Sports is more than just fun and games

It’s been awhile.

As the end of 2021 draws nigh, we continue to struggle for normalcy.

The COVID-19 pandemic is still all around us, changing the way we work and how we interact. Our newsroom continues to work mostly from our homes, meeting occasionally over Zoom, daily on Slack. Who’d ever even heard of those apps before all of this started?

But compared to last year at this time, we’ve come a long way.

Not every story we tell now has a pandemic context. Events are starting to happen again. Sports is happening again.

That’s been huge.

While most of the sports I’ve covered over the past several years — first at the papers in Burnaby and New Westminster, then the past four years in the Tri-Cities — has been off the side of my desk, it’s still my passion for shooting and writing. So much so, that even when the pandemic shut down pretty much all sports at every level, the only times I wasn’t able to get some sort of sports coverage into the paper was when ads took my space.

I’ve always been a proponent of a feature-based approach to sports coverage. Partly as a survival strategy because it allows me to stockpile stories to be parsed out when other duties are more demanding. Partly because blow-by-blow game reports filed in a weekly paper seem so futile in this age of social media and live streaming.

Mostly, I love covering sports because it’s such fertile ground for interesting and compelling features. They’re stories of triumph and adversity, hopes and dreams. They offer drama, pathos and even humour.

Sports is a microcosm of life, played out on the ice, the pitch, the diamond, the hardwood.
In the past year, I told stories about:

a pro hockey player getting back on the ice after overcoming cancer three times;
a young boy knocked off his BMX bike by a similar diagnosis;
student-athletes coping with the uncertainties of the pandemic on both their academic and athletic aspirations;
a hockey team’s commitment to providing its players supports for their mental and emotional well-being;
a young lacrosse player who can’t play because he can’t find a helmet that fits his head;
a minor pro baseball player toiling for a team named after a hot dog;
a basketball player thriving on the court despite being deaf

Yet, sports continues to struggle for respect from editors.

After photographers, sports reporters have paid a heavy price for our industry’s woes. I know several who were punted to the bench because their beat was deemed more expendable than say covering city council or school board, their work not as important, well read or generating as many hits.

But sports coverage is a huge community builder, a point of entry for readers — especially younger ones — who might not otherwise get engaged by the latest drama unfolding at school board meetings. And in the newspaper industry’s rush to stanch the bleeding, those roles have largely been neglected, further distancing us from our lifeblood.

A feature story about a young athlete heading to university to play a sport they only took up in Grade 12 won’t affect your taxes or property values, or alert you to alter your commute to work, but it will give you a glimpse into your community and the diversity of the people who populate it. And it might even make you smile, feel a bit better about where you live, more connected to your community.

To be successful — heck, even relevant is an achievement these days — newspapers must be all those things. We must inform, but we also need to entertain, evoke emotion, broaden your understanding of the world around you, even if that world is just down your street or across town.

An anniversary

It was 30 years ago today I pointed my little red Toyota Tercel west.

My road and mountain bikes were clamped in the Thule rack on the roof, my camera gear and clothes squirreled in the hatchback.

My first newspaper job in Oshawa, Ont., had been claimed by the 1990 recession. And while a few of us had pooled resources to scrounge up some freelance contracts, I wasn’t done with newspapers and I was hoping newspapers weren’t done with me.

So, with only a vague assurance from @craighodge that there was work to be had in the suburbs of Vancouver, I decided to head west instead of east where I had already secured a job offer at a small daily in Nova Scotia.

My first day on the road, I got as far as Appleton, Wis., even as the car radio crackled with tornado warnings through Illinois.

The second night, I encamped in Butte, Mont., where I watched Nolan Ryan no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays on the motel TV.

I made it to Vancouver on the third day, navigated my way to Port Coqutilam, and a few days later started pulling photo shifts @tricitynews.

It was heady time in the Lower Mainland newspaper business.

Every market had competing papers.

We were a photo department of six shooters, plus freelancers. The photographers who huddled around the light table at the end of every 10-hour shift — @gregkinch, @arlenredekop, @simoneponne, @dougshanks, @marcusoleniuk, @evanseal, @briangiebelhaus, @brianlangdeau, @steveray — all pushed each other to bring out our best.

