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Catching up with Joe Dunman, the Mile High Hockey original

Nearly a decade ago, Joe Dunman was arguing lines and defensive pairings as the founding editor of this website. Today, he argues cases in front of the Supreme Court.

Minnesota Wild v Colorado Avalanche - Game Seven

lf you weren’t aware, Mile High Hockey will be celebrating it’s 10th Anniversary later this season. The site has changed hands a few times during its run, but in the beginning, there was only Joe Dunman—”Blogger Zero” if you will. Joe, eventually with the help of some friends—many whom you still know here today—built this community from scratch, into what we now love and enjoy today. We reached out last week to talk to Joe, currently a practicing lawyer and adjunct professor in his hometown of Louisville, KY. Our interview is what transpires below:

Tell us a little bit about the origins of Mile High Hockey. What was the environment like at the time for a sports blog? What was the reception like? Did you ever imagine it was something that would last all these years later?

I started sports blogging in early 2007 with a Blogger site called Dear Lord Stanley. You can Google it—it's the first site that comes up. Dear Lord Stanley was really just a place for me to sarcastically comment on hockey news. I had a day job but needed an outlet that combined my love of writing with my love of sports. By that time, sports blogging was starting to pick up steam. If you look at the sidebar (what was once known as a "blogroll" back in the day) of Dear Lord Stanley, I had linked to a very large number of other blogs that were active at the time. The blog had gained some popularity but by early 2008 I wanted to stop doing general hockey commentary and focus on my favorite team. There were a few other Avalanche blogs around, like Jibblescribbits and Jerseys and Hockey Love, but not many others. I wanted to start something bigger than those and was looking for a platform more conducive to networking than the usual places like Blogger.

By late 2007, Sports Blog Nation - a platform that worked identically to the then-very-popular Daily Kos—was starting to grow. They had filled out their lineup of baseball blogs but were looking to expand into hockey and other sports. But at the time the only hockey blog they had was the Sabres’ blog Die By the Blade. I reached out to Tyler Bleszinski, the founder of SBN, and asked if I could start an Avalanche blog on his network. He said yes, and Mile High Hockey was born.

The reception was positive and I immediately started to gain readership. My day job was boring so I was able to keep up with the Avs and post regularly. Even though I wasn't based in Denver (I've always lived in Louisville, Kentucky), people liked my commentary and my perspective on the team and it all really started to take off. Readership grew quickly and game threads got busy.

I don't remember exactly when it happened, but not too long after MHH started, I added Mike Thompson and David Driscoll-Carignan as regular writers. Both had done some Avalanche blogging elsewhere and we had really hit it off with each other. It was tough to produce all the content myself and they really filled the gaps. Sports Blog Nation became SBNation not too long after that and they updated all their backend architecture to really turn the site into something great. We were getting thousands and thousands of hits per month. Hundreds of comments on game threads.

It exploded.

I had suspected that SBNation would be a good place to get on early and my intuition was right. The guys behind it were smart and had vision and the network just blew up quickly. I'm a little shocked that MHH is still going strong but at the same time not really shocked. That said, it's incredible how great the site is now and I'm so proud to have launched something that so many great people have cared so much about for so long.

The post-lockout NHL was a frustrating time for hockey fans, but particularly Avalanche fans. How difficult was it to write about a team who was losing generational players like Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote knowing they still had a couple of good years left? Was the fan base optimistic at the time about a quick return to form?

The golden era of greatness that spoiled us during the late 1990s and early 2000s was just about over by 2007. A third Stanley Cup proved elusive despite big roster budgets, and all the great old vets were departing. But that transition was still easy to talk about because a lot was going on. Joe Sakic was still the captain, and Paul Stastny had just come on board and looked like he could be the future face of the team, which would have been fitting considering his hereditary ties to the franchise. Ryan Smyth, who had just had a career year, signed a huge deal as the hottest free agent in the league. The fan base, including myself and most of the MHH commentariat, was super optimistic. I don't recall real pessimism setting in until the next season when the Avs were the worst team in their division.

What have you been up to since you stepped away from your dictatorial duties at MHH? Do you still keep up with the team? If so, what would you be writing about the current state of affairs? Do you have a favorite current player?

In 2008 I got admitted to law school. I tried to keep up my production on MHH but I was working full time and going to class in the evenings and it just proved impossible. It was unfortunate because SBNation had really expanded and all the blog owners were starting to see some revenue sharing. But my hectic schedule forced me to step away more and more and before long I turned over the keys to David. He was my top lieutenant and a great writer (and a mature community moderator) and I knew I could trust him to keep the site going. He did a great job as the second editor in chief. I still posted off and on but for the most part my sports blogging days were done. I had to focus on my studies. I graduated law school in 2012 and started practicing law that fall after I passed the Kentucky bar. I joined the firm I had done some clerking for and started focusing on civil rights and constitutional law. In 2013 a couple of my colleagues and I took on a group of clients who wanted to challenge Kentucky's ban on gay marriage. We eventually ended up in the Supreme Court under the case name Obergefell v. Hodges, which some people might have heard of. Today I practice law and teach as an adjunct professor here in Louisville.

