Late that Thursday night, NHL Player’s Association executive director Donald Fehr all but promised that a hockey deal was done. Then he listened to a voicemail, turned around, and stepped back in front of a wall of cameras at a swanky New York hotel.
“There has been a development,” he began. “It is not a positive one.”
Those words made it official: after a week branded by “cautious optimism” and “delicate” discussions, negotiations on the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement had stalled again.
But what TV cameras didn’t show was that there was someone else in Fehr’s field of vision, too: not a hockey reporter but a fire-eyed fan in a three-piece suit, tapping at an iPhone swaddled in a rubber Winnipeg Jets case.
Just like the reporters, he was Tweeting the whole damn thing.
Constantine Gamvrelis — the man behind the @jetsxoxo handle — wasn’t really supposed to be there, looking up at Brad Richards, and at Sidney Crosby. Yet there he was, and it felt to him that his presence was a mission.
“These players are looking at me sticking the Jets logo in their face,” Gamvrelis says, the day after talks came screeching to a halt. “And they know that there’s a fan representative in the room, who’s now having their season shattered and their dreams crushed. Again.”
See, here’s the thing: journalists are used to the circus. They know how to ride the rollercoaster, and brace for when it stops. But for a die-hard fan who wears his heart on his hockey sweater’s sleeve, the morning after was sort of painful.
True, Gamvrelis’s Tweets — dozens of gleefully unfiltered missives from the eye of the NHL’s latest media storm — went viral, and hundreds of followers had signed on to find out what he saw. He’d told his story on radio, thanked Sidney Crosby for winning Olympic gold, and rubbed shoulders with NHL media greats.
But in the end, the whole experience felt a little empty when it failed to produce a new CBA. “I seriously feel embarrassed and humiliated,” Gamvrelis says. “It turned out to be a publicity circus fiasco. It was the fashion that they pulled on everyone’s heartstrings, and maybe mine the most because I was right there.
“I feel like I let the fans down.”
So this is the story of how a Winnipeg Jets diehard grew up, moved to New York, crashed the NHL’s media room and told the world which hockey players actually washed their hands.
In a way, it almost had to be Constantine Gamvrelis. Almost from the moment True North Sports and Entertainment owner Mark Chipman announced the Jets were coming back, the 27-year-old Gamvrelis made a name for himself as one of the team’s most exuberant fans.
At the time, he was wrapping up a science degree at the University of Winnipeg, and waiting tables on the side; with his sister, he got in on a season ticket package. And his life became a running statement of Jets pride.
Twitter username: @jetsxoxo. Favourite hashtag: #BLESSTHEJETS.
Indeed, most every one of Gamvrelis’ Tweets was about the team, his passion honest if relentlessly unfiltered: sometimes, he chirped NHL media and players over bad coverage, bad play, or high salaries.
Sometimes he sang the praises of Mark Chipman — “Human No. 1,” he’s called him — and half the players on the team. Either way, his online voice earned him friends amongst Twitter’s close-knit Jets crowd; in the spring, he invited half the town to a Jets-themed barbecue.
In the spring of 2012, he graduated from university, but a career in science didn’t really suit. Instead, a recommendation from a restaurant customer earned him an internship in New York; that internship led to a job offer in communications with the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.
So in late September, around the time NHL players should have been starting bag skates at training camp, Gamvrelis moved to New York City. He rented a room from a Dominican grandmother in Spanish Harlem, and soon fell in love with the folksy flavours of the ‘hood. “It’s not like swanky New York,” he says. More like Winnipeg’s Selkirk Avenue, but “safer.”
Much of the area was already familiar. Gamvrelis’s apartment is close to the Hudson River, and the famous coffee shop where Seinfeld’s cast kvetched is a few blocks down the street. “That’s my breakfast place,” he says proudly. “It’s a Greek family (that owns it), and I’m Greek, so they totally take care of me.”
The only thing missing from his new set-up was the Winnipeg Jets.
In an optimistic move, Gamvrelis booked his vacation time for spring, so that he could be back in his MTS Centre seats at play-off time, to watch the Jets (22nd in the league last year) chase Stanley Cup rings. And he packed his New York City closet with Jets gear hauled from home, and waited for the season to start.
By the first week in December, he didn’t feel like waiting any more.
On that Tuesday morning, Dec. 4, Gamvrelis dressed for work as usual: snappy black suit, suspenders and a striped grey shirt. He slipped his Jets jersey into suitcase, in case a fan protest erupted outside the Manhattan hotel where NHL players and owners were scheduled to meet. “I was just planning on going… and saying, ‘yo, let’s get this done,’” he says.
