During his years of covering hockey, VGK Insider Gary Lawless has seen just about every professional rink in every city in the United States and Canada.
Before he joined the Golden Knights organization, Lawless lived in Winnipeg where he covered NHL news and the Winnipeg Jets. Prior to the Jets’ return to the league, Lawless was riding the bus with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
Days spent in the AHL taught Lawless a lot about the characters and the business of hockey and that time has left him with life-long friends and memories.
GW: How did you first start covering the AHL?
GL: My career started in Thunder Bay, Ontario covering the Colonial League and the USHL. A job came open in Winnipeg and they were in the IHL at the time. Then there was a merger with the American Hockey League. I was then in the AHL for the better part of a decade until the NHL returned to Winnipeg. By that time, I wasn’t a beat reporter anymore, I was a columnist. I was writing very little about the American League at more about the return of the NHL. For basically a year, I wrote about the NHL’s potential return to Winnipeg. But for pretty much 10 years, I rode the bus in the AHL. It was a great experience. I got to meet a ton of people. So many of the coaches and the players that were in the AHL then are in the NHL now as assistant coaches, head coaches and even as general managers and executives. The cities were smaller, but Philadelphia, Hartford, Chicago, Houston, they were all in the American League when I was there. You got to see big cities, but you were also in places like Syracuse, Binghamton, Worcester, Albany, all those small places along the way. Hamilton was another one. It was a great experience.
GW: What were those small towns like?
GL: They were fun. A game in Syracuse on a Friday night was a big deal. The rink usually close to full and people were excited to go see their team. There wasn’t a lot of professional sports offerings in those places. You could go to Cleveland some nights before Kerry Bubolz took that team over and there’d be nobody in the stands. Then, when Kerry took over, he really revitalized the franchise and made going to a game an experience. They were the Lake Erie Monsters then. They would fill the place and they were good, they could really win games.
GW: What was it like working with and interviewing AHL players on a daily basis?
GL: Well, there are three versions of players. You have the AHL player that hasn’t been to the NHL or has only been to the NHL for a little bit. He has all the time in the world for you. There’s the guy who’s been to the NHL for long enough where he’s a little bit jaded. And then there’s the guy who’s been in the NHL forever and is on his way back down and is happy to sit there and talk hockey with you for a long time. You know, all hockey players are pretty good with that. You’ll always get your three or five minutes. Getting the extra-long sit-down is a lot harder. But at that level, you could actually go into the dressing room and sit down in the stall beside a guy. If you were at a practice on the road, you were the only one there. You’re the only media member there besides the radio broadcaster and the beat reporter for the team. Winnipeg was a different market. We went to every game. We went to preseason games, we went to regular season games, we went to playoff games. There were only a handful of guys who traveled full time. I saw every rink in the AHL during my time covering it.
GW: What are some of the rinks you remember most, for better or for worse?
GL: Well, we’ve talked about Syracuse. I remember that one. I remember Rochester. The rink in Portland where the Portland Pirates played, I remember it. Chicago, where the Wolves play, they put on quite a show. There were a lot of people in that building. Houston played at the old Compaq Center. Then they moved to the Toyota Center. When you played in Houston, that was a legit, great arena. San Antonio, where the Spurs play, that’s where the Rampage played. There were buildings that weren’t really suited for hockey. It was a lot of basketball arenas that dressed up as hockey arenas on nights that the basketball team was away. Then there were the old classics. The Cincinnati Garden was a tremendous arena. The other one that they built downtown was terrible, I can’t even think of the name right now. But Syracuse, Rochester, Worcester, Albany, those are classic Northeast hockey barns. Hershey was too. I’d been in both buildings in Hershey. The one in Wilkes-Barre is a nice building too.
GW: How would you cover a team going through a change of NHL affiliation?
GL: So, the Manitoba Moose were an affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks until they were the affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets. Actually, the Jets moved their team to Newfoundland for the first few years. They played out of St. Johns. Then they said they should have it all in Winnipeg and now both teams play out of Bell MTS Centre. I never had to go through that really. I can remember in Winnipeg I wrote a column about how the Vancouver Canucks were barely hanging on to a playoff spot in the NHL and the Moose in the AHL were really good. I wrote the column one day saying basically “why don’t the Canucks hurry up and die so that the Moose could just focus on trying to win a Calder Cup.” Dave Nonis, who was the GM of the Canucks, phoned me and screamed at me for half an hour. He was like “what don’t you get about this? The NHL team is the most important team.” I said to him “maybe to you, but I could care less about the Vancouver Canucks. I cover the Manitoba Moose.” I understood his perspective, but he never understood mine. We had quite a blowout and actually things were uncomfortable for us for a few years. Then, he got a job with the Toronto Maple Leafs and that’s when we figured things out. It’s funny, there are certain characters in the American League. Fedor Fedorov, Sergei Fedorov’s younger brother, he wore a fur coat, he dropped his paycheck in the parking lot and it got to be a month old and it hadn’t been cashed because his AHL salary was so meaningless to him. The security you get in the NHL – that’s not there in the American League. Sometimes you’d leave a building and, if it had been contentious, the fans would be out front, and you’d get things yelled at you as you get on the bus. You’d hope to get out of there safely. There was a hint of Slapshot some nights in the AHL. The Syracuse Crunch for a few years had a guy named John Mirasty and Zenon Konopka and they turned warmups into a circus. One night I wrote a column during a playoff series about how Alain Vigneault – he was coaching the Moose – said “we need to get at their goalie.” Sure enough, someone ran him over in the first period. Doug MacLean, who was the GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Syracuse was their affiliate at the time, he came down into the press box and started screaming at me: “are you happy now? Are you happy now?” I had somehow caused his goalie to get knocked out. That was always fun when the NHL team of a franchise got knocked out of the playoffs and all their brass would then turn their focus onto their American League team. All of a sudden, you’d have an NHL GM and maybe an NHL head coach in the building for a couple of nights. I made a lot of mistakes in that league while covering it. I learned a lot about the business and personalities. The best part was that I made great connections.
