The thrill of victory, the challenges of covering pro sports

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to cover the first hometown game for several young NHLers: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins; Kyle Turris; Ryan Johanssen; Mathew Barzal.

Friday, Port Moody’s Kent Johnson and his Columbus Blue Jackets visited Vancouver for the first time since he joined the team that drafted him fifth overall in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.

We’ve been covering Johnson since he played Major Midget. We did stories when he was playing with the Trail Smoke Eaters in the BC Hockey League, when he moved on to the University of Michigan and his achievements with Canada’s national junior and Olympic teams.

So when the NHL released its 2022–23 schedule last summer, the first thing I looked up was the Blue Jackets’ first game in Rogers Arena. It took them half the season to get here.

You might think covering an NHL game is fun and glamorous; big building, bright lights, loud crowd, the best players in the sport giving it their all.

But it’s a lot of grinding work.

Back in the 1980s, covering a big league game meant a fancy laminated badge on a lanyard that afforded you access wherever you needed to go, a nice pre-game meal — free — in the media lounge, people opening doors for you; unlimited snacks in the press box, printed stats delivered at the end of every period or quarter.

None of those happen anymore.

Navigating restrictions

Covering a pro sporting event in 2023 is mostly about navigating restrictions as best you can, making sure you eat dinner at home before you leave for work and being grateful for any little morsel of access you can scrounge that allows you to do your job. The Canucks don’t even give you a lanyard to wear anymore; the press badge is still laminated, but if you don’t bring your own neck lanyard, you’re left awkwardly clutching this 4X6 card in some way so ushers know you belong.

Even kibitzing with other media members you know from running into each other at previous assignments is a thing of the past, so depleted are our ranks. Most of the press corps in the Columbus dressing room — all four of us — after the team’s morning skate Friday were gathering content for the team’s website and social media channels or working for the league. Sure, they were asking questions and trying to get insight for their audience, but they were essentially PR agents.

Four years ago, when we covered Barzal’s homecoming, you were able to take a hard right after checking in with security and you were in the dressing room area. If we were there at a practice, you could walk through the tunnel and shoot from the visiting team’s bench area.

Now those locations are all curtained off, restricted.

Instead, we have to walk all the way around the arena to a holding area where the team’s PR person will bring out the coach to answer questions, then signal us when we could access the dressing room to talk to the players.

The hole

The old shooting area at Rogers, a private media box at centre ice on the mezzanine level, is also gone. Now there’s a hole cut into the plexiglass at each corner of the rink, so essentially room for four photographers per game.

Last year, after one too many incidents where a puck or stick shot through the open holes, the NHL mandated removable covers and some sort of shield that has to be moved into place by the photographer whenever the play got close.

For media that are there all the time, this gradual erosion of access is likely just more annoying inconveniences; you adjust and carry on. For someone — like myself — who only gets down there once every four or five years, they amp up the already fish-out-of water presence.

Of course, sports teams are private businesses. They have a right to control access; media can’t just walk into factory and start questioning workers and poking around machinery.

The changing dynamic

But the old notion that allowing us to tell their stories is good for their business is gone.

Sports franchises can tell their own stories to connect with their fans (a.k.a. customers) on social media, and of course they’ll only tell the stories they want to be heard. Impartial media is no longer needed, but seeing as we’re still around, increasing the layers of restriction and inconvenience makes it more difficult to get at the stories they don’t want to be told. And with so few of us left, there’s little push-back. We swallow hard, put our heads down and do the best we can.

And it’s only getting worse.

Last week, the company that owns most of Canada’s daily newspaper implemented a ban on travel for its sports reporters. That means no more beat writers covering teams like the Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens when they’re on the road. Winnipeg and Toronto still have independent newspapers, so those teams might still have some coverage away from home.

Not only does such a decision further the circling of the drain for those papers, it makes it that much harder for the beat writers to get to the stories they can dig up from their constant connection to the team. And it gives teams even more ways to control their story.

The day when sports teams shut us out completely, by no longer accrediting us, or selling such accreditation just as they sell tickets, doesn’t seem far off.

The music industry has already ventured down that road; when was the last time you read a review or saw news photos from a concert? In fact, some acts don’t allow media access at all, unless you buy a ticket like all the other fans. And photos are supplied by the artist’s management, likely approved by the artist to ensure they look their absolute best.

