Had the flesh been willing, Dave Fay probably would have had a story in this morning's paper about the Capitals, the team he traipsed after for nearly a quarter century. Actually, strike that last sentence, lovely as it sounds. After all, Dave was definitely not a traipser. Real men don't traipse.
And Dr. Puck, as he came to be known, was very much a real man ... in both the "real" sense and the "man" sense. There wasn't a phony bone in his body, but there was spine enough for two people — spine enough to wage, without complaint, a 12-year battle with cancer before it took him from us Tuesday night at 67.
I'm not sure what bon mots, if any, Dave planned for his gravestone, but I'd suggest: "What's my deadline tonight?" Right to the end, he was filing copy, working-class Irishman that he was. With him, it was never about the language, about performing literary loop-de-loops; it was about clarity and accuracy and completeness — the fundamentals. Nobody who has covered the Caps in this town has been more plugged in or more passionate than he. That's why he was recently chosen as the recipient of the Elmer Ferguson Award, the biggest honor in hockey journalism, and will live on in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
For many writers, the hockey beat is a mere stepping stone, a means to an end. For Dave, though, it was the end, what he was happiest doing. Part of it was his New England roots, but his personality played into it, too. There's nothing subtle about the NHL — no double reverses, no 3-point baskets, no intentional walks — and the same could be said of him.
"An upfront guy," Caps icon Dale Hunter said yesterday when I gave him the sad news. "Totally fair. If I wasn't playing very well, he'd tell me — face to face. You didn't want to hear it, but sometimes you needed to hear it. He was a battler who loved the game."
A battler who loved the game. Hunter could just as easily have been describing himself. Indeed, had Dave skated instead of typed for a living, he might have been another Hunts — feisty, fearless, a total team player.
Tim Panaccio of the Philadelphia Inquirer, a former Washington Timesman, remembers being at a party at Dave's house in the early days of the paper when Duty Called.
"There was all kinds of stuff going on with the Caps, Bullets, the arena in Landover and owner Abe Pollin," he says. "Fay was on the phone, alternating between interviewing Pollin, barbecuing and writing a story. [He] was a complete pro. He knew you were always on the clock, 24 hours a day."
Dave started out at the Times in management, as the assistant sports editor, but we writers tried not to hold it against him. Truth was, he never seemed suited to a desk job, even when he got older. He had too much wanderlust (a common affliction in our profession). But he did possess certain leadership attributes — including "the look" (as his sweet wife Pat called it).
Trust me, you didn't want to be on the receiving end of the Fay Look. It was as searing as a solar eclipse; you had to glance away ... or risk at least temporarily blindness. The Look conveyed a combination of paternal disappointment and impending physical harm, but the latter was just for effect. At any rate, one Look was usually all it took to get the message across: Don't do that again.
One day, Rick Snider, late of the Times and now of Washington's Examiner, was dispatched to Redskin Park to fill in for Fay. This was in the early '90s, when Dave took a hiatus from hockey to write about football. The Erstwhile Assistant Sports Editor gave Rick explicit instructions: Do a piece on Matt Millen, the chatterbox linebacker. What, Dave figured, could be easier than that?
There was only one problem: As Rick was dutifully taking dictation from Millen, he noticed Art Monk, the team's resident sphinx, in the corner of the locker room giving a rare interview. What to do. Dave, after all, had given him a specific assignment and, well, you disobey such an order at your peril.
"It was an awkward situation," Snider recalls. "I didn't want say to Millen, 'Sorry, but there's somebody more important I've got to talk to.' "
He was also aware that he was treading on Fay's turf and feared he might get The Look — or worse — if he departed from the agreed-upon script. So he ignored "every journalistic instinct" and continued recording Millen's ramblings.
"Fay called me the next day and ripped me apart," he says. "And you know, if a young guy had done something like that when I was covering the Redskins beat, I probably would have yelled at him, too."
Over time, Snider got to know Fay better — a lot better. Several years ago, when Rick was recovering from a heart attack and sleeping fitfully, he would often get up in the middle of the night and go online. Almost as often, Dave, weighed down with his own cancer concerns, would be online as well. And so they would Instant Message back and forth, giving each other support ... until drowsiness set in and they could finally close their eyes.
"We'd both be awake because of the medication we were taking and the stress of the whole thing," he says, "and Fay would pop up on my screen [on his AOL buddy list]. It helped, I think, for us to know there was somebody else out there going through what we were going through."
Last Friday, Dave went to the Caps' practice facility in Arlington to gather material for a training camp story. But the cancer had made it so difficult for him to speak — and be understood — that he went home empty-handed. He then, in classic Fay fashion, e-mailed an apology to his bosses, saying it was "the first time in 47 years that I have not done what I was assigned to do."
The plan, he told them, was to rest the next day — unless he was needed in an emergency. And what emergency might that be?
"Unless [Peter] Bondra unretires, in which case I do the patriot deed."
Au revoir, Dr. Puck.
(You know, it just dawned on me: In all the years I knew Dave, including the year we hung out together in Ottawa during the Stanley Cup playoffs, I never asked him whether he spoke French.)