I arrived in Hershey last Thursday morning with the simplest of objectives: snapping a few pictures of the Bears’ annual outdoor practice. Mostly I wanted merely to escape the office for a day, to get out in the fresh air a bit and view, rather thoughtlessly and purposelessly, a pro hockey team’s traditional weekday drills, in a novel setting.
Instead, the Bears’ John Walton warmly greeted me by the glass, directed me toward a cup of coffee, handed me his microphone, and informed me that he was putting me to work: I was to interview Bears’ players as they exited the ice, while he held a camera, and help John generate audio and video content for use all about his burgeoning John Walton Hockey empire.
Suddenly, my modest mission became radically reoriented; for an hour on a late-winter weekday morning, while every other hockey blogger was Tweeting or drafting or . . . actually working in an office, I was going to play professional hockey communicator, as if I was attending something like a fantasy camp for would-be hockey communicators.
Except that this is precisely the sort of thing than can and does happen when you follow this organization and attempt to tell its story. It’s an organization whose communications and message-making mission is ever evolving, ever broadening, and if you just place yourself in its proximity you can’t help but get caught up in its fun.
But suddenly, in the immediacy of this moment, instead of just watching the Bears’ practice passively, I realized that I had no interview questions prepared, and little time really to prepare them; and JW was offering me no guidance, even when I asked him. Walton could have emailed me on Wednesday and tipped me off to his scheme, but I think perhaps he wanted our interviews executed in ad hoc fashion. Whatever, he approached the task with a spirit of amusement, and most especially with a spirit of inclusion. One I’ll never forget.
So I asked questions that came to me right as world-class hockey players exited the sheet and agreed to stop and chat with me. I wanted to have fun asking them, and I wanted the players to have fun answering them. I think they did. I know I did.
Walton then offered to spend his afternoon editing the videos individually and emailing all of them to me as individual files for use on OFB. By virtue of our using the Hershey Bears’ media equipment the products would be afforded an audio and video quality we at OFB had never known.
Approximately 90 minutes after the Bears’ practice concluded I was back in my Jeep headed back to D.C., and I spent the entirety of the two-hour drive marveling at my magical morning. In what other line of business communications could a rank amateur like me be engaged to participate as I just did, and sometimes do, with this organization?
On Saturday night the Capitals commemorated 35 seasons of hockey in D.C., and as distinguished Caps’ alumni were attending, I wanted to try and chat with a few of them to solicit their reaction to the amazing transformation of the team under Ted Leonsis. A few of the alumni competed in the Save the Caps campaign days; many played home games here before half-empty arenas. I really wanted their personal reactions to this Red tidal wave of great fortune now washing over the organization.
Most especially I wanted to try and chat with Calle Johansson. He I thought could not only give me interesting perspective on Washington becoming a hockey town but also share some feedback on how Nicklas Backstrom today is followed in his native land.
From the moment I expressed my interest in chatting up Calle Jo the Capitals PR staff activated on my behalf. Nate Ewell worked his Blackberry trying to track the defenseman down. Then Kurt Kehl, who heads up communications for the team, got in the act. “Let’s go find Calle,” he said to me during the second intermission. He fairly led me on a safari for the Swede, through various levels of Verizon Center, working his hand-held with team staffers to try and precisely locate the whereabouts of the all time leader in games played by a Cap. This was the head of communications for the Caps, making it his personal mission to track down an ex-Cap simply because some silly local blogger wanted to chat him up. Where else does that happen?
Eventually, after much perseverance and patience, we found the defenseman, and I got some great feedback from him. But could I have generated coverage of the commemorating evening absent a chat with Johansson? Of course. But to the Capitals, a blogger needing a source is an all-hands-on-deck kinda moment, apparently.
A hero in hockey to me is anyone who brings me to a new access point for the sport that renews or expands my passion for it. Sometimes it’s a player, sometimes it’s a PR pro, quite often it’s another blogger who simply indulges my outreach to talk puck and ends up improving my thinking during the engagement. The past week was a very good week to be on the hockey beat. Check that, it was a very good week to be on the hockey beat for the Washington Capitals’ organization.