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Blowing off steam between assignments in the studio.

We covered events like the BC Summer and Winter Games, Canada Games, Commonwealth Games, Molson Indy, Grey Cups.

Our bylines may not have been in a daily, but by god we weren’t going to let that stop us from working like we were a daily. Heck, one year we even managed to convince our employer to charter us a plane so we could attend a news photogs’ conference in Spokane, Wash.

The reporters I got to work with — @johnwawrow, @richdalmonte, @mikemcquillan, @katetrotter, @guidomarziali — were all supremely talented and dedicated. We all thought nothing of toiling late into the night if it meant getting the story.

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Remember when journalists smoked in the newsroom, kept a mickey of Scotch squirreled in a desk drawer? This guy, John Wawrow, is one of the best old-school reporters I’ve worked with. He’s still hanging on, covering sports for AP in Buffalo.

Of course, the halcyon days didn’t last.

By the mid-1990s we were starting to hear things about reading news stories on WWW services like AOL, exchanging gossip about favourite TV shows on Internet Newsgroups.

Internal politics split up our photo department. Economics started to deplete our ranks. The urgency to roll to late-night scanner calls diminished. The chatter when we gathered at the police tape or the pub grew increasingly dour.

Life started to take on more importance. It was time to find balance.

For 17 years (!) @katiebartel has been my port in the storm of a professional life that became increasingly tumultuous, crashing through changing roles, ownership changes and amalgamations, several publishers, numerous editors, a closure, then ultimately a rebirth.

For eight years, @thelittlering1 has been my light, showing me all that is incredible about life through his eager, inquisitive eyes and wry smile.

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Every day, I marvel a little that I ended up here.

2020: Enough said

It all started so innocently, a couple of stories about local people caught out on cruise ships as a mysterious virus swept through passengers and crew.

Then, more stories on the news about sick people filling hospitals in New York City.

But it took an NBA basketball player testing positive for the novel coronavirus, and the subsequent cancellation of his team’s game that was set to start only moments later that really set 2020 off on its own extraordinary tangent.

Suddenly the reality and seriousness of this new contagion hit home with a resounding thud.

Little did we know at the time just how that thud would reverberate through the year.

My own wife and son were in Arizona, visiting her parents who are snowbirds just outside of Phoenix. My son was excited to see his first NHL game that Thursday night, the Arizona Coyotes vs. his beloved Vancouver Canucks. Alas, it too was cancelled. There were tears.

Then came the scramble to get home before borders were closed. Flights were delayed, worried texts exchanged.

Upon their arrival we headed home where we encamped in self-isolation for two weeks, as prescribed by public health authorities. It all felt a little extreme and overwrought at the time, but in a few weeks, we figured, it would all be over and we could laugh at this weird blip in our routine.

How wrong we were.

The COVID-19 pandemic has coloured virtually every story we told in the Tri-City News since March. In fact, the acronym pretty much auto-fills now every time we type a capital “C.”

The first few weeks of covering the COVID story were a mad scramble just to keep up with reporting on cancellations, closures, and new protocols. As it became apparent this virus would be more than a diversion in the calendar, we settled in for the long haul, looked for stories about people coping, finding their new normal.

We didn’t have to look very hard.

As miserable as 2020 has been — for so many reasons — there have been just as many reasons to celebrate a year that brought out the best in so many people, tested our communities and found them much more resilient and enduring than we’d ever imagined.

In the context of a global pandemic, no story felt too small or mundane, because every one had the potential to offer hope and reassurance we’d all get through this.

Here are some of my favourite photos that accompanied many of those stories. If you click through to the gallery, you’ll be able to read a bit of commentary about each image.

Yoga minstrel brings smiles, bad jokes to Tri-Cities seniors shut in by pandemic

Another story reprising some of my favourites I covered for The Tri-City News during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What do you get when you cross classic sing-a-long tunes by the likes of The Beatles and Dinah Shore, with bad jokes gleaned from books bought from Value Village, as well as a little yoga instruction?

