So, what could be better than a road trip to a division rival such as Nashville or Chicago or even Minnesota after a home game in order to attend the second half of a home and home series? How about a long weekend following the Blues to New Jersey, Manhattan and then Long Island (Brooklyn next season) for three road games? Better yet, what would it be like to visit ten different cities in eleven days to watch different NHL teams from the Mississippi River to the east coast? Well, back in 1978, I had the good fortune to actually do the third option, thanks to the ingenuous plan of my best friend in high school who later became the hockey reporter for the Niagara Falls (New York) Gazette following the Buffalo Sabres.
The real genius behind this truly excellent adventure was David Pollak, a St. Louis native who is currently the beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News covering the Sharks. In early 1978 David found a deal with Allegheny Airlines that offered unlimited flights east of the Mississippi River for up to two weeks for a flat fee of around $300. The only restriction was that one could not stay overnight in the same city more than once. Armed with the NHL schedule, David planned a trip that saw us fly to ten different cities in eleven days. He also managed to provide me with press credentials so I could join him in the various press boxes and locker rooms we visited.
Our trip actually started with a drive across the border to Toronto where we watched the Leafs struggle in a 2-2 tie with Buffalo. We were able to sit in the famous gondola above the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens. The highlight of this stop was going into the Maple Leafs' locker room after the game and interviewing legendary coach Roger Neilson. It was also a lot of fun to speak with Darryl Sittler (HHoF 1989), Lanny McDonald (HHoF 1992), as well as a young rookie defenseman named Joel Quenneville. And while leaving the rink, I saw and recognized a man striding across the parking lot and yelled out, "Clear the track..." He stopped and yelled back, "Here comes Shack!" Yes, it was the feisty sixteen year NHL forward Eddie Shack, a Maple Leaf alumnus.
We attended a Sabres game the following night at the venerable Buffalo Memorial Auditorium (the Aud), a 3-1 victory against Boston and then flew the next morning to St. Louis, where I was privileged to sit in the press box at the Arena, ably hosted by Susie Mathieu, the "Vice President of Everything with the Blues" (actually Director of Public Relations). The Blues and Rangers played to a 2-2 tie. My most vivid memory of that night was sharing an excellent pre-game meal (provided for the press by the Blues) with Gus Kyle, the color commentator for KMOX radio at the time. From there it was on to the east coast for a contest at the old Boston Garden in which the Bruins battled the Maple Leafs to a 3-3 tie.
And that's where we ran into trouble due to a major snowstorm that crippled airports from Maine to Virginia. We were supposed to fly to Philadelphia, yet the flight was cancelled due to the airport being shut down there. Somehow we managed to catch a flight to Rochester, the very last flight out of Logan International. Another bit of luck got us out of Rochester later that day to Pittsburgh, where we continued the streak by watching the Penguins on television. The next day it was on to JFK International (which had thankfully re-opened) and a quick taxi ride to the Nassau County Coliseum on Long Island to see the Islanders. After checking into the hotel, it was quite a thrill to see the elevator doors open and run into Dennis Hull and Dennis Hextall of the Red Wings (yes, Hull had been persuaded to jump to Detroit by GM Ted Lindsay for his last NHL season).
The next day saw us jet to Chicago where the Hawks won a thriller (5-4) over the Islanders at the old Chicago Stadium. From the press box, the organ sounded absolutely magnificent! Then it was off to Detroit and "the Joe", where the Boston Bruins thrashed the Wings 5-3. The best part of that visit was an excellent meal at Carl's Chop House in downtown Motor City. Up next was Cleveland and the Richfield County Coliseum, where we witnessed a Washington Capitals victory over the Barons, 4-1, before a sparse crowd of less than 4,000. That happened to be a nationally televised game, and the announcer was none other than Dan Kelly, who I met in the press box. Imagine my surprise the following morning when we checked in to fly to Minnesota to see Mr. Kelly in line behind us at the airport! Yes, Dan invited me to sit with him, and we chain-smoked and chatted hockey for the one hour flight to Minneapolis, one of the BEST hours of my life. The thrilling 3-2 North Stars victory over Vancouver that night was not nearly as exhilarating as my time spent with Dan Kelly.
Yep, counting Pittsburgh, that was ten different games in eleven days with access to press facilities and many, many personalities from the hockey world of 1978. For any hockey fan, it was, as Humphrey Bogart said in The Maltese Falcon, "The stuff that dreams are made of."