The Payoff Pitch

Thanks to Hal G and his thumb for this dip into vanity

For those of you who have stuck it out over almost 10,000 words through the first seven installments of this Summer series, I thank you. For those who haven’t, take some time to retrain your brain into hockey mode, and browse back through the archives:

Part I, where the best laid plans of a hockey journey are wrecked before they even start.

Part II, where I tells ya how hard it is to forge your own path in sports media if you retain a sense of self, intelligence, creativity and originality and manage not to hit upon luck and good networking opportunities.

Part III, which is a tale of two Canadian cities and how I was able to navigate some rough waters, or not thanks to the unpredictability of family and French-Canadian biases.

Part IV, an intentionally provocative screed where I lay my grievances on the line, name names, incorporate humor that people completely missed and stake my claim to the elder side of the stats argument.

Part V, a return to light-hearted fare, intended for three people, but poignant nonetheless, recalling young broadcasters and their first championship assignment.

Part VI, where I expose all the calling cards of “professionalism” in the press box that I’ve seen firsthand, and the successful people who exhibit those wonderful traits.

Part VII, a tribute to my first legitimate venture in hockey, where I unexpectedly become responsible for more than just goals, assists, points and plus-minus.

Now here’s the payoff.

That long-coveted National Hockey League credential finally found its way into my pocket on November 16, 2005. To recap, that was Sidney Crosby’s second visit to Philadelphia, the one where Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher brutally wedged his stick into the Pittsburgh rookie’s motor mouth but saw the Pens’ budding star “with the game on his stick” score the winning goal in overtime on a breakaway in front of a national basic-cable audience.

It would have been the best feeling in the world if it was the signifier of having “made it” with a by-line and compensation, but I was there as an intern with Temple University’s WRTI as a requirement towards finishing off a Master’s Degree.

That meant: get in, watch the game, don’t rock the boat, get into the locker room, get sound and get back to 15th and Columbia to the station to dump the quotes into studio computers for morning clips before things got wild in the neighborhood. So, eternal thanks to Ricki Ptakowski for saving my bacon there.

There was no time for glamor, for rubbing shoulders, for awkward introductions to people who might have seen me for a few precious seconds over the last five years. My smile was as bright as a million-candlepower lamp, but completely contained on the inside. I had to prove I was part of the scene and explicit emotion ain’t the way to go.

What that piece of cardboard did afford me, was the opportunity to believe that if this was my only chance to stick, I was going to make sure that neither Gene Darling, nor wild horses nor the Pennsylvania National Guard could ever drag me out of the big time. I might not be a full-timer, but I was never going to give anyone a chance to think about revoking a credential with my name on it.

Eight years later, and that’s how I still treat things. I’ve gone from an AM college radio station to what was once the struggling second-fiddle in the Philly sports radio game, to an internationally-recognized wire service to a blog once told to not to get too close to the name of a beloved mascot, to this full-service hockey site and back.

While I wouldn’t go as far as some of my young colleagues and say game coverage at the NHL level is a privilege and not a right, a credential provided year-after-year no matter whom you write for is validation that you belong and have a right to be respected. You don’t get a swelled head about it, because there are plenty of people on the left side of the corridor who won’t cast a glance in your direction as they uphold their own secret writers’ code (look under section marked “Being There”), but when you’re there at all, it’s up to you and you alone to make it stick.

The most memorable event of that first night, was literally bumping into an old high school friend creeping around the press box and locker room running errands for the game-night crew. He’s a faithful SJU grad who I always pegged as strictly being a basketball guy, yet was interning with the Flyers’ PR department for his own Masters studies at Drexel.

He’s got a great story about a case of mistaken identity and an angry Peter Forsberg, but I’ll let Fearless Leader drag that out of him if he’s willing to reveal at a later time. Between the two of us, Ed Barkowitz from the Daily News and then-Delco Times writer ASF, we had our own mini-St. Joe’s Prep “mafia,” so I began to feel more at home.

Highlights of that first year include: listening to former Devils/Sabres forward and current scout Jan Ludvig — who defected to North America in the early 1980s from his native Czechoslovakia — speak like a native New Yorker with all the mangled syntax, angry inflection and perfect use of vulgarity and profanity when trading stories about his constant clashes with team personnel because “I was in America; nobody was going to <expletive deleted> tell me what to do, not after being under the Communists and in that refugee camp before I got here.”

Or seeing Keith Jones roaring down the press box corridor, then abruptly stopping when he saw me and asking why I didn’t work for the Phillies anymore (while I worked for MLB Advanced Media he’d often sit between me and John Finger, quizzing me about the Blue Jays’ chances while I had to attentively log every pitch) and me quipping right back, “I go where they want me, and more to the point, where they can pay me better.”

Hearing an injured Rangers defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, sitting about four seats to my left, trash almost every Flyer who took a shift in a 6-1 New York rout; Donald Brashear completely losing control and dominating the end of a Flyers-Capitals game right before the Olympic break with mayhem and violence; the groans of almost every writer on press row simultaneously after Freddy Meyer scored to tie a game against Carolina right before the trade deadline with less than a second to play in regulation; seeing Petr Nedved’s almost-constant thousand-yard stare; the stone-faced silence of the majority of scouts who sat in the upper levels contrasted with the constant chatter on ours below.

Now that I’ve graduated from intern to mic flag waver to actual writer and achieved the summit of the profession without taking the full circuit that I wanted to and that others have, it’s natural that I’m itching for the next step. Like sharks, who either move or die, it’s the bane of the existence of hundreds of fellow professionals who feel stuck or undeserving of their place or know they can offer more if only given the chance.

After the last lockout, my feelings towards the NHL itself have changed irrevocably and for the worse. Having logged almost a decade and a half in this business, you feel due for some luck and some more legal leafy green stuff to fall your way for your efforts. I still love the game, cherish the sport, but not the mechanism and the business. That seems to be where the vanguard of writing is headed and it doesn’t thrill me. I am a writer, not a journalist nor an analyst, which is simple enough yet still an uphill battle for recognition.

As of next April, it will mark 30 seasons that I’ve embraced the game and 15 since I graduated from Boston College with great experience and vague dreams of a gradually-progressing broadcast career. Those milestones would be a great way to either go out or be pushed into a realm I always believed was within my grasp and ability.

I’ve loved these days, and will cherish the memories, but after all the time invested and work accomplished, there’s a sense that not too many more of them lie ahead barring some special intervention.

Due to economic realities and time constraints, I’ll be stepping away from Flyers Faithful as of this weekend. It’s been a great ride for the last 2 3/4 years being given the chance by Marcello to grow and build and contribute to what was once a humble hockey blog, that is now a business and charity behemoth.

You can still find me at The Phanatic, where I’ve nested the last 6 1/2 years, and I’ll be promoting the new kids and their work here from over there. We’ll all have a tearful reunion the first Flyers home game that both entities are credentialed and when I show up to the next pub quiz fundraiser. I’ll also have a couple team previews on tap that will be nationally syndicated.

Thank the hockey gods there’s only 14 days left until it all begins again in earnest. For a season that felt like it just ended, this silence has been deafening.