Those awkward interview moments

NHLers, as a rule, are very accommodating interview subjects, even with buses and planes to catch, PR guys hovering nervously in the background, and sometimes a ridiculously repetitive stream of post-game questions from reporters. (After a Chicago game last season, I witnessed Martin Havlat giving almost the same answer verbatim about five times in a row for the benefit of different TV, radio, and newspaper outlets.)

But when you do hundreds of interviews and scrums with players, it inevitably means you’re going to have the odd awkward moment. Let’s face it–these also tend to be more memorable than the usual businesslike interactions that result in quotes such as, “Obviously we kept getting the puck deep in the third period and wearing down their D-men, and then we scored a goal.”

So here are my five most memorable awkward moments.

5. P.J. Axelsson, 2003: Canada had just defeated Sweden 3-2 in the gold medal game at the 2003 IIHF World Championship in Helsinki, and I was getting quotes from the dejected Swedes, who had blown a 2-0 lead and lost in overtime on Anson Carter’s video-reviewed wraparound goal on Mikael Tellqvist.

In the mixed zone, I found myself in front of Axelsson and, off the top of my head, asked the Bruins forward: “How do you think the Swedish people will react to this defeat?”

This was not a great question.

Sure, Axelsson could have gone into a soliloquy about how everyone in Stockholm would wear black armbands, considering the Swedes had also been eliminated by Belarus at the Olympics and failed to win gold on home ice at the World Championship the year before. Had he been in a more philosophical frame of mind, he might have drawn parallels between this loss and the Swedish defeat under Gustavus Adolphus at the 1632 Battle of the Alte Veste. (OK, slightly longer odds on that last one.)

Instead, Axelsson retorted: “I don’t know how the Swedish people will react. I think you should go ask them!”


4. Owen Nolan, 2003: The Toronto Maple Leafs were in Vancouver to take on the Canucks, and I hit up their practice the day before the November 22 tilt. My main purpose was to chat with Owen Nolan about his difficult rookie season with the Quebec Nordiques for a Rinkside article I was writing about NHLers who jumped straight from junior to the big leagues.

However, Nolan wasn’t in the mood to talk after practice. He told reporters: “Guys, I’m too tired today. It’s not a good day.” As the grizzled power forward hobbled off down the dressing room corridor, I asked him for a couple of quick quotes for my story. He turned and said: “Not today. Come see me after the game tomorrow night and we’ll talk.”

What could I do but say OK and start making my plans?

Difficulties loomed. The Leafs, of course, are covered by the NHL’s largest and most rabid media contingent. And Nolan had a nasty habit of playing well at GM Place, meaning he’d likely be a popular post-game interview subject.

Guess what? Nolan had a goal and an assist in a 5-3 Leafs win. As often happens, the Canucks opened their dressing room to the media before the visiting team did, and I thought I might get a brief respite, with all the beat reporters and camera crews flocking to Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi. I was the first journalist into the Toronto dressing room and located Nolan immediately. After congratulating him on the win, I reminded him of our exchange the day before, and we started the interview.

But we’d only gotten through “How much of a shock was it to you when you struggled your first year with Quebec?” and “How did the Quebec fans and media treat you during the tough times?” when the horde descended. “Owen, how big of a win was this for you?” “What did it mean for Mats Sundin to score into the empty net with 38 seconds left?”

Nolan said: “Just a minute, I’m finishing up an interview here.” Realizing that people had deadlines to meet, I limited myself to two more questions. And when I turned around, wow. No wonder the back of my head was getting hot. There were about 30 pairs of eyeballs boring holes into it.

3. Dominik Hasek, 2000: The Czech superstar was apparently stretching, getting treatment in the trainer’s room, and taking a long, hot shower after the Buffalo Sabres practiced at GM Place. Long after all the other reporters had departed, I was waiting with another guy who also had hopes of an audience with Hasek.

When Hasek finally emerged from the inner sanctum, I let the other guy go first with his questions, since he’d been waiting a little longer, although naturally I had my tape recorder rolling.

The guy’s second question was something like, “So, I hear you eat a lot of carrots. What is it about carrots that appeals to you?”

There was a pause. Hasek frowned slightly. “Carrots? I don’t understand this question. OK, guys, I’ve got to go now.” And he sped off like Yvan Cournoyer in his prime.

I failed to get my Hasek interview due to carrots.

2. Mark Messier, 2000: The Canucks hold an annual benefit called Dice and Ice to support children’s charities such as Canuck Place Children’s Hospice and the BC Children’s Hospital. The players dress up as casino dealers and man roulette and blackjack tables, and a gala dinner is served.

In 2000, I was assigned to cover Dice and Ice, and showed up early at the venue, a giant ballroom at the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre. When I walked in, the room was dimly lit. On the far side, some banquet workers were setting up for the event. The only other person in the room was then-captain Mark Messier, standing at a nearby cocktail table, idly shuffling a deck of cards.

It looked like perfect timing for a quick sound bite. I walked over, introduced myself as a journalist, and asked the legendary center if he could comment on what it meant to him to support children’s charities.

Messier got as tongue-tied as if I’d suddenly presented him with the Hart Trophy.

“Um, well, this is not, you know, I’d be happy to give you a quote, you come down to practice sometime, but, you know, it’s not really a good time for me right now, man.”

Even at this late stage of his career, who was I not to give Mark Messier his space?

“No problem, Mark.” I walked away.

Of course, I understood that he got more interview requests than the average player. But the funny thing was that it would have taken less time for him to say, “It’s an honor and a privilege for me and the rest of the team to support children’s charities.” That was all I’d really expected to hear.

1. Robert Reichel, 2002: This story doesn’t need much elaboration. I walked into the Leafs room after a game and spotted Reichel on the other side of a crowd. I approached him and asked him for an interview for the Prague Post at, unfortunately, the precise moment when he pulled off his underwear and stood stark naked.

Reichel grimaced at me with pure disgust and waved me away. I retreated twenty feet, and waited until he had donned a crisp white shirt and gray slacks and nodded to me that he was ready to talk.

All I can say is that it was a major inadvertent faux pas in a modern NHL dressing room. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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