On Saturday night, I kissed my wife goodbye and headed out to a local brew pub to meet up with a tall redhead. No, this isn't a letter you'd read in an adult magazine and the phrase "I never thought something like this would happen to me" will not be used in this story. In this case, the tall redhead was Adrian Dater, Avalanche beat writer for the Denver Post.
As many of you know, Adrian has ties to the small New Hampshire town I've called home for the last 15-20 years. He lived here as a kid, attending the same elementary school my son goes to now, and then later got his journalism degree here in town. We've talked a lot over the last couple of years about how ironic it is that two guys from Keene, NH would end up covering a hockey team 1,700 miles away.
Adrian was in town this past weekend visiting family and we finally got a chance to meet up in person. So, over a couple of hours and a couple of beers, we sat down to talk about all things Avs and All Thing Avs. While most of what we discussed will remain off the record (look at me throwing around the journalistic lingo!), I also had the chance to ask Adrian a few questions via email recently about his work as a beat writer. It's a long interview, so I'm splitting it up into two parts. Today, we focus on what it's like to be an NHL beat writer.
When did you know you wanted to be a sports writer? And what was it that attracted you the most to the job?
That's a tough question in some ways, and easy in others.
Tough, because even though I grew up loving sports and read the newspaper at a pretty young age and found that one of the few things I could get decent grades on in school had to do with writing, I really I had absolutely no clue what I was going to do with my life, even after getting out of college. I sold timesharing during college summers in Cape Cod. I screwed up and didn't take two courses I needed to get my degree in journalism in my senior year at Keene State, so I actually graduated a year after I was supposed to, in 1988. I sold timesharing in the fall/winter semester in Cape Cod and played a lot of pinball at Cape Cod Bowl. I also worked at a big inventory company, and I basically just guessed after a while how many things items were in a store. I remember there was this massive barrell of nails, and I was supposed to count every one and punch the total into this 1988 portable "computer" on my toolbelt and I was like "@$#$$ that if you think I'm going to count every single one of those tiny nails." That was my first and last night working for them. I then completed my two courses needed in the spring, living on the couch of a tiny apartment with two other guys, driving a 1979 Ford Fairmont, drinking a lot of Schaefer beer, eating a lot of chinese food on a credit card I would soon regret getting and generally having absolutely no frigging idea what was going to do when the semester was up. I was completely, 100 percent adrift. I remember meeting with a guy from the army or marines or some branch of the service, talking seriously about going to officer's school in Quantico, Va. I would have been the absolute worst military guy ever. Maybe not ever, because I've always had real short hair. But I don't do real well at times with authority figures. I would have done a lot of pushups.
I ended up going through a crushing, painful breakup with my college girlfriend, moving back home and working in a luggage store for two months in Concord, N.H. Then I got fired for being, basically, a horrible luggage store employee. I just couldn't impart to the Concord masses the absolute necessities of owning an American Tourister bag, and I damn well couldn't gift wrap.
Then I cracked up my car in a near fatal accident home from a weekend trip to the Cape. Then had to tell my stepfather that, um, well, that insurance I had on my car? Well, yeah, that was a lie. It was a long, loud trip home when he had to come pick me up off the highway in Andover, Mass., that night. Basically, he laid down the law to me that night and another one soon after that I had to get my act together, "start thinking about a career." I always knew that I felt comfortable writing things down, and had this kind of inner voice that seemed to come out on paper. But I really had no idea about how one would even get in the newspaper business. I mean, did you have to know how to mark what a verb, noun and predicate was in every sentence before you can be hired? Because I didn't really know. So I had this vague idea of maybe "doing something using the printed word. That's really the extent to my level of thinking.
My stepfather was/is a no-nonsense guy who was this brilliant math/computer guy from Dartmouth. It was always a little intimidating for me, but I remember when he lit into me, that I started to want to, indeed, get my act together. I've always had a bit of a "OK now you've pushed me too far, now I'm going to make it my life's mission to prove you wrong" kind of thing, so I got up the courage to just walk into the only paper in Concord, the Monitor, and basically just "ask for an application." I filled it out, and a lady actually met with me, looked it over and said she might have a job for me, in the pre-press department. That meant proofreading every ad and every classified ad for correct spelling and overall specifications of the ad. I wasn't interviewing Larry Bird, but I was in the newspaper business. And, while it was pure drudgery work a LOT of the time and I got paid next to nothing, it wasn't a bad way, I came to later realize, to get into the business - even if your goal is to be a hotshot reporter. This was still the late '80s, mind you, so I saw how pages were laid on, by hand, in the backshop. I saw how headlines came out of the linotype machine. I even got to type a few of them when the crusty old-timer who'd been doing it for, like, 40 years, let me do it - and it was as thrill to see the paper the next day and say "I typed that headline."
I saw how the back end of the business worked, but of course I wanted to learn more about the front end, the newsgathering part. So one day I mustered the courage, again, to go into the managing editor's office and just say "look, I have a journalism degree, I think I can write some coherent stories and I think sports is the area I'd be best at."
Instead of tossing me out of his office, he actually politely listened, and before long he gave me a shot to go out and report some freelance stories in sports.
I felt like I'd made it and was loving doing it, and the bosses seemed to like me. But then the economy started tanking around New England, and there were some cuts made around the paper, with my pittance freelance income slashed away. So, I was then about to quit the paper and move to a place I'd visited the year before - Denver - and loved it. Then the paper essentially fired me right before I was going to quit anyway. In a sense, it was good for me, though, because I got to collect some unemployment from N.H. while I made my way out to Denver and tried to start over. The money helped give me a little breathing room, even though I did some really off-the-wall jobs when I got out there, like calling people for a trash company and telling them their bills were overdue. I delivered some newspapers and even signed people into houses for sale when they were about to take a tour.
