Upon Stan Fischler’s Retirement, Recollections from a College Intern

When I learned that Stan Fischler was retiring from his broadcast gig with MSG Network to spend more time with his grandchildren, the memories of “The Hockey Maven” came flooding back to me. You see, I was one of the privileged “Stan’s Interns” during two years in college in the mid-1980s, and the experiences I had – most of them with a cardboard press pass hanging from my neck – helped shape me into the hockey lover, indeed the person, I am today.

It was the fall of 1985, when I was writing for my college paper about the Devils’ Pat Verbeek after his thumb was reattached following an off-season farming accident, that I came into Stan’s orbit. Sitting in the auxiliary press box at the old Brendan Byrne Arena, I found myself next to a Fischler book collaborator. We got to talking, and when he mentioned Stan’s constant need for interns, I passed along my phone number. I’d forgotten about it when a few months later my phone woke me and I heard a gravelly voice on the other end.

“Hello?”

“Is this Gary?”

It was, I said groggily.

“This is Stan Fischler.”

“Um, oh, hi Mr. Fischler!” I stuttered, shocked at unexpectedly speaking to the walking hockey encyclopedia I’d watched on SportsChannel for years. As the conversation unfolded, I was recruited to come work for him in exchange for college credit.

That entailed weekly visits to his Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, or more accurately, his Manhattan office with a bedroom and kitchen. Papers and hockey and subway memorabilia were everywhere; I’d never seen a more cluttered desk in my short life. Bookshelves were lined with tomes about the sport – many of which he wrote (some with his wife Shirley). A desk nestled among the shelves became my workspace.

As a journalism major, I was tasked with everything from research, to editing his various columns, to conducting interviews for his next story. Once, I called Chico Resch’s other half for a column on hockey wives. Each week, I’d send his column to the Quebec News via an early fax machine that employed a spinning cylinder and phone line. Shirley was always at the ready with something baked for the interns.

The real joy of interning, however, came on game days. Stan could routinely bring three or four assistants to each game on the Island or at the Meadowlands, and I made sure I was frequently one of them. It helped my cause that I was often his chauffeur – Stan didn’t keep a car in the city, for practical reasons – so I’d pick him up and we’d drive out around 4 for an 8 p.m. start. We talked hockey much of the way, of course, but Stan was always interested in getting to know me personally.

I got to know him, too, and I learned that for all his warm, Jewish uncle-ness, he was a dogged perfectionist in everything he did and wrote. He didn’t abide laziness, and kept us interns on our toes. Once, before a game, he asked me to give him a list of the two players I’d draft from every NHL team, and why. He reviewed the list on the drive to the Nassau Coliseum, and although we had a spirited debate about some of my choices, I felt I passed muster in my defense of them.

Once in the arena, no time was wasted. When he wasn’t cramming for the game ahead in a workspace in the bowels of the building, Stan would put the finishing touches on one column or another, and he’d often dictate them, sucking down Diet Cokes, as I typed away on a portable typewriter. One time, in his train-of-thought dictation, he mentioned, in his best French accent, Les Habitants.

“What?” I asked.

Les Habitants…”

“I’m sorry, can you repeat it?”

“The Canadiens!” Stan barked. I was momentarily taken aback – it was a nickname I hadn’t heard before – but I laughed about it later. This was classic Stan when he was up against deadline: all business, no BS.

During games, I’d often keep stats, frequently sitting next to a TV camera. I’d rush these to the SportsChannel studio downstairs between periods for Stan to deliver during the intermission. After the final buzzer, we interns would split up to cover the home and visitor locker rooms, getting quotes alongside credentialed journalists, which again Stan would read during the wrap-up show. It was heady stuff for a young hockey fan. We’d wrangle players for intermission and post-game interviews, often handing them a towel and, in the case of Billy Smith, a post-game brew which he sipped on-air.

Once, Stan bribed me with a pass to a Devils game to drive him to his upstate New York ski house after the game. I drove, alright…a hard bargain, negotiating  a pass for my best friend as well, so I’d have company on the drive home. We did nothing official that evening, just enjoyed the game from ice level prior to our road trip. Stan gave me gas money, and as I recall, a little bit on top.

