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In a way, the hockey world revolves around the satellite dish atop John Davidson's red split-level home in Armonk, N.Y. On most nights between September and June, Davidson, the former NHL goaltender who is in his fifth season as the New York Rangers' television analyst on MSG Network, will sit in his second-floor study and scan the airwaves for hockey. On a good night he will be able to watch five or six games, switching back and forth during breaks in play. All the while he will scribble notes on legal pads in a microscopic chicken scratch. He'll mark line combinations, the special teams' strategies and any points of interest raised by the games' commentators. His three VCRs will tape some of those games for later viewing.
All that work is paying off. Davidson, 39, is now the most wanted man in hockey. Last summer, TBS used him as a color analyst for hockey at the Goodwill Games in Seattle. NBC chose him for this year's NHL All-Star Game, over the eight NHL analysts employed by SportsChannel America, which is co-owned by NBC and Cablevision. In fact, SportsChannel borrowed Davidson from MSG for this year's Stanley Cup finals. And CBS recently announced that Davidson will handle its marquee hockey assignment as the analyst for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.
"He's the source," says Jiggs McDonald, the play-by-play voice of the New York Islanders and one of SportsChannel's national TV announcers. "There's nobody in the game who puts in the amount of work on nongame days that J.D. does. He is a great reporter."
It would be fair to call Davidson's house Hockey Central. His study is a video library, archive, memorabilia room and business office, with two phones, a fax machine and hundreds of overstuffed folders, which are stacked against the walls like cordwood.
If there's a trade in the works, Davidson is one of the first people to know about it. Last December, for example, he reported on a Ranger telecast that Pittsburgh right wing Rob Brown would soon be sent to Hartford. Within weeks, Brown was a Whaler. It is not unusual to see Davidson in the corridor before a game, while players, coaches and even general managers approach him to find out the latest scoops.
Davidson's TV career didn't happen by design. In 1982, a year after retiring with a back injury, he made occasional appearances as the third man in the booth during Ranger telecasts. John Shannon, a producer for Hockey Night in Canada, saw Davidson and put him to work in the playoffs that season. "They had me doing the between-periods interviews and, boy, was I bad," Davidson says. "The first person I had to interview was [Islander general manager] Bill Torrey, and I nearly chipped his teeth with the microphone, my hand was shaking so much."
Shannon looked past Davidson's rough edges and hired him as a full-time analyst for the next season. Davidson returned to his hometown of Calgary and worked more than 100 Hockey Night telecasts in each of the next two years, and he began to develop his style and his contacts. "He notices subtle things, like when a player's changed the curve on his stick because he's in a scoring slump," says McDonald, who worked with Davidson on many of those telecasts. Davidson's routine in those days included scouring the sports pages of $75 worth of newspapers a week, looking for information he could use on the air. His phone bills became legendary among fellow broadcasters. In 1986, MSG Network hired Davidson to work on the Ranger broadcasts, and his career has since taken off.
"There are a lot of guys in this business who prepare, but most don't know how to use the information once they've gathered it," says NBC's Marv Albert, Davidson's All-Star Game partner. "What makes J.D. so exceptional is his feel for when to use his information."
On the air, Davidson combines his hockey knowledge with meticulous preparation and the personality of your friend on the next stool at the local tavern. His ability to help the novice fan understand the game better is unmatched. The speed of hockey makes replays one of the most vital aspects of a telecast, and Davidson can break down a play instantly.
Looking back, Davidson believes he shortchanged himself as a player. "I had a lot of ability but was never as good as I should have been," he says. "I didn't keep up with things like physical conditioning and preparation as well as I could have. In television I was given a second life, and I won't make that mistake again.