It’s a slippery slope to PR.

Here’s the story I did about Kent Johnson’s homecoming game. It was a long 14-hour day.

MARIO BARTEL/THE TRI-CITY NEWS Port Moody’s Kent Johnson wheels out of the corner in his first NHL game in Vancouver since he joined the Columbus Blue Jackets last spring.

‘Obviously this one feels a little bit more special’

Kent Johnson’s dad just can’t wipe the smile off his face.

Ten rows of maroon-coloured seats above the ice, Jay Johnson is intently watching his 20-year-old son wheel around Rogers Arena with his Columbus Blue Jackets teammates, just hours ahead of his first NHL game in front of hometown family and friends from Port Moody.

Just how many, Jay can’t say.

But, he added, he’s dreading his visit to a ticket reseller’s website later in the day to see what he might be able to dig up for some buddies who’ve requested to join the contingent headed to last Friday’s (Jan. 27) game against the Vancouver Canucks.

Kent Johnson said while he didn’t exactly mark his calendar when the NHL released its schedule last summer, playing against the team he cheered for as a kid — not so many years ago, when the Sedins were still playing — is “really exciting.”

“I always wanted to play in this building, so it’s gonna be cool to come full circle,” the 20-year-old told the Tri-City News.

Johnson is in his first full season with the Blue Jackets, who drafted him fifth overall in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. 

A highly-touted forward who burned up the BC Hockey League (BCHL), scoring 101 points in 52 games in his final season with the Trail Smoke Eaters, then totalled 64 points in 58 games in his two seasons at the University of Michigan, he got a nine-game taste of the NHL late last season after his collegiate season ended.

Johnson said that sampler, along with further chances to play against men at last February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing and the World Hockey Championships a few months later in Helsinki, Finland, helped ease his transition to becoming a full-time professional hockey player.

“It’s been pretty smooth, I’d say.”

In 45 games this season heading into Vancouver, Johnson has nine goals and 14 assists – sixth amongst this year’s crop of NHL rookies.

Likely none of his goals were bigger than the overtime winner he scored Wednesday (Jan. 25) to give the Blue Jackets a 3-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers.

The victory earned Johnson and his teammates a day off in Vancouver Thursday (Jan. 26) that the young hero was able to cap off with a family meal at a downtown restaurant.

He said it’s nice to be coming home on the high the overtime goal gave him, but his spirits are always good when he gets on the ice.

“It’s pretty easy to get motivation when you’re in the NHL,” Johnson said. 

“But obviously this one feels a little bit more special.”

Blue Jackets’ coach Brad Larsen said he’s been pleased with Johnson’s progression, even as the team has struggled through a seemingly endless parade of injuries that has left it mired near the bottom of the league standings.

“He’s growing and improving,” Larsen said, adding Johnson’s ability to slow the game down in his mind and read what is about to happen has advanced significantly from the start of the season. 

“He’s got a lot of confidence, a lot of swagger.”

Johnson said he’s just trying to get better and earn more ice time, an aspiration he backs up by generally being the last player off the ice at practices and morning skates. It’s a pattern that hasn’t gone unnoticed among his teammates and the Blue Jackets’ travelling crew who needle him when he finally lopes into the dressing room after Friday’s pre-game skate.

“He’s always working on his game,” Larsen said. “He’s got a tremendous skill set.”

Johnson said having a teammate from his Michigan days, Nick Blankenburg, has made that work more fun, and veterans like Columbus captain Boone Jenner have readily taken the team’s young players under their wings.

That’s helped him respond to some of the challenges that have come his way, like being moved to centre from his usual spot on the left wing position for several games when injuries depleted the Blue Jackets’ corps of pivots.

“He’s handled it very well,” said Larsen of the way Johnson’s handled the curves, adding he has “great poise.”

Up in the stands, Jay Johnson surveys the cavernous arena around him. His son may not have marked the calendar for this day, but he sure did.

“It’s pretty exciting.”

Kyle Turris shares his hockey success with junior teammates

The last time I saw Kyle Turris, he was hugging his dad in the concourse of Rogers Arena after he was unceremoniously scratched from the Phoenix Coyotes’ lineup for what would have been his NHL debut in front of dozens of friends and family. It was a tough moment to witness, let alone photograph.

