I was out the door and on the road before 5 a.m.
It was just like the old days when I covered the Atlanta Thrashers for the Journal-Constitution and it was routine for me to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and catch a flight to arrive in another city in time for that day’s morning skate.
Except a lot was different. I had been let go from my job at the Atlanta Business Chronicle less than 90 hours earlier and I was going to be working as a free-lancer for NHL.com in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. To minimize expenses, I was driving the 400 miles to Raleigh instead of flying and I had to get there by 11:30 a.m. for Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice’s media availability.
The week-long trip was a welcome respite from having to deal with the anxieties of finding a job. Fortunately, I received six weeks’ pay and almost three in vacation. Regardless, the $1,500 plus expenses that NHL.com was offering – along with the promise of more should the plucky Hurricanes advance to Game 6 — would certainly come in handy.
More than the peace of mind that earning some money would bring, I’ve learned over the years – the two since departing the beat – that few places make me feel more at home than an ice rink populated by a hockey team.
The scrape of skates against the ice and the whack of pucks against the boards and glass comfort my soul. And there’s hardly a more agreeable group to chat with, as pro athletes go, than hockey players – be they Canadians, Americans, Russians, Czechs, Finns, Swedes or Slovaks. When I caught up with Thrashers left wing Slava Kozlov for the first time in a year at the team’s season finale (Kozlov and I are about six months’ apart in age) we discussed the difficulty of getting his son into the right school.
Back on my manic drive up Interstate 85, I survived two traffic jams in Charlotte and arrived at the RBC Center about 10 minutes early. That gave me just enough time to check in with my editor. He wanted a story on Maurice, the Hurricanes’ youngish coach who had been re-hired by the team in midseason after being fired from it four years earlier.
Fortunately, I knew the team’s media relations officials and asked for a one-on-one interview, which was easily granted.
The nerves I felt from being delayed by the traffic and the fear of missing the appointed time had not subsided. Fortunately, the usually good-tempered Maurice was in an especially affable mood. His underdog team had survived the first round with a pair of miracle finishes (one winning goal coming with 0.2 seconds left in regulation and then rallying from down a goal in the final 80 seconds of regulation to win Game 7 and the series).
After two games on the road against the conference’s top seed it was even at one game apiece.
My tenure covering the Thrashers began just as Maurice’s first coaching the Hartford Whalers-come-Carolina Hurricanes had ended, so our paths did not cross much. But as what is pleasant about so many hockey people, Maurice took time to ask about myself. He did not detect a Southern accent, he said.
That’s because I grew up in Franklin, Mass. – coincidentally the hometown of his successor and predecessor as Hurricanes’ coach, Peter Laviolette.
Maurice was gracious and gave me as much time as I needed. I had all the quotes I needed and then some. Mission accomplished.
My nerves began to abate.
* * *
I was what is known among sportswriters as a “Marriott whore” in my days on the beat. That is, I would go to almost any length to stay at a hotel in the Marriott chain to accrue those hotly sought-after points, which are redeemable for free vacation stays. As a consequence, I became a huge hotel snob – still am – as I often stayed at reduced rates in Ritz Carltons, posh Fairmonts and Marriott’s resort- and Renaissance-level hotels. I still have roughly 200,000 points banked.
Again, I intended to keep expenses down on the trip and had the good fortune of visiting Raleigh, perhaps the cheapest of NHL cities to which to travel. I wowed the assistant to NHL.com’s editor-in-chief by booking five nights at a Homewood Suites on Hotels.com for $263.59, probably one night’s stay in New York. Conveniently, the hotel also came with a kitchenette, so I could cook most of my own meals.
What it did not come with was cell phone service inside the room. I learned that the hard way. I had put in a request to speak to the Hurricanes general manager. Sitting at my room’s breakfast bar typing away, my cell phone vibrated, indicating a voicemail. I was incredulous as to why it didn’t ring until I noticed: no bars.
Springtime in Raleigh that day was accommodating so I ventured out into the hotel parking lot to return Rutherford’s call. So had other visitors to the hotel with the same problem. Some leaning over their second-story balconies reminded me of my grandparents’ gritty neighborhood in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, N.Y.
