Peter McNab: Stories from life of Colorado Avalanche broadcasting icon

A weekend trip with Peter McNab could be a revelatory experience. Diana Featherstone-Wenner had known him for years, but she barely knew him. They met in 1990 when they were in the same workout group. Their crew didn’t talk much about jobs or personal lives. She just knew he did some sort of broadcasting.

McNab and Featherstone-Wenner had started dating and soon after they visited Boston. Early 1994, she thinks. During a nice dinner, some guy neither of them recognized pulled up a chair, nudged her out of the way, turned the back of his chair to her and started chatting up McNab.

Featherstone-Wenner noticed he used her date’s full name — like a taxi driver did earlier. “Peter McNab!”

“Who are you?” she asked after the visitor left.

There were more encounters like that one. She finally pried from McNab that he used to play hockey, and she learned on her own that he was pretty darn good at it.  “They’re just being sweet,” he would tell her when fans interrupted, rudely or otherwise.

Once she knew, there was no turning back.

For the next 28 years until his death last Sunday, Featherstone-Wenner was an audience to McNab’s stories: stories from the road as an NHL star who accumulated 363 career goals, and stories from the booth as a celebrated color commentator, first for the New Jersey Devils then for the Colorado Avalanche starting in 1995-96.

They were life partners (never legally married) and parents together. It didn’t matter that she never cared for hockey.

She loved his uplifting quality; after moving to Denver, he started visiting hospitalized people privately, not wanting cameras. She remembers an EMT who had been severely injured in a helicopter explosion who McNab would visit “religiously.” Children he brought to Avalanche practice with him. “The gift of how he could see everyone as whole,” she said.

Above all, everyone he encountered throughout his life was gifted with his stories.

Room service trays and too many men

The weekend trips McNab shared with fellow Bruins Rick Middleton and Mike Mulbury could be even more unpredictable than that first one with Featherstone, but McNab gleefully told her all about them years later.

There was a semblance of routine, though. McNab and Middleton were roommates on the road. Players usually napped between morning skate and the game. Not these two.

They preferred soap operas to sleeping.

McNab memorized the TV schedule. After lunch, they would return to their hotel room to watch “All My Children” then “General Hospital.” The second episode ended just in time to catch a 5 p.m. bus to the rink.

“Very often we had to skip our naps just so we could watch ‘General Hospital,’” Middleton said.

Pumped up on adrenaline after games, they went out drinking. By the time they were hungry, bars and restaurants weren’t serving food anymore. McNab and Middleton would return to the hotel starving. They had a contest. People would leave their finished room service trays in the hallway. “We would scour the room service trays to see who could find the best uneaten food,” Middleton said. “We never learned to order beforehand and have it in the room.”

The Bruins were perennial contenders during McNab’s eight-year tenure. They were tightly bonded with tightly clenched fists, ready to drop gloves with anybody. McNab being McNab, “he was not known for fisticuffs,” Mulbury said.

Or as Middleton put it: “When there was a fight, nobody wanted to grab the other guys, so they all tried to grab Peter.”

That didn’t mean he wasn’t capable, though. Once, in a preseason brawl with the Flyers that strayed toward the locker rooms, McNab found himself one-on-one with Mel Bridgman, “who was one tough customer,” Mulberry remembers. “But it was toe-to-toe. Peter wasn’t ducking. He was throwing punches like a jackhammer.”

Then there was the infamous Madison Square Garden incident. As the story goes, the Bruins had just won a thriller on Dec. 23, 1979, when a Rangers fan reached over the glass and snatched the stick of Stan Jonathan.

“That caused (Terry) O’Reilly to lose all the screws upstairs and jump into the stands,” Mulbury said. “And when the captain jumps….”

The ensuing melee is most famous for Mulbury smacking the instigating fan with his own shoe. But McNab was instrumental, detaining the fan as reinforcements arrived. Mulbury had gone to the locker room, ready to enjoy Christmas. He emerged wondering where everyone was.

“I was happy as a clam,” he said. “I look up and there’s Peter. … He had somebody over the back of a chair, so (the fan’s) head was down and his feet were sticking up.”

McNab and Mulbury served six-game suspensions. Eight games for O’Reilly. They practiced separately from the team and went to lunch at The Fours grill every day for three weeks of unified exile. “Talk about bonding,” Mulbury said.

