Wow, this is a tough bleeping list to compile. About 25 years of Avalanche teams to consider, hundreds of players that I’ve personally dealt with to consider.
In my profession, they say hockey players are the best guys to deal with of all the major sports, and while I have had many great interactions with players from other sports, I can vouch for this being true. Hockey guys almost always are good, humble, polite, conscientious guys. Are there a few jerks among them? Yeah probably, but probably a much lower percentage of them as to us media people. The egotists, the social status climbers, the petty whiners – I’ve found a lot more of them in the sports media than the players we/they cover. I’m not exempting myself, of course.
To narrow this list down to 10 players leaves out an awful lot of well-deserving guys, but, hey, there is an honorable mention list at the end. But these 10 are the ones who: were friendly in good times or bad, who understood what our jobs were and tried to be as accommodating as they could as often as they could, who told you the truth (or as close to it as they could get), who were real people, not just hockey players.
Here is my personal list:
10. Ruslan Salei – I still get choked up when thinking about him, and Karlis Skrastins. Both former Avs players lost their lives in the horrible plane crash with the Jaroslavl Lokomotiv KHL team onboard in 2011.
“Scratch” was a real beauty, always polite and engaging. But “Rusty” took things to a different level, at least with me. Rusty was someone I actually tossed a few beers back with on the road at times. We would have some pretty good philosophical discussions about life, not just hockey. He was always very curious about things in the real world. He even liked to talk about the specifics of being a sports writer, how I did my job, things like that. I really liked him because he had a bit of a dry, cynical sense of humor, too. He would tell some good stories from his career, about this player or that coach, that often had me in stitches. Great little inside stuff, with the understanding that I would never write about any of it. I gained his trust for him to be able to tell me that kind of stuff, in other words.
He was ALWAYS still in the dressing room when the media came in, after losses. Lots of guys hit the back room immediately to shower and dress, and just aren’t available, therefore, to the media unless we formally ask to call them back, and nobody ever wants to do that. Win or lose, Rusty was there at this locker, willing to discuss what had just happened out there with anyone. He knew we all had jobs to do. He had the proper perspective on things. Yeah, he was a tough competitor and hated to lose. But he also knew it was just a game, that there were more important things out there than who won or lost a hockey game.
He was a great guy and I miss him.
9. Gabe Landeskog – If anyone could have gotten a really big ego about his lot in life, it could have been Captain Gabe. I mean, first off, the guy has the looks of a bonafide fashion model (well, maybe not after losing that tooth in the final game before the coronavirus shutdown). He’s a big, handsome Swede who speaks more than one language, who makes millions and will make many more millions.
But “ego” is just not the word I’ve ever associated with No. 92. He’s a really nice guy, who cares a lot about his fellow human. He does a LOT of things behind the scenes for people and causes that don’t always get any publicity. He’s nice not just to the big-shot hockey person, but also the parking lot attendant outside the arena. With people like me in the media, Landy is always accommodating. Sure, he can toss off a few cliches with the best of them (“We got behind the 8-ball a little bit too much tonight”, “We gotta just keep it simple, get pucks to the net”).
But get to know Landy a little more, hang around his locker a little longer, and you’ll usually get some really good insight on the game, or just hockey in general. He’s always around after a loss, holding himself and the team accountable (you’ll notice that’s a common theme in this list). He’s not just Mr. Goody Two Shoes Nice Guy in an obnoxious sense, either. He’s got a pretty wicked sense of humor and can cut you down to size pretty quick – but I like that stuff.
He’s been mad at me a couple times for things I’ve either written or tweeted, and rightly so in hindsight. The best part about Landy in that regard is: he listened to my side of things, accepted my apology if it was warranted and didn’t hold any grudge moving forward. For me and any media person, that’s huge. Because, we all are going to make mistakes.