I then got up my next bit of courage, and walked into the offices of the Denver Post and asked to meet with the high school sports editor, taking along my few precious "clips" from the old Monitor gig. The editor, Neil Devlin, said he didn't have anything for me and wished me luck on the way out. I was crushed. A week later, he called, and offered me a gig taking prep scores over the phone. I leaped at it.
Once I was in the building working, I had this strange feeling somethind would work out for me. And 19 years and thousands of published stories later, it did.
So if you really look at my resume, it looks like I had everything so perfectly planned out: went to college, got a journalism degree, wrote sports for the college paper, graduated in spring of '88 and by the fall of '88 was at a paper in a state-capital city with a paper that had - and still does a - real good reputation. I worked there until 1991, even doing a little sports writing for a while at the end, and by the winter of '91 I was writing for the Denver Post's sports section, in the prep department, progressing eventually to an NHL beat.
Simple and easy, right?
The truth is, I had no CLUE how to do any of this and some things fell into place for me at the right times. I'm fortunate and grateful.
Who are the writers – sports or otherwise – that you look up to?
I'm glad you asked me that David, because it not only allows me to get a little nostalgic back to my beloved youth, but it allows me to suck up to the people I name, and maybe they'll see it and give me a favor some day.
Well, first off, the book "Revolutionary Road" by Richard Yates is, I believe, the best written book I've ever read. It was unreal, and made me feel extremely inadequate as a writer.
But for sports writers, people who know a little about me know I was a Boston Globe junkie, reading faithfully from the early 1970s on through to about '91 when I moved from Concord to Denver. So, yeah, I thought Peter Gammons was the bomb and Ray Fitzgerald was all that and Leigh Montville could bring it. But my favorite of all was always Bob Ryan, who wrote great Celtics game stories and had probably the best access of any sports writer to my all time sports hero - Larry Bird. I was a Bird freak. So anytime Ryan had a Bird story in, say, the Sunday Globe, it got awful quiet in our house, because I would pore over every single word like I was studying for the Bar exam. I still remember reading my first Ryan column in 1976, one about Charlie Scott and Paul Westphal, from the NBA Finals of that year. It's when I started to notice the guy who wrote the story, you know? Not just who the story was about.
The hockey writers I look up to now are Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated and Kevin Dupont of the Globe. Farber has a lot of great plays on words in his stories, something I've always enjoyed as a reader, and Dupont has that kind of professorial style I like, but not one that's too stuffy and dull.
Could you describe the "average" day of an NHL beat writer?
Lots of variables. I'll try to break it down into some variables:
1. home, non-game-day: roll out of bed about 8-9 and go to practice and write a feature story from the day's doings. Maybe it's human interest, maybe it's stats-related, maybe a combo of both, and any other stuff that might pop up during a day. Lots of times, I thought I was done with a work day, only to get late word of a trade and have to start all over again.
2. home, game-day: roll out of bed around 9, get to the rink for the morning skate to either get "notes" for the paper or, now increasingly, blog video material. Go back home, maybe write the early notes thing, maybe not, goof off for a while then go back to the rink for the game. Watch game, write a first edition game story on game (due right as buzzer rings), run down to locker room, do interviews with everyone and then come back up and start a whole new story. Get it in by 11 at the latest. Go home, write post-game blog.
3. Road trip, non-game-day: Get to airport, get on flight and hope it doesn't crash on way to destination. But seriously, I'm a bit of a nervous flyer still, even after all these years, so it's always a bit of a stress test for me. Once there, have dinner somewhere, relax, see the city a little if you can. I know the ins and outs of most major city in the country, if you think about it. Not all, but most. And it's kind of a weird thing sometimes, when you lay in your own bad back home sometimes and you think, "Wonder how the serivce was tonight at the Earl's on Robson Street in Vancouver tonight?" or "how was the traffic on Memorial Drive in Calgary?"
Next day: Roll out of bed in a hotel room, check to see if wallet is still there (joke). Go to practice to get that priceless feature story.
4. Road trip, game-day: go to morning skate, and pray that something - something - happens. It never does though. Morning skates are pretty brutally boring, but you gotta go. Get the notes done, blog some more back in the hotel and then maybe get in a workout in the hotel health center. If there's still time before the game, maybe pop half an ambien and grab a catnap. Go to game, cover it just like a home one.
The Rocky Mountain News folded just about a year ago, leaving the Denver Post as the main source of print coverage of the Avalanche in the area. Does losing a big competitor like that make your job any easier? Or is there more pressure to make sure every story gets told?
Hmm, complicated question. Yeah, maybe it has made my job a little easier. But easy doesn't do well in a sports beat situation. What does well is thriving conflict and competition for the best scoops. That's better for the reporter and better for the readers.
So, if you really want to know the truth, the fact is that it's made my stress level go down some with the Rocky being gone. But that doesn't mean that I'm a better reporter.
But, really, I don't worry about myself too much in that department, because I've always been pretty focused on getting any scoop I can find out there really quick, whether there's competition or not. I do feel this kind of "responsibility" thing now, though, to make sure I'm giving Avs fans the "best" they can get. I know that most general fans are probably reading my stories, maybe mine alone, so I want to definitely have them come away feeling "I think he's up to speed on this team, and then some."
It was a shocker when the News left. It left me with a lot of conflicting emotions, as I wrote in a blog right after it happened. In one sense, it was the thing we all kind of worked for at the Post, to be the last paper standing. And yet, when that happened, it created new feelings of added responsibility to your shoulders and just a feeling of "Is this it? This was the winning part?"
I'm sure we are going to face new competitive challenges in this digital age, so I don't feel complacent at all.
That concludes the first half of the interview. Tomorrow, we'll run the second half that touches more on the specifics of covering the Colorado Avalanche.