A Dream Achieved, Cover A Professional Sports Team

An empty Van Andel arena.

An empty Van Andel Arena.

I’ve always enjoyed writing. It may have come as a bit of a shock to my parents when I switched from a computer science major to a writing major, but to me, it seemed like a fitting change.

When I was a kid, I wrote in a journal like the Nickelodeon character Doug did in the self-titled cartoon. I often wrote reviews for my favorite video games mimicking those I would read about in Nintendo Power or Electronic Gaming Monthly.

My love of sports led me to an easy career choice: sports journalism. However, making it as a sports journalist is anything but easy. Think about how many people like sports. Tens of thousands of people fill football stadiums every Sunday and millions more are watching from the comfort of their home, and that’s just one sport and not even the most popular sport in the world.

Now think about how many of those people are die-hard fans who want to share their love of the sport with other people through writing. That’s why I say it’s not an easy profession to make it big in. The majority of guys (and a good portion of females as well) watch sports or at least have a vested interest in sports, and a good chunk of those enjoy writing about it. It’s a highly competitive field.

And now, with blogs such as SB Nation, Rant Sports, Yahoo Contributor Network, FanSided, etc., it gives people the opportunity to write who may not even want to pursue a career in sports journalism. My sports journalism career is still fairly new. I work at MLive Media Group covering high school sports. Obviously, not my ideal career path. However, everyone has to start somewhere.

The Journey

In addition to working at MLive, I’ve worked the gambit of freelance opportunities. I started out with Suite101.com, where I did reviews for South Park and The Office. It was a paid opportunity, but I was making pennies every couple months, as I wasn’t getting very many page views and people will normally go to the bigger outlets for TV show reviews.

Despite the lack of pay, I still enjoyed writing the articles, and it was good practice. I also wrote the occasional sports article, usually opinion articles on various topics. A former ESPN writer noticed my writing and offered me a job writing for a fantasy sports site he was starting, The World Cup of Fantasy Sports. This position was not paid, but there was the promise of compensation down the road if the site flourished.

A former ESPN writer wants me to write for his site? Is this real life? That was a huge confidence boost. I had never written about fantasy sports. I had played them quite a bit, but wasn’t an all-star by any means. I’ve won one hockey title and finished last a number of times, but I figured if the site took off, it could be a foot in the door toward bigger and better opportunities.

My assignment was to write a weekly article highlighting the hot and cold players of the past week in the Western Conference. It worked well for me because that meant I got to do research on my favorite team, the Detroit Red Wings.

I had a lot of fun writing those articles, and I learned a lot about studying trends and new players in different systems. However, the site folded a few months after it started, so I was back to square one. The site owner promised the writers he would keep us in mind if other opportunities came up, but I haven’t heard from him in years. For all I know, he isn’t even writing anymore.

Eventually, I decided to follow in the footsteps of my friend Justin Tiemeyer and start my own blog. It wasn’t going to get the page hits the fantasy site could have received, but it gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted, and it could wind up on the computer screen of a sports editor looking for writing help.

In November 2012, I found a paid writing position with Yahoo for the Yahoo Contributor Network. It was still freelance work, so I wasn’t an employee of Yahoo, but it was a perfect opportunity to put my work on the top sports site in the world. Millions of people come to Yahoo for their sports news, and thousands of people would find their way to my articles. It was a big step toward finding a permanent position.

Of course, like every other writing opportunity, this one fell through as well, and I was left searching for a new home to write for. I had quite a few conversations over Twitter with John Evans, a writer for FanSided’s Octopus Thrower during my time with Yahoo. I asked if Octopus Thrower was taking new writers, and sure enough, I had found my new (and current) home a month after leaving Yahoo.

FanSided isn’t paid, but it offers what many blogs cannot offer: media credentials. I simply had to fill out a form, send it to my NHL editor, and if it was approved, I could contact the appropriate organization and cover a game in-person. Live coverage was the one thing that was missing from my resume. I had done live coverage of high school sports, even state title games, but it isn’t the same as covering a professional sports team.

By the time I found out I was allowed to cover live games, the Red Wings had already been eliminated from the playoffs. The next best thing was to cover their AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. The Griffins won the Calder Cup last year, and had just reached the second round of the playoffs this year. As luck would have it, Game 4 against the Texas Stars was a home game, and I had the night off from MLive. The stars had aligned, no pun intended.