For Chris Ridout, the result is a winning afternoon in the sunshine putting smiles on the faces of seniors shut-in by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ridout has been teaching yoga for 10 years, after a long career teaching business to international students. His clients range from two- to 106-years-old, the latter amongst the several senior homes in the Tri-Cities he visits weekly where he helps keep them limber and teaches them breathing techniques to relax.

But with those facilities off-limits to outsiders during the pandemic to protect the health of residents, Ridout was out of work and the seniors he helped at loose ends.

So he improvised.

Working with management at the various homes on his circuit, Ridout came up with new ways to keep his sessions going, like leading classes from outside while the seniors followed along through the windows of a community room, or putting on personal protective equipment so he could carry on indoors.

Ridout, himself now a senior since he recently turned 65, said the outside connection he brings is important to the residents of facilities like Parkwood Manor in Coquitlam.

“It’s the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It’s a reminder that this is not going to last forever.”

Last Thursday, on a bright, warm spring afternoon, staff at Parkwood placed a few dozen chairs in front of the building and helped others using walkers and wheelchairs take their places in the sunshine and shade for a special visit by their yoga minstrel.

With a guitar slung over his shoulder, a small amp at his feet and a bounce in his legs, Ridout greeted familiar faces from afar, then launched into an hour-long serenade of lively tunes like OblaDi, and Yellow Bird, sprinkled with liberal doses of groan-worthy jokes, some of them bordering on the risqué.

“I like to treat them like the adults they are,” Ridout said.

Many of the approximately 50 seniors sang along, some clapped, a few just dozed in the warm sun, their faces protected by wide-brimmed sombreros supplied by staff. In between sets, Ridout reminds them of the breathing techniques he’d previously taught to help ease their anxieties.

And when the show was over, everyone got an ice cream treat.

It was, Ridout said, like spending the afternoon with old friends.

Pandemic forces youth basketball program to take it to the street

This is part of a series reprising some of the stories I’ve covered for The Tri-City News during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As some summer youth basketball programs struggle to find a way to operate amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Coquitlam’s Panther Hoops is taking it to the streets — or, more specifically, the parking lot — thanks to the collective effort of some volunteer parents.

Shut out of school gyms and community centres that are mostly still closed, and loathe to overstay its welcome at some outdoor facilities like Port Coquitlam’s Evergreen Park, Panther Hoops’ head coach Doug Dowell said the program needed a more permanent solution to make its plans to put on a full schedule of summer camps viable and sustainable.

“The pressure was on us to find a place we could call our own.”

That’s when several parents decided if they built it, the kids could play.

Over the course of a rainy weekend in June, when pretty much every weekend was damp, they cleaned up detritus from the parking lot behind BC Christian Academy where the program is based, bored deep holes into the pavement, assembled four full-sized basketball nets with glass backboards and poured concrete to lock them in place. A welder was brought in to add another level of security.

The result is an urban playground worthy of a Woody Harrelson streetball movie, set against a backdrop of an auto repair shop, crooked fibreboard fencing and stacks of shipping containers.

More importantly, Dowell said, the makeshift courts have allowed Panther Hoops to offer co-ed day camps for players aged 7 to 16, and evening camps three times a week for more experienced high school players.

Dowell said the camps are an important element of Panther Hoops’ broadened mandate to serve the wider community after it started 13 years ago as a prep program at BC Christian to develop elite players who could contend for post-secondary scholarship opportunities.

The public health emergency threatened to derail that progress.

Dowell said he quickly recognized moving outdoors was the solution.

“With this whole COVID thing, people are on the edge,” he said. “We wanted to get the kids out the door.”

With no gym at BC Christian, Panther Hoops has always led a nomadic existence, so it ventured as far as Pitt Meadows to find open-air facilities it could use for small groups of kids working on their individual skills.

Dowell said one of the biggest challenges was getting his staff of experienced coaches that includes longtime high school coach Rich Goulet, former Cape Breton University bench boss David Petroziello, and former Pitt Meadows Marauders star player Scott Walton, to deconstruct routines they’ve run for years and reassemble them as individual drills that don’t require sharing the ball or close-quarters defence.

He said the exercise has been refreshing.

“In a way, it’s helped us realign ourselves.”

