On about a dozen occasions the past couple of years I’ve been able to listen in on conference calls arranged by the Caps with prominent members of the hockey community. Generally there are a couple of bloggers participating in the calls, and at least a half dozen members of the traditional media. I enjoy listening to all of the questions asked, and their answers. The press, it seems to me, makes a fairly limited range of inquiries of any given hockey figure, whereas the bloggers seem to bring a special spirit of inquiry to the exercise, one that’s expansive and creative and a bit outside to proverbial box. It’s not as if one set of questions is inherently better than the other, it’s just that more often than not I find myself admiring the line of thinking new media personalities bring to the calls. The players, managers, and personalities being interviewed seem to enjoy answering both sets of questions.
Yesterday afternoon media new and old covering the Caps had a chance to chat up Mike Gartner, whose no. 11 will rightly be raised to the Verizon Center rafters this coming Sunday night. We the new age interrogators always show deference to our traditional media colleagues during these conference calls, but there wasn’t much of a stampede to query Garts by those paid to be on the call, so Stephen Pepper of the Red Skate chimed in early on, wondering how much no. 11 watched today’s Caps and specifically if he’d imagined what his career might have looked like were he the right wing to Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. It was a thoughtful and creative query, rather brilliantly conceived, actually, and Garts answered it thoughtfully.
“There wouldn’t be enough puck to go around,” he answered with appreciation and humor. “Ovi competes so hard and wants the puck so badly, he’s fun to watch.”
Pepper also asked Garts about the state of rivalries involving the Caps these days, wondering if he’d noticed what many Caps’ fans had: that the Southeast can’t hold a cup of eggnog to the ferocity so often found in the old clashes with the Flyers, Pens, Rags, and Isles. Here the old right wing skated a careful, straight line, pointing out that in his day there were just 20 or so teams in the league, as opposed to today’s 30, and that there therefore was a greater familiarity with teams around the league. Familiarity breeds contempt, you know. Gartner seemed to hold out hope that the Caps could establish terrific rivalries in the Southeast. (I’m not holding my breath.)
Mike Gartner was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001. He was a seven-time NHL All Star, and in 1998 the Hockey News ranked him no. 89 among the 100 greatest hockey players of all time. He holds the record for the most consecutive 30-plus goal seasons in the league — fifteen. Known for his Lamborghini speed, he’d merit special attention in the Toronto Hall if it built an exhibit honoring players with the greatest jets.
I wanted to know a little about the genesis of those jets. I referenced the adage of great skaters being born rather than developed, and asked no. 11 if he believed that and if he’d done anything special to develop that blazing stride.
“There’s a lot of truth to that [adage],” he said. “I was the fastest kid on the ice when I was 5, so there was no training [involved] there. But then it’s what you do with it.”
Gartner in fact did do something special with his genetic gift. While many other young hockey prodigies in Canada attended traditional summer hockey camps, Gartner went off to power skating camps, summer after summer. And he didn’t much care for them — if you’ve been through but a single power skating instructing course, you’d know why. But that labor sure paid off.
When the topic yesterday turned to Sunday night’s number honoring at Verizon Center, Gartner credited Dick Patrick and Ted Leonsis with selecting the December 28 date, when the Leafs visit. Gartner is an Ontario boy, who grew up rooting for the Leafs, and that rare Ontarian who actually wore the Leafs sweater.
The Capitals have organized an impressive welcome home for Garts this Sunday night. Fans attending will receive a Mike Gartner jersey pin, along with a distinctive no. 11 sign. A veritable army of former teammates will be in the Booth: Bobby Gould, Bob Carpenter, Rod Langway, Dennis Maruk, Larry Murphy, Craig Laughlin, Wes Jarvis, Scott Stevens, among many others. The current Caps’ team will wear throwback sweaters during pre-game warmups, each one with no. 11 on it, and those sweaters will be auctioned off afterward.
Before Mike Gartner’s sweater is raised to the Verizon Center rafters Sunday night, there will be a video tribute to no. 11’s career. Expect to see vapor trails trailing his skates in that footage.