Former Flyers beat writer Greenberg entering Hockey Hall

Greenberg
Greenberg
Posted: November 12, 2013

TORONTO - It was early in the morning on Aug. 9, 1988 - usually a quiet time in the hockey world. Not so for Jay Greenberg, then the Daily News' Flyers beat writer.

Greenberg was one of the few sports writers in the world to sniff out "The Trade," which sent the greatest hockey player ever from Edmonton to Los Angeles. In fact, with the help of sources, Greenberg nearly nailed the exact specifications of the deal in that day's paper, hours before it was even consummated.

When the news finally broke, Greenberg phoned Daily News executive sports editor Mike Rathet.

"I told him we could get there in time to cover it all," Greenberg said. "Maybe the best part about working for the Daily News was that he always said: 'Go.' "

It was a different time then. Newspapers ruled the world. With late deadlines working for an afternoon paper, a 3-hour time difference, impeccable sources and an unconscionable travel budget, Greenberg flew across the country the day of the deal.

He landed in Los Angeles and scurried to the Sheraton on Century Boulevard to give Philadelphians a glimpse of Tinseltown's newest star. He was quickly disappointed.

"Kings owner Bruce McNall turned this so-called 'press conference' into a party. One or two questions was all we got," Greenberg recalled. "It was all Hollywood people, actors and producers who wanted their arm around Wayne."

Even though Greenberg was one a handful of reporters in Los Angeles, with maybe the Toronto and Edmonton papers, his access was as good as it would have been at home.

"You couldn't get anything," Greenberg recalled. "That's it. I packed up my bag and I was ready to go back to my hotel. I was thinking about what a waste this all was."

And then, as he was walking out of the Sheraton with flashbulbs still exploding, Greenberg felt a tap on his shoulder. A hotel clerk handed Greenberg an envelope with his name on it. Inside was Wayne Gretzky's new home telephone number in Los Angeles, with directions to phone him the next day for an exclusive interview.

Greenberg landed the Daily News an exclusive in a sports story that could only be compared, as Greenberg then wrote, to the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

"I got stuff that next day that no one else got," Greenberg said. "Wayne was the most aware superstar. He knew how frustrating it was that no one had any time with him. I'll never forget that."

Flash forward 25 years to last June. All these years later, Gretzky was one of the first to send a text message to Greenberg congratulating him on the Elmer Ferguson Award.

Greenberg, now 63, will be enshrined in the writers' wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame today as the 55th recipient of the Ferguson Award, as voted on by his peers in the Professional Hockey Writers Association. He is the first writer inducted to cover the Flyers.

Greenberg covered the Flyers for 14 years, at both the Sunday Bulletin and Evening Bulletin (1975-78) and Daily News (1978-89). A member of the Daily News sports staff covering all major sports in the 1980s has now been inducted in their respective Hall of Fame: Phil Jasner and Dick Weiss (Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame); Ray Didinger (Pro Football Hall of Fame); and Bill Conlin and Paul Hagen (Baseball Hall of Fame).

In addition, Bernard Fernandez and Stan Hochman have been honored by the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

"On that staff, I was maybe the second line right wing on a championship team," Greenberg said. "I thought we had the best staff of writers ever put together. It was the best 'writers' paper in the country for the space we had, the travel budget we had, it was incredible. The talent was incredible. We wanted to be the best and we were the best."

Greenberg, who also wrote a weekly column for The Hockey News while on the Flyers beat, used all of the Daily News' available resources. The paper didn't need to go to press until 6 o'clock in the morning - and sometimes, Greenberg took that long to wax his tale.

"I could wait in the locker room forever, while the other reporters had to run up and start typing," Greenberg said. "[Flyers captain] Dave Poulin was inevitably the last guy out from getting changed. But he was almost always insightful and very good."

Greenberg would talk to players, then drive to his home in South Jersey, make himself a sandwich and light up a cigar while he watched a replay of the game on his VCR and took notes. Only then would he sit down to write - with his wife, Mona, and young daughters, Elizabeth and Stephanie, long asleep.

His game manifestos were not only superbly written, but full of colorful details no other competing beat writer had the time to glean. The Flyers went to the Stanley Cup finals four times while Greenberg covered the team: 1976, 1980, 1985 and 1987. They slugged it out with Edmonton so often that Greenberg became close with some of its top stars, like Gretzky.

"During the prime of Jay's career, he was probably the best NHL beat writer in America," longtime USA Today hockey columnist Kevin Allen said. "It was a treat to read his NHL coverage."

Greenberg admitted it was sometimes a challenge to make it to practice in Voorhees at 10:30 the next morning after staying up so late. It was worth it. Greenberg left Philadelphia professionally in 1989 for a 2-year stint at Sports Illustrated. He was then a general sports columnist at the Toronto Star from 1992-94 and the New York Post from 1994-2011 - where he said his late-night rituals often made it terrifying on deadline.

Greenberg's latest effort, "Gordie Howe's Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey," co-authored with Mark Howe, was published last month. He is currently working for the Flyers as a staff writer for their website, where he is also beginning archival work on an update for his comprehensive "Full Spectrum" book.

The Johnstown, Pa., native began his career at the Kansas City Star, covering the NHL expansion Scouts, after attending the University of Missouri's journalism program. He is one of only seven people regularly assigned to cover the Flyers by the Daily News in the franchise's 47 years - and the only one who can call himself a Hall of Famer.

"This is a great honor," Greenberg said. "It was different then, there wasn't any blogging or tweeting, and I didn't have to write after the morning skates. I did most of my work after the game, when everyone else was sleeping."


On Twitter: @DNFlyers

Blog: ph.ly/FrequentFlyers

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