The First Time

News came out the other day that Stan Mikita has oral cancer.

It made me think of the first time I met the former Chicago Blackhawk.  It was in Las Vegas in this huge suite at the Palms.  The first time I saw him, I thought this was one pretty cool old guy.  You can’t help but be humbled in his presence, knowing that this guy standing next to you is a hockey legend. 

Last night, I got to thinking about a lot of my firsts. 

The first time I ever saw Martin Brodeur was on October 13, 2005.  Sure, Jaromir Jagr had just scored a goal on him, but I kept thinking…wow…this guy is awesome.

That was also Henrik Lundqvist’s first NHL appearance.  It was that game that created Henrik’s new fanbase.  We were all mesmerized by him.  He was just phenomenal.  A few months later he went on to win the gold medal in the Olympics. 

It was also that 2006 playoffs of the Rangers versus the Devils that Brodeur became my all-time favorite goaltender.  It was one move that won me over. 

Marty was caught outside of the net, when a Ranger attempted a shot on goal.  Marty went flying (like Superman) across the crease and he stopped the puck…with the blade of his skate.

I was sitting in the fourth row to the left of the net.  Everyone in my section was just stunned.  We needed to see that play over again…and we did.  We sat there with our jaws glued to the floor of Continental Airlines Arena thinking…that Martin Brodeur is something else.  Who stops a puck with only the blade of his skate while they’re flying through the air like Superman?  Martin Brodeur does.

I also remember the first time I ever saw David Clarkson.  He was still in the minors, playing in the AHL, but I will never forget that game in Hartford.  While I was watching the youth, I had mapped out who I expected to make it to the NHL (this is my GM in training education).  At the time, I had Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan checked off on my roster that they left for me on my seat.  Of course, they made the squad a few months later.

For the Devils, only one person stood out to me…and that was Clarky.  Granted, if it wasn’t for that crazy Rangers fan from New York sitting in front of me, I never would have noticed Clarkson right off the bat.

Every time Clarky touched the ice, the Rangers fan went ballistic, banged on the glass, yelling, “CLARKSON!”  For two whole periods this guy did this. 

Right as my head was starting to pound from all of the noise, I was getting ready to grab the guy and punch him.  Instead, Clarkson skated over and looked at the crazed Rangers fan and blew him a kiss.  It literally dumbfounded the guy.  Everyone that saw it was laughing hysterically.  It shut the guy up for the rest of the game.

That, to me, was probably the coolest thing I ever saw a hockey player do.  So David has that little special place in my book.  It’s all about first impressions, and that was Clarkson’s first impression on me.

The first time I encountered Zach Parise, I thought he was nuts.  Really, I did.  Reporters are supposed to approach the players, not the other way around.  When I realized I was being followed around in the locker room and he kept commenting on my pink Burberry bag and asking me if I had gone shopping…I literally thought the kid was nuts.  It was one of those, “Why are you talking to me?” moments.  It wasn’t just one time, he did it a few times.

For the record, Zach is the only one that’s ever done that.  I hope he’s the last.  Really…you want to creep someone out…that’s how you do it.  But don’t worry…he doesn’t creep me out as much anymore. 😉  

The only other player that’s ever approached me was Ryan Miller.  Reporters had moved out of the way when I walked into the Buffalo Sabres’ locker room and let me get up front to get quotes from Miller.  He noticed that.

I was writing down what he was saying when he wrapped things up.  Media dispersed and he had left the room.  I was still standing there writing down what he had said when he came up to me and said, “You know…you could have talked to me first.” 

I looked up and saw that the entire team was sitting in their lockers staring at me and not a single media person was in there.  Miller walked me out of the locker room and chatted with me.  I was literally gushing for a week after that.  [For the record, this was before he started dating his current fiancee.]  The reason why I was gushing…it had been a long time since a guy walked up to me just to talk to me like that.  Of course, I’m not going to say what we talked about.

There are other times when there was a player that I encountered that didn’t make a great first impression on me.  Shawn Thornton is one of them.  I was reading something on my phone and I commented to one of the Bruins reporters that another Bruins reporter (that they all knew) just had a baby.  Shawn was walking by me and I don’t know if he was trying to be cute or a jerk, but he started mocking me saying, “Baby…baby…baby.”  Every time he walked by me from one room to the next…another comment on a baby. 

It’s Shawn Thornton…what would your impression be on that?

Sean Avery…let’s just say it was all bad.  That is all. 

There were other moments like Carey Price, and Tim Thomas almost beating him up in the locker room.  And me…trying to explain to Carey why I was laughing (and his response when he found out he had been caught).  That was funny.  I love those two goalies because of that moment.  First impressions…

There was also the time when I saw Vincent LeCavalier for the first time…at a hot dog stand.  You never forget those moments.  (I even took a picture because it was just too funny…Vinny at a hot dog stand…HA!)

