Goals and assists

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:55 AM ET

Like thousands of fans in this hockey-mad city, Shannon Tucker enjoys bleeding and breathing Maple Leaf blue.

She rarely misses a home game, sitting on the edge of her Air Canada Centre seat, especially when a certain No. 16 is reaking havoc.

The view is good but nothing like the front-row perch Shannon has to the life of a pro hockey player.

Tucker will be the first to admit the role of hockey wife comes with its benefits.

But it is far more than the glamour life of pucks and pompoms some might perceive it to be. Besides keeping things sane on the homefront, the modern-day hockey bride (or girlfriend) can play a key off-ice role.

Part mentor, part mom, part cheerleader, part reality check counselor, wives can inject some sanity into the frenzied world in which their other half earns a living.

"She's my sounding board," the Leafs' Darcy Tucker said of his wife and mother of their three children. "When you are upset about what has gone on during the game, in the car ride home, she's probably the voice of reason.

"It's a lot easier in this job if you can go home to somebody who is going to have a rational opinion of everything."

Like Tucker, Stephanie Ferguson is a regular at the ACC, a perk she missed out on when husband John was the assistant general manager in St. Louis.

The visibility and pressure is amped up considerably now that John is the Leafs' chief decision maker, so the GM's wife is more than watching the action at games.

"One of my first goals when we took the job was to get some really good seats where I could see him and feel what he feels during the games," said Ferguson, who like Tucker, values the drive-home time to help hash out the evening's events.

"It's nice to be able to relate to him. On the drive home, he can talk if he wants. It's a big part of our lives, obviously."

A bigger part than most hockey couples bargain for when it comes to the bright lights of the sport in Southern Ontario.

With three all-sports TV channels and four newspapers based here, plus the regular menu of TV and radio stations, coverage can get suffocating.

The attention spills away from the rink when players -- and, by extension, wives and children -- are often stopped on the streets and in restaurants for autographs, pictures and even the occasional snide remark.

"To be honest, it's so well known when they come here that things are going to be different," Ferguson said.

"Not that you are prepared for it but you have to deal with it. I just try to keep an even keel. When you are up, you are up. When you are down, just don't read the newspapers and watch TV.

"If you want all the wonderful benefits of playing hockey in Toronto with all the passion and interest, there are always tradeoffs."

Shannon Tucker holds a similar view.

The Tuckers did a tour of duty in Tampa Bay where the weather was nice but the hockey climate frosty. Coming from hockey families as they do (Shannon's brother is former Leaf, Shayne Corson), it was a more difficult adjustment than adapting to the polar extreme here.

"It makes you pumped just to go to a game, that's what we enjoy about this city," Shannon said.

"In Tampa, not that many people cared. Here, it can be stressful at times. There is as much good stuff as bad stuff written. Sometimes, it's just hard to listen to that stuff."

Still, when Ferguson counsels new wives and girlfriends, she warns them of the storm that can come, especially when it blows in on the tail of a losing streak.

"It's a city full of GMs," laughed Ferguson, who admits she can't resist sampling the reports, even when she knows it might be bad.

"(Fans) know what they read and what they watch. We should be happy they are all watching."

No worries here about that, as third-year Leaf Matt Stajan has discovered.

While still single, his girlfriend, Katie Fairbrother, has to deal with his celebrity when the couple goes out on the town.

PRIVATE LIFE PUBLIC

"It's tough for (wives and girlfriends) because our lives, especially in Toronto, we're under a microscope," Stajan said.

"Reading things in the paper and hearing things on the street are not exactly the lifestyle most girlfriends are used to, so getting accustomed to it is a bit of an adjustment."

In their private moments, Fairbrother does her best to offer her support and "to help Matt debrief after a game."

In public, she has come to learn almost anything goes.

"Sometimes it's cute -- you can see people whispering 'I think that's Matt Stajan,' and stuff like that," Fairbrother said.

"But sometimes it can be intimidating. Toronto is a hockey city and everybody loves it. If you don't win, sometimes you are going to hear about it. It's important for me to be supportive and help him not think about the negative comments."

Keeping their husbands' minds away from the rink is no easy task.

For those who have family, the children are a perfect diversion, especially younger ones who might not grasp the status their father's hold in the city.

"John is so scrutinized and so guarded in this environment that it is important for me and for the kids to get him away from that," Ferguson said.

"We'd like to think we've got them to the point that they don't care (what he does for a living), that Daddy is Daddy."

At ages five, eight and nine, the little Fergies are relatively sheltered from the media. But Stephanie tells the story of the morning she had the car radio on to an all-sports station when she was shuffling the kids around.

One of the announcers does a bang-on impersonation of her husband, nailing his monotone voice and his penchant for not saying a lot at times.

"The kids just cracked up," Ferguson said. "They thought it was hysterical and couldn't wait to tell their father about it. It went a long way to teaching them about our lives."

Ferguson said her children have heard the odd comment around the playground or schoolyard, no surprise considering their dad's visibility in the community.

But so far, they haven't felt consequences, good or bad.

The wives and girlfriends quickly learn the merits of selective hearing.

"Sometimes you hear people saying the odd thing," Fairbrother said, "but you just shrug it off."

The Tuckers have learned a good way to help deal with life in the fishbowl is to get out of it. They have made friends away from the game, a circle so strong both say they plan to live here when Darcy's playing days are through.

"There's a serious part of the game but there's also a time to take back and take a step and laugh at yourself," Darcy Tucker said.

"That's what Shannon does for me. She makes me realize if you are constantly hearing the hockey talk, it wears on you after a while. Having friends away from it all helps a lot. It grounds you a bit and makes you realize hockey is just a game."

It may be just a game but as a job it comes with its share of workplace hazards, especially if you play with the irascible style of Tucker.

"It's just my personality but when I'm going to games I'm really nervous for him," Shannon Tucker said.

In the most technical sense, the wives' job is not really a job at all. But they definitely have a role.

"John and I want the wives to feel as important as their million-dollar husbands," Stephanie Ferguson said.

"People think a lot about the players, but in so many situations it can be the wives who hold it all together."


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