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McConnell's Blog: 30 Hours in Toronto

Wednesday, 11.16.2011 / 11:55 AM / McConnell's Blog
By Matt McConnell
TORONTO -- As Tyson Nash and I signed on Tuesday night from Toronto, we talked about the significance for many of the Coyotes players of playing in Toronto, several of which were set to play in front of family and friends. The infrequent stop in the self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe has long been a date circled on many a hockey calendar. Even I, a proud American born in Gary, Indiana, have enjoyed the stop on the schedule which always seems to be a 24/7 all you can eat of pucks, scoops, stories and history.

Matt McConnell
But this season’s stopover was more special than the rest. You see, the scheduling gods afforded the Coyotes the date immediately following the annual Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. That meant a late Monday afternoon arrival on the same day as the celebration.

Thanks to the Coyotes, I was given the opportunity to attend the festivities at the hall of fame, along with several members of the traveling television party that included sideline reporter and pre-game show host Todd Walsh and Coyotes radio voice, Bob Heethuis. Our producer Graham Taylor, a Calgary Flames fan growing up in Alberta, couldn’t wipe the smile off his face as Flames legends Cliff Fletcher, Lanny McDonald and Theo Fleury, to name a few, mingled with the crowd.

On the shuttle ride over to the hall, I started thinking about some of the perks that come with the privilege of being a National Hockey League broadcaster. First, the day starts with a flight on the team’s private charter from Phoenix to Toronto. It wraps up with an invitation to the party celebrating the legend and history of the greatest game on earth. Yes, the perks are often unique and over the top, and something I will never take for granted.

2011 Hockey Hall of Fame Inductees.
Everywhere I turned, legends of the game were within earshot, immediately invoking memories of my youth. As I made my way to the hotel elevator, there was McDonald in his hall of fame blazer chatting with Coyotes Associate Coach Jim Playfair, two former players with strong Calgary ties. When I looked at Lanny, the vision of his historic goal in Montreal in 1989 and the Flames Stanley Cup celebration raced through my mind. I can still see him, with his arms raised in celebration as he curled out of the corner wearing that huge smile. Minutes later, Doug Gilmour and his family made their way through the hotel lobby. Doug looked nervous and subdued, walking with family as he readied himself for induction.

After arriving at the hall, the celebration was in full view. The National Hockey League did an incredible job with the layout. Dignitaries mingled throughout the hall exchanging conversation while navigating their ways through the exhibit hall, stopping every so often to refill glasses or to sample delicious food. At every stop of the way, there was someone you’d recognize. Fletcher came out of nowhere to hold court. Toronto General Manager Brian Burke flashed smiles throughout. I even had a chance to chat with the aforementioned Fleury, who made his way into the reception area with his brother.

Eventually, our group headed upstairs to the grand hall to watch the festivities with the Stanley Cup perched on its pedestal just a few feet away. Inductee Joe Nieuwendyk had the line of the night when he talked about being a poor Cornell collegiate one night and enjoying a $70 dinner with Calgary teammates in New York City the next. Other inductees provided heartfelt and humble speeches. Mark Howe praised father Gordie, Eddie Belfour delivered a brief speech thanking former Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak for developing his game. Gilmour’s ties to the Maple Leafs and the Toronto community held the audience captive, grabbing their attention with the same “killer” instincts he used to grab the attention of opposing players.

On Tuesday morning, it was time for one final memory. While searching for breakfast throughout the hotel lobby, I glanced toward the lounge area. Catching my attention was a silver-haired man in his eighties. After a closer look, I was able to confirm another hockey legend. It was none other than Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, joined by family and friends for one final get together. Nobody bothered him. Heck, he could have been Joe from Richmond Hill.

Thirty hours later, we boarded the team plane bound for Philadelphia with memories fresh from the night before. What an incredible start to a season-long road trip. It was a chance to pause the season and be a fan again for a night.

And to capture memories I will never forget.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Follow Matt McConnell on Twitter @sparty8185.
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