When each semester ended, I’d ask The Maven to write a letter of evaluation for my advisor. Each time, he told me to write something for him to sign, so of course I wrote all positive things. The first time I did this, he added a scribbled, personalized note: “Get me two more like him!”

On January 28, 1986, a game day on the Island, I made the trip from Rutgers in Newark to Manhattan, listening, disbelieving, to news on the radio of the Challenger explosion. Stan, Shirley, and we interns were pinned to the TV in his apartment watching news coverage of the tragedy. With heavy hearts, we left for the game. At 5 p.m., the voice of President Reagan came on the speakers in the Coliseum’s locker room area. “They waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God,’” the president intoned. Before the puck dropped, there was a moment of silence as the astronauts’ names were flashed on the center-ice scoreboard. The Isles went on to crush the Toronto Maple Leafs, 9-2.

Near the end of my last semester interning, the Islanders played the Flyers in Game 7 of the 1987 Patrick Division finals, at the old Spectrum. Stan invited me to work the game, but I opted to drive down with friends and watch as a paying fan. I soon regretted my decision, as I’d become spoiled by free tickets and all-access press passes. I felt like a deposed king or president, stripped of the trappings of his position and now living the life of a commoner. I’d worked my last game as a Stan intern.

In the summer of 1988, we crossed paths during “Hockey Week” at the old Concord Resort in the Catskills, which drew NHL stars to tune up for the Canada Cup Tournament, and hotel guests seeking a fantasy camp-like chance to skate with them. My friends and I took the ice for a scrimmage with the likes of Kirk Muller, Mario Lemieux, Luc Robitaille, Roberto Romano and Martin Gelinas (who later would have the distinction of being part of the trade that brought Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles). Stan was shooting a feature about the event for MSG Network, and I got a great picture of him on the ice during warm-ups in polo shirt, pastel shorts and skates.

I played goal, so was between the pipes as another former intern, who aspired to be a sports broadcaster, called the play-by-play on the PA system. As we’d served together in Stan’s posse, I was the only non-NHL’er he knew by name, so the call would be “Robitaille shoots – glove save by Frisch!” while all the other guests on the ice were essentially non-entities. As a result, after the game, at least one spectator mistook me for a professional and asked me to pose for a picture with his daughter!

Over the years, I’d attend Devils games and seek Stan out, usually stationed, mike in hand, at the players’ ramp or Zamboni entrance. He was always warm and happy to see me, and willing to serve as a reference for this job application or that, or put in a good word with some team’s front office as I pursued a career in sports PR. Later as life, parenthood and growing responsibilities interceded, my in-person attendance dropped off significantly, but I continued to watch Stan on TV, wistfully recalling my days as an “insider.”

Thanks for everything, Stan, and enjoy retirement with Ben, Simon and their kids. I’ll look for you in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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America’s Most Hated Man Wears the Badge with Honor

Who knew that being the most hated person in America could have benefits?

I’m referring to Martin Shkreli, the former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who is now facing trial for securities fraud. If anyone embodies the old saying no publicity is bad publicity, it’s Shkreli.

The young pharmaceuticals tycoon thrust himself into the pantheon of the hated in 2015, when his company acquired rights to and promptly raised the price of a life-saving HIV drug by 5,000 percent. Since then, he has appeared publicly as smug and non-contrite, seemingly fostering his reputation as a greedy corporate bad boy. Testifying (or rather taking the 5th) in congressional hearings last year, Shkreli smirked and primped in front of his questioners and a national television audience.

Whether he can’t help himself, or was consciously trying to claim the badge of “person most likely to be punched” — and here’s betting on the latter — Shkreli’s strategy seems to be paying off, at least in the short term. Prosecutors in his case have been stymied by the jury selection process. Everyone, it seems, has heard of him, and everyone hates him.

Now there’s an idea: become so hateable you have no peers who can be empanelled to judge you without bias. This is a brilliant strategy. Think about it: Bill Cosby, serial assaulter of women, had a jury and fair trail, albeit one that was declared a mistrial. O.J. Simpson, butcher of Brentwood, had 12 supposedly unbiased jurors hear his case. Yet no one can claim mere indifference to the “pharma bro.”

