The View from Far Above the Rink: A Media Bestiary

High above the popcorn bags and $12 beers of NHL arenas, there exists another world, a veritable Cloud City of journalistic integrity and strong opinions about coffee. It is the NHL press box, and after you’ve covered enough games, its patterns begin to reveal themselves to you, like a Magic Eye poster that eventually shows you a toilet.

Yes, there are “types” you can count on finding in any of these digital dojos. Come with me as I introduce you to: The Five People You Meet in an NHL Press Box.

The Veteran

If you do any job long enough, you can grow sick of it. Hell, even race car drivers probably hit their alarm on race mornings, look up at the ceiling pondering whether even to get out of bed, and pull their fire suit on while choking down a crappy bowl of instant oatmeal. This same principle applies to the first dude (or dudette) on this list, the Veteran.

You can spot the Veterans waiting for the press box elevator in the bowels of the arena. While most younger journalists wear their Sunday best to comply with the press box dress code, the Veterans have long since stopped giving two shits what Suzy Media Relations Director thinks. Tattered tweed and wrinkled sport coats are the fashion du jour for the Veterans; something that came out of a drawer rather than a closet, or off the floor rather than a catalog. It’s hard to blame them; the uniform has no more sentimental value to them than a paper hat does to a fry cook. Their computer bag, too, often predates personal computers and usually appears to be military-surplus issue from a war in which there was no room for a surplus. Polished Italian leather? More like coffee-stained canvas with bold accents of Three Musketeers.

The Veterans also don’t give a damn about the outcome of the game. The light has gone out of their eyes and hearts, and victory and defeat are indistinguishable in the darkness of infinite pessimism. If the home team wins, they have to file on deadline. If the home team loses, they have to file on deadline. Ask a mechanic if he cares whether your car is fixed. He’ll tell you: as long as he can go home at night, he doesn’t care at all.

The Veterans do care a lot about the free snacks in the press box, though. They like to talk about which arenas have the best airline peanuts and Chex Mix blends. They get cranky when the coffee is low, and they become joyous when new coffee is made.

Life is a tragic ouroboros for the Veterans, a snake eating its own tail and blogging about it as it happens.

The Newbie

“Psst, hey! Did you see who that was?” If you hear this in the press box, you’ve found yourself a Newbie. The Newbies, so named for their newly acquired media credentials, are the wide-eyed, bushy-tailed fawns of the press box. Life has not yet broken their spirit, and they are to be loathed and pitied for it. Simply being in the press box is a whizbang treat for these go-getting guys and gals, and you can spot them coming like student drivers with their turn signals on.

Unlike the Veterans, the Newbies still break out their snazziest clothes for game days, like dweebs on the first day of high school, who hope their shiny New Balance sneakers will fool the bullies. They don’t, and the sea of skinny ties and skinny pants and neon pocket squares, like anchovies schooling together, does nothing to hide them. I get that Instagram says it’s cool to match your chartreuse socks to your lavender tie, but when they sit next to John Q. Reporterstein, 30-year veteran of the Post Times Gazette Observer, it’s obvious which one has proverbially (and literally) “been there before.”

Listen, do you hear that? It’s a Newbie, taking a little baby poop all over professional decorum by hooting and hollering when the home team scores. No, you are supposed to somberly and drearily note who scored, who assisted, and what Chex Mix is in the snack bowl. Not to enjoy sports as a human being! Do you hear me? (I remember this one only because I did it for my first two games and got stink-eyed.)

And if you find a 20-something in one of the utility access hallways in the basement of the arena, sidestepping Zambonis and equipment crews long after the game is over, trying to find the exit? That’s a Newbie, too (and still me).

The Big Shot

Somewhere between the naive idealism of the Newbie and the world-weary cynicism of the Veteran, there is the brass ring: the Big Shot. The Big Shot is what every aspiring reporter wants to be: a bigwig, a glad hand, a talking head with a column or a radio show or a weekly SportsCenter segment.

Big Shots are easily spotted, radiating and gravitating pure, benevolent light, as they do. Their suits cost more than the Blue Book value of a used Dodge Neon, and they don’t ever really watch the game. They do a lot of walking up and down the hallways. Not in the transport-driven, purpose-minded way that humans such as you and I walk about, but more to have something to do in between being recognized. They shake hands with aplomb, their muscular thumbs jacked like Schwarzenegger from years of gripping and being gripped. In fact, I once saw Doc Emrick crush a baseball in the palm of his hand (not a true story).

They’ve earned the right to skate through the drudgery of the workaday lifestyle, and in between resenting their success, I desperately want to be them. Oh, so badly.

The TV/Radio Play-by-Play Commentator

These are the folks you hear before you see, and you know their voice as you would that of a familiar friend, a welcome guest in your home, a trusted partner. The guys and gals who call the hockey games for radio and television affiliates are perhaps, in their own niche way, the most famous of all the press box residents.

Which is funny, because we see them no more than you do. They are sequestered away in their broadcast booths, a row of closed doors that separate the loquacious from the lowly, the verbose from the vile. The only hint as to their presence or absence is a little green “On Air” light in the hallway, like the curtain behind which the Wizard of Oz hid. In fact, I once saw Washington Capitals commentator Craig Laughlin go into one of those booths, and when he came out, he asked if I needed a brain.

Come to think of it, that may not have had anything to do with wizardry.

The Scratched Player

The press box may be 99% scum and villainy, the liberal media run amok, but there is one last vestige of meritocracy and justice to be found: the scratched player. To be a healthy scratch in the NHL isn’t an honor, but being the worst professional hockey player is better than being the best reporter, so I suppose it evens out.

You can spot scratched players by their physique, straining against the seams of their tailored suits. That’s the only way you’ll see them, because they tend not to associate too much with reporters. Given some of the things we write about them, I totally get it. You wouldn’t want to go out for milkshakes with the guy who hit you with a car and fled the scene.

Scratched players are demure, and they tend to sit in packs like impossibly physically fit cape buffalo. Like the cape buffalo, they are to be attacked not head on but from the flanks or from behind, all the better to send surreptitious Snapchats to your buddies that say, “Guess whose bald spot that is!”

* * *

The press box is a wonderful place full of surprises, ambition, and Chex Mix. It’s also got a bunch of grumpy old farts and folks who’d rather be anywhere else on earth.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s just like any other workplace.

***

Jason Rogers knows the press box, from which he covers the Washington Capitals. You should follow him on Twitter.