8. Scott Young – I always liked him because he was a fellow “Chowd” from back east, but more than that, he was always a great guy to gain insight into the game. Let’s face it, when I first started covering the Avs in 1995, my knowledge of the game wasn’t as good as it could have been. Guys like Young understood that, coming into a brand new city like Denver, and were patient with the media here.
I learned a lot about the game talking with him, a lot of the little nuances that are easy to miss. He was very honest in his postgame assessments, and about things in general. He had that good Eastern/Boston/Chowd cynicism and dark sense of humor that I could relate to, especially when it came to sports (don’t forget, in 1995, none of us Chowds had had much sporting success to brag about. It was mostly all heartbreak (Celtics excluded).
People forget what a very good player he was. I think his importance to that Avs Cup team of 1996 has been somewhat underappreciated over the years. He had 60 points in 81 regular-season games, and 15 more in 22 playoff games, including the first goal for the Avs in the ’96 Cup Finals against Florida. He came very close a couple of times to scoring what would have been the Cup-clinching goal in Game 4 in Florida. He played 1,181 NHL games, scoring 342 goals. “Ducky” could play.
7. Jan Hejda – If I heard it once, I heard it about 50 other times: “Come sit down, let’s talk about it.” Many times, that’s what defenseman Jan Hejda would say to me if I stood by his locker and asked the classic sports writer question,“You got a minute?”
And so, with that, you’d sit at Hejda’s locker and he would talk to you pretty much as long as you wanted, about anything. Just a very nice guy, someone who never seemed to be in a bad mood. I think he really appreciated his station in life and was grateful for it, and so things like dealing with the media certainly were no biggie to him.
He had a good sense of humor in the room. He could needle teammates pretty good. He could needle people like me pretty good, too. I think he took a look at a couple of outfits or pair of shoes a couple of times and just shook his head sadly. He’s still living in the area, by the way, doing some work with youth hockey here. I hope he continues on a path back toward the NHL in that respect. Guys like him are always welcome.
6. Patrick Roy – I’ve said this before: No, he wasn’t always the easiest guy to deal with, from a media perspective, but I always loved being around Roy’s stall as a player and in his press briefings when he was a coach. I just always found him fascinating, and he was almost always very good “copy”, as they say in the biz.
Almost all the time when he was a player, he would give very open and honest answers to your questions. He was from the older school, where players might have been grilled a little more than they are now, but he didn’t mind that if the questions were fair. He played in Montreal, of course, where the hockey press could be brutal and unrelenting. I think he always thought the press in Denver was a bit of a walk in the park by comparison, and that he sometimes missed that intense media glare as an Av – though he still had plenty of it here.
He definitely got mad at me at times over the years, and would be pretty sarcastic with me at times. No doubt I deserved a lot of it. I never take anything personally if a player gets mad at me. Never. Underneath all that star power and machismo that he often projected, though, was a more introspective and very intelligent guy. Sometimes he would show that side to you, and it was always a privilege to be able to say “Patrick Roy just told me something about the game of hockey.” I mean, come on, that’s pretty damn cool.
5. Keith Jones – You know him today as the hockey analyst on TV, but Jones played a long time in the league and was always a favorite of the media – not just from me.
But I developed probably a closer bond to Jones than your average player. First of all, he was always a great quote, always pretty much telling it like it is/was. He had some great one-liners and a very dry sense of humor. He was always, always in the room after a loss, ready to accommodate any media person who wanted to ask about the game.
When I went through a divorce in 1998 and was having a hard time in general with pretty much everything, Jones was someone who actually asked about it and took an interest in what was going on. He gave me some good life advice. I went through some bad times later on in life and he was someone who checked up on me afterward. That’s the kind of guy he is.
4. Erik Johnson – Accountable. Open. Honest. Polite. Friendly.
That’s Erik Johnson, win or lose. EJ is a true gentleman, someone who treats everybody the same – but who goes the extra mile for the underdog or the person down on his luck. I think, on a current Avs team full of nice guys, EJ is still the one most likely to help a little old lady across the street.
