GUY BEHIND THE GUY
You've probably seen him, but never noticed him. He's that guy breezing by in the background while Rod Brind'Amour is talking about the big win on TV. The guy with the walkie-talkie standing behind the corner boards near the end of the game at the RBC Center. The one running into the RecZone with piles of paper in his arms. That guy is Mike Sundheim, the Hurricanes' Director of Media Relations, and this season, Mike is going to share his experiences as just a regular guy traveling around North America with an NHL team in his blog, "The Guy Behind the Guy."
THE RON: LIKE OLD TIMES - January 26, 2006
The first time I spoke to Ron Francis for any length of time beyond "Nice to meet you," I was an intern for the team writing one of my first feature stories for the game program we used to sell at home games. I had a decent amount of experience writing personality pieces like the one I was putting together about Ron, having interviewed athletes including Mia Hamm, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Dre Bly for the Daily Tar Heel in Chapel Hill. But sitting down and talking to a sure-fire future Hall of Fame hockey player, I am pretty sure my true color was showing through - I was pretty green.
When I think back to how I must have looked to him at that time, and some of the questions I asked that day, the thing I think about most, besides feeling a little embarrassed, is how patient he was with me. It wasn't exactly the Canadian Press or Hockey Night in Canada, but Ron gave me all the time and all the right answers I needed to put together the best feature I could at that point in my life.
This week has been crazy - for Ron, and for all of us involved in putting his night together. Needless to say, I haven't exactly been getting any afternoon naps in before these road games, as my cell phone voice mail and my email inbox have pretty much been flooded with requests for our former Captain. But I have really enjoyed it. Talking to Ron on the phone regularly to sort through the requests. Meeting up with him to set up an interview with Rogers Sportsnet, or discuss Friday press conference. Making sure that everything was just right media-wise for Saturday night's main event. It is all bringing back a lot of memories of working with Ron, from how amazingly well his answers match from one interview to the next (At one point during the Sportsnet interview, someone dropped some dishes in the room next to where we were. He had to re-answer the question, and if it wasn't the same answer word-for-word than it could not have possibly been off by more than a modifier or two) to his remarkable ability to get on-camera pieces done in one take every time (He used to pride himself on being "One Take Ron.").
In doing all this though, I have once again been amazed by his patience with me. I've called him four or five times a day at times this week, babbling on about this interview or that one, and listing all the various area codes and phone numbers he needed to dial. Phones have lost signals. I've lost my voice. But he's carefully written down everything and fulfilled every single request that I've asked him to. This time it really is the Canadian Press and Hockey Night in Canada, but the patience and diligence are the same as that day the skinny college kid was mumbling out questions at the Raleigh Iceplex.
We all have our own reasons to cheer when we watch the number 10 rise to the RBC Center rafters on Saturday night. We will all have our own memories and emotions that come flooding back as we watch footage of his tremendous career on the Jumbotron. Whether it was a short meeting and an autograph after a game or practice, a lifetime of thrills watching him on television or thoughts about a little on the job patience and TLC, we each have our own personal connection with Ron Francis, and reason to share in the joy of seeing him recognized like this on Saturday night.
So if you are going to the game Saturday night, get there early. The ceremony itself starts promptly at 7, but a couple neat things will be happening before that, so try to get into the building as early as you can. If you aren't going, FSN will air the whole ceremony starting at 7, so enjoy the show. Take it all in and enjoy every moment, because moments like this come around about as often as people like Ron Francis do, and that's not too often.
MEDIA ALERT: If you missed the Rod Brind'Amour workout segment on Southern Sports Report, the video is available here.
When you spend your life in hockey, you are forced to plan your major life events for a short window between early July and late August - the stretch between the draft and training camp. So when my wife and I were selecting a date for our nuptials, the final day of July seemed about as safe as we could get. When we put together our invitation lists for our big day, like anyone else, we included a number of our co-workers. For me, that included the hockey staff for the team, and whichever players were spending the summer in Raleigh.
At the time, only three or four guys were staying in North Carolina for the off-season, so it wasn't too much of a burden on our invitation list totals. And realistically, the guys are in the same mode as we are - planning vacations and family events for that small window of time in the summer months - so I didn't really expect any of them to have the time or desire to drive to Fearrington Village for the PR guy's wedding. Thus, I was pretty surprised when one of those players returned his RSVP card promptly with his "plus-1" checked, indicating that he and his own bride would attend our hitchin'.
