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.
“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.
“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.