corresponded mainly via e-mail and instant message, and I saw him on those rare occasions where he felt good enough to come out to Verizon Center or Kettler. He often sent me very frank and pointed assessments of games and the team; I doubt he missed a game. Re-reading them even now, his passion for the game and for hockey in the region is evident in every line.

Dave was the kind of guy who would do anything for you, even without you asking. He offered plenty of sage advice as I prepared to go to Russia for two weeks, and when he found out I would miss the first two games of the Calder Cup finals, sent this quick note:

"i'll be at gm 2 if there's anything i can do for you."

That’s the Dave Fay I’ll never forget, the Dave Fay who richly deserves the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award and the Dave Fay who has more to do with me being where I am today than anyone else. Wracked by chemotherapy and with only a few weeks to live, and he wants to know if there’s anything he can do for me.

“We liked him, we admired him, we respected him,” said Duhatschek. “And most of all, we miss him.”

Every day.

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