by Ron Spence
Last week, Puck Daddy referred to my good pal, Stan Fischler.
“Mr. Fischler, who graced my basement television on many a hockey night during my formative years in New Jersey.”
I didn’t come across Stan during my formative days, but met him a good decade ago.
I have worked for him since, and am referred to as “his man in Vancouver.”
In January, it will be seven decades since Stan saw his first hockey game.
I had asked him – eight or nine years ago – about his recollections from that contest, and his opinion on what has happened to hockey since that time (Please note that this was before the lockout and the introduction of the shootout.).
As usual, Stan’s insights provide a banquet for thought.
His face softens as he smiles and gazes into the empty seats – across the rink.
“The colours of the uniforms,” he answers, “and the goalie as a performer, wearing pads, the gloves, the big stick – that’s what I remember about my first hockey game. I was fascinated by the goaltender. And the uniform colours were distinctly different from anything in baseball, or football – and after that, the speed of the game. The whole ambiance was great….”
That was in 1939, when Stan Fischler was 7-years-old – long before he became hockey’s poet of the pond.
It was before the red line, before butterfly goalies wearing masks and slap shots emanating from curved sticks. And definitely well before a players’ association, free agency and lucrative contracts.
Stan’s first love was hockey and he started writing when he joined the Rangers’ fan club, and contributed to The Rangers’ Review. His idol was Baz O’Meara of The Montreal Star (Although Stan qualifies, “My style came from meeting other people and deciding who I liked and assimilating that into what I am.”). At Brooklyn College there was no hockey, so he became a soccer scribe, because “it was the next best thing.” Fischler’s first full-time job was as a publicity man with the New York Rangers in the mid-1950’s. Then he became a contributor to nearly every hockey publication from The Hockey News to Hockey Player.
Stan Fischler’s written 100 books or so. And he’s worked extensively in the electronic media. He now covers the Islanders’ and Devils’ games for local television, and edits his weekly The Fischler Report.
As a child, Stan had been impressed by hockey’s speed and colour.
As a young adult, he became equally impressed by the players,
“I was awed by the guys,” he says. “I found them to be a very amiable, but a different bunch because they were all Canadian … They talked differently.”
The player who “awed” him the most was Maurice “the Rocket” Richard.
“The most memorable interview I ever did was with ‘the Rocket,’ because I was doing his autobiography. So having done that and spending time intimately with the Babe Ruth of hockey, I couldn’t help but be in awe of him. But the remarkable thing about the Rocket, was as great as he had been on the ice, he was the most down to earth person, a super guy, a wonderful guy. He had a remarkable charisma, even when he didn’t have the puck. You were always aware of him on the ice. And of course, he was so dynamic as a skater. He was the most special guy I’ve ever seen … it was energy and physical strength. He overpowered people, and he had these eyes that glared. Glen Hall said that they were like search lights when he came in on the goal.”
Unlike today, hockey’s pre-sixties’ writers weren’t probing with search lights.
”There was a gambling case and in a sense that did get in the press and … into the personal lives, because two players were suspended for life: Don Gallinger and Billy Taylor. But, generally, the personal life was totally irrelevant. It didn’t matter.”
Besides, the players were different than they are today. Derek ‘the Turk’ Sanderson has said the pre-sixties players were “cookies and milk,” like Bobby Orr. They frequently spoke in clichés and wouldn’t reveal their opinions or feelings.
“There were always exceptions,” Fischler points out, “Stan Makita was one. Gump Worsly, another. There were some colourful guys. You’ve got to remember there were only six teams. There were fewer guys. You didn’t have a union. They weren’t independent. And they were really concerned about not angering management.”
This of course changed with the sixties, and the ‘me’ generation.
“The social revolution of the sixties spilled over to hockey. And even though hockey was very conservative, there were radicals in hockey. Derek Sanderson was as revolutionary to hockey, as “Boom Boom” Geoffrion inventing the slap shot, and Bobby Orr as a defenseman going end to end. What Sanderson did essentially was tell hockey players, ‘You guys can screw around and get away with it and make money out of it and get your picture in Life Magazine,’ which is what he did….”
Stan played a significant role in hockey’s social revolution. I’ve Got To Be Me, his collaboration with Sanderson, was hockey’s first three dimensional book. It narrated a player’s thoughts and probed behind the scenes – into the nitty gritty.
In addition to the social change, the player’s world was impacted by Expansion, the WHA, higher salaries and a resulting independence.
All this contributed to a change in the way the players treated the media.
“The best way to explain it was until about 1966, 1965, maybe a little bit later, if you were a journalist and wanted to interview a player, you went down into the dressing room and they were all sitting around. Or they were in the shower. Eventually, they’d come out of the shower, get dressed. Everybody was available. That didn’t mean everybody wanted to talk. But, they were all there. Now they have their separate room and they hide.”
But, some of today’s hockey writers will let them hide, but not run.
“It’s different in every city. In the areas where you have keen competition, like Toronto and New York and to a certain extent, Boston, it’s right up there with the other sports. You’ve got to get the scoop, sensationalism – the whole package is beat the other guy. It’s no different from anything else. If there’s a scandal in hockey, like the Graham James thing, it’ll be reported.”
It was the advent of the electronic media, however, that impacted hockey journalism the most.
“The whole business of journalism has changed because of the electronic vs. print. You’re standing out there and the coach is being interviewed and the electronic guys are dominating, and the print guys are staying in the back, til he’s through. There’s no way the print can compete with the electronics, because they have so little space to deal with. The space has gotten smaller. Whereas in the past, guys would be concerned about the game – now, the game is on television. Now what you read about in the paper is trade stories, gossip and criticism that you don’t get on TV.”
So, through all these changes, who’s been Stan Fischler’s best interview?
”There was a guy who wrote for Newsday in New York,” Stan answers, “and after I interviewed Milbury one night, he wrote that, ‘Mike Milbury is such a good interview, that he should be interviewed after the end of the first period, and the second period.’”
His worst interview? “Grant Fuhr, no question”
And, sixty years [remember this interview was a decade ago] after that initial mesmerizing haze of colour, speed and ambience, how does Stan Fischler see hockey?
“The way the game has changed is between the Province billboard and that logo over there,” Stan points across the GM Place ice. “There’s nothing about them that’s the same. Right? The colour, or anything. Except that they’re both on the boards. The only thing similar about hockey is that it’s still on the ice. If you weren’t there at the time to see hockey in the forties and the fifties, you can’t imagine how different it is – the sticks, the whole style.
And I believe in the end that the game today is a terrible game. A terrible spectacle in relation to what it was.”
He glances below, at the players’ benches. Curved sticks are propped against glass dividers. A multi-coloured mask rests on a bench. A PR person cajoles a superstar.
And a crouching cameraman, and a woman with a microphone, stand facing a player, who smiles a toothless grin for the 6 o’clock news.
Stan’s column may be be viewed at: http://www.msg.com/sports/