The only first moment I don’t remember (as far as my favorite all-time hockey legends) is Brendan Shanahan.  He became my #1 fave when Jagr dropped off my list.  But I couldn’t tell you what was the first moment. 

It was definitely not the time he pointed to me when he came out to start the second period and yelled across the ice to Darius Kasparaitis, “Is that the girl?”  I hope Darius told him that I can read lips.  And it was so obvious they were talking about me because Shanny pointed right at me (and looked right at me when he skated by).  [If you’ve followed my work since the beginning, you would know why I was Rangers’ talk.]

No…now I remember…you know what the first moment was?  It was in Puerto Rico.  Oh, how could I forget Puerto Rico? 

I came out of my hotel room and found a bunch of New York Rangers standing around my door.  Matt Cullen was across the hall from me (the first time I met him was in the hallway when I was heading to the beach).  Adam Hall was next door to me.  Michael Nylander commented that it looked like I was dressed and ready to go dancing (because we had all received an invitation from the hotel to attend a special party they had put together for the Rangers). 

I didn’t see who all was standing next to my door, but I saw a good 8 or 9 guys hanging out there.  They started whispering when I went to the elevator around the corner. 

That was the first time Aaron Ward had ever seen me. 

But I didn’t see Shanny (whom I believe was also one of the Rangers outside my door) until the Exhibition game when he came out onto the ice for warmups.  The Puerto Rico game was probably one of my favorite most memorable road trips.  This was the first time I was ever on the road with the Rangers, but it also made me fall in love with hockey a little bit more.

The kids were able to sit in the front row during the game.  I had such a good time talking to the boys and explaining the game to them.  One of the Florida Panthers had overheard me telling the kids to knock on the glass and ask for a puck.  The player skated down and picked up a puck for each of the kids and came back over and gave them all a puck.  I mouthed the words, “Thank you” to him.  He nodded and then skated back towards the locker room. 

That’s how the NHL can make a considerable impression on young hockey fans.  It’s all about making those moments personal.

When I first ran into Gary Bettman, it was in Prague.  He was standing in the hall (by himself) watching Vinny Prospal being interviewed by a bunch of Czech reporters.  We both stood there watching the whole thing. 

At the time, Vinny was playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning.  I found out later that day what the NHL was really saying about me.  They had dubbed me the “Jersey Girl.”  I covered the Devils.  But the way they described my first time in the Devils press box…I didn’t think anybody was watching me.  I didn’t know it was HUGE talk within the NHL. 

[No, I didn’t do anything odd or controversial…Lou did something very uncharacteristic of Lou…he let a new person into his press box.  First time a website entered his domain…and it was a woman.  This started to pave the way to let new media (internet based sites) into the press box in the NHL.]

Later that day, Rick Peckham (TBL’s play-by-play announcer) said to me, “It’s an honor to be a part of your history in the making.”  Apparently, what was being said about me was that I was going to change the face of the NHL.  [I was also the only female reporter in Prague.  The European media was so intrigued with me.  They said it was unheard of for a woman to write about sports.  They thought the NHL was revolutionary in letting a woman cover their game.]

Think that’s nuts?  I learned from a New York Islanders player recently that he had heard that I had a very strong influence in the NHL.  He had no idea how powerful that influence was until he got on Twitter.  He said that all I had to do was say he was on Twitter and within 8 minutes, he had over 1,800 new followers.  He said, “That is influence.”

That was his first impression of me. 

When I met Jarome Iginla at the NHL Awards, he was surprised to learn that my former editor was one of the girls he used to hang out with in high school.  It made for some interesting discussions. 🙂 

When I met Roberto Luongo, we had to share several hours with the Stanley Cup.  Funny how I said to him that he couldn’t touch the Cup until he earned his right to it.  He said he could touch it.  It became probably one of the most interesting arguments I’ve ever gotten into with a professional hockey player.  This year, if he wins it, I’ll say…”So…you finally earned your right to touch Lord Stanley.  I told you that you couldn’t touch it before then.” 😉

Now, as far as the big players go like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin…Crosby I ran into when I got off the elevator in Montreal.  It was random, but he smiled.  He’s a cute kid.

Ovechkin, on the other hand, has told people that I’ve partied with him at the Marquis club in NYC.  He swears by it. 

I hope I was fun, because I would remember something like that.  Although, the model he was with the first time I met him…I know.  Rangers fans borrowed my camera one night.  When I got it back, I found paparazzi photos of Ovechkin and this model.  I sent an email to Ovechkin and said…ummm…so I didn’t take these photos of you, but Rangers fans did. 