I had covered the Griffins once for MLive last year, but it wasn’t covering the game so much as covering the atmosphere of the arena. I went to Game 4 of the Calder Cup final, the first game the Griffins had the opportunity to win the Calder Cup, and my assignment was to talk to fans and get their reaction of the atmosphere in the building, as the Griffins attempted to win their first championship.

It was fun. I talked to a guy who was a season-ticket holder since the Griffins’ very first season in 1996, and I found some casual fans who were just excited to have the opportunity to witness history. However, my assignment didn’t allow me to talk to the players and coaches after the game, so I felt a bit cheated. I understand the game story/column is the beat writer’s job, but I felt so close to my ultimate goal, yet so far away.

A Dream Comes True

A year later, my dream finally came true. I walked into Van Andel Arena on May 14, 2014, full of excitement. However, I had to curb that enthusiasm, as I was there to do a job and I couldn’t act like a kid in a candy store, which is exactly what I felt like. I made my way up to the top floor of the arena to the press box. I arrived a half hour early, but I was perfectly content watching the pregame warmup. Plus, I wanted to get set up on Twitter and give people time to figure out I would be covering the game live.

Within 10 minutes of sitting down, who should walk by but Red Wings general manager Ken Holland and former Red Wings grinder Kris Draper. On the inside, I was awe struck. I wanted to talk to Ken and Kris. I wanted to ask Ken what his plans for the offseason were, I wanted to ask Kris what he thinks of Grand Rapids, I wanted to ask them if they like early Beatles music or late Beatles music, anything to start a conversation with two people vital to the Red Wings’ success. On the outside, I acted as if they were just beer vendors. The 13-year-old inside of me sees Kris and remembers the Grind Line and the Stanley Cups he helped bring to Detroit. The 27-year-old reporter has to act professionally and do the job he was sent there to do.

It was tough. It sucked, but I wasn’t there to gab with Ken and Kris, I was there to cover a game. Plus, being apart of the media, I doubt either Ken or Kris would want to open up very much. I’m sure they get bombarded on a daily basis, and the last thing I want to do is make a bad first impression.

The game ends, and the Griffins are victorious. The part I was looking forward to the most was coming: talking to the players. It’s a crucial part of being a sports journalist. You have to ask the right questions to get the right answers, and the right answers can be the difference between a boring story and an eye-catching story.

I made my way down to the locker room area, and the stench of sweaty pads filled my nostrils. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it brought me back to my playing days. It was calming, and it brought me back to a place that felt comfortable.

I enter the locker room, and that excited feeling I got when I saw Ken and Kris before the game, it fills me up again, as I see Mitch Callahan sitting at his stall after a hard-fought game, Luke Glendening, who is back in his hometown after his season with the Red Wings had finished, standing next to him in a suit and tie, goalie Petr Mrazek walks to the back area of the locker room, a section that appears to be off-limits to members of the media.

These were the guys I saw play on TV throughout the season, and they were standing mere feet away from me. This is what I have been working for. This is why I jumped from freelance opportunity to freelance opportunity to get to this very spot where I stood. That night reaffirmed my decision to become a sports journalist.

I’ve had my fair share of doubt. I’ve had a part-time job for the past five years with MLive. I thought about quitting and getting a more stable job with higher pay so I could go on long vacations, buy expensive toys and enjoy my nights and weekends with my friends and family. But that moment right there, that moment of being surrounded by players I watch and cheer for as a fan, that was the moment that confirmed why I wanted to be a sports journalist in the first place.

I didn’t ask any questions, the other reporters took care of any questions I would have had, but it was an experience I will never forget. I listened as Andrej Nestrasil talk about coming back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the series at 2-2 against the top-ranked team in the Western Conference. I listened to coach Jeff Blashill — who I’m convinced is a clone of Mike Babcock’s that was named Jeff Blashill, seriously, listen to the two of them speak, it’s eerie how identical it is — talk about his team’s resiliency and repeatedly tell a reporter he knew nothing of the status of injured forward Tomas Jurco.

Below is a video I took of the interview with Andrej.

I left the locker room to make my way back up to the press box to write my story, and I saw more former Red Wings as Kris, Chris Chelios and Kirk Maltby were talking outside the locker room. Again, the urge to stop and discuss 1990s Red Wings hockey was overwhelming, but it wasn’t the time or the place.

My dream had been achieved, and I want that feeling again. I will do anything to get that feeling again.

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