In the Beginning
I can't ever remember not liking hockey. That's actually kind of a strange thing, too, considering I never played it. That is, unless you count the ice rink my three brothers and I had in our backyard for half of one winter. There, for a few winter weeks, we re-created the glories – albeit, not the grace – of Gordie Howe, Marcel Dionne, Guy Charron and all of our other NHL favorites with rudimentary moves on the bumpy ice on Rossiter in our east side Detroit neighborhood.
I must have been about seven or eight years old when the incident that led to the deconstruction of our rink happened. My brothers and I were hosting about a dozen kids from the neighborhood on the small backyard rink, playing a heated game of hockey. I, being the ever-cautious one, opted not to wear my skates and instead donned my boots with the smooth rubber bottoms. My warped reasoning was that they would offer me more mobility and stability. I believe I was on the ice for only a few minutes before I was checked into the boards (actually, the cyclone fencing) by a neighborhood boy. As could be expected with smooth-bottomed rubber boots, I lost my footing. My feet went out from under me and back I went, smacking my head hard onto the ice. And I wasn't wearing a helmet. No one wore helmets then, not even the NHL players. These were the late 1960s, the days of old time hockey.
The next thing I remembered was my parents leading me into our Ford Galaxy 500 parked in front of our house. After pausing to vomit into the snow, I crawled into the backseat, where I laid down for the short drive to St. John Hospital where I stayed for three days in a ward with adult women. The diagnosis was a bad concussion. I'm not exactly sure why I wasn't in a pediatric ward – maybe no room – so instead, I was flanked by women just under the geriatric cutoff. The food was horrible – Cream of Wheat for breakfast with a glass of cranberry juice to wash it down. Every morning I would give the mush to the large woman in the bed next to me and sip my juice. Lunch and dinner went about the same, drinking only cranberry juice and nibbling on crackers. I couldn't wait to get back home to my mom's cooking, my own bed and my brothers' teasing. When I finally arrived home three days later, the backyard rink was chipped and bumpy. My parents decided that one kid in the hospital was enough for that winter. Gone was the rink. No more glories of scoring a winning goal or pretending we were Olympic skaters. All of it vanished with one stinking concussion.
But all was not lost on the hockey front. Since I came from strong French Canadian roots – notably, the St. Croix family of Barachois, Quebec – hockey was in my blood. From the time I was a little girl, I was drawn to the thrill and brutality of hockey (please don't judge). Then the biggest score happened. My mother's aunt, Aurelie, gained access to four season tickets to the Red Wings games at Olympia Stadium. She arranged for two people from my family to attend many, if not most, of the games with her and the owner of the tickets. Having three brothers and two parents, it was a cycle of about five home games before my name would come up again. Still, to see a half dozen games from the seats at Olympia every season for a few years was enough to whet my appetite for the speed and thrill of the game I would eventually report on as a paying job and career.
My dad, Jerry, was a Detroit police officer. And considering the dicey neighborhood surrounding Olympia, he was the constant attendee at the games. The rest of us, including my hockey-loving mom, Lois, took turns using the final prized ticket. For those familiar with the old Olympia Stadium, there weren't many parking lots or structures designated for those lucky enough to have tickets to the games. Most of the parking was done on the streets or in empty lots tended to by "official" workers. Even if there was an overabundance of parking lots, my dad was the type of guy who wouldn't use them. He had other ideas of where to park. He would pull the Galaxy 500 up in front of a house on a residential street near the arena where a man would be standing, hands stuck deep into his jacket pockets.
"I was thinking I would park here," my dad would tell the man.
The man would reply: "OK," or something to that effect.
"How about if I give you a dollar or two to watch my car?" my dad would suggest, removing his wallet from his back pocket, allowing it to flop open before pulling out a few bills. The glint off his police badge affixed inside his wallet would emphasize to the man the importance of not tampering with my dad's Galaxy 500 ... and protecting it.
"That is alright," would come the answer.
Our car was always there when we got back to it after the game, in the same shape as how we left it. Keep in mind, these were the late 1960s and early 1970s – the pre- and post-riot days in Detroit – so safety was a concern and a priority.
I'm not sure what I was most concerned with on those walks to the arena: thieves and thugs, or some of the night life that walked the streets of Detroit after dark. And by that I mean rats the size of dogs waddling down the streets and the alleys that ran behind the houses. I remember glancing down an alley on the way to the arena one winter night and seeing the huge back end of a rat scurrying down the middle of the dirt and gravel path. I grabbed my dad's hand tighter and stared straight ahead.