He didn’t respond to me.  But I later found out from that model what he had said about it.  Weird?  Yes, it is. 

The whole Ovechkin run ins have always been odd and strange.

Which leads me to Mats Sundin.  I found out about his retirement and that he was going to go pro-poker directly from him.  They decided to release the information through me first, because he remembered me from the poker tournament I attended.  Yeah…crazy, I was hanging out with him and Luongo for 13 hours. 

Everything there is to know about poker, I learned from Sundin, Luongo, Pat LaFontaine and Glenn Anderson.  I also learned how poker relates to hockey. 

Pat LaFontaine is probably my favorite as far as legends I’ve met over the years.  He was reading “The Outliers” that summer and it became a huge conversation piece over dinner.  How it all relates to hockey is one of the most interesting things I’ve ever heard.  To study hockey and how you can figure out the A-list players versus the B-list, C-list and D-list is amazing. 

I always say that my hockey education came directly from hockey players…this is the stuff we talk about.  Just like understanding why hockey players play poker on the road.  It helps their mind develop strategy, which they can apply to the game itself.  It’s the same with golf.  The movements are almost completely identical.  Golf teaches you to perfect yourself.

I get my hockey education out of golf, because my instructor is the same one Mark Messier uses to perfect his game to prepare him for a career in professional golf (yes, he’s trying for a pro career). 

I’ve met Mess so many times, I can’t remember what time was the first time.  You can’t help but be in awe when you are in his presence.  It is Mark Messier afterall.

If I were to pick my fondest memories of who I thought was the coolest first moment…it may be Pat LaFontaine at the NHL Awards when he taught me so much about hockey…or Nicklas Lidstrom when he was climbing the stairs at Wrigley Field in front of me (in his skates) and I was scared as hell that he was going to lose his balance and fall backwards…or maybe it was laying on the beach next to Don Maloney in Puerto Rico talking about how white Petr Prucha was (LOL)…

There have been so many moments, so many people, and so many opportunities and experiences in these past 3 years…that I realize just how blessed I’ve been.  There have been moments where I’ve gotten interviews that completely pissed off the rest of the media because I got it (which I usually don’t care about that stuff as far as who gets what first).  There are others that got pissed off because I was given access long before they were given access or I got in on a secret rendezvous point.  Then there are others that think that players have given me an unfair advantage over them and have shown favoritism. 

Hey…I didn’t ask for it.  I just asked the question and they answered it. 

Really…if you asked Kovalchuk last year if he planned on signing with the Devils…he probably would have told you.

But yes, there have been moments when someone like Mats Sundin decided to release the information through me first.  Why?  Because I spent 13 hours with the guy at a poker tournament…NO OTHER MEDIA WAS THERE!  Who else would have understood the hockey retirement to play professional poker decision?  It was explained to me during those 13 hours.  I held onto the information until he was ready to release it.

When the opportunity arises to do something different and unique with the NHL, I usually jump at the opportunity, because I am always a student of hockey.  The way I was taught hockey comes from the pros themselves.  Not everyone understands why I talk about other things besides the game…but hockey players do, because that’s what they taught me…there’s more to this hockey business than just a game.  I’m always interested in the elements that go into becoming the best hockey players that ever existed.  It’s not just practice, practice, practice…many will tell you that taking from other elements in life…that helps them become a better hockey player.

Why else do you think the Rangers asked me to tag along in Eastern Europe?  I covered them two years ago in Prague.  They were happy with the results from what I picked up on and published.  This upcoming trip will be very different and more Puerto Rico style.  This will mark my 3rd road trip across the waters with the Rangers. 

What happens on a Rangers roadie stays on the roadie…but I may share a little bit with you.  MAYBE…

But I know, as always, there will be first moments and new memories.  I wish I could tell you where we’re going, but it’s still top secret until the NHL gives the go ahead and says I can talk about the different cities.  All I can say is…I CAN’T WAIT!

Even though this career is still new to me…I still can’t believe how much I’ve experienced in these short few years.  From the first time I was ever in an NHL locker room (New Jersey Devils), to my first hockey road trip (New York Rangers), to my first Winter Classic (Wrigley Field), to my first NHL party (New Year’s Eve 2009), to my first trip to Canada (Montreal-NHL All Stars), to my first time going to a country I’d never been to before…by myself…where I didn’t even speak the language (Czech Republic for the NHL Premiere 2008), to going on my first Devils road trip (Cali 2010)…there are so many firsts with the NHL.  They’ve made this one incredible adventure.  I’ve enjoyed every single second of it. 

What I’ve enjoyed the most…meeting all of the different media folk across the world.  From Nashville to Boston to Slovakia to Russia…all of you have made this fun as hell.  Looking forward to more adventures. 

Next stop Vegas…

About Michelle Kenneth

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