He’s usually the player whose locker I seek out first after Avs games, because I know I’ll get a thoughtful, honest answer. He doesn’t make excuses about himself or the team after a loss. Not that he’ll just carve guys or the team, but he’ll give an honest assessment of what he thinks is wrong.
And here’s the thing about EJ: After a win, he’s sometimes hard to find in the room. He would rather let other guys get the media spotlight after a win. After a loss, though, he’s always there. Those are the guys that you love as a media person. It’s easy to stay in the room after a win and soak up softball questions and feel like a hero. It’s another thing to be there in the tough times, too.
3. Claude Lemieux – He was a reporter’s dream. Claude Lemieux played in an era when NHL players “needed” the media more than they do now, and Claude was as smart as they came when it came to leveraging his relationships with the media to perhaps some other financial opportunity.
But it was never a phony thing with Lemieux. He always seemed to enjoy the give-and-take with the press. He was/is much smarter than people might have thought. I always thought, actually, that he liked talking more with people in the media than other hockey players. He was very insightful about people. He noticed things around him, and would surprise you sometimes with an astute observation he had.
He started to shy away a bit more from the microphones, I thought, after all that stuff with the Red Wings and Kris Draper, etc, etc. I mean, his name really was dragged through the mud pretty hard there for a couple years, and I think he started to see the press more as an enemy for a while. But to the people who actually knew him and dealt with him on a regular basis, and I think I can include myself here in that category, he stayed the same. He’s a more complex guy than many realize. He would tell you what was really going on with the team, or with himself, and he would also keep the media accountable, too. He read what you wrote about him. Most every player now says “Ah, I don’t read what’s in the media” and sometimes it’s said in a dismissive, almost demeaning way. Not that players need to read what we write. But I often find that the guys who say that aren’t always the brightest bulbs in the room anyway, so it works both ways.
2. Andrew Brunette – A real beauty here, one of the few players I’ve ever actually socialized with away from the rink when they played for the team.
“Bruno” was and is just a very honest, bright, nice guy. Always had great insights into the game, and he was a real locker-room leader. He was a very good player with the Avs, and I thought it was a big mistake when they let him go back to the Wild as a free agent in 2008. Bruno loved to talk hockey more than anything, but he could hold a conversation on other topics, too. He was aware that it was a big world around him, and was curious about a lot of things. We’d sometimes swap book recommendations with each other. He was a big Toronto Blue Jays fan too, and we made a bet one year over who would finish ahead of the other – the Jays or my Red Sox. I lost the bet. I had to shell out about $100 on a Blue Jays jersey for him.
He’s a tremendously smart guy, and I think he’ll be a head coach in the NHL at some point. I hope so anyway, because I know he’d be the same great quote he always was.
1 – Joe Sakic – Yeah, I know his nickname in the media (and I’m pretty sure I’m the one who tagged him with this) was “Quoteless Joe.” And, yes, many of his answers given to the media in his long time as a player could be a little, well, vanilla.
But the real Joe Sakic is an acerbic, smart, funny, friendly guy who seemingly never has a really bad day. There’s a reason why he was so beloved in the locker room by teammates, why he was such an iconic captain for so long. It’s because, despite all the stardom and accolades he achieved, he never stopped being the same guy. Never.
He’s a legitimately nice person who thinks of others before he thinks of himself. No, not that he got cheated as a player financially in his career. He took care of himself too. But he’s given a lot back. He pretty much single-handedly started the annual Thanksgiving dinner for the needy at the Denver Rescue Mission, and he does a lot of other stuff behind the scenes for people that don’t get any publicity – and that’s the way he likes it.
As a GM, he’s obviously been tougher to talk to than he was as a player. But he’s a loyal guy. He knows I’ve been chronicling this team for 25 years now, and so he’ll still take the time to give me what I need as a reporter over, say, the national hockey writer who thinks he/she can big-time him and get something out of him. No, he doesn’t do that. He’s loyal to those who have put in the time with him.
That’s why he’s No. 1 on a very, very tough list for me to distill.