McNab told a different version of the story to Featherstone-Wenner. He always insisted that he knew the fan was destined for a beating from the entire team, and that pinning him down was an attempt to shield him. The footage was misleading.

Still, she acknowledges, “sometimes Peter would embellish some stories.” There were actual stories and “Peter stories.” Then there was the one he would never tell her.

The Bruins lost to Montreal in the Stanley Cup Final in 1977 and ‘78. They met again in the semifinals the next year. Boston led Game 7 late when a botched line change led to the notorious “Too Many Men” penalty. The Canadiens scored on the power play, then won in overtime.

McNab was the player sentenced to the penalty box. But the exact source of the error that caused six men to be on the ice has always been shrouded in mystery. Middleton, who “couldn’t even watch the game for 15 years,” remembers it as a situation where nobody truly knew who was the sixth man, because that’s how muddled the change was. “It could’ve been me,” he said. “I don’t really want to know.” But McNab always told Featherstone-Wenner he knew who was to blame but wouldn’t reveal it. He had a pact.

It became a game between them: “It’s been 20 years. You can tell me now.”

“I’m not telling you.”

It always made her smile. She enjoyed the running joke too much to seek out the answer.

Friends in many places

Matt Duchene was accustomed to McNab approaching his stall to talk hockey. But this caught him off-guard.

One day while Duchene was playing for the Avalanche, McNab stopped by. “You know what your best quality is?” Duchene remembers him prompting. “My skating,” Duchene said.

“No, it’s your hands,” McNab said. “Your shot.”

Nobody had ever said that.

“He pointed something out that I didn’t even realize,” said Duchene, now in Nashville. “It stuck with me. I actually still think about that.”

As a broadcaster, McNab was a voice of encouragement for the next generation of hockey. Avs players fondly joked when he ambled into the locker room: Who is his chosen one today?

Hockey knowledge was automatic when he started broadcasting in 1987. The challenge was using English eloquently. McNab found a Broadway speech coach to work on his voice, delivery and diction. He wanted to up his game.

By 2004, when he was inducted into the San Diego Hall of Champions, where he grew up, he was confident enough to improvise his speech. “He had them in the palm of his hands,” Featherstone-Wenner said.

But even 20 years into his television career, he would call her during commercial breaks and ask for critiques. She recorded games for him to rewatch later with their twin daughters. At home he hoarded old game notes that he scribbled on the outside of manila folders.

His favorite part of broadcasting was that it kept him on the road and kept him in touch with friends.

Friends like Andrew Greenstein, who was a 12-year-old Bruins fan in 1983. McNab was his neighbor. Greenstein knocked on his door one day, and they chatted. Soon McNab was traded to Vancouver. Greenstein reintroduced himself at an Avalanche game 17 years later. A friendship started. For two decades they went to meals or concerts every time McNab visited his hometown.

Friends like Jerry Cytryn, who combined his love of hockey and drawing when he was 14 by figuring out where visiting NHL teams stayed in Montreal, his hometown. Before a team played the Canadiens, he printed 8-by-10, black-and-white promo photos of players. Then he sketched pencil portraits and brought them to the hotel for the players to sign.

That’s how he met McNab in 1973. The Buffalo Sabres rookie appreciated the teenager’s artwork. “After that, whenever he’d be in Montreal, I’d do another drawing of him,” Cytryn said.

After three years of those visits, Cytryn eventually grew out of the hobby. But the two reconnected 10 years later and had  dinner in Montreal. They were no longer fan and player: They became lifelong friends. McNab got to know Cytryn’s family. They met up in various cities whenever their work paths crossed. One of the last conversations they had resembled McNab’s encouraging locker room chats with players.

“He was saying, ‘You should get back to drawing,’” Cytryn said. “‘You’re not drawing anymore. It’s something you do well.’”

As Featherstone-Wenner learned her partner would soon die, she started calling family and friends. They had a few days if they wanted to see him one more time. Cytryn and Greenstein were among those who visited.

When they were on that date in Boston, Featherstone-Wenner and McNab reached the first compromise of their relationship. “I told him that he needed to not be so gracious to the fans while we were in the middle of an intimate dinner,” she remembers.

Well, he responded, next time a fan tries to push you out of the way, how about we just make sure we’re all facing one another?

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