Looking at my fellow “travelers” I remembered how many of these extended-stay hotels serve as temporary housing for those who have been evicted from their homes. In this period of ever-rising foreclosures, it occurred to me that this indeed might be home for a good number of the other guests.
Unemployed as I was, I realized that little separated my lot from theirs. Dark thoughts of worst-case scenarios – having to sell my house in beloved Decatur, the potential upheaval for my 7-year-old son at the school we cherish, Oakhurst Elementary, and my four-year-old daughter who also will enter the public school system next year – filled my head.
More immediate thoughts of getting Jim Rutherford on the phone awoke me from my stupor. After some phone tag – his cell phone problems this time, not mine – the interview came off swimmingly enough.
Pleased with the job I did, I filed my story. Then I ventured off to a Harris Teeter that I had passed on Edwards Mill Road on the way to the rink to pick up some dinner, checked my e-mail, spoke to my wife and went to bed, exhausted.
* * *
Thirty-six-year-old defenseman Aaron Ward played for Carolina when it won the Stanley Cup in 2006. Suiting up in this series for Boston, one of the NHL’s original six teams, Ward shared some information with the Boston media about the Hurricanes’ arena, which was built for the North Carolina State University men’s basketball team. In the previous series, Boston had played arch-rival Montreal, home to hockey’s most rabid fans and their cavernous 21,000-plus-seat arena.
“I think it’s probably the loudest,” Ward said of the RBC Center. “Montreal is loud. I think Carolina might be the loudest. The sound resonates in there. They cheer like they’re at a basketball game. They’re up the entire time. They’re pretty energetic.”
It’s an undisputed fact in sports that athletes feed off the energy from their home crowd. A lesser-made connection is between that of the crowd and the journalist.
Like any reporter’s, a sportswriter’s outlook is objective. But the primary reason that he or she has chosen the increasingly endangered vocation is the excitement, the adrenaline rush. I realized as a 10th grader at the old Boston Garden that the hacks in the press box were getting paid to be there and immediately decided that’s what I’d do, too.
As the RBC Center crowd whipped itself into fury – fueled by jumbotron clips of former pro wrestler Ric Flair – the assembled scribes in the press box sat stoically, as if immune to the noise and the bedlam.
Sportswriters are a jaded bunch, swapping stories about the worst cities, hotels, press meals, airline mishaps and the latest petty indignities they have suffered at the hands of some player or team official.
What goes unsaid is that they are addicted to that intoxicating mix of the crowd and the deadline pressure. It takes a while after each game to come down from that high. After Game 3, I stopped by the aforementioned Harris Teeter, picked up a 22-ounce bottle of Stella Artois and drank from the hotel’s plastic cups until I was calm enough to sleep, hours after the game ended and I filed my story.
During my six days in Raleigh, The Boston Globe sent four reporters on the road. It was a tumultuous time for the Globe staffers. Their parent company, The New York Times, had threatened to shut down New England’s most venerable paper if its unions did not accede to $20 million worth of concessions.
The main guild representing Globe employees had struck a deal while that foursome made its Tobacco Road sojourn. Anxious phone calls were placed from the RBC Center’s subterranean media room back to the Globe’s Dorchester headquarters for the dope.
I approached Globe veteran Kevin Dupont, honored in the Hockey Hall of Fame with the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for hockey-writing excellence and an acquaintance from my years on the beat. I told him of my current situation and he expressed uncertainty about his union’s coming vote.
“In 30 years in the business, I haven’t had 30 bad minutes,” he said. “I know people [in other careers] who haven’t had 30 good minutes in 30 years.”
* * *
After two exhilarating games, I drove back to Atlanta, glad to see my family. Boston won Game 5 extending the series back to Raleigh, so for the second Monday in two weeks I made the 400-mile trip back, this time with much less anxiety. For my two-night stay on this trip I lodged at the Crabtree Valley Marriott, with its fine photography hung above the toilet in the bathroom, exercise room and its daily maid service – opposed to the weekly service at my previous hotel. I got in another fix, as Boston extended the series to seven games.
Out of work for three weeks now, my job search continues, promising as it is despite the sad economy.
In an increasingly dispirited journalistic world, I don’t know if I’ll be able to maintain my addiction. It might be over, cold turkey. Maybe at times I’ll be able to free-lance again.
But at least I had another two-week ride.