The end result, Dowell said, is a more innovative, free-form approach to basketball, more akin to creative streetball than the regimented strategies and patterns of the sport when it’s played in the gym and a final score matters.

“It’s made you get more into the ingenuity,” Dowell said. “It’s a missing part of the game.”

The weekly camps, that run through to the end of August, have full safety procedures in place, like a staged entrance to the outdoor facility after each participant has answered a health questionnaire, had their temperature checked as well as recorded, and their hands sanitized. Players must also bring their own ball which can be used only by them exclusively, although it’s also wiped down frequently during sessions and before they head home for the day.

And while the outdoor venue means the odd session may get washed away, the kids don’t lose out, as each is issued a punch card so a missed day can be made up as part of another camp.

Dowell said their summer of survival is actually allowing the program to thrive.

“True growth in the sport will only happen when you think outside the box,” he said.

Or in the case of Panther Hoops, outside the gym.

Chalk murals brighten spirits, garage doors in Port Moody neighbourhood

This is a part of a series reprising stories I covered during the COVID-19 pandemic for The Tri-City News.

What started as a little activity to draw chalk rainbows on the pavement has transformed a Port Moody neighbourhood into a gallery of giant colourful murals that is bringing people together and lifting spirits during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Ladawne Shelstad said she was going through a rough emotional patch early in the pandemic when her six-year-old daughter, Maddyn, suggested they create rainbows on the road in front of their Klahanie townhouse.

“They’re a symbol of hope,” Maddyn said.

Working together, Shelstad found the mother and daughter project soothed her anxiety. It also fired her creativity. So they extended their effort to their garage door, decorating it with a giant heart.

When Shelstad discovered one of her neighbours was a nurse, she doodled on paper a design for a mural of thanks she could chalk on her garage door.

A project manager in the communications industry who’d taken some art courses “years ago,” Shelstad found inspiration in stained glass windows. Using tape and a little elbow grease to get the wooden doors clean of dust and grime so the chalk could adhere, she and Maddyn did one mural, and then another as neighbours enquired whether their garages could be included in the project as well. A donation of chalk helped push them along.

Shelstad said the one to eight hours she spent working on each mural were “completely uplifting.” She met some neighbours for the first time, learned about their own interests and challenges navigating the pandemic. Three of them are health care workers, she discovered, along with a teacher who’s coping with doing her job from home, and even some people who’ve lost their job.

“We’re all part of the same thing,” she said. “We’re in this together, but apart.”
Other neighbours enquired about designing their own murals.

Before long every garage door in Shelstad’s lane had been decorated and the gallery has even extended to other lanes in the complex, some fences and the brick rostrum at the entrance to their street.

Shelstad said the project has showed her the power creativity can have to help people get through tough times. So others can explore the healing salve of their own expression, she’s also assembled kits of chalk and art supplies, with proceeds going to Share family and community services.

“You find what gives you joy,” she said. “The whole neighbourhood has embraced something. We’ve been in this glorious bubble of positivity.”

Port Moody woman’s ratings of Skype backgrounds gets worldwide attention

This is part of a look back at pandemic stories I’ve written for The Tri-City News.

When Jessie Bahrey settles in to her Port Moody apartment to catch up on the nightly news, she’s not noting the latest federal assistance program being announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, or MSNBC correspondent John Heilemann’s analysis of the American response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She’s looking for the succulent that would add a pop of colour to the bookshelves behind Trudeau’s head or what fruit Heilemann has ripening in the bowl on his kitchen counter.
Bahrey, along with her Washington, D.C.-based partner, Claude Taylor, have become the pre-eminent Twitter authorities on what’s going on behind TV journalists, politicians, pundits and even a few scattered celebrities as they’re being interviewed from home or office on virtual platforms like Skype and Zoom.

For the office manager at Muldoon Greenhouses in Port Coquitlam, her newfound avocation started as a bit of a lark between the long-distance couple. But in just three weeks, their Room Rater Twitter account, @ratemyskyperoom, has grown to more than 133,000 followers, some of them the very targets of their sharp eyes and gentle humour.

