Some months ago I was chatting with a couple in their forties at a holiday party, and the subject turned to employment histories. The guy told me that he played three games for the Detroit Red Wings in 1983 before he "blew out" his knee, ending his nascent hockey career.
Intrigued, I pressed for details, as I spent most of the 1980s employed at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, home of the Wings, and I was fascinated to learn more about his observations.
In some ways I grew up at Joe Louis, starting work there in my late teens right after Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1982. I remember when Steve Yzerman was introduced at a press conference that I schmoozed my way into, and how young the barely-18 Yzerman looked. Over the years I bumped elbows with just about every player on the team in that decade, as employees and players went in and out the same doors. It became almost mundane to see an NHL star after a while, just as I lost my surprise at seeing rock stars and prize fighters up close in the building.
Meh - the stories I could tell about my 10-second meetings with such luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Robert Plant, and Bono Vox, most of which could be summed up with conversations like this:
Me: "Hey, how's it going?"
Rock star: "Good." (walks away)
Anyways, it was clear to me that my conversation with the ex-Wing had some problems, as he claimed that he played for Brad Park. Unfortunately, Park coached only 45 games in the 1985 season, two years after my acquaintance supposedly destroyed his knee. He was also a bit fuzzy on details, and could only name two other players on the team from that era, one of whom - Petr Klíma - did not defect to the United States until 1985.
His girlfriend seemed quite proud that he and I were hitting it off so well, and I elected to play along with him, rather than expose what was evidently a whopping lie. We continued to converse about the good old days, and how the Red Wings have become an NHL dynasty, and then New Year's Eve turned to New Year's Day, and I forgot about the whole episode.
It seems that my fake Wing, who lives many states away, died of a heart attack not long after we spoke. While I hardly knew the guy, I was saddened that such a relatively young person died at an age when most of us are just beginning to ponder our mortality.
And I was especially glad that I did not make it a point to punch holes in the guy's whopper of a story, since he really didn't have much else going for him, judging from his unemployed status and health problems. By just shutting my mouth, perhaps I let a dying man cling to a harmless fantasy for a couple of more weeks, and maybe there is much to be said for the adage of "live and let live."
Besides, it's not like he was claiming that he scored a game-winning goal in the playoffs, and what's more - maybe he really DID play for the Wings, and just got confused over the years, or maybe he was a week away from being called up when his knee blew out while playing for the minor-league Adirondack Red Wings.
And more importantly - though these days I pride myself on factual accuracy and objective truth as a historian, and though I have learned over the years that telling the truth is infinitely easier than telling a lie - it's not as though I have been above telling some whoppers myself, especially as a younger (and more foolish) person.
Maybe it's worse to be hypocrite than a BS artist.