Wednesday, 21 March 2012

My return to the press box: Our Habs remain a classy outfit

Last week I watched a Montreal Canadiens game from the press box for the first time in more than a decade. It was an exciting game, with the Habs defeating the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in a shootout.

I grew up in a household where my dad, known as Larry Fredericks (his real name is Lawrence Frederick Cohen), covered all of the professional sports teams in Montreal for the United Press International wire service. He’d always get tickets for my brother Chuck and I and we’d attend as many Habs, Expos and Alouettes games as possible. In the case of the Habs, the late Claude Mouton served as media relations director and each season he’d let dad bring us in the press box and get us in the dressing room. It surely influenced my wish to watch games there on a more regular basis when I got a little older.

When I did turn 18 my dad started bringing me along as one of his assistants. It was a dream come true. Then dad made a connection for me with the now defunct Sunday Express Newspaper. They hired me to cover the now former Montreal Manic soccer team, who were playing in an indoor league and at the Forum. That led to a full-time job as assistant sports editor while I continued my studies the next several years at Dawson and Concordia. During this time I covered every professional sport, including special events like boxing and the Grand Prix. I also got the much coveted season press pass to the Habs games. Thus began almost two decades of watching the games from there on a regular basis.  After my Express days I did it for UPI and Sports Ticker.

I got married, had a child. Besides my commitments to The Suburban,  I am employed full-time at the  English Montreal School Board, write for a number of other publications and serve  as a city councillor in Côte Saint-Luc. Yes, a lot on my plate and not much time to go watch a game from the box – even though I find myself frequently writing about the Habs.

Donald Beauchamp
I go back about 25 years with Donald Beauchamp, the Habs senior director of communications and community relations. He was the information officer for the University of Ottawa Varsity Sports Program when I held the same post at  Concordia. Donald has done very well for himself with the Habs and runs a well oiled machine, dealing with a huge media following.  I saw Donald during a visit to the Evenko offices a few months ago and he facilitated my pass for last week’s game. It was a nostalgic experience to say the least. Watching a game from so high up, you get a magnificent view of the entire ice surface. There are television monitors near every seat and internet access.

Red Fisher

Press box row has many of the same journalists who I worked with more than a decade ago. It was nice catching up with them. At the age of 85 Red Fisher is still going strong, pounding out game analysis columns on his laptop. Pat Hickey covers the team for The Gazette on a daily basis while columnists Dave Stubbs and Mike Boone always come up with interesting features. Of course these are the guys from Habs Inside Out, the type of website that did not exist a decade ago.

TSN Radio 990 has the broadcast rights and they are well represented .Besides play by play man John Bartlett and rotating colour commentators Bobby Dollas and Sergio Momesso, seasoned veteran Mitch Melnick’s show leads into the pre-game coverage. The likes of  Tony Marinaro, Conor McKenna, Sean Campbell, Mitch Gallo,  Jessica Rusnak, Simon Tsalikis and Eric Thomas cover each game inside out.  Remember the Rusnak name. She knows her hockey, asks good questions. These skills, matched with her natural beauty, could see her follow in the footsteps of Andie Bennett--- a TSN Radio 990 grad now doing outstanding work for CBC Radio and TV  sports. Andie and her colleague Douglas Gelevan, by the way,  are regulars in the box as well.

CJAD may have lost the broadcast rights, but former play by play guy Rick Moffat covers every home game.  In fact, with news that Canada’s largest telecommunications company BCE Inc. has reached an agreement to buy Astral Media Inc. for $3.38 billion in cash and stock, Moffat could be back in booth sooner than he ever dreamed. BCE owns Bell Media, the parent owners of  CTV Montreal, CJAD, Virgin Radio and CHOM FM to name a few. Astral stations are getting set to move into a new state of the art building on Papineau, right across the street from CTV. What if TSN Radio 990 (soon to be TSN Radio 690) gets some space there as well. Would the two stations be able to share resources?
Busy with the Alouettes and Impact, Rick  still loves his Habs fix. He  was busy tweeting and blogging at the game.  By the time he finishes his interviews and gets home it is about midnight – not easy when your wakeup call for work the next day is 4 a.m. “I take naps during the day,” he said.

Brian Wilde is on the Habs beat for CTV Sports. We can always look forward to his excellent live reports from the Bell Centre at 11:45 p.m. after a game.

Ron Reusch
Bill Beacon may not be a household name, but he has been covering the Habs for Canadian Press for decades. Arpon Basu of NHL.com is a man in the know, with a strong Twitter following. I caught up with two broadcast legends  - Ron Reusch and Jim Bay. Via his Reusch Blog,  Ron attends every home game.  Jim still serves as a correspondent for some networks and has not lost his touch for a good interview.

On the French side, seasoned pros like Marc Defoy of Le Journal de Montreal and Pierre Ladouceur of La Presse are classy gentlemen who gave me a warm greeting.

Douglas Gelevan, the rookie CBC Radio and Sports reporter, was in the box. He and on air partner Bennett rotate shifts.

Randy Cunneyworth at post game press conference.
I met former Hab Mario Tremblay and one-time referee and current broadcaster Ron Fournier on the press elevator. After the game the press head to the Habs dressing room where very few players seem available for interviews. I noticed owner Geoff Molson discreetly peek inside, with his kids by his size. Everyone heads to a classroom like setting for the post-game press conference with interim coach Randy Cunneyworth, who handles the questions thrown at him very nicely. He ends off with a “merci beaucoup.” I noticed him stopping to talk to former Hab Yvon Lambert, who congratulated him for giving defenceman Andre Markov a chance to take part in the shootout.

Pierre Gauthier
Prior to the game and in between periods the media gather in the Salle Jacques Beauchamp. This is named after the late sports columnist for Le Journal de Montreal. When I was starting out with The Sunday Express one of my first jobs was to edit Jacques’ column. He was a wonderful man who gave me great guidance early in my career

The pressroom has full course meals for $12 each. After the first period hot dogs and drinks are served at no cost. Media tend to gather in small groups. I was surprised to see general manager Pierre Gauthier in the room after the second period. He is not known to have a warm and fuzzy relationship with the media, but he could not have been more polite and animated when I started up a conversation.

It was indeed a nostalgic evening. Despite the fact the Habs will not make the playoffs, you can see the class in which this organization still operates.  Will they have a new GM and coach next season? Which players will stay and go? This team is much better than their record reflects and I believe we see them very much in contention for a post-season slot next year.

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