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.”


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