The second obstacle to seeing the games was my Aunt Aurelie. Sitting next to her was potentially dangerous. She was wound pretty tight to begin with, perpetually brimming with energy. Combining that with her passion for hockey left her unable to contain herself during tense times. She had two primary weapons – her two elbows, just like Gordie Howe. Every near-goal, close save by the goalie, or high stick or slash to a Wings player would result in a patented piercing Aunt Aurelie elbow. And being a trim and fit woman, her elbows were like razors. Making matters worse, she wouldn't just give a quick jab, but multiple thrusts until the goal was scored, the puck was safely cleared out of the zone or the penalty called. Accompanying this assault would be a very quickly muttered, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!"
Other than making it into the rink and surviving the Aunt Aurelie elbow attacks, the rest of the game was pure heaven. It always started the same way for me. After arriving at our seats, my dad would give me the nod. This meant to put on my sweetest face and make my way down to the penalty box area. Once there, I would ask the usher working the aisle if I could please have the first broken hockey stick. In those days, when a stick would break, the game official would hand it to the usher, who would then "dispose" of it. I'm guessing not a single stick ever made it into the trash, because there were always kids like me begging for them. Three sticks I remember getting were those of Guy Charron, Nick Libett and Larry Johnston. I never did get an Alex Delvecchio or a Gordie Howe stick, but at that point in my life I didn't care. To this day I still have the Charron stick.
While the sticks were nice to get, the event that stands out most in my mind was the night I met my favorite player – Marcel Dionne. Marcel was a highly skilled player destined for the NHL Hall of Fame. He had an affable smile even when carrying the puck down the ice. For me, this was a nice complement to his French Canadian roots, which also further endeared him to me. It was my dream to meet Marcel. For years I nursed visions of long conversations with him about the game, discussing his successes and obtaining his signature in my flower covered autograph book.
My dad, as has been established, was never reluctant to flash his badge if the occasion called for a little push in a favorable direction. This worked for good parking spaces or to convince a security guard to let him and his daughter a bit closer to the locker room – also referred to as the dressing room – door so that she could get an autograph or two. Unfortunately, the night I gathered enough courage to bring my autograph book and determination to the game, the Wings lost big. I have no recollection to whom they lost but I remember there being a lot of unhappy people milling about after the game. But since it was prearranged, my dad grabbed my hand and we trudged down to the corridor outside the locker room, where we waited with others who had more important business there – reporters, wives of players and probably others like me who just wanted a glimpse of their favorite player in plain clothes for a shake of the hand or a quick scribble of their name.
A long time passed and as players streamed out, I became more discouraged. No Marcel. One of the security guards looked over at us – a Detroit cop and his 11-year-old daughter clutching her girly autograph book in one hand, a ballpoint pen in the other. The guard's act of benevolence would give me, perhaps, the spark that ignited my desire to talk with more players, to learn more about their feelings and assessment of the game.
The security guard silently gave my dad a nod and jerk of his head, indicating for us to follow him. He led us down the hallway to a back door, which was apparently the escape hatch from the dressing room, mostly hidden from plain sight. My dad and I repositioned ourselves outside that door, my hope escalating. Within a few minutes the doorknob began to turn and out stepped Marcel. I ran up to him, making all too much noise, and asked beseechingly if he would sign my autograph book, all the while giggling nervously because I was finally meeting my dream man. At first, Marcel kept walking toward the exit. Then, after giving it more thought, he slowly turned around, gave a sigh and walked back to me. I will never forget how he smiled at me. I was near tears of joy as he looked down at me and made conversation, asking my name, how old I was and apologizing for the lousy game I had just seen. After conversation lagged he pointed, indicating the autograph book.
"Would you like me to sign that?" he said in his beautifully accent-coated words.
"Please!" I replied, fumbling with the small autograph book I had gotten as a souvenir during our recent family trip to Disneyland. I located the first available blank page and handed it to him. There, he signed his autograph (in amazingly beautiful penmanship) right after the "autographs" from Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland.
Handing the book back to me, Marcel tousled my hair.
"It was nice to meet you, Cyndy," he said.
"Thank you! Thank you so much, Mr. Dionne," I managed. My reply must have been a bit too loud, catching the attention of the media members still camped out by the main door.
"Uh oh," Marcel exhaled.
We were pushed out of the way by the media throngs, as they set upon Marcel for answers to their overdue and pointed questions. But it was OK. I had my autograph and I had finally met my favorite hockey player.
