Frank Mahovlich was one of the most talented, graceful players of his day. Illness prevented the Big M from attending the New Year's Day 2017 Rogers NHL Centennial Classic, at which he was introduced with 32 other players who starred during the League's first half-century, but he was in Los Angeles for "The NHL100 presented by GEICO" gala Friday at Microsoft Theater.
What an absolute delight standing in our hotel lobby late Friday morning for a chat, Mahovlich wistfully remembering having played with both Gordie Howe and Jean Béliveau, two late, dear friends.
"I assisted on Gordie's 700th NHL goal, and on Jean's 500th," he recalled with obvious pride.
Mahovlich agreed to pose for a photo, but not before joking, "I'm not 80, you know."
No need to rush things -- the wonderful Big M only turned 79 on Jan. 10.
I attended Friday's gala in a room backstage with each and every legend who would be introduced on the live telecast, and none of it seemed real, so many superstars in one room at one time.
At one point I looked over to see Bobby Orr sitting with fellow Boston Bruins icon Johnny Bucyk, his hand on Bucyk's shoulder for a good long time. The bond and friendship between two Boston legends was clear, without a word needing to be spoken.
In that room, a few minutes earlier, a Bobby hat trick:
Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull and Bobby Clarke, all in a row.
I took the photo, these stars shoulder to shoulder in the same backstage constellation.
On Thursday, I crashed (with permission) a private cocktail party attended by some 20 of the 67 players being feted. By evening's end, I was not just eavesdropping on their fabulous conversations, I was being asked to provide historical context on a few of the events they were discussing. And here came my favorite quote of the entire weekend from a player when I suggested he was embellishing the truth: "I'm giving the alternative facts!"
Catching The Roadrunner
Yvan Cournoyer and his wife, Evelyn, are Montreal hockey's royal couple, a fixture at Bell Centre games and at charity functions of the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation.
I'm privileged to include Yvan and Evelyn among my friends, and Thursday night, when I spotted them checking into the hotel, I happily joined them for a chat. They weren't more than 10 feet from the reception desk, headed to the elevators, when Yvan was being stopped for photos and autographs, fans still recognizing the fabulous Roadrunner nearly four decades after his final game.
When you're an NHL icon, the winner of 10 Stanley Cup championships, there is no such thing as an uninterrupted path to your destination, and Yvan hopes that never changes.
The next night, I spent an hour in their company after the gala, Yvan explaining that he was wearing a brand new suit for the evening.
"So do you retire it after being named one of the NHL's 100 greatest players?" I asked him.
"I'm not that rich," he replied with a grin. "I'll wear it again."
Walking with legends
On Friday night, I joined a couple dozen legends in a large hotel suite, former and current players who were, and are, among the greatest players in NHL history. Laid out was a stunning assortment of autographed items, bound soon for auctions.nhl.com to benefit charity.
From this suite, we would walk to the Microsoft Theater for the 6:30 p.m. PT gala. I thought, during the walk, that as a youth I had worshipped many of these men. Now I was strolling with them, exchanging stories, making mental notes the best I could.
If there ever were a "pinch me" moment," this was it.
"And we're paying you for this? You should be paying us," Commissioner Gary Bettman joked to me.
He was probably right.
At a cocktail reception Thursday, I spent a few minutes comparing notes with fellow bow-tie aficionado Dave Keon, the Toronto Maple Leafs legend who thoughtfully has shared with me where he shops for his. I'll not soon forget the look on the face of Dave's wife, Jane, listening to two men talk about how a freestyle bow actually has personality, and how it's not weird at all to stand shirtless in front of a mirror tying a new one several times to make friends with it.
"See?" Keon said to his wife. "I'm not the only one!"
Meet the Parent
I had interviewed legendary Philadelphia Flyers goalie Bernie Parent several times for feature stories in recent years. But NHL All-Star Weekend was the first time I'd had the chance to really speak with him, and I immensely enjoyed getting to know Bernie and his wife, Gini. We sat outside the hotel for a half-hour Saturday afternoon, Bernie puffing on a grand cigar, and he spoke to me candidly about the need for a player to make time for the fans, his distaste for a two-goalie system, and playing for years in front of the famously passionate Flyers fans.
On Friday afternoon, I stood in the hotel lobby and watched Bernie and Chicago Blackhawks icon Tony Esposito renew their long-time friendship. Tony is one of my favorite people in hockey, a man who, like his brother, Phil, says what's on his mind. Unfiltered. I particularly liked Tony's Blackhawks belt buckle and the fact the two goalies dragged Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park into a photo I'd take of not two, but three legends, just hanging out.
P.K. a fan
All that history and P.K. Subban in the NHL Centennial Fan Arena -- let's just say it was a tight fit.
Subban, the larger-than-life Nashville Predators defenseman, paid a visit to the mobile Fan Arena outside Staples Center on Sunday morning, dressed to the 18s. Which would be dressing to the nines, doubled, as Subban does.
I was on hand to help NHL communications manager Jasmine Ghafour with the guided tour she offered Subban. Over 20 minutes, he absorbed the incredible, interactive exhibition that will visit every NHL market this year, shaking his head at what passed for goalie masks and pads, marveling at vintage skates and sweaters -- those heavy wool monsters weren't jerseys -- and enjoying the evolution of sticks, saying one old one-piece slab of lumber "that literally looks like they carved it out of a piece of plywood."
Subban broke into the NHL in 2009-10 in Montreal, where you have to duck to avoid being hit by hockey history. But the League's past is a real love for him, and to see him stroll through the Fan Arena was to see a young man thoroughly engaged with where the NHL has been as he plays a large role in taking the game where it's going.