Tuesday, April 6, 2010
My Fifteen Minutes With Alfie
The paper I used to write for, the Ottawa Xpress was an arts mag, music, movies etc. But my editor wanted to do a hockey story and the occasion was the start of training camp in 2005 just after an entire season had been cancelled due to the owners lockout of the players.
I was dying to do this story and begged and pleaded until I was given the go ahead. The next question was, who were we going to interview?
The Xpress rarely asked for a press pass from the very protective media relations guy, Steve Keogh at that time, and we weren't going to get many chances to get into the inner sanctum of the team to do our story. We had one day, one practice, one guy. Who was gonna be the guy to talk to? My editor proposed the new kid in town Dany Heatley, or number one goalie in waiting Dominik Hasek. Someone else said it should be Zdeno Chara. I proposed Daniel Alfredsson and got a shoulder shrug and a blank stare. "Alfie? He's too typical. Not interesting enough. He won't say anything worthwhile. He's too white bread."
But I said it had to be Alfie and, begrudgingly, they agreed. The Senators got back to us and said Alfie was good to go, no problem. We just had to show up during practice and we'd have a lightning quick photo session immediately after he left the ice and then a slightly longer sit down interview once he was changed and ready to talk.
Believe me, I was stoked. I had interviewed plenty of people before, famous and non-famous musicians mostly. I had even been around NHL players before in my job at a high end steakhouse downtown where a lot of players stopped over when they were in town. I had served a very quiet Wayne Gretzky, my all-time favourite Mark Messier, Glen Sather (who actually growled at me with an unlit cigar clenched between his teeth, wondering "where the hell" his food was), Pavel Bure, Scott Niedermayer and Eric Lindros (who had the biggest banana hands I have ever seen to this day - and who was the nicest of them all, by the way).
But I had never sat down, one-on-one with an NHL star and asked him questions other than, "Would you like some more bread?".
So I was pretty nervous too.
The day came and a small crew of us Xpress kids headed out to the Kanata rink, got let in through the back doors by a kindly old security guard, and then we were led down the concrete hallways, past the visitors locker room and onto the visitors bench.
The first thing I noticed was that the rink seemed really small from the ice, especially when all the seats were empty. It was a little surreal to see guys like Hasek up close. Bryan Murray was running the practice and as they did their drills, players like Mike Fisher, Wade Redden and Chara zipped by inches from my incredulous face. Watching Heatley practicing his one-timers was actually scary. When he missed the net and the puck hit the boards, it sounded like someone just blasted a shotgun into the side of a garbage truck. You think it looks fast on TV? In person it was downright frightening and this was just a practice.
A very busy Steve Keogh comes up to us to straighten out all the details about the photo shoot, but I think he just wants to make sure we aren't total losers. He sizes us up pretty quickly and I send him a curveball by asking if Alfie can wear the Senators old white sweater instead of the practice jersey he was going to wear as he came off the ice. I got a very gruff "I'll see what I can do" and he walked off while we watched Murray skate the players into the ice. The goalies had to skate too, and Hasek looked like he was going to expire in the corner at one point.
Anyways, the practice winds up and Alfie is ushered over to our bench by another Senators staffer who has the desired white sweater, which Alfie grabs on his way off the ice. He's out of breath and covered in sweat but he takes the time to say hello to all of us and gives us a smile as he dons the fresh white jersey.
We have our lights set up in the visitor dressing room and Alfie makes a joke to our red-headed photographer that finally, someone was more pale than he was and everyone is put at ease by this "superstar". He takes some instructions from the photographer and stares unblinking into the blinding camera lights for a bunch of different poses, most of which are cover worthy. The guy is a pro. Satisfied that we have our cover shot, the Senators staffer ushers Alfie out of the visiting room, but not before the captain asks who's doing the interview. I gulp once and put my hand up. "Okay bud. I'll be out as soon as I can. Shouldn't be too long", he says.
And so we were left alone. The four of us wander around the visitors dressing room and I'm taking it all in, thinking of all the great players who have sat in here up till now. I see that one of the wooden stalls has the seat flipped up, and in black magic marker it says "Wayne Gretzky sat here in his last game in Canada, 1999", or something to that effect. I point this out to the other guys but they're too interested in talking about some crappy band they saw the other night. I take a seat where Gretzky sat and look around. I think to myself, "If I did this for a living, it would never, ever get old."
So we wait. And we wait.
A media staffer named Melanie says I can sit in on a Bryan Murray press scrum in the hallway.
So I stand next to guys like Wayne Scanlan, Ian Mendes and Bruce Garrioch as they jab tape recorders in Bryan Murray's face and ask him about Heatley and other issues swirling around at that time. TSN and Sportsnet cameras jostle for position. I don't even really hear what Murray is saying. I'm just more incredulous that I'm standing there in the first place. No one seems to notice me and nobody really cares who I am. When it's over, I go sit on a chair in the hallway and go over my list of questions I had prepared for the past week, scratching a few out and writing a few more. The questions all look so stupid and shallow and I start to sweat it out a bit.
It seems there is some kind of team meeting going on, so a lot of the reporters are just milling around, making small talk and looking like they did this sort of thing every day. Wait....
Pretty soon, the players start leaving, walking past the reporters and making jokes, on their way to lunch somewhere. Spezza leaves. Then Hasek. Fisher and Kelly walk by.
After an eternity, the reporters and all the arena staff seem to have disappeared. Tumbleweed blows down the hallway and vultures are circling above me. My mouth is dry and I sense a total failure just ahead. I imagine asking Alfie the first question and coming off like Chris Farley on the Chris Farley Show SNL skit - mumbling and stumbling along until I would have to call myself an idiot out loud. "So... do ...you .... like ....stuff?"
Finally Alfredsson strolls up casually in a brown suede jacket and he gives me and the media girl a sheepish smile and says "Sorry, I took so long. But I'm ready now."
I was hoping we were going to do the interview in the Sens locker room, but we were brought back into the visitors side. I wasn't going to push it. When you write for an unknown rag like the Xpress, you're considered about as important as a crazy person showing up at the rink asking to play the organ during games.
We sat down in two stalls next to each other and I asked my first question. I can't even remember what it was, but it was a bit of a dud. Regardless, he answered much better than could be expected and had no pretensions whatsoever. Immediately I was put at ease and we actually got into it pretty good, to the point where I wasn't even looking at my questions like the rookie that I was. At some point, we were just talking, and it remains one of my two favourite interviews I ever did in my brief journalistic career (the other was folk legend John Prine - who told anecdotal Bob Dylan stories for over an hour).
When I felt I had taken enough of his time for what was going to be a small one page story, I thanked him and he gave me a strange look and said "That's all? Are you sure?"
Yup, that was it. When someone is that accommodating, you feel guilty for imposing on them and all I wanted to do was send him on his way and go out on a high note, like George Costanza used to do. He shook my hand and went on walking down the hallway. I went back to the guys and they looked at me and said "That's it??"
There's not really a major point I'm trying to make by pointing out that Alfredsson is a genuinely nice guy. Everyone already knows that.
But I just thought I'd relate my one, brief moment with the classiest hockey player who has ever donned the Ottawa Senators sweater.
Here's the story from 2005 if you want to take a look.