Fast forward a dozen years. Marcel was no longer with the Red Wings but was playing for the Los Angeles Kings; I was no longer a little girl, but cub reporter at The Detroit News. There were rumors of Marcel's pending trade to the New York Rangers. I was sent by the paper to the Red Wings-Kings game to write a sidebar and contribute to the notebook to be published the next day. I was instructed to get a quote from Marcel about the potential trade.
Although more than a decade had passed, I was still awestruck by Marcel's talent and persona. Just thinking about talking to him made me feel like I was that 11-year-old girl again. How could I do this? How could I keep my nervousness and excitement hidden? I had to figure it out. It was now my job. So, after the game I waited in the visitors' dressing room – along with a handful of other reporters – hoping to get a quote from him. Time passed and the mass of reporters found other players to interview, leaving me alone. And when Marcel emerged from the shower area (partially dressed, thank God), I was the only one there by his stall in the locker room. It was fate.
I began to speak and he held up his hand.
"No interviews," he said, politely ... of course.
"Actually, I don't want to interview you," I replied. "I just want to thank you."
A quizzical look crossed Marcel's face, and I gave him a brief recap of what transpired years before. It took only a moment and he broke into the huge Marcel smile I recognized. Pulling over a stool next to him, he patted it and invited me to sit down. He asked all about me, who I was working for, how I liked it. Then he thanked me for telling him about meeting him all of those years ago. At one point I looked up and saw that a large group of reporters had gathered around us, all looking panicked and, quite frankly, angry. They likely thought that this rookie scribe was getting the scoop. One reporter, a surly looking man, shot me a nasty look and pointed to his watch, indicating that he was on the clock and nearing his deadline. I didn't care. I turned back and kept talking to Marcel for a moment or two. This was my time, my chance to come full circle with a part of my life. Marcel thanked me for the chat ... adding more loudly that he wouldn't comment on trade rumors. He then got up and told the pack of thirsty reporters the same thing.
I walked out of that dressing room with distinct and unexpected feelings. It was partly the thrill of chatting with Marcel again and actually connecting with him. But it was also a sense of accomplishment. I felt both the weight and the satisfaction of the effort it had taken me to get to that point. Over the next dozen years those feelings would come back to me in varying intensity, reminding me of where I had begun, the hurdles I had to overcome and the pure joy of knowing that I had realized my dream of becoming a hockey writer.
Working in a field comprised of something like 98.97% men can be daunting and lonely. From my perspective it wasn't that I needed to work with other women to feel comfortable or relaxed, but sometimes all of the testosterone surrounding me was like a constant barrage of pebbles thrown underneath my feet that required constant navigation. In a way it was much like growing up with three brothers and a sports-minded father ... along with a sports-crazed mother. But unlike my household growing up, for the majority of the time I spent as a reporter I was the only woman around.
From the start of my career I had an aversion to being treated special or different because I was a woman. I did what I could to curtail any kind of extra consideration or accommodations because of my sex. I controlled what I could control. I'm sure there were times when players or coaches avoided saying things to me in the same way they might to a group of men. Honestly, for that I was grateful. I didn't need to be talked to like "one of the guys" to understand how the power play was or wasn't working, or what a player felt like as he sat atop the trading block.
My feelings about being treated differently on the basis of being a woman came long before my career in journalism. It might actually be true to say I was born with them. I distinctly remember a night sitting at our family dinner table with my parents and brothers. My dad said something about playing running bases (which we called pickle) after dinner. I was so excited at the prospect of having my dad donning his baseball mitt, throwing the ball and trying to tag us runners. My excitement over this was cut short when I was reminded by one of my brothers that I had to clean up the kitchen after dinner. In our house, my brothers shared the outside work with my dad, and I shared the inside work with my mom. The injustice of this arrangement was obvious to me. There were three of them to help my dad mow the lawn ... ONCE A WEEK. Yet, I had to clean the kitchen every night, then help clean the house and do laundry on weekends. As I sat there trying to eat my peas and carrots, my rage simmered. I expressed this as only a 9-year-old girl could.
"It's not fair!" I protested. "Why do I have to clean the kitchen every night just because I'm a girl?"
My brothers laughed at me, and even my dad allowed a chuckle. My mom sat silent for a moment, then spoke.
"She's right," my mom said, putting her napkin on the table. "Steve, you and Cyndy clean the kitchen together, then tomorrow Jerry and John will clean it. You can alternate nights from now on."