Dave Fay and I have had an ongoing argument, now in its 26th year, about which of us was at The Washington Times first. Fay says he was because his byline appeared before mine. “Yeah,” I always reply, “but those were stories filed before you got here. I arrived in Washington first, broke the threshold of 3600 New York Avenue before you did.”
I’m willing to declare it a tie, but Fay, of course, is convinced he’s the winner. And here’s something else he’s the winner of, something bigger, even, than being the Longest-Tenured Employee in the Sports Department: The Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award, given by the Professional Hockey Writers Association to “distinguished members of the newspaper profession whose words have brought honor to journalism and hockey.”
I’ll second that motion. If you wanted to know what was going on with the Capitals the last two decades, you simply had to read Dave. Nobody who covered the team was better connected, nobody was more knowledgeable about the game. And every once in a while, he’d even write a sentence that was intelligible.
I can make a crack like that because Fay and I are close enough to have shared a hotel room at the Super Bowl one year. The only way I survived the week was by buying a pair of earplugs to ward off his snoring. Are you familiar with the expression “sawing wood”? Well, Fay’s sawing evokes images of log mills, of giant sequoias being reduced to 2-by-4s.
This was during the brief period when Dave served as the Times’ Redskins beat man. Mostly, though, he has been Mr. Hockey at our paper — or Dr. Puck, as the license plate on his truck says. He has followed the Caps to the ends of the earth, to the Soviet Union, Sweden, Norway. (They’re probably still talking about him in Latvia.) In gratitude, the team’s management caters to his every whim and idiosyncrasy, always leaving an empty seat next to him in the press box so he’ll have more room to work … and fulminate.
Some writers are reluctant to plop down in that seat, invade his space. Fay, after all, has never been confused with Mister Rogers. I mean, the guy has a tattoo — a remnant of his wild Boston youth — that’s older than Allen Iverson! He also spent some time in the Navy, leading to speculation that he’s Barnacle Bill’s half-brother.
But the Real Dave, the one I know, can’t do enough for you. Whenever I show up at a Capitals practice to write a column, he always makes sure — doubly sure — I get the interviews I need. You should see him scurrying around, making my job easier. He’s like a concierge, a maitre d’. (Don’t tell anybody, though; it will ruin his image as a crusty old Irishman.)
The players, meanwhile, treat him like a favored uncle — and trust him implicitly. So much so that, during the ‘98 playoffs, Dale Hunter and Calle Johansson hitched a ride with him to Corel Centre for Game 3 of the Ottawa series. Yup, there’s Dave and me and Dale and Calle cruising along in a cheapo rental car, one barely big enough for four adults. It was an absolutely harrowing experience, not because of how Fay was driving but because the Capitals were the highest seed left in the Eastern Conference and had their best chance ever of making the finals (which they did). All I could think was: If we crash, Caps fans will be storming the newspaper. We may have to close.
But Dave delivered us safely — just as he’s been delivering deadline stories safely his entire career. And now he gets the biggest writing prize in hockey, The Elmer.
“It’s totally unexpected,” he says. “I never dreamed anything like this would be possible. I’m shocked, I’m humbled … I don’t know what else to say.”
He’s particularly pleased to be the first Eastern writer south of New York to win the award. Let’s face it, this ain’t exactly Prime Hockey Territory down here. It’s one thing for a writer from Boston (there have been five) or Buffalo (three) to receive The Elmer; it’s quite another when somebody from Washington walks off with it.
Fay and his wife, the eternally patient Pat, have had a pretty rough go of it lately. Dave has had several bouts with cancer — and is in the midst of another. A typical week, he tells me, is “five days of radiation and one of chemo” — only he says it as offhandedly as one might say, “five pushups and one sit-up.” We should all be so brave.
He’s back writing, though — as you may have noticed — and on Nov. 12, at a luncheon in Toronto, he’ll be ushered into the media wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame as the 49th recipient of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award.
“Do you think the boss will give me the day off?” he asks.