Legend of the scoreboard
She has had the best seat in the house for 40 years
CHANCES ARE, YOU’VE NEVER SEEN HER. If you have, you’ve likely never paid any attention to her because her job is just about the definition of anonymity. Even though she’s had the best seat in the house at all the city’s biggest hockey games and other events for 40 years.
She’s seen the Bulldogs win the Calder Cup from the front row, Gretzky pass to Lemieux in the Canada Cup from the front row, Ben Johnson run in his comeback race from the front row and …
“Ron Maclean FaceTimed me in bed one time,” Evelyn Russell laughs.
Strange, but OK. We’ll get back to that.
In the meantime, let’s just say four decades of operating the scoreboard at FirstOntario Centre and other rinks in town have given the 53-year-old — everyone calls her Ev — a unique perspective on sports and this city.
Russell was 13 and just about to enter Hill Park Secondary School when she got her start. Quite by accident.
Always athletic and a sports junkie, she’d been the first girl in Hamilton to play baseball (rather than softball) several years before. Her parents had filled out the spot on the registration form where the player’s first name went with Ev, and organizers apparently assumed she was a boy. When she showed up, there was some significant consternation about her gender.
“They wouldn’t let me play
playoffs because I was the girl,” she says.
She was also a hockey fan even though there was no hockey for girls. Only ringette. So she would hang around Mountain Arena watching games and looking for a chance to get on the ice and skate.
At some point along the way, the trainer of the Hamilton Mountain A’s junior team noticed her and offered her a job. They had no scorer or scoreboard operator. So for $15 a game, she did both.
“I always made a point of staying away from the players,” she says. “I didn’t want that stigma of being a puck bunny.”
By the time Copps Coliseum opened in 1986, she’d done games for the Steelhawks and the Kilty B’s. All the while sitting beside public address legend and her now-best friend Bill Sturrup. When he was asked to handle the microphone at the new downtown palace, he made clear that he came as a package with Russell at his elbow.
From Day One, she’s been there for all but a couple games a year. She’s done the world juniors, the Memorial Cup, the Canada Cups, the NHL offsite games and pre-season games, the four-on-four tournament during the NHL strike, the Hamilton Spectator Indoor Games and more. She did the outdoor game at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
A few weeks ago, she did the Heritage Cup lacrosse championship. Her first-ever lacrosse game. “Learned it on the fly,” she chuckles. The only sport the bakery manager at the Ancaster Costco — and owner of a pet duck named Webster whose photo proudly serves as her phone’s screen saver — hasn’t worked at the place they used to call Copps is basketball. Once upon a time, she was asked to do Ticats games. Baseball at Bernie Arbour, too. She turned them all down. Too busy.
She’s got hockey. Lots of hockey. Which, by the way, involves more than just turning the clock off and on and posting penalties.
Not all that long ago, bench-clearing brawls were still occasionally a thing. But back then, there was only one referee on the ice. So she and Sturrup were supposed to take note of any player who came over the boards to join a scrap and report him to the official.
After one big fight, the ref came to the scorer’s box and heard that a certain Hamilton Steelhawk had been the first to jump. The guy was promptly tossed from the game, causing fiery Hamilton coach Bill LaForge to quickly reach two or three levels past irate.
“We thought we were going to get fired on the spot,” she says.
It wasn’t the only moment she wouldn’t mind forgetting.
There was the game a few years ago during which the clock wouldn’t start. Then once it started, it wouldn’t stop. Not her fault, but she knew everyone in the building thought the person running the thing was an idiot.
There was the night Ron Foxcroft was having his new Fox40 whistle tested during a Bulldogs game. This was his advanced device that turned off the clock every time it was blown. Which was brilliant except the ref that night had an unfortunate habit of constantly blowing softly into his whistle during play to keep it warm. Stopping the clock again and again and again.
And there was the evening in which the horn went off every time she started the clock. Fans being deafened by the unending din loved that one. “Turns out a mouse had chewed on a wire,” she laughs.
But the gig has also introduced her to a lot of people. That trainer at Mountain Arena who first offered her the job? Years later, he became her husband. Scouts, retired players, coaches, media members and others have grown to know her and now say hello.
One night after having surgery on her foot, she was taking the escalator down to her rinkside box when Walter Gretzky saw her. Always friendly, he made a big fuss in front of everyone on the escalator behind her. “I’ve got to sign your cast, Ev,” he said. And Maclean. When she didn’t show up for Hockey Day in Hamilton last spring, she got that FaceTime call from the host of “Coach’s Corner” asking where she’d been. It was a lovely gesture, if a little awkward to take while lying in her bed.
Of all she’s done and seen, though, one thing really stands out.
When she started this gig 40 years and more than 5,000 games ago, there were no other women doing what she did. Not that she saw, anyway. It was a man’s world.
Today, there are plenty. That makes her happy.
The only thing missing? Over all the years, all the concerts at the downtown arena haven’t needed a scoreboard operator or timekeeper. So, no front-row seats for those. She smiles at the thought. “That’d be nice, eh?”
Evelyn Russell, pictured at a Bulldogs game recently, has been scorekeeping local hockey for 40 years.