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Only 79 more to go

Posted by Mike the Yankee, 16 October 2008 · 350 views

Four plus hours, one Amtrak train, one NY subway, two Metro jaunts, two cups of shockingly bad coffee and one viewing of Factotum (Oh Matt Dillon, you crazy drunk) and I finally see the Mecca of my journey: the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, D.C. The majority of the country is preoccupied this evening with the NASDAQ, whatever the hell Palin said or some quaint novelty dubbed “baseball”; I’m more concerned about this free meal I get with the media pass that the always brilliant canucks.com staff helped me land for tonight’s game against the Washington Capitals.

Since I have no idea what the rules are or even what the media pass allows me to do (for instance, can I go split popcorn with Gary Bettman? Or, failing that, how about splitting nachos with Kyle Wellwood?) I decide I am going to make a new friend with the first person who speaks to me. Sadly for her, that person was Amy, a media relations assistant for the Caps. As security went through my laptop bag ensuring I’m not with Al Qaeda (almost positive I’m not) I go for broke:

“Amy I have a terrible question.”

“Oh, what’s that?” she says after looking up from the long press list in front of her.

“I’ve never done this before so I’m not terribly certain what the pass allows me to do inside.”

Taking pity on me, she explains that it provides access to watch the game from the press box on the sixth floor of the arena and access to the press room and locker rooms in the basement. She recommends I head to the press room where I can grab some pregame notes and also the meal pass. Or, if I wish, she said I could head up to the press box and start setting up. Too late though, she had me at “meal pass”.

I make my way downstairs into the belly of the arena. Along the wall are some ceremonial lockers of past Capital greats and in front of me opens a cavernous garage where Vancouver's bus is parked. I head left down a plain hallway into the press room. As I should have expected, all the media folks were leaving as I arrived. Strike one: Mike misses the meal pass.

No matter, I am here for the game after all. After checking out more of basement area, I decide to head up to the press box and immediately get lost. I end up asking a security guard at the same time as James Duthie (or at least I think it was him!) does. He and I walk the hallways towards the elevator silently; he has a job to prepare for and I am raking my brain to figure out his name. Little did I know this would happen multiple times that evening.

We get in the elevator along with an EMT crew pushing a stretcher and other assorted medical tomfoolery. My internal dialogue goes as such: “ Well Mike Green has a charity box, Ovechkin has a box, maybe this is the ‘Brashear crew’ who attend every home game just in case the former Canuck enforcer decides to feed someone their back teeth.” I never get my answer as the crew gets off on the first floor; Duthie and I continue up to the sixth.

The elevator opens to another plain hallway with one sign: Press box on the left. (That’s a lie, there was another sign about not bringing concession stand food into the press box. Ponder why that’s a rule because I had no clue). After passing a TV studio, the bathrooms and a small eating area (as it turned out, my free meal will be popcorn and pretzels which is akin to my normal meals) I finally enter the press box: two levels of seats unfold before me, maybe enough to accommodate 50 sitting people alone. Eight flat screens hang above the lower level of seats. Walking towards the back leads to two or three different TV studios and passing them leads to the far side of the press box with an identical layout. In short, it's huge.

I see no seating assignment so I causally ask another writer is he knows of one. He doesn’t so he just guessed at his seat; since confusion loves company, I guessed at mine too. As I set up the computer near the broadcast booths, I scan the virtually empty Verizon center. It’s about 70 minutes until game time and the most activity in the stadium includes an annoying strobe light (for goal celebrations?) and what appears to be a Caps commercial filming down behind the home team’s net (I learned later it was actually Ovechkin doing a 'rock' marketing video). Over the next several minutes, I watch the arena staff prep the arena and the zamboni takes a final spin before warm ups. The doors open and fans begin to pour in.

Meanwhile, more media folks start piling in behind me. Dan Murphy is easily the most recognizable. Without looking too much like a stalker, I keep my eye out for Kirk McLean (who I thought did the PPV’s) but I don’t see him. However, I see another goalie-turned-TV talking head: Daryl ‘The Razor’ Reaugh and he keeps sneezing. I wonder why he’s here until I see the Versus logo on some equipment bags. Ohhhh, they’re covering this game? Back in 2007 I was openly critical of Versus’s mediocre coverage of the Dallas/Vancouver playoff series and of Reaugh for being an unabashed on-air Dallas supporter. And now the crew and he are literally standing behind me. It'd be poetic justice if they all ended my evening by clocking me in the head with a TV camera in retribution (this is hockey afterall, maybe there’s a press code?) but obviously he has no idea who I am and has more class then the fantasy I make up. Oh well.

As the press seats fill up, I get a sneaking suspicion I am in the wrong seat. I ask another event staffer who is plugging in phones (one landline for every two reporters) if a seating list has been posted and she says there usually is but not tonight. She asks what team I’m with and then suggests moving because I am sitting in the thick of the Capitals press section. I ask if the Vancouver press sits on the other side of the broadcast booths and she says nope that’s where the scouts sit (ohh, to be a fly on the wall over there). She says the safest place is the lower level in front of me so I, along with an equally lost Reuters writer, make our way down.