But Turris put that disappointment behind him and went on to a successful 13-year career in the NHL with four teams, until injuries forced him to retire from the Edmonton Oilers last summer.

Now, he’s moved his family back to Metro Vancouver and he’s working with his old junior hockey team that I used to cover when it was based in Burnaby and now cover again as it plays in Coquitlam. We recently caught up to talk about a big honour that’s coming his way.

Pulling pucks from the net and tapping shin pads of junior hockey players might be a step down for a 13-season NHLer. But for Kyle Turris, it’s a chance to stay connected to the sport and pass on some of the things he’s learned since he was one of them.

Turris is back on the ice with his BC Hockey League (BCHL) alma mater – the Coquitlam Express – as a “helper” after a pro career that took him to Phoenix, Ottawa, Nashville and Edmonton, with minor diversions to San Antonio and Sweden along the way. 

On Jan. 6, Turris’ old #19 Express jersey will be retired as the team’s most celebrated alumnus who led it to a national championship in 2006 when it was temporarily displaced to Burnaby. 

The following season, he scored 121 points and was named the top junior ‘A’ player in Canada before being selected third overall in the 2007 NHL Draft.

Turris, who’s originally from New Westminster, has returned to Metro Vancouver to raise his young family and assess his next steps that includes resuming his Business Management degree that he started during his one season at the University of Wisconsin before he turned pro with the Phoenix Coyotes. 

He said after talking with Express general manager Tali Campbell and head coach Patrick Sexton, he knew he had something to offer the team.

“I enjoy working with the kids and just kind of helping them to grow,” Turris said prior to heading onto the ice to shag pucks and share quips at a recent Express practice. 

“There’s a lot of lessons in sport and hockey that translate into real life.”

MARIO BARTEL/THE TRI-CITY NEWS Former NHLer Kyle Turris is back with his Jr. hockey alma mater, helping out at Coquitlam Express practices. His jersey will be honoured Jan. 6, prior to the team’s game against the Chilliwack Chiefs.

Turris said many of those lessons came his way from the likes of former Vancouver Canucks Darcy Rota and Rick Lanz during his two seasons with the Express, as well as his teammates on that championship team.

“You learned what it took to have that success, how to develop into a good professional,” Turris said, adding their teachings often encompassed simple things that can be easily overlooked, like being on time, being respectful.

“It’s just being a good person.”

Clearly he was paying attention.

During his NHL career, Turris developed an affinity for community involvement and giving back, most notably with the Capital City Condors, a community program in Ottawa that extends hockey opportunities to kids who might not otherwise be able to play because of cognitive or physical challenges. 

Last summer, the BCHL recognized his dedication to community building by creating the Kyle Turris Community Award to annually honour one player on each of the league’s 18 teams for service to their community.

Turris said he respects the pressure the current generation of junior hockey players endure; when he was coming up, social media was still in its formative stages and the pursuit of post-secondary opportunities has become more expectation than aspiration.

“These things are bigger and more prominent now than they were when I was at that age,” he said.

On the flip side, young players today have more resources at their service, like professional guidance for diet, fitness and mental health.

“They know what to expect and how to develop into the person who’s ready for the next level,” Turris said.

As for seeing his jersey hung at the end of the Poirier Sports and Leisure Complex — ironically an arena where Turris never played as it was undergoing renovations when he was with the Express — he said the honour is more of a reflection of the teams he was part of.

“It’s not just my success,” Turris said. “I feel like it kind of pays tribute to them and helping me have the success I had. The combination of both years it was more of a team success than a personal success.”

Still just 33 years old, Turris said a series of injuries to his back through the latter years of his career hastened his departure from hockey. 

For now, he’s happy hanging out with his three kids at their new home in North Vancouver, but doesn’t rule out his role with the Express could be a springboard to greater involvement with the game.

“I’ll always have a love for hockey.”

Outreach worker connects with the Tri-Cities’ homeless — one candy bar at a time

Port Coquitlam’s A-Team doesn’t wear khaki cargo pants or drives a black van with a red spoiler.

But like the fictional TV team of mercenaries from which Adam, Amanda and Aaron of the Hope For Freedom Society have adopted their nickname, they spend their days fighting for what’s right: Providing some comfort and goodwill to the Tri-Cities’ homeless population.

