I am standing beside Haley Wickenheiser, a legend of Canadian women's hockey. She has won five Olympic medals, four of them gold, and a silver or gold medal in thirteen world hockey championships. This is the CWHL All-Star game and she is representing the Calgary Inferno.
But how did I wind up there? How did I wind up in a media scrum in a backroom of the Air Canada Centre nervously asking a question about her plans after retiring from hockey?
It's now four months later.
I am in Ricoh Coliseum. Marlies' coach Sheldon Keefe is standing two feet in front of me, eyes looking right in to mine, searching to see if I want to ask him a question. I turn my head to the left and see Paul Hendrick staring at me with an exasperated "Do you have something to say or not?" look on his face.
I choke out a question to Keefe. It's kind of dumb. He patiently answers it, and provides a tiny bit of useful insight beyond what I asked. I am relieved it's over.
As I walk back to the press box, wading through the late crowd of players' family and friends loitering in the concourse, I again wonder, "What am I doing?" How did I become a person who attends hockey games on press credentials, writes recaps, and asks players questions about the game?
How it all started
It was a rather innocuous request in the SB Nation staff hockey chat: Stanley Cup of Chowder needed someone to attend the CWHL All-Star Game and write a recap. They didn't have any writers based in Toronto, and it conflicted with their plans to attend the NWHL All-Star Game in Buffalo.
I don't know why I did that. I had never wanted to cover hockey games. I joined the PPP writing staff in 2014 specifically to post the daily FTBs. I volunteered for that job because I like the FTB. I like researching links, debates in the comments, and the random discussions about condiments. Most of all, I wanted to participate in the site in a more formal way.
Eventually I started branching out a bit, writing about terrible hockey player recipes, terrible hockey broadcasting, and terrible hockey coaches. I even traveled to another SB Nation site to write about terrible hockey arena subsidies.
But I never touched actual games, no matter how terrible the Leafs were.
A Chowdah staff member approved my spontaneous request and I was suddenly on my way to covering a hockey game live with media credentials.
It was not long before I started panicking, wondering what had I got myself into.
I knew full well watching a game for my own entertainment was much different than watching for the purpose of dissecting game play and writing about it. I would soon learn it was far more different and difficult than I imagined.
An All-Star game is, of course, not a real hockey game. The players are there to entertain the fans more than to win the game. The final score is less important to recap than what players have to say post-game. As it still is today, the state of professional women's hockey is a hot topic. There were lots of great quotes from the participants and it was easy write about. I felt I had a good knack for capturing the mood and tone of their thoughts.
When it was all over, I thought "I should do more of this!".
That's when I may have bitten off more than I could chew.
The Solar Bears
In case you don't know, the Solar Bears are the Leafs' ECHL affiliate. [eyes dot gif - Acha]
In March 2016 the Solar Bears made their first ever road-trip to the GTA to play a three game series vs. The Brampton Beast. Scott Wheeler asked if anyone from the staff was interested in covering the games and writing recaps. Feeling cocky, I volunteered.
In the lead up to their arrival I again felt nervous. I knew this would be more difficult than the All-Star game. This was a game that counted in the standings for a team that desperately needed wins to keep playoff hopes alive. Our readers would want the fine details of the game, and not generic hockey quotes from the players.
It was only a few minutes after I sat down in the press box at the Powerade Centre that I experienced the harsh realization that I had no idea how to actually watch hockey.
Simple facts were easy to pick up and write about, but PPP readers wanted more nuanced takes on the game. They wanted a recap that extrapolated what went right or wrong for a team, and why.
I couldn't do that. The interesting part for me was how I knew I couldn't do it, but I wasn't able to figure out why. What was it I was missing? To borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, hockey to me had "unknown unknowns". I could narrate a play in my recap, but I couldn't explain why a team's offence was or wasn't working, or how the deployment of the defence was appropriate or of position.
My first two Solar Bears recaps were written with a significant assist from the amazing Solar Bears coach, Anthony Noreen. If you read them you can see I frequently quoted his own analysis of the game to draw up a narrative.
By the third game of the series I had figured out at least one of my deficiencies: too much puck watching. It never hit me what a huge influence players who don't have the puck have on the outcome of a game until I had to write about what happened, specifically for the benefit of people who weren't there.
Forcing yourself to look away from the puck carrier and instead watch the deployment of the defending team, and how they respond to an attack, is really hard when you have trained yourself to watch the guy with the puck at all times.
The Marlies and my hockey epiphany
This season PPP started to cover the Toronto Marlies more frequently and directly. The Marlies generously provided us with press credentials, allowing for some interviews and question time with players and staff. I attended about a dozen games starting in April through the last playoff game in May.
