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Hockey to Induct Elliott Into Hall

In ceremony tonight, The Times sportswriter will be the first female journalist to receive the honor.

November 07, 2005|Dennis D'Agostino | Special to The Times

Just because there's a Hockey Hall of Famer in our family, doesn't mean our home life is any different from yours.

I mean, we still have to take out the garbage once a week, do the laundry, water the plants, pay the bills. And, just as in your home, I'm sure, the phone will start ringing in the morning and it'll be the bank or the car repair place or the guy who's coming over to fix the doorbell.

Or maybe it'll be Brian Burke. Or Dave Taylor. Or Gary Bettman.

Or Wayne Gretzky.

That's the kind of thing that happens, I've learned, when you're married to a hockey writer. And not just any hockey writer, but this year's winner of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award from the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto for bringing "honor to journalism and to hockey": The Times' own Helene Elliott.

Helene and I are probably the only couple on our block with his-and-hers satellite TV packages -- the NHL for her, the NBA for me -- and we plan our nights accordingly. I find myself negotiating for 20 minutes of Knicks-Celtics if I'll let her watch the third period of Red Wings-Canadiens.

We were both born and nurtured amid the sports-mad atmosphere of New York. I remember exactly where I was when the Mets won the '69 Series; she remembers where she was when Pete Stemkowski beat the Chicago Blackhawks in triple overtime. We both kept score by the radio, collected the same yearbooks and media guides. When I moved out to California just before we were married, I had to part with some of my most prized possessions for the sake of garage space (a familiar catchphrase in our house was, "No, honey, you don't need four copies of the Cincinnati Reds' 1993 media guide.")

I can tell you why Helene is a Hall of Famer, because I've seen it every day for the last six years: Tenaciousness. A near-obsession with thoroughness and accuracy. A crisp, vivid writing style that makes the story come alive. The total respect she has earned from owners, executives, coaches and players. An unceasing work ethic and a years-long cultivation of rock-solid sources.

Helene tends to downplay her role as one of the pioneer female journalists in American sports. But make no mistake, when she and her sisters were starting out in the late 1970s, many locker room doors and press boxes were still closed except by court order.

In a 1978 interview in People magazine (from which she was bumped from the cover in favor of Lenny and Squiggy), she said, "Women have enough constraints without being made to stand outside for two hours before we can see the players." But she added, "Imagine getting paid to do all the things my parents yelled at me not to do." So as far as her legacy as a trailblazer, let's just say that my wife has done a lot of things simply because people told her she couldn't. (I hope marrying me wasn't one of them.)

My wife was there, on deadline, when the New York Islanders put together their four-in-a-row Stanley Cup dynasty, when the 1980 Miracle on Ice became a reality in Lake Placid, N.Y. (one of nine Olympics she has covered), when the New York Rangers ended their 54-year dry spell ... and for the West Coast boom when the Gretzky-led Kings and the unlikely Mighty Ducks each came within a eyelash of bringing the Stanley Cup to Southern California. Away from the ice, she was The Times' point person on the NHL labor crises of 1994-95 and 2004-05.

Helene will never react in knee-jerk fashion to a breaking story or major issue. She'll work the phones and her sources ... double-checking, reconfirming. But when she knows she's right -- just knows it -- she'll stand alone. Last winter, on that February weekend when the owners and players met in a last-ditch attempt to save the locked-out season, TV screens everywhere were cluttered with talking-head Chicken Littles screeching, "The settlement is imminent!" But she knew, and wrote, different. In a late-night phone call to me she sighed, "Not only is a settlement not imminent, but there's a 50-50 chance the whole thing will blow up." By Sunday afternoon, it had.

Or several months later, long after a season had been lost, when she broke the story in The Times that a framework for an agreement had been hammered out and that the formal announcement would come in the next few days. She was vilified in two countries as not only a wishful thinker but an irresponsible journalist. After all, what could some woman from California know about hockey labor? One Internet zealot, without naming her, denounced the "stories that broke in Los Angeles" as "untrue," "fabricated" and "making it up."

It made for a dicey couple of days around the house, but I asked Helene only one question: "Everything you've written about this thing for the past year and a half has been dead on. What makes you think you possibly got it wrong this time?" A few days later, she was shuttling between Toronto and New York, covering the dual news conferences where the settlement was announced. It's not my wife's nature to gloat, but nobody had earned a better right.

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