A Caps employee comes around and hands us the starting line up’s as well as other assorted packs of statistics. One packet is an Excel lover’s dream, filled with what had to be every stat in the entire NHL. The game notes packet was even cooler, listing all those tidbits that reporters thrive on: injuries, transactions, lifetime series notes, the “note of the night” which was that the Caps have won 11 straight when Ovechkin scores two or more goals and lastly the “Five more notes a media person should not be without” section with more details on Ovechkin, the Caps defense, Vancouver’s recent streak against Washington and an utterly obscure fact on Brooks Liaich (his last four regular season goals have been game winners).

With the warm ups over and the crowd ready, the home team makes their appearance and the Verizon Center springs to life with a hell of a lot of noise. True to their marketing, the Verizon Center is a literal sea of red and #8 jerseys are everywhere. I manage to spot some vintage Canuck jerseys sprinkled liberally into the mix. Be a Canuck fan, will travel.

Finally, the puck drops and immediately my computer crashes, a cosmic middle finger after all this time. With the reboot downtime I get a chance to view the press activity in full swing. The TV’s are showing either the Versus or the PPV feed, reporters are frantically typing away at their laptops or discussing elements of the game amongst themselves. A calm voice on the intercom system above us pops on occasionally to recap the latest play or penalty if the press didn’t catch it. And, oh yeah, the game is in full swing five levels below. It’s actually comical: we’re here to watch a game and inspect it from every angle, but we sit a room with every media distraction you could ask for. It just shows how talented some reporters truly are if they can extract facts and figures coming at them from multiple angles while keeping an eye on the ice in front of them.

As the game (ever so painfully) progressed, I make friends with the lady to my left who turns out to be 'CapsChick' who runs the Caps blog A View From The Cheapseats. She is doing a liveblog over at the NHL Fanhouse and I popped in to check out the conversation. She then points to a gentleman on my right and it’s Eric McErlain, probably the closest thing to a godfather of NHL bloggers. Clearly the Capitals have embraced bloggers as I learn that both of them have year long press passes, giving them the chance to check out the games from the press box and report on them live as often as they can. Eric has been covering the Caps since back in 2004 and this is the most invigorated he has seen the Capitals fans since the first days of Jagr back in 2001. I ask what it's like to have such amazing access to his hockey team and he took time to stress the dedication of the staff behind the Caps; the event staffers, the media relations team, the marketing team, the equipment guys, everyone. Each person works so hard to support the product the guys put out on the ice.

Mercifully the game ends and I enjoy one final view of Demitra's shiney bald head as he heads back to the locker room with the other Canucks. I pack up my stuff slowly but reporters around me, who obviously have done this a million times, cleaned up more quickly and dashed off for the locker rooms. I followed a few scouts (who were talking about Mason Raymond) back down into the basement and made my way to the Canucks side. I had a mental list of questions I thought I would ask Kesler or Burrows if the opportunity presented itself but I suspected after a game like that no one would be in the mood for my shenanigans.

The post-game odor from an NHL dressing room is not for the faint of heart but at least helped me navigate the basement hallways for a final time. The media was all over the outside of Vancouver's dressing room as the trainers and other Vancouver staffers darted in and out. I glanced towards the exercise bikes on my right; I locked eyes with Willie Mitchell who was peddling somberly as he discussed the game with a trainer. Before long Shane O'Brien staggered out in the direction of the bikes, his body language to me seemed to scream that he was annoyed (I remembered he was inadvertently screening Luongo for the Jurcina goal) and probably embarrassed by the team's performance. It was then I decided I didn’t even want to bug these guys with my questions. They just had a bad night, are getting a ton of questions about their play, are probably going to get an earful from Vigneault (if they haven’t already) and need to put this behind them and prepare for the Stanley Cup champs later in the week. I, for one, had seen so much in one night about the behind the scenes of a game that seeing my guys wear their hearts on their sleeves in the aftermath of a loss was enough.

As the rest of the reporters asked their questions or packed up and readied themselves for another night of travel, I made my way out of the stadium and found myself in the middle of a celebratory army of Caps fans. A band was playing on 6th street and chants of “C-A-P-S CAPS CAPS CAPS” echoed down the adjacent, empty avenues. As I moved with the mob I couldn't help but think that despite Vancouver’s poor showing, it was amazing to view a game from the media perch. An incredible amount of media activity in such a short spurt yields a tremendous amount of game insight and analysis; like hockey itself, it happens so quickly. Then, just as suddenly, it ends and the cycle goes on to repeat. Night in and night out. For seven straight months.

The Metro ride I took home was yet another sea of red. Somehow (mercifully?) I managed to end up standing next to two fans in Vancouver Linden jerseys.

“No worries," I smirked, "only 79 more to go."


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