“Everybody was talking about them but not doing the rating,” Bahrey said of their background critiques. “This was supposed to be a fun little thing we did for giggles.”

Shifting each other off according to their respective time zones and work schedules, the pair spend about 11 hours a day watching various American and Canadian news programs, taking screen grabs and dishing out their opinions. So far, they’ve posted more than 1,300 times. Neither has a background in interior design, although Bahrey admitted they’re both “news junkies.”

She said aside from the environs in which the interview is being conducted, they also pay attention to the lighting and camera angle.

Bahrey said it’s been illuminating to see how people used to working in controlled studios, where the lighting is perfect and backgrounds are designed to complement rather than distract, have adjusted to the more intimate and ad hoc settings of their homes.

Some, like former deputy prime minister John Manley, and New York Times correspondent Trip Gabriel, haven’t fared so well. Their low-angle perspectives that emphasize the blank walls and ceiling behind them make them look more like “hostage videos,” she said.

“Blink twice if we should call the police,” Bahrey wrote of Manley’s appearance.
Others show careful attention to detail.

Bahrey praised musician John Legend’s interview, conducted as he sat at his piano, a bookcase of Grammy awards to his left and the rest of his bright living room fading back into the distance.

“All the way back as far as you could see, it was just peaceful,” she said, adding the couple has purposely avoided doing too many celebrity critiques as they have the wealth and image self-awareness to ensure they have nice backgrounds.

Former First Ladies Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton also got raves.

Some targets of Room Rater’s reviews have even reached out through direct messages for tips. MSNBC’s Heilemann gave them a heads up to watch the fruit bowl as it evolved through several on-air appearances then culminated with a guest appearance by his great dane.

Will Reeve, a reporter on ABC’s Good Morning America, reached out to rebut the couple’s criticism of his no-pants appearance on the morning news magazine program.

Bahrey said seeing so many prominent and important people in their home environment, with all the distractions that can come with it, has helped humanize them.

“The biggest thing is they are very much like us,” she said. “Just because they’re famous, doesn’t mean they don’t struggle with the same things we do.”

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SCREENGRAB Port Moody’s Jessie Bahrey is paying close attention to backgrounds during Skype interviews on TV, including her own appearance on Global National.

Bahrey said the project has been a fun distraction from watching all the doom and gloom of growing infection numbers and death rates.

“It breaks up the bad news cycle,” she said. “It gives us a sense of community, that we’re all in this together.”

Pandemic resurrects Elvis

This is the first in a retrospective of stories from the COVID-19 pandemic. All appeared in The Tri-City News.

It took a pandemic to revive Elvis.

Or, at least, one of his impersonators, who’s resurrecting his career by bringing his act to neighbourhoods on lockdown because of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

For 30 years, Coquitlam’s Darren Lee was one of the best tribute artists of the famed performer who died in 1977.

In 1997, Lee won the World Elvis Championship in Memphis, Tennessee. He played Las Vegas for 11 years, followed by a four-year run in Maui.

But then, a couple of years ago, a business partnership went bad and — long story short — Lee left the island and found himself back in British Columbia.

“My self-motivation at that point was pretty nil,” he said, adding the lack of gigs eventually neccesitated taking a job driving deliveries for a restaurant supply company so he could get back on his feet.

Still, Lee felt a hunka hunka burning love to perform.

“Your voice has been singing for all these years, your legs are used to doing all these moves,” he said. “I’m older, but I’m not done.”

Opportunity knocked when Lee’s brother in Edmonton, Robin Kelly, launched Facebook Live performances of his own Elvis tribute act to weather the shutdowns of entertainment venues and large gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two collaborated weekly, accepting tips by PayPal.

But Lee’s upstairs neighbours weren’t as appreciative.

So he got in his car, popped some backing tracks into the stereo, rolled down the windows, balanced his phone on the console and went for a drive.

The rolling Facebook performances caught the attention of a friend in Port Coquitlam, who invited Lee to join her neighbourhood’s nightly 7 p.m. cacophony of appreciation for frontline workers. His guest appearance turned into an impromptu two-hour concert that only ended when his car’s battery died.

Even though the audience was no more than 10 people — all properly practising physical distancing — Elvis was back.

