They shoot, I write

Features Stories

I drew a hockey rink in my notebook. Underneath, on the same dotted lines that fifth-graders practice on, I described the play: “Naslund to Mo’, back to Naslund—he scores! The Canuck captain buries the wrist shot off the iron and in.” It felt organic. It felt right. I could see the play as I described it. Page after page in my Hilroy notebooks were filled with vivid descriptions of last night’s goals. The size and shape of the notebook was perfect for drawing a hockey rink with seam in the book acting as a natural centre ice. I never drew any players, just the rink. It’s all I needed.

I recently stumbled across a dusty stack of old Hilroys in a box Sharpied “Kev-1999,” buried at the back of my old closet. The discovery came while searching for something completely different. In fact, what I was looking for in the first place had escaped my mind and had been replaced with my old journals. In the very same closet, stuffed in a mountain of old hats, came another meaningful find: a small brown and red hat with a pretty unrecognizable signature on it. The John Hancock belonged to none other than Jim Robson—Hall of Fame hockey announcer for the Vancouver Canucks. The hat was signed a few years prior, when my brother’s hockey team had a chance to meet the Canucks. The dust-covered notebooks and the unworn ball cap bore an unknown connection that wound up setting my current life into motion.

Growing up, my mom made me write every day. She would say, “I don’t care what you write about, but you should get something down every day.” It’d be that or “if you don’t write, you can’t play street hockey,” a fate worst than death for this 10-year-old boy growing up in Vancouver. So I wrote. She didn’t know, or likely didn’t care, that all I wrote about was hockey. Sometimes I just scrawled down box scores or penalty minutes. Sometimes it was all game notes but for the most part, it was specific—and often untrue—accounts of goals. When I put the goals into writing, they became real. Once my pencil crayon (red or brown) lifted from the page, I saw my heroes carrying out my words.

Sport was a way of life; hockey, to be specific, was a way of life. Posters of Linden, McLean, Mogilny, and Bure (especially Bure) littered my bedroom walls. As for many before and after my existence, sports stars were my idols. Their play: spectacular. Their attitudes: competitive and mysterious. And their hair—oh! their hair—flowing, greasy, and so tough. Not a winter went by without me styling my hair after my current favourite. Also somewhat quietly making an impact on my life were the sports commentators. Specifically, Jim Robson, but also the Sun reporters who broke down games the day after. The names escape me now, but they have been replaced by the Paps, the Coles, and the MacIntyres. On this side of the Straight, the Dheensaws, and the Annicchiaricos fill me in on the world of sports.

Not surprisingly, my mom also made me read every day, or should I say tried to make me read every day. This task proved more difficult than getting me to write. She had children’s books set out for me to lay my child eyes on, and even children’s magazines for my child brain to comprehend. None of these seemed to quench my reading needs. That is to say: I had no interest in reading them. Defiantly, I argued that reading the paper should count. Defeated, she surrendered to letting me read the sports page as my daily dose of words. I smugly skimmed the game recaps, the box scores, and the game notes as if I were getting away with the perfect crime. If reading was designed to make you miserable, then I was enjoying it. I felt rebellious, as if I was giving a big middle finger to the man.

There was something special about watching a game on television with the radio on or reading about the game in the Vancouver Sun the next day. It wasn’t about what happened anymore, it was about what the commentator had to say about it. The anchor had a view, an angle, as did the reporter. The writers carefully intertwined their story with the game’s result. The two couldn’t exist without one another. I may not have recognized that then, but I certainly came to enjoy the creative description and analysis the sports writers had to offer.

One winter morning when I was 15 or 16, my alarm went at 5:35 a.m. I swiftly clicked it off. I was already awake. The previous night was one of those nights like the ones before Christmas, where sleeping seemed to be impossible. I slid, admittedly tired, out of bed and to the stairs. I had the lower half of my hockey gear laid out for me—one step at a time. By the time I got to the bottom step, I was half dressed and ready to roll. I clicked the stainless steel kettle on and slipped two pieces of honey whole wheat bread into the toaster. I then clambered back up the steps to wake my dad. “Tweny-five minutes till we leave,” I would say. My parents stirred, and I knew he had heard me. Usually, it’s him waking me up, but not today. Today, we had Canucks tickets, and I couldn’t wait. I was in the peak of my Canucks-watching career. I read the sports pages every day, I still scribbled small game notes to myself, and we (my parents and I) had bought the Pay-per-view games so I could watch every minute of Canucks coverage. The prospect of going to a game excited me enough to forfeit a good night’s worth of sawing logs.

