NEW YORK — Frank Brown sat across the table in a conference room perched high above Manhattan. He leaned back in his chair and took his time. He had just spent some time looking through old, yellowing clips from his days as a newspaperman with a smile that could light up Broadway. For once, a man who spent an entire career — 28 years, in fact — finding the right words appeared to be at a loss for them
Brown, the 2019 recipient of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for excellence in hockey journalism as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, needed a moment to collect his thoughts on what it meant to have his peers select him for a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“You know,” he said after a long, emotional pause, “it’s so complicated because we all read each other because we all needed to know if somebody had a story that we needed to match, that we needed to surpass. . . . And when writers read writers, they’re as critical as they can be and the bar is set so high.
“So, to have a preponderance of the electorate say that he meets this standard . . . our standard, adds a deep level of meaning and impact to the experience. Will I ever be able to process it? No.”
Growing up in Manhattan, Brown realized at age 7, while watching the 1959 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, that he wanted to be involved in sports. While serving as a broadcaster or analyst was not in his wheelhouse, he quickly realized he had a gift for words — and a love for hockey.
“I walked down the aisle at the old (Madison Square) Garden and saw the ice, and heard the organ music and heard the puck slapping off of wooden sticks and the whooshing of the skates on the ice . . . and I was just pierced right through the heart,” he told Sporting News of attending his first NHL game at the age of 13.
That first game in 1965 set Brown on a collision course with becoming one of the most prolific writers of his generation and someone who would cover some of the biggest moments in the history of the sport. First with The Associated Press and then the New York Daily News, Brown covered the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 and Stanley Cup championship wins by the Montreal Canadiens in the late ’70s, the dynastic New York Islanders in the early ’80s and the New York Rangers in 1994 as the franchise ended its 54-year dry spell.
“At last. At long, long last, the Rangers are Stanley Cup champions,” Brown wrote as he watched years of futility come to an end at the Garden on June 14, 1994.
Canucks fans are sad today. What a shame. Ranger-haters everywhere are miserable today. The hell with them. Ranger fans are ecstatic today. They should be. All the ghosts are gone. The tortured spirits can rest. 1940 is just a number now. Because the Rangers are champions.
Brown’s writing connected with readers across the five boroughs of New York City. His words resonated with New York sports fans because, as he put it, he was “channeling the emotions, the frustrations, the passions, the craziness of the fans, through myself out my fingers into the copy.” He took his responsibility as their representative to heart — to get the story that brought them inside the rink, inside the team and inside the locker room.
“It was a sacred trust,” he said. “It was not something to be taken lightly. If you get that access, if you get that ability to connect with the people that the audience is paying to watch, and they’re paying to read, they’re paying me to read my stuff . . . I couldn’t let them down. I couldn’t disrespect the honor. I couldn’t disrespect the audience.”
Like the career of the late Elmer Ferguson, the clicking of the typewriter defined Brown’s work in those early years, before today’s computers and Twitter and instant reaction; do not, however, call him a typist. As he put it, he was a writer whose purpose was engaging, informing and entertaining and providing “at least one thing that they may not have seen, may not have thought about or had no opportunity to have heard.”
Herb Brooks. Scotty Bowman. Bob Johnson. Ken Hitchcock. Mark Messier. Ken Dryden. Mario Lemieux. Guy Lafleur. Those were just some of the coaches and players Brown could consistently go to for the information he needed to elevate the story; however, he also wouldn’t hesitate to break away from the reporting pack. As a staff writer, the lead hockey writer at the AP, the Daily News’ Rangers beat writer or a columnist, his objective was to stand back, find other angles and talk to the fourth-liners — or even the equipment guy.
“Don’t be afraid,” he asserted. “Don’t be afraid to be yourself, to believe in your words to know that only you could tell the story the way that you tell it. . . . Find the connection to your reader so that whatever it is, it’s authentic and it’s modest and it’s respectful of the language and the audience and the story.”
Good Sir or Madam, wherever you are, wherever you were, thank you for the Cup that makes hockey better than any other sport. Men will work all their lives for the privilege of crying over the Cup. — excerpt from Frank Brown’s essay in “Why Is the Stanley Cup in Mario Lemieux’s Swimming Pool?: How Winners Celebrate with the World’s Most Famous Cup”
Every morning the newspaper would be tossed onto the white concrete steps of a residence on a quiet block in the middle of Brooklyn. The New York Daily News belonged to my grandmother, but every morning before I was driven to elementary school or the bus came to whisk me away across the borough to junior high or when I returned home after filling my head with math or history or science, my fingers flipped through the pages, scanning until the byline of Frank Brown appeared.
His words were magic; they danced across the newsprint, turning the intricacies of a 60-minute tilt into a poetic story that captivated this young reader and others. He validated what we saw on a nightly basis while also illuminating things that may have been missed or to which we were not privy. As Brown said, “My essence, my burning fire was hockey,” and he brought that love of the game to — and stoked the fire in — his readers over the course of almost three decades.
Back on that cloudy day in New York, in the conference room overlooking the city where he once dominated the sports media, Brown peered through those yellowing pages of clips from his time with the Daily News. It transported him back and filled his mind with just the sheer volume of his work and the memories of people and moments, of walking out of the press box every night feeling that he did the best job each and every night.
The team gets defined not by its name or its jersey but by the triumphs, the feelings it inspires and the people with whom those feelings get shared. When one season ends, for better or worse, you count the days until opening night, when you can climb inside the concrete puck again and be whatever it is you are.
“To see your name on a piece is an out-of-body experience,” he said. “To see your photo on a column in a paper like this is is a pinch-me moment. Are you serious? Right. But then to imagine your face on glass in the Hall of Fame, you can’t — I’m not that good. I’m not good enough to put that, to capture the meaning of that.”
It has been almost eight months since Brown received the call from then-PHWA president Mark Spector telling him he would be the 2019 Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award recipient. Eight months to ponder and enjoy, to delve into the world of Elmer and his intricacies. While he has written his speech and is prepared for the moment, he still has trouble grasping the honor as the calendar has turned to November.
“You don’t devote your career to getting into the Hall of Fame; you don’t,” he said. “You devote your career to writing the best story of the day. Write the best story in the paper. That was it. That’s what I want to do. I want the best story in the paper, every damn day. You don’t do this with this in mind. So that means you don’t ever consider if your peers say, ‘Yeah, you’re in. You’re in, you’re getting a plaque.’
“For it to happen now, for it to happen at all, it’s surreal. It’s surreal. And, and, it’s indescribable. It’s, it’s indescribable and I laugh at the fact that I’m getting a plaque for finding the right words — and I can’t really find the right ones for this.”
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