My first Marlies game was a little nerve racking. Back at the Solar Bears games in Brampton I sat in the press box with one scout, a handful of Brampton Beast scratches (who actually worked the scoreboard,) and Namiko Hitotsubashi (@Freawaru2020) from the SB Nation Habs affiliate site, Eyes on the Prize.
At Marlies games I was sitting beside recognizable names from the MSM, and some nerd named Scott Wheeler.
I felt a little out of my element, and I struggled through my first few games.
First, there is simply so much more speed in AHL games compared to the ECHL. You have to focus your attention entirely on every single play, lest you miss something important. It's so easy to get distracted looking at the scoreboard, the crowd, or Twitter. The execution of plays is so quick that if you blink you can miss it.
This made it really difficult to complete one of the most important tasks: taking notes. I had to learn it was OK to look away from the game and write, even if at the risk of missing something important. You never know how long it will be until the next whistle or TV timeout, and you can only remember so much detail for so long. Waiting to write up something two minutes after it happened means you start confusing details with subsequent plays.
The next challenge is knowing the other team.
Quick, name five players and their number on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
How many did you get? Zero? I think I would too, even though I saw them play this year. Players' numbers took on a whole new level of significance, being so handy to facilitate taking short-form notes. Even with numbers in my notes further preparation was required. I didn't need to know an opposing team in detail, but it helped to check in advance who the points leaders were, and prospects vs. veterans, and what kind of game they play, so that when I saw 49 step onto the ice for the Penguins I knew that the top gun was out.
Even after picking up that knowledge and skill at recording what was happening during a game I was still missing out on things like player decision-making at ice level. To really capture the game I needed to be able to look at the big picture on the ice and evaluate how players responded to a given situation.
This was the most difficult part, and I finally "got it" at a Marlies game on April 14.
It was an odd-ball 11:00AM start for the Marlies hosting the Hartford Wolf Pack. The game was in the morning because it was one of the AHL's school-day games; in this case hosting 7,000 kids from the Toronto Catholic District School Board; very appropriate for the moment of my hockey "epiphany" which came in the third period.
William Nylander was racing with the puck down center ice toward the attacking zone. Watching the play unfold, I looked at how both teams were positioned and had a moment of perfect clarity about what was going to happen because I recalled seeing Nylander in a very similar situation before.
I vividly recall thinking "As soon as Nylander crosses the blue line the Wolf Pack defenders are positioned to swarm him, and force him to play the puck. Nylander will play it by making a blind backwards pass on his left to the winger coming up along the boards."
And that's exactly what happened.
I was actually stunned for a few moments. I had predicted exactly what would happen. That was my hockey epiphany. I realised I was able to predict the play because I had taken in the whole picture of where everyone was positioned, and thought back to similar situations I had seen before, recalling how they played out.
That's when I knew I was finally starting to understand the game in a way to write about it for someone who wasn't there to watch it. Nylander's pass to his winger, Tobias Lindberg, was flubbed, resulting in a turnover, and a scoring chance for the Wolf Pack. Those are the points people want to know about in a recap. If it had been a goal, I would have been able to explain exactly why it happened, and not just who scored the goal and from where.
There were some other unique lessons I learned about covering the Marlies games:
If you show up early enough you may see something special, like a goalie practicing shots;
Garret Sparks practising his shot before the game! Move him to center? #MarliesLive #goaliesareawesome pic.twitter.com/uifAGC4ybB— Pension Plan Puppets (@PPPLeafs) May 14, 2016
Or you may see some interesting jerseys.
Some.... interesting modified jerseys at tonight's .@TorontoMarlies game #MarliesLive pic.twitter.com/PiMQlF9P3U— Pension Plan Puppets (@PPPLeafs) May 27, 2016
I discovered there is actually a lineup to meet Steve Dangle at intermissions. Seriously. People start lining up outside the press box 10 minutes before intermission to have their picture taken in their home-altered jersey with Dangle. Once there was even a whole group of squealing tween girls. It was like he was the newest member of One Direction (no idea if they are still popular).
Why is he not on a Sportsnet hockey broadcast yet?
Finally, I learned that press credentials do not allow you to cut in line at Smoke's. I am still trying to get the gravy stains out of my suit jacket from that incident.
A Bittersweet End
The challenge is daunting, but, at least now clear. There are so many important plays that impact the outcome of each game, like Nylander's mentioned above. Knowing how to watch will help me write more insightful recaps about this team I love. I was looking forward to doing that in the Calder Cup Final, but frustratingly and dishearteningly, it didn't get to happen.
The Marlies season ended too soon, but I am looking forward to writing more recaps for all of you next season. I hope you enjoy them.