Of course you know by the title of this blog that the player who made it was Ron Francis, and that he was bringing along his wife Mary Lou, who is truly one of the nicest people I have met through my job. Mr. and Mrs. Captain, like all of my Raleigh-based guests, braved some nasty traffic on I-40 and sat with a table of Hurricanes trainers and staffers at the reception. It was vintage Ron and Mary Lou, taking the time out of their short summer to attend the PR guy's wedding.
And they did much more than just show up and sit there. They mingled and talked to our families and friends, posed for a couple pictures, and even spent some quality time on the dance floor. At the end of the night, when Leah and I made our own exit, we were happy to see that every person from that Hurricanes table was still around, including Ron and Mary Lou, to see us off.
It was obviously a very special day for us, a celebration with our families and our friends. It just made it that much more special to us that a number of our co-workers were also able to share that day with us. I suppose, given everything else I already knew about them, I shouldn't have been surprised at all that the Francis' would be right there through it all, as well.
MORE MEDIA ALERTS: Way back in October a crew from The Score in Canada came to Raleigh to shoot a feature about the return of hockey in the United States. The feature was part of a series of features called "Cabbie on the Street" in which the main character travels around North America visiting sports hot spots. I checked the Score's website for a while to see the finished product, but it got lost in the mix and I forgot about it until yesterday. Anyway, it is available, and I think it does a really great job capturing the spirit of the Caniacs and what hockey in Raleigh is all about. Here is the link.
Also, WUNC Radio reporter Lorne Matalon visited us this week and produced a feature for NPR's Morning Edition on the resurgence of hockey in the Triangle. His feature is available here.
One other thing, Hurricanes web guru Dave Pond has set up a special message board on CarolinaHurricanes.com for fans to post a final "thank you" message to Ron Francis as we approach Ron Francis Night. The message board is located here, or you can click here for Dave's excellent special section of CarolinaHurricanes.com, devoted to Ron Francis.
In the spirit of the Ron Francis Night, which will take place Saturday night at the RBC Center, I am going to spend this week trying to find time to write blogs which recall my favorite memories of working with the greatest player in franchise history. By far the most requested player during my tenure with the team, Ron Francis always handled his media requirements with the same class he displayed in every other facet of his life. There is a reason he is the only athlete whose jersey hangs in my own home, and it has little to do with hockey. In so many ways, we all try to emulate the Captain, and we can all learn from the way he leads and carries himself.
With the Canadiens in town to face the 'Canes tonight, the first memory of The Ron that popped into my mind was not surprisingly set in Montreal. At the conclusion of each playoff round, the stars of the winning team always do interviews with the rights-holding broadcasts directly on the ice. Because we clinched each of the rounds that we won in the visiting city, we had the pleasure of walking onto the ice in our opposition's buildings to arrange the interviews. So, after the Canes clinched their 2002 Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the Canadiens on May 13, 2002, I stepped onto the ice with the Captain to set him up with ESPN and CBC.
Needless to say, the passionate fans in Montreal were none too pleased about their team's 8-2 loss in Game Six and the Habs' elimination from contention for the prize they had won so many times in their storied history. Standing on the ice in what was then referred to as the Molson Centre, we saw more than a few items hurled onto the ice by disappointed Canadiens fans. I was about three feet away from Ron during his interview with ESPN when a fan threw a full can of soda in his direction, missing him (and me) by just a few feet before cracking the ice. Not exactly the world's greatest display of sportsmanship, but Ron kept right on doing his interview, so I was pretty sure he had no idea how close he had come to a Pepsi-induced concussion. I remember turning around at that point to try to keep an eye on the crowd, as if I would have been able to intercept another can had it been thrown. Luckily, there was only one idiotic Pepsi-hurler targeting a future Hall of Famer that night, and his aim was just a little off.
After the interview was over, as we walked back into the tunnel to the locker room, I told Ron about the can. To my surprise, he already knew. He had seen the can out of the corner of his eye, and just kept on answering the questions of the ESPN reporter. It was typical Ron Francis professionalism, continuing an interview without a flinch, or a mention, of the one fan's stupidity. Two weeks later, we stood on the ice at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto as Eastern Conference Champions. I think the fans there were just too stunned for violence. The Carolina Hurricanes, not their beloved Leafs, were going to the Stanley Cup Finals.
MEDIA ALERTS: A couple quick media alerts... The Hockey News' Adam Proteau conducted an interview with Cory Stillman last week that will be featured in next week's issue. Also, FSN South will air the feature that Katy Temple filmed with Rod Brind'Amour, where she went through a workout with the Hurricanes captain, during the Southern Sports Report on Wednesday, Jan. 25.