Feels like part of my family

DON BRENNAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:52 AM ET

He probably wouldn't remember this, but I first met Brian Kilrea at Maple Leaf Gardens on a Sunday afternoon in the winter of 1986.

It was his first season back as coach of the 67's after a couple of years on Long Island, and, for an aspiring Toronto sportswriter, an intimidating moment.

Even then the man was legendary.

Kilrea, who was 52 at the time, was standing by the bus, in the bowels of the storied building, near the visitors' dressing room and the staircase that led to the bunker from where Harold Ballard and King Clancy used to watch their beloved Buds.

He had a cigar in his mouth and, when approached by the rookie reporter, a distinct gruffness about him. But, as the conversation began, he proved to be cordial, quotable and funny.

You couldn't help but immediately like him.

Thinking back to that encounter, I believe the Brian Kilrea of today is the very same Brian Kilrea of 23 years ago. To me, he even looks the exact same. Frankly, I don't know why he's giving up coaching. I think he could do the job for another 23 years.

You know, guys in this business are supposed to keep a certain distance from their subjects, the teams and the people they cover. Often it can be very tough. In my two decades with the Sun, the Ottawa area has definitely had some charming characters coaching its teams. Rick Bowness, Adam Rita, the late Jim Gilstrap, Joe Paopao, Bryan Murray ... you do it when you have to, but it can be hard to say a negative word about the job they do. Their personality buys them a little extra rope.

Kilrea, meanwhile, has purchased for himself a lifetime supply.

But even if the crusty flashes he has strategically employed in a Hall-of-Fame career were the real him, it would be difficult to ignore the tremendous contributions he has made to the community. Nobody has done more for a city's sports landscape. Nobody has done a better job of putting a team on the map.

Never has there been a face so linked to a franchise.

I'm sure that, even if I achieve a personal goal of sports writing until the age of 90, Kilrea will always occupy many top spots among the highlights of my career.

CHOKED ME UP

Seeing him walk off the ice after the 67's won the Memorial Cup at the Civic Centre in 1999 choked me up.

But I will always fondly remember the conversations in his office, or on the team bus as I stood in the stairwell and looked up to him as he sat in his familiar, front-row seat.

Yes, there have been some really great nights in the back room at the Civic Centre -- the famous Hot Stove lounge -- with all the storytelling boys. But the road trips were the best.

You think travelling with the Senators is any good? On their lavish charters, to the bright lights and big North American cities? Staying in the five-star hotels and covering hockey games in the biggest and best arenas on the continent? You think that's fun? Well, it really is.

But to me, right up there was always a weekend road trip with the 67's. To the Toronto area, for a three-games-in-three-nights swing, or better yet, the northern Ontario expedition. North Bay on a Thursday night. Sudbury on Friday. And the Soo on Sunday.

The off day, Saturday, would be great day. A little writing, some fine food and then a few hours back in the motel room with Killer and his friends, watching Hockey Night in Canada and listening to their tales.

Really, it's no wonder he feels like part of my family.

Thanks for the good times, Killer.

DON.BRENNAN@SUNMEDIA.CA


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