GW: The AHL can be a crossroads for players at very different stages in their careers. Who were some of the players you saw on their way up and who were some you saw that were at the ends of their careers?
GL: The NHL lockout year of 2004-05, that year, just off the top of my head, Manitoba had Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Auld was one of the goalies, Alex Edler. In the league that year, Jason Spezza was in Binghamton, Eric Staal was with Carolina’s AHL affiliate. The league was really good that year. Patrice Bergeron was in Providence. There were guys all over the place who could really play. That same year, I covered the World Junior Championship and Team Canada had guys like Sidney Crosby, Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Dion Phaneuf, pretty much the whole team went to the NHL. It was the best World Junior team ever. But there were lots of guys on their way up. Wade Flaherty was a guy who played a bunch in the NHL and was kind of at the end. He played in Manitoba. Dallas Eakins was signed by Manitoba and he was at the end of his NHL deal. Those guys were interesting. Mike Keane had won three Stanley Cups and had played in 250 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He finished his last season in Vancouver in the NHL and begged for a tryout with the Moose. They wouldn’t give him one, and they wouldn’t give him one, and eventually they did. He obviously made the team and I think he stuck around for five more seasons with no chance of going back to the NHL. He just wanted to play. I can remember they had to pick a captain and Keane had been there for two practices. Alain Vigneault was the coach, and they wouldn’t invite Keane to camp. Vigneault said to me privately: “I don’t want to be the one who has to cut Mike Keane.” So, someone got hurt and they said: “okay, fine.” So, he came to two practices and they hadn’t even given him a contract. But they had to elect a captain. We in the media were sitting outside the room and the vote was over in like 30 seconds. Somebody came out and I said: “who’s the captain?” They said to me: “well, Mike Keane. What do you mean? He was the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, he’s probably good enough to be the captain here.” And that was that. We became quite good friends, and I can remember one night I was having a beer at the bar with Scott Arniel who was one of the coaches. Mike Keane and Jimmy Roy, who now works for the Jets, they came in through the back door and they were sitting at the back of the bar and I went to go have a beer with them. I went to sit in the chair and as I did, Mike kicked the chair away. I said: “what are you doing?” Mike Keane’s dad was the warden of one of the jails outside Winnipeg. He said: “My dad always said, Gary. You can’t have dinner with the cops and dessert with the robbers. Beat it.” I wasn’t welcome to have a beer with them that night.
GW: Any good dinner memories from the AHL?
GL: The spaghetti dinner in Syracuse was really good. Dan D’Uva always said it was a really good Italian restaurant that always donated it. Chicago had a really good pregame meal. There was a really good pregame meal in Worcester on Sundays, and it was so good that scouts would come there, eat the pregame meal and get up and it wasn’t even the game they were covering. They’d have the pregame meal in Worcester and then drive to Springfield to cover that game. I got to know the scouts really well, I got to know the referees. You all stayed in the same hotels. It was a real family atmosphere. Everyone knew one another. You’d walk into the same place in every town every time you went there. You’d walk in after the game and there’d be scouts at one table, referees at one table, coaches from both teams at another table. It was pretty good that way.
GW: We’ve talked about the players coming up in their careers and the players on the back nine of their careers playing in the AHL. How have you seen teams come together while individual players might be moving in different directions?
GL: At the end of the day, you have a focus on your own career, but wherever you’re playing, you want that team to win. That’s what they come together over. At a certain point in time during the season, you’re part of that team. You’ve been in a brawl together. You’ve had a rookie dinner. Whether you’re a bonus baby or a grizzled vet, you focus on that fact that you have a chance to win. Some young players can’t figure that out, but eventually they do. Worrying about getting to the NHL doesn’t help you get to the NHL. Worrying about winning the game that you’re playing that night and playing your best, that gets to you to the NHL.
GW: What do you remember from your coverage of the Moose? How was it different from covering other teams?
GL: When you cover the American League, you’re on the bus with the players. The way I wrote about the Moose was similar to how I write about the Golden Knights. I was a journalist then and I covered more league matters but now with the Golden Knights, I work for the team obviously. When I worked for the Jets, I was a columnist for the daily and I was critical at times. I wasn’t afraid to suggest trades, I wasn’t afraid to suggest firings. That was just that job. There wasn’t a ton of that in the AHL because the coaches were hired by the NHL organization and their job was to develop the players. Stan Smyl, who was a coach of the Moose, I had written something critical about the way the team was playing, and I walked into the lobby bar in Binghamton one night at the Holiday Inn – class place – and Stan was mad at me. He was giving me a hard time and he said to me: “Brian Burke told me if I don’t win one game this year, he’s okay with it.” I said: “you can’t develop the players losing.” We just agreed to disagree. But covering that team was a different style for sure. I told different stories about players if I could when I was in the AHL. By the time I covered the NHL, I was a columnist, and I had a different mandate and a different approach.