Behind the scenes of Skills
It's been a few months since my last blog. As you can imagine, it's difficult (and perhaps a little inappropriate) to write lighthearted reports on life with the Oilers when the team has been struggling so significantly. I also haven't been on any road trips recently, mostly because my passport is being held hostage at the Brazilian Consulate in advance of my mid-February trip to South America. (I suspect the Vancouver-based Consulate is staffed by Canucks fans and they are punishing me for my less-than-favourable report on their conduct earlier this season.)
Thankfully, my blog drought ended when the Oilers and their lovely fans were able to forget the woes of the past 18 games by partaking in the club's annual Skills Competition at Rexall Place on January 24. Last season, I covered the Skills Competition from the Press Box. (Fun Ranking: Moderate.) This season, I was promoted to the sidelines! (Fun Ranking: Uber Maximum!)
I have been on the Oilers bench before, but never longer than 15 seconds and never with anybody around. This time, I was actually SUPPOSED to be there and, with the help of Video Producer Steve Taylor, I was able to copiously document the experience and email links of the video footage to all my friends and family and strangers.
Here's how the Skills Competition went for me:
HANGIN' OUT WITH TEAM WHITE
During the event introduction, Steve and I snuck up the hallway and out onto the visitors bench. We didn't have to be sneaky about this at all, but when the lights are dim and the music is suspenseful and the fans are cheering extremely loudly, it feels like you're breaking the rules by walking down that tunnel in high heels. Steve and I have our own die-hard fans, of course, but they usually don't gather in the thousands at Rexall Place -- they gather in pairs at our respective family dinner tables.
Standing on the bench during the Oilers intro was exhilarating. Because I'm normally watching the pre-game festivities from way up in the Press Box, it was cool to see the video boards, lights, and fans from ice-level.
The event competitors, including the Oilers and their minor hockey teammates, then took to the ice. Injured players Ladislav Smid, Sam Gagner, and Gilbert Brule strolled up our bench and did a good job of blocking my view of the action, but I didn't complain. Instead, I tapped Sam on the shoulder and asked him for his thoughts on the afternoon's events.
(Note: When doing lighthearted interviews with Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Robert Nilsson, or Tom Gilbert, you must always give the interviewee the opportunity to make fun of Sam, Andrew, Robert or Tom. This instantly makes the interview 35% more hilarious, in my experience.)
The first event, Puck Control Relay, started shortly after that. Sitting beside Sam and Ladi, I was treated to some colourful commentary about a certain player's skating ability and willingness to bend the rules. Jean-Francois Jacques echoed their sentiments in our post-event interview.
At about this time, I became desperate for a piece of gum and asked Ladi if he had a piece to spare. He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a foil-covered stick of Wrigley, and warned me that it was old and dry but probably chewable. I popped it into my mouth and deftly avoided cutting my cheek on its sharp edges.
Why am I telling you this? Well, I chomped this old piece of gum throughout the entire Skills Competition, which is evident in the remaining bench interviews. Don't do this the next time you're interviewing people. It's quite unattractive.
After the Puck Control Relay, it was time for the Fastest Skater Competition. For the third straight year, Andrew Cogliano was the overwhelming favourite to win the event, but for the third straight year, he stumbled out of the gate and was defeated by an underdog. This season, the dark horse winner was 33-year-old defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky.
Andrew was humbled by the defeat -- he could barely look me in the eye during our post-event interview. Lubo, on the other hand, was all smiles! If you've seen any of our online interviews the past two seasons, you'll know that Lubo is all smiles anyway, but it was still nice to see.
OVER TO THE HOME BENCH
At around this time, Steve and I crossed over to the home bench to hang out with Team Orange. We spoke to Robert Nilsson and Mike Comrie over here, as well as Tom Gilbert.
Many of the players had their kids on the benches for the afternoon, and while watching the Three-on-One event, Shawn Horcoff's adorable offspring came over to visit us. I encouraged them to interview their dad, but the youngest thought it would be more fun to slobber all over the microphone. Thankfully, I was able to disinfect the mic by wiping it on my jeans. Devan Dubnyk was none the wiser when it came time for my next Q & A.
After avoiding us for over an hour, Sheldon Souray eventually succumbed to Steve's incessant hollering and came over for an interview. Earlier in the afternoon Sheldon held on to his Hardest Shot title and, with a heavy dose of sarcasm, he credited the victory to vitamins, 80's wresting hero Hulk Hogan, and his own awesomeness.
Midway through our interview, the slapshot star was summoned to compete for King of the Shootout. He skated away from us, picked up the puck at centre ice, wired it past Jeff Deslauriers, and skated right back to continue our interview. You can accuse him of having a bad haircut, but you can't accuse him of being rude.
RIDING THE PINE
The final event of the afternoon was 3-on-3, which Steve and I enjoyed from the spot normally held by the Oilers back-up goalie. With the action sweeping back and forth in front of us, and the players entering and exiting the bench, it was the closest I will ever get to watching an NHL game from the best seats in the house.
It was a perfect ending to probably the funnest day of my professional career. I know the players had a great time, and I hope the fans did too.
Me and Sheldon Souray as he high-fives an Oiler after a shift during 3-on-3. I didn't get any high-fives for my efforts, but that was probably a simple oversight.