TORONTO (Nov. 4) — The challenge for a hockey reporter is monumental, whether he/she covers a winning team or one expected to have copious balls in the draft–lottery. In the absence of an obvious story (injury, emotional tirade, etc.), how do you maintain interest and enthusiasm virtually every day for six months?
More importantly, how do you preserve the attention of your audience?
These are questions I pondered over the course of 17 seasons (1994–95 to 2010–11) following the Toronto Maple Leafs as a beat reporter for The FAN–590 (now Sportsnet–590). And, the assignment continues to intrigue me as an observer. Many times, I have indicated the path of least resistance for a hockey scribe: Filing a story on the forward lines in practice. If your editor is content with such apathy, you’ll be home before you know it. Sadly, there remains a proliferation of these no–effort, no–insight submissions. But, even when some originality motivates a reporter, contradiction, repetition and haste unavoidably prevail.
This is a particular scourge at training camp during the run–up to exhibition games. And, it materializes in a “flavor–of–the–day” approach. If you’re a Leafs fan, you’ll likely remember how Doug Gilmour suddenly appeared at training camp last year (September 2014). It wasn’t the real Doug Gilmour, but a chap named Brandon Kozun. No reader of a newspaper in this city (or a website article devoted to the Leafs) could have possibly delineated between the Hall–of–Fame center that holds the franchise mark of 127 points in a season… and the energetic, largely unknown rookie–at–camp. Superlatives catapulted hither–and–yon from newsprint and electronic pages. Kozun made the team; recorded his first National Hockey League point in the opener against Montreal, and then suffered a hideous injury against Detroit, nine nights later, when his left leg crumpled awkwardly while being plastered to the end–boards by Kyle Quincey.
Perhaps the resultant ankle trauma derailed a stellar career. But, likely not.
All we know, for certain, is that Brandon Kozun today toils on behalf of Jokerit–Helsinki in the Kontinental Hockey League; has four NHL points, and needs a mere 1,410 to catch Gilmour for 18th all time.
Then, there was Maple Leafs “rookie sensation” Mike Kostka — courtesy of someone I will not identify, because we’re friends (you should know, however, that he is still front–and–center on the hockey beat here in town). This gun–jumper arrived the morning after Toronto’s opener to the 48–game lockout season in January 2013. Also against the Canadiens. The Leafs prevailed, 2–1, at the Bell Centre and Kostka — a late–blooming defenseman from Ajax, Ont. — had a decent game. “Rookie sensation” was a minor misjudgment… sort of like calling the the current Leafs a Stanley Cup favorite. Kostka appeared in 33 games with no goals and eight assists. He is now skating for Binghampton of the American Hockey League.
Covering a bad team on a regular basis puts one at the mercy of illusion.
It happened last Friday with Jonathan Bernier, who turned in a superb effort for the over–matched Leafs in a 3–1 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Predictable media dispatches from New York confirmed that Bernier, at last, had solidified his rank as the club’s undisputed No. 1 goalie. Then came Saturday night and a calamitous game — from coach to water boy — against Pittsburgh at the Air Canada Centre during which Bernier often resembled a beer–league stopper. Undisputed No. 1 thus became No. 2 for the Monday home game against Dallas… and James Reimer literally stole two points from the Stars.
Toronto Star readers awoke Tuesday morning to the headline: “OPTIMUS REIMS TURNS IN NO. 1 START FOR LEAFS.” But, wait. Wasn’t Bernier anointed that footing after the New York game? And, what happens if Reimer flops against Winnipeg in his second start as No. 1 on Wednesday? Probably something like: “REIMER NO LONGER NO. 1 AS LEAFS NOW TURN TO FORMER NO. 1 BERNIER.” Or, there’s a chance that Antoine Bibeau, called up from the American League Toronto Marlies because of an undisclosed injury to Bernier, could start a game and excel between the pipes — thereby generating such a headline as: “BIBEAU GRABS NO. 1 MANTLE FROM FORMER NO. 2 REIMER AS ONE–TIME NO. 1 BERNIER CONTINUES RECOVERY.”
As mentioned, this flavor–of–the–day stuff is rather unavoidable and largely humorous. Headline writers, in particular, race to conclusion; often leaving a reporter or columnist smoldering. Few readers are perceptive enough to determine between misleading headline and body of work. The former often prevails and can generate uncomfortable dressing room moments between writer and subject.
All in a season’s work for a beat guy or gal.
PAT QUINN BOOK ON THE SHELVES: A reception was held on Tuesday night in downtown Toronto by Penguin/Random House Canada to launch a biography of beloved former NHL manager and coach Pat Quinn, who died nearly a year ago from a liver ailment. The 400–page biography, written by Dan Robson of Sportsnet Magazine, is now available in bookstores and on–line. List price is $32.00 Canadian, but Amazon.ca and Chapters.Indigo.ca have it for $25.00. Quinn’s immense popularity from coast–to–coast in our country — and Robson’s capacity as a story teller — should elevate this book among Canadian best sellers.