Monday, April 08, 2013

No, I'm not a Leafs fan

















Where to begin. 

Well, let's just say that the last thing on my mind when I set out to try and write about hockey for a living was being accused of being a fan or a homer or any of these various things. 

Let alone - as a guy from small town B.C. - a Leafs fan. 

But, here we are, what feels like a lifetime later, with Twitter allowing instant feedback on anything and everything you write and you end up getting the same nonsense again and again. 

I think part of it is just that the audience on social media is so young right now, and there's not an appreciation for the objective viewpoint that someone like Eric Duhatschek can bring on a team he has covered for decades like the Flames. 

Look at it from my perspective, though. For me, when I first thought about trying to do something as crazy as being a hockey writer - which I wasn't really sure was even possible, in the beginning - I tried to be realistic and set my expectations relatively low. 

Writing about hockey, any hockey, anywhere, sounded pretty good. 

Maybe I'd cover a junior team and ride on the bus from town to town? (After all, most of the sportswriting I grew up reading was the local beat guy in the Kamloops Daily News, the lifeline to the WHL team for anyone in the city.)  

Maybe I could go to the U.S. somewhere and cover the minor leagues? Or the next NHL expansion team in Kansas City? 

Maybe I'd just work my way up from there? 

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When you get to journalism school, you quickly realize that only a small fraction of graduates actually get work in the field, and becoming a sports-only writer seems like a bit of a pipe dream. You learn about how few papers there actually are across the country and how few writers are ever hired to cover anything, let alone with a focus on "fun" beats like hockey or movies or fashion or whatever. 

There were really only maybe a dozen English language papers covering the NHL for a long time in this country (the Jets have since added a couple more in Winnipeg) and each only has a few writers in its stable. 

Getting into that group of 40 or 45 guys seemed like such a remote possibility that, like most people, I was trying just to land any job coming out of school. That meant spending most of my time either interning or at the student paper trying to cover as many things as possible, even if writing about hockey was the goal. 

Without question, at that point, I would have taken any hockey-related job, anywhere, and I applied to dozens of different cities hoping to do so. 

Ultimately, the first place I was actually a sort of beat guy was in Bonnyville, Alberta, a thankless summer job that led me (with help from the world's most supportive mother) to buy a beat up K-car in Kamloops for $1,000, drive 12 hours straight and cover the Junior A team's off-season and training camp for a few months. 

After that, going to Columbus was hardly going to scare me off. 

Or anywhere else. 

It's funny (and obviously very fortunate) how it all worked out, as I was hired at The Globe as a part-time writer/editor working in both the news and sports departments, a four-to-midnight job that gave me a lot of spare time to work on this blog (and later for SB Nation) during the day. 

Over the years, the paper would hire more senior people for sportswriting jobs in Vancouver and Montreal, leading up to when the Leafs job came open about four years ago when Tim Wharnsby was hired by CBC. 

Any of those three gigs would have been dream jobs, obviously. 

A step up from Bonnyville, anyway. 

That it worked out to be Toronto was really a matter of timing more than anything, as by that point, I had enough experience (and was getting attention from elsewhere) that I was a much better candidate than previously. 

And what team I rooted for was obviously never one of the questions asked in the job interview. 

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That's probably a good thing, too, because that would have been a complicated one to answer. 

Other than the Blazers, at one point, it was actually the Sabres, as I wore this ratty old Buffalo hat for a few years and put up a Darren Puppa poster in my room during his brief heyday. (Yes, he had a heyday.)  

Before that, it was the Devils in the Sean Burke era, although I couldn't really tell you why. 

After that point, it was just easiest to join my old man and be a woebegone Canucks fan, as by far, they had the greatest number of games being televised once Hockey Night in Canada started having double headers every week beginning in 1995.  

That we could drive a few hours and go to an affordable NHL game didn't hurt, either, and when Vancouver began making the playoffs after an ugly four-year drought, we began going down for those games. 

(We paid what seemed like an ungodly sum of $185 each for single tickets scattered around the arena for one game of that particularly awful Canucks-Wild second round series.) 

But the thing was I was always happy to be able to watch as many teams as possible. The playoffs were always the best time of year, with game after game televised, beginning at 4 p.m. Pacific Time and stretching into late night overtimes, meaning there was a solid seven or eight hours of hockey every night. 

No matter who was playing (or winning), that was heaven. 

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So I think the most accurate thing to say is that I was always just a fan of the NHL and the game, going way back to when we were collecting stacks of beat up hockey cards and playing games with them at recess. 

As a kid in a small town in what felt like the middle of nowhere, it always seemed as though the NHL was this amazing faraway fantasy world, a league where the best of the Blazers would graduate to and get their faces on their own cards for us to collect. 

One day Mark Recchi was right in front of us, in the frigid, 2,000-seat barn where they always won, a local kid scoring goals and having his name announced overhead. 

The next he was playing with Mario Lemieux. 

Some of the other kids were reading comic books by that point, but these were the superheroes for my group of friends, and we'd play street hockey while pretending to be the most obscure-but-good players we could think of. 

"I'm Todd Elik! I'm Russ Courtnall! Here comes Patrik Sundstrom!" 

Just like in the NHL, there'd be a random hero every game. 

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It never seemed to matter what team you cheered for. That was just fluid, changing by the day, depending on the players, the rivalries and what was at stake in the games going on inside on TV and in the backyard. 

In some strange way, the small-market, underdog teams were always more fascinating than the favourites, too. 

Maybe that's not how most hockey fans grew up. But I think when you live in a true junior hockey city, there's a lot more of that than people think, with the local team being everyone's obvious "favourite" and the big leagues an entirely different animal that you can watch on Saturday nights on TV. 

Even among the kids that did have an NHL team, it was usually a wide spread who they went with, with the Red Wings, Oilers and Penguins earning a lot of converts at the expense of the Canucks simply because of their success. 

So, now, all these years later, when you're getting these insults from fans over being biased for certain teams over others, they seem pretty darn silly. None of the reporters I know well on the beat are ever rooting for more than the chance to write a good story, to do the job properly and give their readers (and their boss) something worthwhile. 

Many would have a similar reaction to the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup tomorrow as if the Blue Jackets did. 

Now, sure, those lines may be more blurred for those working more closely with the league or teams, but hockey writers in general aren't "fans." Many, like me, are from other cities, or have favourite teams in other sports, or any number of different outlets. 

Others who did grow up rooting for the team they now cover have long since left that behind, in part because once you walk around behind the curtain for a while, being a fan makes less and less sense. 

(This is an aside, but if we're really going to talk about bias and the media, tie it to those who are too indebted to their sources and trading favourable coverage for information. Not fandom.)  

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In any event, this is all just a really long-winded way of saying, "no, I'm not a Leafs fan." In fact, I don't really have a favourite team at all, and I haven't for a long time. 

I'm just glad there are games on every night, and I get to watch and write about them as part of what I do.


2 Comments:

At 6:31 PM, April 09, 2013, Blogger Bill James said...

Good one James...You have right attitude... Keep writing.... Great stuff.

 
At 11:57 AM, April 12, 2013, Blogger A Wine Guy said...

Nice piece, but remember: You're either a Leafs fan or you're just wrong.

 

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