“It was the biggest audience I’ve had in months,” Lee said. “You want to get that applause. I thrive on it.”

Lee said he feels his temperature rising. In fact, he’s taking requests for guest appearances in other neighbourhoods. And his brain is flaming with plans to reinvigorate his career when the health emergency has passed.

“I’m an entertainer, it’s what I do,” he said.

Telling stories in a pandemic

The past four months have been: exhausting, exhilarating, challenging, frustrating, frightening, disorienting, illuminating and rewarding. They’ve also been frantic, difficult in many ways, actually easier in others. There have been days fuelled by adrenaline, others bogged by drudgery.

I guess that’s what it’s like to cover the biggest story of our lifetime, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Initially, it seemed so remote as our newsroom localized stories of the respiratory virus sweeping through faraway cruise ships by chasing down family members of some of those trapped in seagoing quarantines.

Then, suddenly, it was upon us and we were being advised to prepare to begin working from home.

Those initial days were a blur of feeding constant updates to our website of postponements, then outright cancellations and closures. Like waves, they kept coming. We were telling the story of the dismantling of virtually aspect of our lives that we’ve come to take for granted. Every five minutes the news just seemed to get worse.

Along the way, we lost colleagues — our longtime editor and most senior reporter — as the pandemic also became an economic catastrophe. None of us were in the newsroom to say goodbye.

When we were first dispatched to our ad hoc home offices, most of us thought it would be for no more than a month, maybe six weeks. We cobbled together new systems for copy flow, dug out earbuds from desk drawers to be able to conduct all of our interviews by phone as well as hear each other during virtual editorial meetings. I tried to limit my own excursions out into the community shoot photos to an afternoon or morning a week.
Freebie stock photos became our visual tool of necessity, as much as that pained me as a photojournalist who’s felt the sting of our profession’s devaluation over the last decade.

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MARIO BARTEL/THE TRI-CITY NEWS The blossoms are in full bloom at Coquitlam’s Town Centre park, bringing the hopefullness of spring amidst the anxiety of the public health and economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once everything had been cancelled or closed, we shifted our coverage to tell the stories of coping: businesses finding new ways to serve their customers; educators and students navigating the unfamiliar world of remote learning; gyms going virtual; breweries doing deliveries; artists and musicians stretching their creative inclinations in unexpected directions; people figuring out ways to stay connected in a world of self-isolation.

The innovation, determination and resilience we encountered in the community every day was invigorating, a balm that countered the daily dose of bad news about infection rates, deaths and a grim prognosis for the future.

Now, as the smothering blanket of the public health emergency begins to slowly, carefully lift, we are telling the stories of what the new normal is going to look like for the next while: what it’s like to get a haircut; go out for a meal; participate in civic affairs; get a library book; visit a park. Every aspect of the communities we cover, the routines of daily life must now be viewed through the prism of the pandemic, which makes pretty much everything newsworthy.

It’s simultaneously daunting and energizing.

It’s introducing us to people and corners of our communities that we might not otherwise have ever known about. It’s challenging us to tell stories in new ways. It’s opening our minds to possibilities. It might even be wiping some of the jaundice from eyes that have seen so much over the years they’d become numb.

Over the next little while, I’ll be reprising some of my favourite stories of the past several months, a moment in our time, and my career, unlike any other.

Looking back at 2019

Photos are the soul of a newspaper, our windows into the communities we cover and the stories we tell.

What might take a writer several sentences or paragraphs to tell, a photo has to capture in a mere glance. And getting to that storytelling moment isn’t just a matter of holding up the camera and saying, “OK, now it’s time to take a photo.”

A good photo isn’t “taken.” It’s made.

Good photography can seem effortless. But into each photo goes a multitude of decisions, all of which must inform how the push of the shutter button will serve the story, whether it’s on our website or in our weekly print edition.

At a time when pretty much everyone can take a photo by reaching into their pocket and pulling out their smart phone, news photos have to be something more than just a record that somebody showed up and did just that.

Here, then, is our retrospective of some of the photos we made in 2019, along with a bit of information about the thought processes and technical considerations that went into them.