This is the second part of my personal reflection and tribute to my mentor, my colleague and most of all my dear friend, the late Russ Conway. Here’s the first part, in case you haven’t read yet.
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” – ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’
I can tell you now, that in his final days, Russ Conway was in a state comparable to wearing a CH on your jersey in a seven-game series against the Bruins and having to fight Stan Jonathan or Shawn Thornton every damn game. Just like he fought for the players he covered throughout his career and long after until he passed away August 20, he fought his various health issues quietly and yet relentlessly. Through it all, in true Russ fashion, he kept taking care of his friends.
Last month, while Russ was quietly suffering more than anyone knew, he made sure his close friend and Boston Bruins great Rick Middleton, who had his number 16 finally retired by the Bruins last November, was honored by the town of Hampton, NH where has lived since the early nineties.
“He didn’t tell anyone,” ‘Nifty’ told me of Russ’ condition following his passing. “He set it up though and made it happen with the help of his good friend Regina Barnes, a Selectwoman in Hampton. They honored me for being a resident of Hampton and having my jersey retired and such. It was a really nice event down at the Seashell. It was just a really nice night and he had a lot to do with that. That’s Russ, he always did stuff for everyone else.”
As I said before, Russ just knew how to make you laugh and that was how he befriended you and how he showed his loyalty to you. He knew how to engage people and through his stories make them feel at ease. I asked ‘Nifty’ for a good Russ story and I couldn’t agree with his answer more. Russ always told the stories but this time and unfortunately because he’s left us, the stories of Russ are and will be about him forever.
“You know, he was usually the one telling the stories, not making them,” Middleton pointed out. “He would always tell stories of other people and all the encounters he had along the way because he was always talking to so many people he just had so many stories that he would hear from all these other people and then he would relay them to me or Terry [O’Reilly] so he kind of kept us caught up with what’s happening around the league. Whether it was the NHL brass that he knew or the NHL alumni people that he knew or certain players, he was always connected, and it wasn’t just old stories, it was a lot of current stuff.”
Through that comfort level and trust Russ created, he earned the trust of the players he covered. One of those players was the best player ever to lace em up, Bobby Orr, and he spoke to Bill Burt last week. Russ started covering the Bruins in Orr’s rookie year and they immediately bonded and formed a friendship.
“Russ started covering the team and we would talk a lot, more than a writer-player relationship,” Orr told Burt. “I can’t explain it other than we became friends. I trusted him. I was younger than a lot of guys on the team. Russ and I were the same age.”
I can’t even count how many Orr stories Russ told me, and most of them were about the man and not the legendary hockey player. That was because Russ got to know the person behind the player.
‘Nifty’ and other teammates could relate and formed friendships with Russ through that trust Orr spoke of.
“He was always there,” Middleton told me. “We got familiar with Russ very fast. He knew the game so well that he didn’t need to throw anybody under the bus. He didn’t need to get the headline by making somebody look bad. He knew that he had to have good relationships with the players, but he wouldn’t pull any punches, he’d tell the truth, but he didn’t do it to sensationalize or get the big headlines.”
O’Reilly, who also spent many a night with Russ in Hampton, whether at the old Le Bec Rouge on Hampton beach or The 401 Tavern, had this to say as well.
“Russ was a loyal friend and a great writer,” O’Reilly told me in a text Sunday. “Every NHL player, past and present, owes Russ gratitude and respect for the work he did exposing the dishonesty of Alan Eagleson, resulting in a serious increase in our pensions. We will miss him dearly.”
Hall of Famer Brad Park and I spoke this past week as well and he completely echoed what ‘Nifty’ said about Russ along with referencing his famous hairstyle.
“He was kind of an unforgettable character in that I didn’t really know him but even when I came in with the Rangers, he was this guy that would come in with his mullet and back in the seventies, well that’s an interesting haircut,” Park recalled with a chuckle.
“When I got to Boston, I saw him so much and I got to know him. The one thing about Russ was, ou of all the reporters that ever covered hockey that I knew, he’s the only guy, THE ONLY GUY, that ever got on the inside. We as players all had a boundary or a ring around us where we never let the media on the inside, he was the only reporter that ever got on the inside, and that was with everybody. He was fair but honest and he also loved to go out and have a beer and talk hockey with us.”
One of those nights out, in 1990, happened to be the 20th Anniversary of the 1970 Bruins Stanley Cup win and that’s when the leads Russ was working on the Eagleson story were confirmed even more by his Bruins friends.
“That started at the 20-year reunion for the ‘70 Cup,” Park said. “As I said, he was on the inside, hanging with the guys at the reunion, and they expressed the opinion that they got shortchanged by Eagleson. So Russ started to look into it and as a matter of fact, I was sitting inside my office later after that, and I get a phone call from Russ and he says ‘Parkie’ I’m at the offices for the NHL pension, and I’m trying to get information on the pension but they will not give me any information because I’m not a participant for the pension, nor do I represent a participant in the pension’.
Then Park showed just how much trust players had for Russ and vouched for him.
“So I said to Russ: ‘Russ is there somebody there with you? Put him on.’ Then this guy comes on and I said ‘You may recognize my voice, you may not. My name’s Brad Park and I’m a participant in the pension, and Mr. Conway is my representative. Do you have a fax number? The guy says ‘Yes’ and I said ‘Give me your fax number and within five minutes I will have a letter in your hand with my signature stipulating that he’s my representative.’
So that’s how he got the information on the pension and what Eagleson was doing because two days later, Ziegler (former NHL Commissioner John Ziegler) got a court order to shut it down. Russ was already ahead of that though. He was that determined and that dogged to shut it down. If ‘something didn’t smell right in the city of Denmark’ he was going to find out what it was.”
All of that was through the network of friends and confidants that Russ had fostered and luckily for me, I was able to meet, enjoy an adult beverage or two and listen to stories from these players and reporters I knew of through my Dad and grandfather. As Park pointed out though, I’m lucky I can do so in the age of smartphones and better mobile plans.
“I’ll tell you what, when they came out with a cell phone with unlimited calling, it was the best thing to ever happen to him,” Park said of Conway and all his contacts.
Note: As far as I know, Russ never got a smartphone. In fact, the last time I saw him, unfortunately in late May, he still had one of those flip phones you’d see the characters in a Boston Irish mob flick like ‘The Departed’ use.
I never got those final Tuesdays With Russ Conway as Mitch Albom did with Morrie. I know maybe that’s the way he wanted it as he likely knew he was in his final days, I will always regret it. What I won’t regret though is the Bruins games we watched together from the press box or hockey games we watched at one of his many haunts in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, Hampton and even Montreal, where Russ befriended the likes of former Canadiens GM Serge Savard, fellow Hockey Hall of Fame scribe Marc de Foy, and as Burt pointed out in Part 1, bartenders, restaurant owners and so many locals. Russ was the mayor wherever he roamed and like the saying above states, he may be gone, but those relationships will live on in the memories and hearts of every person he touched including yours truly.
I’ve been inundated with texts, emails, and calls on Russ for the last week and I’d give anything right now to call him and ask for advice on this ode to him as I did for some of the stories I’m most proud of writing. He wouldn’t hold back any punches but he’d always encourage me to keep going. Then he’d sign off with trademark “Adios” as he hung up the phone. I heard the song below the night after Russ passed away. It’s fitting for a man who had so many friends and brought cheer, support, and love to all of them. I’ll leave you with that and sadly but with honor, all I can say to Russ Conway now is:
Adios Russ and Vaya Con Dios!