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 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.

Monday 19 March 2012

Sports Celebrity Breakfast a smashing affair

I was pleased and honoured to be one of the organizers and emcees for the eighth  annual Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors Foundation Sports Celebrity Breakfast on Sunday, March 18. The $160,000 in proceeds from the event went to support Seniors in Crisis, a program that delivers much needed assistance to seniors who are unable to financially look after their needs. The event attracted more than 600 people and was sold out months in advance.

You can see the excellent CTV report  below:

Indeed I like to tell the story about how this event all began. Nine years ago I decided that I wanted to start preparing a run to become a Côte Saint-Luc city councillor.   The demerger referendums had confirmed that Côte Saint-Luc, along with a number of other municipalities, would regain their independence in 2006. It was at the time I was soul searching that Harold Greenspon called. For more than two decades Harold was the de facto minister of finance for Côte Saint-Luc council and it was the district he represented that I had my eyes on. I told Harold of my ambitions and that I did not want to run against him. He indicated that it was unlikely he would return to politics and if I helped him start a Sports Celebrity Breakfast for the Cummings Centre he would in fact back me.

Well, we started from scratch, built a small committee and pulled off an event which attracted a few hundred people and raised some $10,000. That is pretty good considering the fact it was intended as a break even affair.

After a few years at the helm, Harold handed the chairmanship over to mega-sports fan and successful businessman Michael Wagen. Since then the event has been integrated into  a successful Cummings Centre Foundation, which Wagen also serves as president. There is really nothing else quite like this in the city. I also must make mention of Susan Rozansky, our event coordinator. Without her, there would be no Breakfast.

The  guest of honour for this year’s Sports Breakfast was Alan Maislin, who has been involved in sports all of his life at the amateur and professional levels. In recent years he served as the president of the  Israeli Ice Hockey Federation.  Alan was in fact the first honourary chair of this event.

Israel’s Consul General for Quebec  and the Maritimes, Joel Lion, assisted in the presentation of a Leadership Award to Maislin. Mr. Lion is a gem of an individual. He has only been here since late August and I already consider him to be a good friend.

Wagen was presented with an award fittingly named after  Greenspon Award in recognition for the critical role he has played in making this one of the most anticipated events on the Jewish sports calendar.  

You can watch the exciting introductions of the celebrities below:

The big surprise was the presence of three players from the Montreal Canadiens – forwards Max Pacioretty and Louis Leblanc and  defenceman PK Subban. Because their appearances could really  not be confirmed until the morning of the event, we decided to keep it quiet. The audience broke out in thunderous ovations when these stars were introduced.

Wagen, Pacioretty, Lion, Cromartie, Leblanc, Carbonneau, Lazarus
Former Montreal Expos player Warren Cromartie was on hand to take part in a special tribute to legendary catcher Gary Carter, who recently lost his battle with cancer. Johnny Elias, a longtime friend of Carter and a veteran coach at the Maccabiah Games level, was part of the ceremony as well. Rapper Annakin Slayd introduced his fitting video tribute to Carter and there was not a dry eye in the house. Even Cromartie had trouble getting his words out. Côte Saint-Luc Mayor Anthony Housefather announced that we will name our main baseball field in Pierre Elliott Trudeau Park after Carter. 

Here is the Slayd video:

Other guests  included former Canadiens  captain and head coach Guy Carbonneau, recently arrived Chief Operating Officer Kevin Gilmore, former head coach Jean Perron (the coach of the Israeli National Team), former NHL defencemen Igor Kravchuk and Bobby Dollas and Shea Emry, Ray Lalonde and Eric Lapointe of the Montreal Alouettes.

John Bartlett and Dick Irvin.

On hand from the media were Hockey Night in Canada legend Dick Irvin  Dave Stubbs and Herb Zurkowsky of The MontrealGazette, Brian Wilde of CTV and Tony Marinaro, Conor McKenna, John Bartlett,  Matthew Ross  and Dave Kaufman from TSN Radio 990.  

Kravchuk, Wilde and Subban.

Prominent attorney Morden “Cookie” Lazarus served as honourary chair.  A live auction for a variety of sports memorabilia was moderated by standup comic Joey Elias, a co-host of Montreal which broadcast live from the event. Give this show a listen. Noted radio personality Ted Bird is one of the colourful co-hosts. My good friend and colleague Kosta Papoulias, who made a wonderful video for the Breakfast which played on the big screens, is a producer.
Wagen, Maislin, Lazarus and Lion.

The Cummings Centre is a 6,500 participant, non-profit, community organization. It offers a full continuum of programs and services to the 50 plus community, from those who function autonomously to those who have become frail.  Seniors can take advantage of programs both on-campus at the Snowdon Facility or off-campus at three suburban locations.  The educational, social, recreational, and cultural programs include classes such as bridge, computers, film and book reviews, Jewish culture, global affairs, languages, literature, performing arts, recreation and leisure.  The  Centre also houses a fine arts department, craft and wellness centres and adapted exercise programs.  Their cafeteria offers dine-in or take-out kosher meals.
Pacioretty and wife Katia chat with Marinaro.

Wagen, Senior Vice-President of the Delmar Group, notes how only 39 percent the Centre’s funding comes from Federation CJA.   “It's hard to believe,” he explains “but one in five  Montreal Jewish seniors live  below the poverty line. Our presence in their lives is crucial to their well-being”

The Foundation, Wagen explains provides crucial support to the agency. "This is done through charitable bequests, endowment funds, donations of marketable securities, corporate sponsorship. Our annual initiatives include tribute cards, mitzvah meals, the sports celebrity breakfast and the governors program."

In addition to Susan Rozansky, hats off to Cummings Centre executive director Herb Finkelberg, Cathy Simons and Melissa Margles of the Foundation and communications chief Michael Beigleman.