I still keep up with the team but it's tough because they suck so bad. They seem really doomed to mediocrity no matter what they do. There was that brief moment of greatness when Patrick Roy first started coaching, but since then it's been rough. I check the scores every night and watch a game here and there when I can, but I am not immersed in the team like I was a decade ago. My Cubbies won the World Series this year, so obviously baseball has been a bigger focus for me. I don't currently have a favorite Avalanche player. I initially liked Matt Duchene but he lets me down a lot. I'm still mad about the Stastny trade [ed. note: he was lost to free agency], to be honest.

That guy I loved.

Dunman on Stastny following the 2009 draft

What are you impressions about the current state of online sports writing? Did it head in a direction that you could have anticipated? Having been a big part of this growth, where do you see it heading next?

Sports writing is largely a commercial endeavor at every level now. It was hard not to see that coming, and to some extent I was hoping to ride the train a bit when I got on with SBNation in the early days.

Back when I started, sports blogging felt like a rebellious, underground thing. "Legit" sportswriters were still freaking out about Internet upstarts and teams were still hostile to the idea of letting mere bloggers start to occupy the press boxes and the after-game press conferences. One of my favorite memories of the old days is that time Bob Costas and Buzz Bissinger tried to ambush Will Leitch on Costas Now over his unsophisticated transgressions at Deadspin. The segment was ridiculous then and it's hilarious now. The extent to which "serious" sports reporters take themselves seriously never ceases to amaze me. Dude, you tell people about games that they can already watch for themselves! If you're not doing real investigative work, like blowing open shameful scandals like the NFL's ongoing effort to smother the horrible effects football has on its players, you're just not that important. That's OK, because it's fun to write about games and talk about sports, but don't take yourself so seriously.

It was inevitable that the "wild west of the Internet," the sports blogs, would get swallowed up by the American corporate juggernaut. Sports blogs drew lots of eyeballs, and advertisers eventually clued in to the hot prospects for monetization. Now SBNation is run by Vox Media, a multi-million dollar company partly owned by NBC Universal. Bleacher Report, which started as a less-refined rival to SBNation, is now owned by Time Warner. That wild west is all grown up and civilized now. The sports market is now totally inundated by commentary and social networking just like everything else. I honestly have no idea where it will go next, other than directly into our brains via nerve stem implant like all other media eventually.

What do you think about the statistical revolution in hockey? Are shot attempts, expected goals, and WAR stats something that would have been interesting to readers ten years ago? Is it good for hockey and hockey writing?

Statistics drive fan interest in pretty much all sports. Baseball, which I love for that reason, immediately comes to mind. Ten years ago I remember having most of the stats we now have in hockey, and though we poked fun at some of them (like Corsi) for rationalizing a sport that often defied easy categorization (unlike baseball and football, which have individual plays and opportunities different than the flowing sports like hockey and soccer), it was inevitable that geeks would dream up new ways to look at things—and it's great. One can be a sports fan without knowing a thing about stats, but for those of us who are nerds, too, having more is great. If nothing else, having more stats gives commentators more to talk about.

Finally, give us your short and long-term outlook for the Colorado Avalanche. Are the core players who they need to be? Are the prospects strong enough to give this team a boost in a year or two? Should Avalanche fans be excited compared to some of those dark years when you were covering the team?

Both the short- and long-term outlook for the Avs is bad. The core players would be who they need to be if the team was winning, but they're not. Every hot new prospect over the last ten years has consistently underperformed. Sure there have been bright moments and standout stretches, but for the most part, each rookie who is supposed to be the next big thing stutters and flames out. Duchene, Landeskog, even MacKinnon—all good players, all disappointments. You know how far back you have to go to find an Avalanche player among the top ten scorers in the NHL? 2006-07, when Joe Sakic scored 100 points. There hasn't been a point per game player on the Avs front end since Duchene scored 70 points in 71 games in 2013-14. Nobody has scored 60 points since then. Granted, it feels like the league is caught in another "dead puck" era right now, but the Avalanche "stars" just aren't cutting it. I'd like to see them get really aggressive in free agency. They can do better than ancient guys like Jerome Iginla (though he hasn't been all bad).

One big problem I wrote about even back then was the size of the league. The NHL is entirely too large. They could cut at least four teams and improve the quality of play and of players drastically. Alas, that won't happen, so the Avs have got to get smarter. They need somebody in the front office who can become the Theo Epstein of hockey, a guy who can identify those subtle features of great role players and build a solid, cohesive team that covers all the bases. A good coach wouldn't hurt, either.

Hopefully things get better before they get worse. Hats off to you guys who still plug away at MHH. It's a dark period and easy to get frustrated. All I can say is do what I used to do: keep your sense of humor and embrace each other as fans who are all suffering equally.

Thanks Joe for stopping by and staying in touch with the community you founded. We’re all grateful to have it!