Within hours, the word began to surface that players and owners were making progress, and Gamvrelis decided to go and take a look. He’d never been to the lux Westin Hotel before – “I’m a dollar-slice pizza kind of guy out here,” he laughs – but wrapped up his workday to join a gaggle of hockey fans outside.
In his suitcase, he had an old Jets event staff pass, a relic from a part-time gig at MTS Centre, and his United Nations staff ID. Outside the Westin Hotel, he struck up a conversation with a fan, and an idea just flew forth. “This guy said, ‘if you got a Jets pass you should probably try to sneak up there,’” Gamvrelis says. “And I did.”
Maybe it was just luck, or confidence, or the old trick of wearing a suit and acting like you belong. Either way, an hour later Gamvrelis Tweeted a single photo of himself, bathed in the grainy orange light of a hotel conference room. Behind him: a stage, a lectern and a blue backdrop bearing the logo of the NHLPA.
Jets fans on Twitter guffawed, and spread the news: one of their own was in the room and boy, did he have freewheeling fingers. For all three nights negotiations were in swing, Gamvrelis Tweeted furiously. And he Tweeted everything.
For instance, while other media reported the two sides were still meeting, Gamvrelis kept his followers abreast of bathroom breaks.
And as the week rolled on, Gamvrelis had lots to say about the food.
It was funny and sort of fascinating, like accidental satire, or like gung-ho performance art. That wasn’t Gamvrelis’s intention — he just Tweeted what he saw and thought. But contrasted against the crumbs of information scattering from the media — did Fehr just whisper in a player’s ear? What did Sidney Crosby mumble, and to whom? – Gamvrelis’s gleefully unfiltered Tweets became the mirror that reflected the circus back onto the stage.
“The news reporters have to have a professional filter on everything they do. I don’t,” he says. “I just have tons of money tied up in hockey. So I was really there just being like, ‘yo, this guy’s in the bathroom, this guy just got some cookies.’”
With hard info hard to come by but hockey fans still held rapt, those colourful bits and pieces provided a bizarre context more serious reports lacked: the NHL’s theatre of the absurd had accidentally invited its most willing scribe.
Within hours, Gamvrelis’s Tweets — blurry photos, breathless updates of food trays and all — went viral. Hundreds of people shared, and followed, and soon the Winnipeg expatriate was pressed into service on radio. Because his United Nations-issued cell phone has special security features, he had to call CBC and TSN radio stations from a payphone, pumping quarters to stay on the air.
“That was kind of embarrassing, but it made it even more authentic,” he says. “Straight up, I’m just a fan in the lobby. And I wasn’t expecting that attention, totally. I was more shocked than anybody. I’m not that funny, but it was just a ridiculous event.”
As the NHL negotiations move forward and the memory of Gamvrelis’s media misadventure fades away, the question still lingers: how did he manage to stay?
On the first night of the meetings, Gamvrelis says, an NHL flack confronted him. Without any other credentials, he pulled out his Jets pass, and his United Nations staff pass, and held them in the man’s face: he promised to keep his Jets jersey in his suitcase. “I said, ‘I would never embarrass Mark Chipman or the organization,’” Gamvrelis recalls. “So they were like, ‘cool, you can hang out.’”
Familiarity breeds comfort, and by the second day he met no such resistance, despite the sudden presence of police and more security. Instead, he rubbed shoulders with the media, and snapped photos of himself with Hockey Night in Canada analyst Elliotte Friedman (“I can’t say enough about how genuine and classy he is,” Gamvrelis raves). And he settled in to play a little hurry up and wait.
So Gamvrelis called his sister back in Winnipeg from the press room phone. He nibbled at cookies that sports writer Jesse Spector brought, and noshed on pizza the NHLPA delivered to the gaggle of waiting press.
Mostly, he laughed at the situation, a lot. “As a fan I just wanted to see (the CBA deal) get done,” he says. “I know and everybody else knows that I straight-up managed to get in and not get kicked out. I really felt like the luckiest fan in the sport to be allowed up there.”
That’s the heart of the story then, although it’s still a little odd: in the end, one fan just walked right in to the eye of professional hockey’s latest storm, and captured all the things he saw. They weren’t always things the hockey world needed or even necessarily wanted to know. But in a week groaning under the weight of two sides and their spin, Gamvrelis — if nothing else — captured a scene as ridiculous as it was mundane, and real.
“I’m really happy I got to provide that perspective for people,” Gamvrelis says. “It was really fun for me until it went crashing through the floor.”
Melissa Martin is scared of New York City, only cares about cats and hockey, and is the Entertainment Editor at the Spectator Tribune. You can find her on Twitter at @doubleemmartin, or drop her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.