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Eulogy for Dave Fay

Monday, 07.23.2007 / 12:48 AM / Features
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Eulogy for Dave Fay
It says a lot about Dave Fay that his rival reporter for five seasons on the Capitals beat -- Jason LaCanfora of The Washington Post -- was the one who ultimately eulogized him this past Saturday. To those of us who knew Dave and were able to share in his daily life over the last several years, there were no surprises in Jason's words, but they were very comforting at a time when we were all hurting quite a bit.

Eulogizing a guy like Dave Fay is a tough task, but Jason pulled it off with dignity, humor and aplomb. Dave was a Hall of Fame writer and a Hall of Fame guy. Those of us who knew him are fortunate and richer for it, and those of you who knew him only through his byline are as well. With the kind permission of Jason and Dave's wife Pat, here are the words Jason wrote about Dave:



The last time I saw Dave Fay was at a hockey rink. I imagine that's true for many of us here today. And I don't think our friend would want it any other way.

I finally had a chance to take my daughter Chloe to her first practice in April, which happened to be the Caps' last practice of the season. We really wanted to see Dave there, but I knew he had not been feeling well and he didn't have any stories due for The Washington Times. So I never called to tell him we were coming, because I didn't want him to feel obligated to meet us there.

But as I think back on it now, I can hear Dave laughing at what an idiot I was. Of course he was going to be there. Where the hell else would he rather be? It didn't matter how he felt. It didn't matter that he was on medical leave. It didn't matter that the season had lost its meaning long ago. There was hockey being played, so Dave would be watching.

Even last weekend, with Dave's final days near, he was back at rookie camp, meeting the newest crop of teenagers, about to indoctrinate them into the NHL as only he could. As his wife Pat, a candidate for sainthood and one of the strongest people I have ever met, says: "In true Fay style he battled till the end. He fought a good fight but now he is at rest."

Still, the local hockey community weeps. Around here, the game has had no bigger ambassador than Dave Fay, and likely never will. I know he was thrilled by his recent election to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, a distinction fitting the culmination of his career, and that provided some solace these last few weeks.

But the void of his passing will be great, and we won't be the same without him.

There will never be another Dave Fay - a true character, a local institution, and my favorite person in the newspaper industry. For five years we covered the Caps for rival papers, spending too many nights driving back from The Meadowlands at 2:30 in the morning, with the conversations shifting from hockey to family to religion to politics (I always made sure to bring up religion and politics, by the way, since Dave handled the driving and I knew those topics would get him so fired up that he couldn't possibly nod off behind the wheel).

My respect for Dave could not be any greater. He was an original in an industry being overtaken by contrived phoneys; an old-school, blue-collar newspaperman who shrunk from no challenge and pulled no punches in words or in print.

He is the one person I know who could call Dale Hunter a no-good (bleeping) pig farmer in a crowded locker room without raising an eyebrow. Dave would walk up to Chris Simon and threaten to punch him out in the parking lot if he didn't start scoring some goals and tell Ron Wilson what a fool he was for mis-juggling the line combinations the previous night.

When a player was slumping, Dave wasn't afraid to confront him, because, as so many Capitals told me over the years, he was always fair and honest, and sometimes a kick in the butt was a good thing.

Dave was candid because he cared.

If Dave didn't bust your chops it meant he didn't like you. Everyone else felt the wrath of that Irish temper from time to time, and that was part of his charm. He wore his heart on his sleeve and could say more with one Look than I could with 1,000 words.

Hockey was the perfect muse for Dave. He had no interest in glitz or fame or jumping on bandwagons. Frilly words and cutesy adjectives never worked for him. He spoke like he wrote - in meaningful bursts, direct, to the point - and saved some of his most creative verbiage for the times when that temper boiled over and the four-letter words took over.

The rink was his element, where he could be surrounded by likeminded down-to-earth people who appreciated a wise ass and prized a tenacious work ethic above all else.

Show a hockey person you love their sport and they'll embrace you. Same with Dave. Give him even a small reason to like you and he would. Prove that you could take his BS, and, better yet, needle him right back, and you had a friend for life.

No sport is a rough or gruff as hockey, at least at first glance, on the exterior. But stick around for a while and you find that, just like with Dave, there is an unbelievably caring and loving core aching to seep out. Hockey players, coaches and executives are unquestionably the greatest people to cover, the most fun to get to know, willing to share their time and stories, remarkably giving as a rule.

Dave figured that out in 1982, fell hard for the gritty game and never looked back. He was a lifer. This was where he belonged.

It's the sport where playing in pain is expected. The desire to work and the ability to overcome hardship forms the very essence of the game - it's what hockey players do. Even losing teeth, getting 50 stitches or breaking bones can't deter them from competing.

Dave was one of them, every bit as tough, and generations of Caps players gravitated his way because of it. He served his country in the military, understood the bonds of the lockerroom, and personified hockey's persevering spirit.

I marveled at Dave's ability to overcome alcoholism and remain sober. The hockey beat makes for long days, grueling travel and lonely nights, and I know there were times when part of him still longed for a post-game beer, yet he never allowed himself to get anywhere close to the bar. His courage in the face of addiction was a beacon to others, including many in the NHL family.