HONORABLE MENTION: Jamie McGinn (to this day, still the only player to give me a locker-room nickname – and in the best hockey way possible too – “Datesie.” Mike Ricci (not as flamboyant a quote as his on-ice persona, but always fun to be around); Uwe Krupp (One of the smarter guys I ever covered. Probably could have been a scientist or something); Warren Rychel (“Bundy” was always a good quote, and LOVED to see his name in the paper); Chris Simon (Only got to cover one year of the Chief’s career, but he was as great a guy to deal with as you could want); Craig Wolanin (Super nice guy, probably should have been in the top 10, but, like Simon, only got to spend one year around him. Honestly, he might have been the nicest guy to deal with of any player I ever covered); Shjon Podein (loved to talk politics and environmental issues, not just hockey, which I always enjoyed. Always had a smile on his face); Eric Lacroix (Always dealt with the tough situation of being a player on a team whose dad was the GM with grace and class. A super friendly guy, to this day); Steve Konowalchuk (Very smart guy, very honest and non-cliche. A shame his career had to end early because of a heart condition); Dan Hinote (There are a million Dan Hinote stories, not all of them for family website publication. But he’s a very generous, nice guy who always had a good one-liner for the media); Jarome Iginla (I mean, has anybody ever said a bad word about Jarome Iginla? Super friendly dude who, once you drilled down a little deeper with him, would tell you some really insightful stuff about the game); Peter Forsberg (He really never loved dealing with the media as a player, and some of that was because of just plain shyness. He didn’t love questions about his personal life. But he was almost always courteous and respectful anyway. He’s a more complex guy than people realize, too. And, hey, he once gave me a ride around his hometown of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, in his Audi, back in 2014. Top that one, folks); David Aebischer (Great dude, super mellow and friendly. He spoke about five languages); Darcy Tucker (Man, he would needle me something fierce, but I loved it); Matt Duchene (Could he be moody? Yeah, but so what. When he was in the right mood, he would be as interesting and open as they came); Ryan O’Byrne (A real beauty. Very open and honest); Jean-Sebastien Giguere (Just so smart about the game of hockey. I learned a LOT from him); Craig Billington (As nice a guy as there is); Rob Blake (Could have been in the top 10. Probably should have. He had time for the big-name reporter and the one from the Local-Yocal Daily Bugle. Those are the classy guys); Dave Reid (Always a master class on the game of hockey when he talked to you. Super, super smart about the game); John-Michael Liles (Just had him on my podcast the other day. Salt of the earth kind of guy); Ian Laperriere (Man, how did I leave him out of the top 10? Lappy was everybody’s favorite. Nobody has ever had a bad thing to say about him); Patrice Brisebois (Only played here two years, but he was really great to me and everyone else carrying a notepad and microphone); Tyson Barrie (Tough to leave him out of the top 10, too. Just a superb guy, always had time for you); Ben Guite (Remember him? Awesome dude); Milan Hejduk (Nobody has ever had a bad word to stay about Hedgie); Paul Stastny (I carved his play at times, but he was never anything but professional to deal with. That earns your respect fast); Cody McLeod (I mean, everybody loved the Highlander); David Jones (Smart kid. I always felt a little more kinship with him because he went to Dartmouth); Daniel Winnik (Very open and honest guy); Semyon Varlamov (Not the juiciest quote guy, but never turned down a request to talk); Jose Theodore (I was real sad when the Avs let him go to Washington as a free agent. He was a great quote, and a really interesting guy); Adam Foote (You didn’t want to make him mad. Otherwise, he was always there and accountable and had some great quotes over the years); Chris Drury (Didn’t love to be quoted much, but still a great guy to deal with; Theo Fleury (Man, I sure wish he’d played here more than a few months).
If any Avs player who is shocked and saddened not to see their name on this list, my apologies. As I said, the list of who WASN’T good to deal with would be the much shorter, tougher one to compile. Pretty much all of you could have made the good list.