We ate our toast and sipped our tea before heading to practice. That day was a blur. I couldn’t tell you what I did at practice or even at school. When my dad and I arrived at the “Garage,” the fondly nicknamed Vancouver Canucks home arena, I asked, “Where did you get these tickets?” and he replied, “Jim gave them to us.” I zipped through the Jims in my brain archive and could only come to one reasonable conclusion. “Robson?” I asked, tentatively. Robson had sponsored my brother’s team for a few seasons, and, as a hockey coach, my dad had stayed in touch, and that apparently came with perks. Knowing that the legendary Jim Robson had given us these tickets changed how I watched that game. It was surprisingly quiet and dull. The Canucks beat the Dallas Stars that night in an epic shootout final. The game itself was awesome, yet there was something missing for me: the play-by-play. The lack of constant analysis and description left a void, due to the fact that I was watching the game in the stadium and not at home. Later that night, my dad suggested I call Robson and thank him for the tickets.

Star-struck and nervous, I dialed his number. I paced the kitchen as I still do when on a nerve-wracking phone call. It was a special experience to hear that voice on the other side of a radio. It was even more exceptional to hear him on the phone. I just wanted him to talk and me to listen. I thanked him for the seats, and we chatted about the game. To my frustration, I recall acting like a bubbling fanboy. I talked about Kesler’s wicked leg kick and the Sedins’ great puck-work. I talked about how amazing it was to be there and see it all live. I acted like a common fool. Now, in my defense, I was a true fan and nothing more. But, to this day, I still wish I had acted like a professional. On the other side of the line, Robson waited patiently for me to finish drooling over the big hits and fancy dekes. He never made one mention of the play, but instead talked of the crowd and what the game meant in terms of the season as a whole. He talked about draft picks competing, rookies, and which goaltender might play next game. He understood which stories made the game interesting. He had so much on me. His comforting tone and familiar voice made me feel safe yet helpless. It was an honour and a wake-up call to talk to my idol.

Since that fateful day, I have come to love the art of sports journalism. From the pregame report, to the commentary, to how the game looked the next day after a night’s sleep. I couldn’t watch another game (with the possible exception of the 2011 Vancouver Canucks Stanley Cup run, which was enough for me to shelve my journalistic eye and just experience it as a fan) without thinking of what was at stake. It wasn’t so much a game anymore as it was an opportunity to tell a story. I learned that the game was a vessel to transport the story to the fans. The sports columnists and reporters, my idols, were just so good at it. They took a common game and made it something more. They made it worthwhile.

Matt Tullis’s roundtable discussion in Creative Nonfiction magazine tells us how to draw out a story and defines the difference between good creative nonfiction and journalism. One of his esteemed panelists was Thomas Lake, senior writer for Sports Illustrated. Lake’s idea of journalism is that, while journalists may not create anything, they work with what happens and find the best way to say it. This steadfast approach to accuracy and storytelling allows us to trust Lake as a reporter and as a storyteller. Much like the way Jim Robson uses the game and his constant analysis to gain our trust and to drive the story home. Since my chat with Robson, I have forced myself to watch sports with a different eye. I’d like to say that I act like a pro and not a fan, but I still find myself wrapped up in a game rather than the story.

I’m not surprised that when I read the sports pages and watch sports reports, what graces my eyes and ears are the best stories told by the best individuals. It isn’t a surprise that the best are at the top, and that they are the ones being published. To be the best, you have to put the work in and you have to get lucky. Much like a first-round draft choice in the NHL, they have been working at it for years now.

Sports broadcasting, although not literary in itself, is a form of storytelling. I am constantly reminded of this when I watch sporting events. The sportscasters read the game; they transport it to the fans. They use the game to tell a greater story; a story that will live longer than any box score. Jason Farris’s fascinating book, Hockey Play-by-Play: Around the NHL with Jim Robson, compiles Robson’s game notes from over 30 years of NHL broadcasting. The book also boasts commentary from current NHL broadcasters. Nestled in the countless game notes are messages from Robson himself. It is captivating to read what he has to say, from being a professional to his pre-game routine, from home games to being on the road. Robson liked to rely on pure accuracy and passion when broadcasting. He mentions in the book that most new broadcasters depend heavily on their show biz’ attitude and even their “shtick.” Robson needed no gimmicks or extracurriculars. He was a straight-up pro and called the game with unbridled creativity and art.

Federico García Lorca, venerated 20th-century Spanish poet, wrote of Duende. He frames it as a sort of magic, an extraordinary passion that, when put into art, or sports broadcasting in my case, cannot be equalled. It isn’t a skill or a measurable talent; it is a creative life form that exudes from one’s work. When I listened to Robson broadcast, for me, he spoke with Duende; an unparalleled art form. His voiced rung throughout my bedroom, long after the game, and reached more than just my ears. I wasn’t just listening; I understood.