Of course, both those celebrities had something going for them Shkreli never did: a bank of prior goodwill to balance against the charges they faced later in their careers. Shkreli first entered the public zeitgeist by driving up the pricing of Daramprim, a move that made national headlines. He capitalized on that notoriety with a series of cruel comments and carefully orchestrated appearances. Essentially, rather than damage control, he mounted the opposite of a reputation-management campaign, doubling down to make himself more detestable.

Some of this was by design. Some of it by nature. Shkreli is just one of those people whose face shouts “punch me!” His arrogant mien conjures every school bully you’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. Others with that look include current advisor-in-chief Jared Kushhner and the actor Finn Wittrock, who parlayed it into success with a campy, hiss-worthy role in American Horror Story: Freak Show on television.

One would think that individuals possessed of this appearance would work hard to counter it with a glowing personality and empathy for others, just as extraordinarily attractive people become more endearing when they turn out to be exceptionally pleasant, giving and self-deprecating. But Shkreli has shown no such interest in doing that, probably throughout his lifetime.

So here he is, awaiting 12 people who can set aside preconceived notions of greed, superiority and callousness in order to receive a fair trial. The lawyers will find them, of course, but even if he is ultimately acquitted, Shkreli will have sealed his fate as a pariah among civilized people.

In that regard, his image campaign has been a resounding success.

Volunteering for the DNC: Fun, but Not the Experience I Signed on For

Now that Philadelphia is sweeping up after the Democratic National Convention, I thought I’d offer an evaluation of my volunteer experience for the event.  The first point is, I didn’t actually volunteer for “the event,” but a city-wide festival related to the pomp and circumstance of the Democratic confab. Nor was the difference made clear when I registered.

If you sense a bit of disappointment, you’d be right. My feelings were summed up by a business colleague who said Tuesday night at a business mixer, “Gary? I didn’t think you’d show because you were volunteering for the convention.”  In her mind, I was working the floor at the Wells-Fargo Center at that moment, corralling delegates, running notes between Clinton campaign staff and the media, or some similar chore.

That wasn’t the case.  As it turns out, few from the rank-and-file volunteers were able to score a plum job at the Wells-Fargo Center. Indeed, that effort was run by the Democratic National Convention Committee, while the city-wide volunteer program was run by the Democratic Convention Host Committee.  In other words, to my understanding, I was recruited by the City of Philadelphia, not the national mother ship for the Democratic Party.

Assignments offered included greeting arriving guests at the airport and various hotels, transporting them with your vehicle to various functions, and staffing Political-Fest, a city-wide event highlighting the election process and the democratic system, held at seven key locations.  Duty inside or outside the WFC was never an option.

I chose Political-Fest and worked two shifts: Friday on the lawn of the National Constitution Center (NCC), and Monday upstairs there, outside the Annenberg Theater, where political trivia competitions and historic film footage were the main draws.  Monday was a bit busier than Friday, but my overall impression was we volunteers were overbooked.  At some points, there were more “blue shirts” than guests roaming the main lobby of the NCC, and six or seven volunteers outside encouraging visitors to try on a triangle hat for a photo just had us stepping on each other’s toes.

Monday was the more interesting day, in that politicos were moving in and out of the theater all day. That’s where I saw Ed Rendell, Gov. Tom Wolf, as well as Dick Durbin, Joe Crowley and even 80s television star Morgan Fairchild, a good friend, I was told, of Rendell’s. My official duties involved shepherding ticketed guests into the theater, but the audiences were so thin tickets soon became an afterthought in favor of warm bodies to fill the seats. Often, that included us volunteers.  After my official shift ended, I enjoyed a few of the trivia contests, and since I had volunteer credentials was able to flit in and out of the “green room” where the celebrity guests assembled before going on stage. It was a small pleasure to have “access” to someplace the general public did not.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help feeling like a victim of a bait-and-switch.  When I volunteered for the Pope’s visit, I was in the thick of the action, and even if I wasn’t on the security front lines, I felt close to the excitement, literally a few blocks from His Holiness’ Saturday event. In fact, my credentials and volunteer shirt got both me and my wife close to the Pope’s motorcade and his speech outside of Independence Hall.

