Monday, November 22, 2010

Nate Greenberg: Making Friends by Helping People

Fate is a funny thing. If I hadn’t transferred after my freshman year, I wouldn’t have met my wife-to-be. If I didn’t have allergies I probably wouldn’t have met here either, as I was in the university clinic for my allergy shots when I introduced myself to the beautiful girl with long red hair who was getting antibiotics for a cold. And if his roommate hadn’t decided at the last minute to live in an apartment, I wouldn’t have met my good friend, Nate Greenberg.

Nate Greenberg

Nate was one of three roommates during by sophomore year at Boston University. We were thrown together, as it were, into a three-room suite at Myles Standish Hall. Nate wasn’t around much because he carried a full course load and worked 20 hours a week at the Boston Herald-Traveler as part of his scholarship requirements. Shortly after the semester started, Nate’s father died suddenly and he spent each weekend at home in Manchester with his mother and sister. A lesser person wouldn't have kept up with that, but he did, without complaint.

Nate’s absences gave us an opportunity to pull his leg one Monday evening after the suite's locks were changed. Nate was like clockwork, so we knew when he would show up and find his key wouldn't work. Sure enough, as Brent, one of my roommates and another transfer student, and I waited inside, we heard the key unsuccessfully trying to turn the lock. Opening the door, we told Nate that because he had not paid his tuition, the bursar changed the locks. Nate was uncharacteristically pissed, muttering angrily to himself. Finally, Brent started laughing, and Nate shook his head and simply said in his great Boston accent, "You fuckin' guys!" I can still hear him, 41 years later.

I lost track of Nate after the Herald-Traveler was purchased by the Hearst Corporation and hearing Tim Ryan announce at the end of an NHL game on NBC in March 1973, “Our statistician was Nate Greenberg.” The next season, he was named the director of public relations for the Boston Bruins. We reconnected in late 1983 at a Bruins-Blackhawks game in Chicago, the night the Hawks retired Bobby Hull’s number. As we walked through the concourse, Nate spotted Hawks executive Bob Pulford, not the most popular guy, approaching. “I’m going to yank Pulford’s chain,” he told me. “Hey, Pully,” Nate said, “Why are you retiring this guy’s number after all of the trouble he gave you?” In typical Pulford fashion – he also didn’t like Hull from his playing days with Toronto – he muttered something unintelligible while looking at the floor and not breaking step. 

Ticket stub, Boston Bruins vs. Chicago Blackhawks
December 18, 1983

The lockout at the beginning of the 1994-1995 season ended my plans to see the last Hawks game at the Boston Garden, so I traveled to Boston for a Saturday afternoon game vs. the Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers. After lunching in the team dining room on the Nate Greenberg Sandwich, we watched the game from one of the crow’s nest press boxes beneath the second balcony. After the game, Nate stayed on the ice to art-direct a photo shoot for the Sunday’s Boston Globe, so I hung out near the Rangers’ locker room. A young boy in full Rangers gear sat next to me in a motorized wheelchair. Getting antsy, he and his mother went down the ramp to wait right outside the door. Finally, Mark Messier, team captain and one the NHL’s all-time greats, came out and spotted the lad. “I thought you’d be here,” he said, as he pulled a bunch of trading cards out of his shirt pocket, signed them and handed them over. Messier posed for photos with him, then commandeered somebody from the crowd to take pictures of all three. Every pro athlete should learn from Mark Messier.

The 2006-2007 season figured to be Nate’s last, so it was time again to see a game in Boston.  March 22 and a game against the Montreal Canadiens provided the optimal date. It was also my birthday and most likely will be the only time my name will be displayed on a scoreboard. I sat in seat #2 in the press box between Nate and Gerry Cheevers, one of the goalies on the great Orr-Esposito-Buyck teams. Over the years, he had arranged for tickets in Florida, Detroit, Denver and Philadelphia, as well as Chicago (Hawks comped the tickets once in 14 seasons), and my television appearance during the last Bruins game at Chicago Stadium in February 1994. 

Media pass, TD Banknorth Garden
March 22, 2007

Nate is a great raconteur, and this is one of his best. He and Bruins vice president and Hall-of-Famer Tom Johnson (I met Johnson as he was being booted out of the lobby of the Four Seasons in Chicago for smoking a cigar) were late getting into Chicago for a game during the 1970s and headed straight for the hot-dog cart Bill Wirtz kept at Chicago Stadium for media and guests. After getting their hot dogs and mustard packets, they asked for relish. “The concessionaire is too cheap to give us relish,” she snapped. Knowing that the Jacobs family owned the Bruins and Sportservice, Johnson asked facetiously, “Who’s the concessionaire?” She replied, “Some Jewish guys from Buffalo.” I related the story to a friend, a Bulls executive during Wirtz’s ownership, who laughed and said, “That was Della. I’ll bet I had to go to Wirtz four or five times a season about something she’d said to somebody.”

After 34 years with the Bruins, Nate is now enjoying his retirement, especially the time with his grandson and granddaughter. He saw his job as helping other people and liberally used the word “friend.” Nate had legions of them, as witnessed by the outpouring of retrospectives by columnists and reporters upon his retirement (worth a Google search). I once asked him if he considered doing something else, and he replied, “Yes, but then I’d have to find out what it’s like to work for a living.” Nate's mother wanted him to be a CPA, and he started in the College of Business Administration. He might have become richer monetarily but not in the love and admiration of his many friends. If I ever meet a person who doesn’t like him, it surely would be the first. How many people can you say that about?

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