There's a lesson here, I guess: don't put blueberry vodka into your body, especially when you have a doctor's appointment at 9 a.m. the next day. I don't know for sure that my Thursday-night shot at the Local is what laid me low, but I spent most of Friday in bed, with a headache alternately throbbing and piercing, trying desperately to sleep. The 98-degree weather didn't help either. I'm only now, on Saturday morning, more or less back to normal -- and I still have something of a headache. The only other possibility is that I have some horrible wasting disease, and I'll be dead shortly. Considering the scale of this headache, that might be preferable.
This morning, as I was drinking coffee like it was liquified life, I flashed back a bit to my job interview trip out here, in 1999. After a few months of unemployment, and getting desperate enough that I'd tried for a PR job at the U.S. Navy, I pulled the old "hey, I'm going to be in town visiting a friend, why don't I drop by and we can talk" move. Yeah, I was desperate enough to pay for my own trip to Atlanta, at the height of summer.
It wasn't all hardship, though. I really was visiting a friend -- my old college compatriot Laura, who's seen me through all phases of life, from shaven-headed angry teenager to whatever I am now. And almost as important, I would get the chance to visit Willi's Sports Grill.
Now, I'm not much for idolization. There are plenty of people I admire, but I'm rarely prone to hero worship. There's a few people I'd be thrilled to meet, mostly writers, but for the most part, I'd rather their works just stand alone and I'll judge them on that.
But I couldn't help but get giddy at the chance to meet Willi Plett.
It's been noted before, over and over, that I tend to gravitate toward kind of off-the-beaten-path players, but even so, I can't totally explain why Willi was one of the first hockey players I rooted for. By the time I was really watching hockey, his career was on the downward path. He was playing for Minnesota, a team I had little interest in. But there you have it. Along with Wilf Paiement, Bernie Federko and Brian Sutter, Willi was one of the first players to get my interest.
So when I was flying out here, I told Laura: "we've gotta go up to Willi's."
Thankfully, Laura (then and now) is always up for oddball adventure, and wasn't averse to going all the way up to Woodstock, Georgia (one of Atlanta's northern suburbs) just so that I could meet Plett. (and drink beer, and eat wings)
Once there, it wasn't hard to pick out Willi -- he was about twice the size of everyone, a mountain of a man. All cliches about "he looked like he was ready to step on the ice right then" apply. I told our waitress that he was a favorite of mine from childhood; the look on her face indicated that there weren't a lot of people making a pilgrimage from Colorado to meet Willi Plett.
He came over, chatted with us for a while -- very nice, funny guy. Signed an old Flames program for me, took some photos with me (which I'd post here, if they didn't make me look ridiculous -- the combination of a beer-induced flush and a hairstyle that I can't really justify mean that they stay locked in the archives). Laura, for her part, said later that Plett is "a beautiful man."
The place had, perhaps, the best wings I've had in Atlanta, and any place with hockey memorabilia all over the walls makes me feel at home. But, once I moved out here, it was a struggle to make it up there too often; Woodstock is far enough away, well beyond the reach of public transport, that the only way to drink there is to follow it up by carjacking someone.
Willi's is no more, which is a pity. (and surprising -- every time I went out there, it was pretty full) Last time I went out there, it was a karate school. Plett's still around; I think he does landscaping or something, and coaches youth hockey in suburban Atlanta. There is still one more former Flame-run bar -- Tim Ecclestone's TJ's, up in Alpharetta. But Ecclestone's career came before my hockey fandom, and I haven't ever been able to summon up the energy to make the long haul up there.