After more than 15 years of direct access to NHL dressing rooms, this is my truth: regardless of how well you know a player, a staff member, fellow media, there is one underlying fact. When something serious happens, we are one fraternity.
You donâ€™t have to know a person well. Sometimes, you may have barely encountered them, but the emotional tug is the same.
I didnâ€™t know Ace Bailey or Mark Bavis well when their United Airlines flight 175 was hijacked and driven into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I barely encountered them at many a Calgary Flames home game, when they sat just a few seats down from me in the press box. Their sudden and violent deaths shook me to the core, compounded by the enormity of the event. I felt as connected to them at that moment as I would have with my closest friend.
When Detroit Red Wingsâ€™ defenseman Jiri Fischer went into cardiac arrest and collapsed on the bench with his life hanging in the balance, I felt more connected because I had a one-on-one interview with him the previous season. We talked about some very personal topics, such as his decision to come to Canada from the Czech Republic to play junior hockey, how he dealt with the language, the culture, and some other elements of his experience.
Jiri admitted the main reason for his move was to get noticed enough to increase his chances of making the National Hockey League. He knew some English from taking it in grade nine, but German was his second language. However, when he arrived in Montreal, he had yet another language to navigate. He was glad that coach Claude Julien ran most of the practices in English.
â€œThere were always a few guys who didnâ€™t speak proper English, but during the year, Claude wanted us to have the best possible chemistry we could have, so I was learning English, and the native Quebecers were learning Englishâ€¦obviously the guys from Ontario were picking up some French.â€
The lifestyle changes he had to make upon his arrival were the toughest adjustments for Jiri. His billet, Linda Landry, became very important to him. He continued to visit with her often after he made the NHL.
Florida Panther RW Richard Zednik and I spoke one-on-one in the same season about the same issues. He wanted to stay in Slovakia, but others convinced him to move to North America, where he could also be seen.
As far as understanding his coach or his teammates â€¦ â€œThe only language we had was hockey.â€
The hardest adjustment for Richard was food. He hated the typical pre-game meal of chicken and pasta. He didnâ€™t like the sauce. Over the years, it has become his favorite food but he missed his momâ€™s cooking in the first couple of seasons.
â€œAt home (in Portland), the lady where I was staying, I ate everything. She was a great lady but she didnâ€™t cook much. I was always starving. We always went to Taco Bell or something like that.â€
Through those interviews, Jiri Fischer and Richard Zednick had created a soft place in my heart.
So when Richardâ€™s Florida teammate C Olli Jokinen was pushed off balance and his legs came up from under him, with his skate blade catching Richard in the throat, partially severing his carotid artery, I personally felt his fear, pain, and trauma. Like everyone else, I held my breath until learning he was stable; shed a sigh of relief when he was moved from the Intensive Care Unit; and felt absolute joy when he was released from the hospital. I also felt Jokinenâ€™s anguish.
As much as there is sometimes a â€œwe/theyâ€ thing going on at the rink when reporters are madly trying to reach their deadlines, players are trying to get out of the venue as soon as they can, and staff members are trying to appease both sides, when something happens, you canâ€™t be human and not feel something. But when you have even just a tiny or passing connection to one of those people, it keeps you grounded amongst all the pomp and fluff.