I’ve been missing in action from here for so long I’m not sure it’s worth my while to even try, but I’m going to tell a story I’ve told before.
Andy Bathgate died a couple of days ago. He was a gentleman. A former captain of the New York Rangers, a Hart Trophy winner, a Leaf, a Penguin, and a Red Wing. And I’ll never forget the day he won me over.
In winter 2000, Toronto hosted the NHL all-star game and I took Patrick out of school for the afternoon to attend the fan festival. He was only seven and we had a ball. He got to play roller hockey, have his shot clocked, and lots of other cool stuff. And we lined up in a snaking, slow-moving queue to meet two hall of fame members.
We didn’t know who would be at the table when we got there because they were replacing them every 20 minutes or so. But when our turn came, it was Steve Shutt (certified dick) and Andy Bathgate.
Shutt wasn’t worth the pixels on my screen. He snorted dismissively when I said that as a kid I saw him play for the Nova Scotia Voyageurs (at the same Halifax Forum where Pad now skates for the Dalhousie University Tigers). Bathgate was like another grandfather, warm and avuncular and welcoming.
So, a couple things you need to know. First, my nephew and godson JJ had, just a few weeks earlier, won an Andy-Bathgate-autographed hockey stick at a raffle in his then-hometown of Baddeck, NS. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine a more unlikely raffle prize in a more unlikely venue, but JJ was and is a hockey fan and being a bright lad quickly read up on Bathgate and found he was a genuine legend of the game.
Upon taking his prize home, his older brother posited the question as to what such an autographed stick might be worth. JJ knew the right answer instinctively – “It ain’t worth nothin’ because I’m never going to sell it.”
No fool, our JJ.
So, back in the line at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Andy made wonderful small talk with Patrick and signed his jersey and asked lots of questions about his game. I then took out a small pad of paper and told Bathgate the story of the unlikely raffle prize in faraway Baddeck. He roared – literally, gales of laughter – with delight.
I asked if I could trouble him for a personalized autograph for JJ and he was happy to oblige. Something to the effect of, “Hey JJ, good luck and look after my stick!! Andy Bathgate”
Later that week I went to a collectibles store, found an old Andy Bathgate hockey card and had the card and the autograph framed as a companion piece for the stick. So far as I know, it still holds a place of honor in JJ’s home and his heart.
As a quick addendum, later that day in 2000, Pad and I were walking down a long, long doorless corridor. Walking toward us was a whip-thin man who seemed to be all moustache and hair and boots.
I smiled and said loudly as he got close, “Lanny!!”
Pad looked at me as if I were insane. He had no idea who Lanny McDonald is or was. Lanny acted like he and I were frat brothers, he smiled and stopped and … was everything Steve Shutt wasn’t.
I said Lanny, this is my son Patrick and Patrick is a hockey player. A Lanny got down on one knee and talked the ear off Patrick, who was a little taken aback and tried to keep up with one word answers. Where did he play? What position? Did he work hard? Did he listen to his coaches?
Lanny, I said, would it be okay if I took a picture of you and Patrick? “Okay?” he said. “I INSIST!”
And with that, McDonald took off his 1988 Calgary Flames Stanley Cup ring, handed it to my son and smiled so brightly that jets landing 20 kilometres away at Pearson Airport thought it was a runway landing light.
It was a great moment and while I know lots of classy guys have played for Montreal over the years, the attitudes of Bathgate and McDonald contrasted so sharply with Shutt that afternoon that it made my cynical heart melt, just a little, for Leaf Nation.
Such great ambassadors for the game, and guys who clearly remember the excitement of being a little kid and loving hockey.
Bathgate will be missed by many, including me. Do something nice for my kids, I will never forget you.