A pitfall of being a sportswriter, broadcaster, or reporter, particularly if you cover a particular team for any length of time, is that you have to swallow your fandom to perpetuate the myth of objectivity. A perk to the job is the tremendous, unprecedented level of access granted.
Those thoughts crossed my mind when I posted the following to my Facebook status last Wednesday night:
I might be the luckiest sports fan ever: I’ve had the chance to play pickup hoops at Pauley Pavilion, walk on the field and be in the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. I’ve gotten to meet my childhood broadcasting idols, Chris Berman and Marv Albert. Tonight, I got to live my ultimate childhood dream: play ice hockey at Nassau Coliseum.
I’ve now viewed games at the Coliseum as a fan in the 100, 200, and 300 sections; attended games in the Owner’s Suite; sat rinkside as the Public Address announcer, and played ice hockey on the same 200×85 surface on which my all-time favorite, Mike Bossy, scored so many of his 658 career goals (573 regular season, 85 playoffs). This wasn’t Paper Lion or Tom Verducci joining the Toronto Blue Jays for a brief turn in Spring Training four years ago. Far from it. The occasion was a partnership celebration between my company and the NHL, with whom we’ve been partnered for four seasons now.
Emotions ran high for those of us who grew up idolizing those Islander teams. We stood at the blue lines for the National Anthem, looked up at the rafters to see the many banners highlighting the Patrick Division, Wales and Campbell Conference titles, and of course, the four Stanley Cup championships (which easily could have been 6, if not for the Rangers and Oilers). Then, the retired numbers of Potvin, Bossy, Smith, Trottier, Gillies and Nystrom caught our gazes. Then the Hall of Fame banner. Every second was a “How cool is THIS” moment.
(I wonder if guys like Tyler Kepner, Bob Klapisch, Mark Feinsand et al have those same feelings when they play at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park to do the Boston vs. New York writers games every year.)
The last time I felt that kind of rush was April 5, 2002, when I covered my first Yankee game for YES. It was the Yankees’ home opener. The feeling I got when I walked from the clubhouse to the tunnel leading to the dugout, eventually emerging and then stepping onto the field, I couldn’t comprehend how anyone, not even grown men making the millions of dollars they do, could ever take that for granted.
Looking out from behind the batting cage down the lines, the short porch didn’t seem so short. I wondered how, with a wood bat, someone could turn on a 95 mile-per-hour fastball and deliver it into those seats. I gained a greater appreciation for what professional baseball players do on a daily basis.
The same was true here. Having played hockey (street, dek, roller and at various points, ice), I knew how physically taxing the sport was. But certain items that I thought would be true turned out just the opposite. The rink didn’t seem that large. The puck was surprisingly light. The boards had more give than expected. In the heat of the game, I didn’t notice the people in the stands (yes, people were there). If they were heckling, I couldn’t hear them. My senses were too attuned to what was going on in front of me, and making sure I didn’t embarrass myself in front of my bosses, either through my skating, or by letting my competitive intensity boil over.
I had three real good scoring chances, one in each period. The best one came on my first shift of the second period. I took a nice feed off the boards just before the blue line and sped up the right wing a 3-on-1 break. My first inclination was to pass, but my two linemates were too deep to accept a cross-ice feed. The lone defenseman gave me lots of room to skate. So, I kept my feet moving and fired a wrist shot from about 20 feet out, just before the faceoff dot. It was ticketed for the top corner, glove side, but the goalie made a strong save. In retrospect, I had more room and could have gotten deeper and made a move. But who knows if I would have gotten the shot off?
My team won, 5-2. I was on the ice for two goals — one for my team, one for the opponent. I won the majority of my faceoffs and drew a penalty. It was the most fun I’ve had playing anything since the first and only gig I had with a band nine years ago.
Ultimately, though, I understood how difficult it is to be a professional athlete. It’s a job that literally beats you up. The physical and mental conditioning required is staggering. There’s a reason so few people in the world do it. The simple answer: Because they can.
For a night, though, it was a rush to walk a few steps and skate a few strides in the same arena.