Adam Thompson — one of the A’s — says the group’s mission is simple.

They provide the basic necessities to those whose every moment is a toil of survival while offering a conduit to resources that might help ease their struggles, and maybe even get them off the street or out of the bushes.

It’s a job that requires boots on the ground — or rather, a blue van on the road — every day beginning at 7 a.m. when the overnight shelters release their guests to fend for themselves through the daylight hours.

Thompson’s van is stockpiled with supplies that could make the difference between a good day and bad: hot chocolate, candy bars, cigarettes, feminine products, blankets, backpacks, hand warmers.

His rounds take him to the sidewalks, alleyways, garages and parks in Port Coquitlam and Coquitlam where the homeless might hunker down to get out of the rain or cold, or just get some respite from the rigours of existence.

In his 14 months on the job, Thompson said he’s learned to see the signs of street life that would otherwise be easy to miss: a piece of cardboard wrapped around a vent pipe in a parkade to direct warm air, a twist cap from a water bottle with its seal cracked secreted in a patch of grass for future use to administer a fix.

Street cred

Before starting this gig, he said, he was on the road to becoming homeless himself after losing everything to fentanyl addiction.

That near miss, Thompson said, gives him the street cred with the people he meets every day, equips him with the compassion needed to see the humanity in their struggles and the empathy that might just crack the door back to “normie” life.

“To have the past that I have, the population we assist appreciate that I’ve been there,” he said.

It’s not an easy job, Thompson said.

The “wins” are few and incremental.

A nod of greeting, a hand extended, a conversation initiated.

The losses often go home with him at night.

“The things that nag at you are the things you think you may have missed,” he said.

But when one of his clients lets him in to begin the monumental steps of rebuilding their life, it’s affirming, Thompson said.

A success story

That was the case with Brian, who once ran an autobody shop in Port Moody until he fell on hard times and ended up in a decrepit RV parked near the PoCo bottle depot and piled high with his worldly possessions that mostly consisted of large jerry cans filled with his urine.

“It was the worst living situation I’ve ever seen,” Thompson said.

Now living in a rooming house in an established PoCo neighbourhood next to the Coquitlam River, Brian said he was depressed as he gave his life over to booze.

“I was letting myself go,” he said. “I knew something had to change.”

Knock on his door

When Thompson and another member of his team, Amanda, knocked on his door, he knew that change had come.

But, Brian worried, where would it take him? Would he be institutionalized? Would he be sent to rehab even though he doesn’t do drugs?

Thompson said it’s a common worry.

People living on the streets don’t have much other than their self-sufficiency and independence; many clutch those fiercely.

Convincing Brian he could still be independent and have a safe place to begin rebuilding his life “took a bit of coaxing,” Thompson said.

A month later, Brian has a warm room with a proper bed and assurances of his next meals.

“It was a huge moment in my life,” he said of his decision to finally accept help, adding he now has the freedom to look beyond his next waking moment.

He’s even armed himself with colouring pencils to sketch the nearby woods and create bright, geometric designs on squares of paper.

The situation is getting worse

Thompson said he’s seeing more Brians show up in the Tri-Cities as the situation in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside continues to deteriorate.

Shelters can’t keep up with the need and the rapid pace of development in Coquitlam’s City Centre neighbourhood is diminishing the places they can hunker down.

“The need is real,” Thompson said.

(Almost)back to normal

It was the year of getting back to normal. Almost.

After nearly two full years of lockdowns, public health restrictions and mandates, we began to emerge from our cocoons of self-isolation with more antibodies coursing through our veins and renewed determination to return to the familiar patterns of life.

We returned to the work and play.

We got down to business again, toiling to reverse the damages inflicted by pandemic fears and trepidation.

Celebrations and events returned. Though not all.

Fields, gyms and arenas once again filled with the raucous sounds of… life.

But uncertainty was never far away.

A surge of illness last winter brought on by the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus reminded us how tenuous our grasp on normalcy can be in this post-pandemic reality.

These are some of my favourite images of the past year of near-normalcy, along with a bit of commentary about what it took to capture those images.

I like to think of them as a bit of a celebration of the Tri-Cities at a unique moment in our history, but they’re also witness to our resilience and determination to overcome the challenges of the past two years.