His bouts with cancer were legendary and Dave's unwavering will to keep going, to fight, to get back to the rink for another practice and to enjoy his time with the people that he cared for - all of that it is a remarkable testament to the man's determination, verve and lust for life.

Most of us would have bowed out long ago; not Dave.

Most of us, each time cancer returned, over the course of 12 years, could have gone into a shell, complained, turned bitter. Not Dave. He cherished the years he had, relished the battles already conquered, and embraced the richness of each day. Cancer couldn't quash his sharp sense of humor, or dull his effervescent personality.

It couldn't keep him from smiling or reaching out to others. It never sapped his old-school work ethic and need to write about the sport he loved, volunteering for assignments until the very end.

To me, that's what defined Dave.

I remember visiting Dave and Pat at home and in the hospital in 2004, and being overwhelmed by his zest to work even then. I'd ask him repeatedly why he was in such a rush to get back to that freezing, decrepit rink in Odenton, and the answer was always the same.

He'd say, "Opie (a nickname he bestowed on me after a first glance at my stubble-free face), if I don't go out and cover that practice, no one will."

Dave always feared that his paper would ignore the Caps if he didn't push so hard to cover every game home and road, even when sick, and, anything less, to him, wouldn't be fair to the sport, the fans, the players, the team.

So he became synonymous with the Caps.

People throughout the NHL shared Dave Fay stories, and probably always will. He left a mark in newsprint, asked the tough questions and took crap from no one. I have too many fond memories to recount - several of which involve sneaky cab drivers or lunk-headed security guys stationed outside NHL locker rooms, but Pat made me promise not to get us all thrown out of church, so I'll leave those for another time.

One anecdote I can relate, though, might sum up Dave best.

I'll never forget a game in Toronto about six years ago when Sergei Gonchar, one of Dave's favorites of this era, was getting pummeled by borderline hits. The Maple Leafs eventually knocked Gonchar out of the game - a dirty shot from Darcy Tucker finishing him off - and the game ended late, right on deadline.

Dave and I sat in the back of the media workroom afterwards, where Leafs Coach Pat Quinn conducts his post-game press conferences. We were scrambling to file our stories, every second vital to us, while half listening to Quinn, who, for those who might not know, was an imposing figure with an uncanny gift for browbeating and intimidating the media.

So Quinn was rambling on and making excuses for his team, trying to defend Tucker's ugly antics, when suddenly I heard the chair next to me go skidding back towards the wall.

The coach was still yapping away, but now Dave was on his feet in the back of the room, yelling above him.

"Quinn, I haven't seen a worse hit than that since you cheap shotted [Bobby] Orr in 1969," Dave bellowed out, leaving Quinn speechless and the assembled Toronto media horde stunned.

Dave laid into Quinn for a few more minutes, standing up for Gonchar and for what he believed in - this was by all accounts Fay's press conference now - then filed his story, packed his bags and left like it was just another game. Quinn, flabbergasted, absorbed the lecture and barely looked up. I nearly blew deadline taking it all in, but man, was it worth it.

The scene was hilarious, sincere, ballsy and a little bit surreal all at the same time. That was Dave.

Pat, of course, always understood all of this about him and went along for the ride. She is the one person in the world who could get him to kowtow and behave in an instant, but gave him a long leash. Dave's grand children had the same affect; mention them and the man's inner teddy bear came gushing out. He would melt.

We should all thank Pat for letting Dave be Dave, for accepting his quirks and loving him for it. Her overwhelming outward generosity perfectly complimented his rugged facade. Pat knew how much hockey and this job meant to Dave's very being, and supported him profoundly and completely. She was his salvation, and Dave expressed as much to me on many a long road trip.

Covering the Washington Capitals for all those years was never going to make Dave rich and famous, and in fact, it was much more likely to ensure that you ended up under-appreciated, except of course, by the hockey community. Those fans eagerly awaited each missive.

Trust me, I was one of them. Growing up in Baltimore reading Dave's singular take on the sport - witty and insightful, oozing with passion and knowledge and never shying away when it came time to apply a critical eye - inspired me to want to do the same thing.

When I found myself covering the Caps alongside him, Dave could not have been more helpful and welcoming. I got more of an education on life, friendship, work ethic and the newspaper business than I ever could have hoped for.

Even in these past few months, while undergoing chemo and on leave, Dave was compelled to write. With the Caps falling to the bottom of the standings again and the entire DC media watching idly, offering no real commentary, Dave poured himself into a late-season column chastising the team for its dreadful finish. Turns out Fay was right all along - If he didn't do it, who would?

I know Dave's story ruffled some feathers with the Caps, but that's part of the job. As always, Dave put his heart and soul into that piece, called it the way he saw it, and did so in hopes of spurring some positive change. He wanted nothing more than to see hockey prosper in Washington, and did whatever he could in his own way to help the movement along.

That column was real and it was gutsy and, I think, a fitting final salvo for a Hall of Fame career.

What I'll remember most, though, is that last practice we watched together; my daughter's hockey journey beginning as Dave's was ending. One last chance to sit in the stands with my buddy and shoot the bull like we used to.

It was a pleasure to share that day with him, a joy to be a part of Dave's life and an honor to call him a mentor and friend.
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