When I volunteered for the DNC, I’d hoped to be in or close to the WFC, maybe involved in media credentialing since I’m a public relations professional. In fact, weeks ago an e-mail arrived offering that assignment and some other more interesting ones,  but the corresponding assignments were nowhere to be found on the volunteer portal’s sign-up page.  I couldn’t have been alone in my wish; I heard that a call went out before the weekend seeking volunteers to do a midnight-4 a.m. shift at the WFC placing seating cards for the convention, and the slots were all filled in about 30 minutes.

In the end, many of us volunteers at the NCC were simply unpaid supplemental staff, on hand to greet and assist an expected crunch of visitors that never fully materialized, and who may or may not have been in town for the convention, or were there independent of Political-Fest activities.

This feeling was amplified by an e-mail volunteers received during the convention, clarifying that our credentials were good only for Political-Fest, and would not allow us access to the Wells-Fargo Center or anywhere else where delegates would gather. Yeah, I kind of got that from the fact neither my name, picture, nor any anti-counterfeiting features were on the badge.  I didn’t really need an e-mail to tell me I was nothing more than a tourist ambassador for the day.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m mostly glad I volunteered, it was at times an enjoyable change of pace, mostly very easy work, and like they say, I got the shirt.  But next time I sign up to volunteer for anything, I’ll read the fine print more carefully.

 

DNC Volunteering Day 2: Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows

Day 2 of my volunteer experience for the Democratic National Convention was far more pleasant and interesting than my first shift out on the lawn of the National Constitution Center.  For one thing, I chose an indoor assignment on a 97-degree day.  In other words, I wisened up.  And I selected a post upstairs in the Center outside the Annenberg Theater, where some fun events involving personalities from the media and politics were taking place.

Continue reading DNC Volunteering Day 2: Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows

Democratic Convention Volunteering, Day One

I had my first volunteer shift for Democratic National Convention festivities today, and it was fun, but hardly the flurry of excitement I’d anticipated when I signed up.  I took the PATCO into Philly and walked to the credentials pick-up spot at 1735 Market Street. I took my blue volunteer shirt and lanyard with badge, then walked to my assigned spot at the National Constitution Center, arriving 5 minutes before the start of my noon-4 shift.

Continue reading Democratic Convention Volunteering, Day One

No Pope, but Lots of Pomp: Why I’m Volunteering for the Democratic Convention

It starts again.

10 months after the excitement of the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia, the area is eagerly anticipating thousands of delegates and VIPs for the Democratic National Convention. And, once again, I chose to get involved.

Despite two major events within a year, these are rare experiences, and I again felt the urge to part of the action.  So I registered as a volunteer for the DNC months ago, and selected my assignments a few weeks ago.  My background check from the World Meeting of Families carried over for this event, and I took part in a mandatory training webinar for volunteers.

I will be doing two shifts at the National Constitution Center.  There’s something called PoliticalFest going on throughout the city in the run-up to the convention, with events and activities for all the attendees.  I will be an on-site volunteer on Friday, July 22, then will be involved in ticketing on the following Monday.  I chose these assignments because the Constitution Center is easy to get to without driving in, and it seems like just about everyone coming in for the convention will participate at some point. I’m looking forward to meeting people from every state in the union, and singing the praises of Philadelphia and South Jersey.

And oh yes, I once again listed my house as lodging for one visitor, this time free of charge.  Doubt we’ll have priests or parishioners this time around, but devout Democrats are welcome, as we’re a Democratic household.  Haven’t heard yet if anyone will be staying with us.

Uniform pick-up is most of next week. Of course, that ends on Thursday, so I’ll be making a separate bridge crossing to get my shirt and credentials prior to my first volunteer assignment.

As with the Pope’s visit, I’m looking forward to being in the thick of things, assisting visitors, and maybe even rubbing elbows with a “name” or two.  In any case, I’m sure it will be a fulfilling experience.  I’ve even been invited to the limited-attendance volunteer kick-off party next Thursday night on Penn’s Landing.

Stay tuned for updates.