The St. Louis Blues have finally landed at 6:33 a.m. Central Time today, just in time for rush hour traffic, after being stranded all day yesterday at the Vancouver airport due to mechanical difficulties. They will face the San Jose Sharks tonight in the very first meeting between the two clubs since winning the Western Conference Quarterfinal round, four games to one, this past spring.
It is highly ironic that the Sharks are on the other side of this challenge, but the backdrop of the game is not the source of the irony. To find it, you have to go way back to 1991, and the very first season of Sharks history, and when you do, you’ll discover a travel snafu that sounds eerily similar to what The Note is going through right now. Some of the details are clearly different, but the essence of the challenge is similar.
It was October 22, 1991, and the Sharks were a brand-new arrival in the NHL. The Cow Palace was still home, the players lived and practiced on the Peninsula, and all team flights were based at Oakland International Airport. It was there that the Sharks, 1-8-0 in their first season, all gathered to fly across the country to start a seven-game road trip in Hartford against the Whalers.
As fate would have it, the pilot of the charter aircraft charged with the trip was a relative newcomer to the Boeing 737, so before the Sharks were slated to arrive, he was practicing touch-and-go landings with the aircraft. On one such approach, he came in a little hot, struck the runway a little hard, and blew a tire.
By the time the Sharks arrived, it was obvious that there was going to be a delay, so the players took their seats at the local FBO, and waited – and waited – and waited. As I recall, the proper parts needed, including the new tire and a jack to lift the aircraft, was not available and had to be transported over from another location (I think it was SFO). Three hours turned into five hours. Five hours turned into eight hours. Meanwhile, the team was being assured that there was no need to go home to wait for the lengthy delay, and the point of no return had been reached. So, everyone stayed.
In the midst of this ongoing bureaucratic and mechanical drama, a young Sharks assistant coach named Drew Remenda came to realize that it probably wasn’t a good idea to have handed out the per diem before we were on the plane. During the interminable wait, a card game that developed in the FBO caused one player to lose his entire road trip meal money to his appreciative teammates.
Shortly after that scenario, a couple of future NHL management members entered the picture. Sharks captain Doug Wilson rushed up to Drew, looking for trainer Tommy Woodcock, a veteran medical man who, in Ironic Moment Number One, spent many years as the trainer of the St. Louis Blues. Why, Drew wanted to know? Well, because Sharks LW Paul Fenton, now the assistant GM of the Nashville Predators, had just taken a drink of water from a fountain, stood up, passed out, fallen to the ground, cut his head, and was now bleeding.
“Woody” was found to come to the rescue in the interim while the paramedics were called, as no one could figure out why Fenton had passed out. It was a scary sight for those of us in the FBO to see him strapped to a stretcher and carried out for medical evaluation. All this, and the team had not boarded the plane yet!
Meanwhile, on the tarmac, an argument was going on between some airport workers who had never had to deal with the tire situation that was presented to them. They seemed to be discussing a few different methods to changing the tire.
My first broadcast partner, Dennis Hull, whose nephew Brett played for the St. Louis Blues, decided to take matters into his own hands. “I’m going out there to show them how to use a jack,” he declared. And so, he did.
The sun had already gone down and Paul Fenton had already been evaluated by medical personnel, with his fainting spell a mystery. The team finally took off for Hartford, and the saga continued.
As the team approached Bradley International Airport at approximately 4:30 a.m., Drew Remenda entered the picture again. In the midst of all of the confusion, he had forgotten to call the bus company to pick the team up at the newly scheduled time. So, as the team left the airplane in Connecticut, they had no bus there to take them to the hotel!
After taking some interminable ribbing from the exhausted players, Drew got the word from the bus company: another hour. Why not? It had been that kind of day.
Finally, the bus arrived, the gear was loaded onto it, and the players were taken to the hotel. I remember looking at my watch and seeing that it was 5:45 a.m. on game day.
What happened? Well, the Sharks actually played reasonably well on that day, losing the game 3-0. Kay Whitmore, now one of the supervisors in the NHL, was in goal for the Whalers’ shutout. The road trip had begun.
As a footnote, be advised that the Sharks went 0-7-0 on the trip, outscored 38-11. Included in that list was a 9-0 loss in New Jersey that I remember broadcasting alone up in the “Halo” of the Meadowlands, while Randy Hahn was on the air for his first NHL game on the TV side. The Sharks would come home with a 1-15-0 record, and would win their very first game back, 6-2, over the Edmonton Oilers, at the Cow Palace.
Fast-forward to the present time, and this extremely important game for the Sharks in St. Louis. San Jose is 0-2-1 on their current six-game trip. They’ll be facing the Blues for the first time since St. Louis eliminated them from the playoffs faster than any other in Sharks history, so there is a lot of pride and drama on the line from the Sharks point of view.
From the Blues side, there is only the thought of survival, and strong motivation to give their best effort after the lengthy challenge that caused them to land at 6:33 a.m. on game day. It presents another big challenge to the Sharks, and sets up the drama for what should be an interesting night.
But just in case anyone thought that such a situation has never happened before, I hope that my chronicle today shows that the hockey gods have a sense of humor. Isn’t it interesting that the Blues should be facing a team that went through a similar experience, all those years ago?