Yesterday, over on Pension Plan Puppets, Jonathan wrote an excellent piece about how his experience of hockey changed as a fan the moment he started to write about it, and more to the point, how it changed the way he watched the game for the better.
It is a superb post, and you should go read it now if you haven't already.
The best writing on this site is often that which strikes a chord in the reader, for better or ill, or creates discussion. Jonathan's piece did that with me.
It made me. too, reflect on how a sport that I initially only started watching as the worst kind of homer fan changed irrevocably for me once I decided that I wanted to do more than just sit in the stands every game - I wanted to be a part of sharing that game with other people.
That change has been creeping, it's been dramatic...and although it's worked through some tough lessons, it's (I hope) made me better at what I do.
Jonathan says that becoming a hockey writer changed the way he watches games - and I agree. But I'd go further than that...I think writing about hockey can change your relationship with the sport in far deeper ways than that. It has me.
In short, it's changed me from a hockey fan, who arguably experiences the sport through a lens of fandom with his favorite team, to a fan of hockey. And that is both a good and a bad thing.
A bit of background here. My hockey coverage experience didn't start with the NHL. When I came to write for Chowder I'd already spent several years working in both hockey writing (as a self-starting blogger) and as an Internet play-by-play guy for my local team, the Coventry Blaze, who play at the top level in Britain, the UK Elite League.
My experience was similar to Jonathan's in that I just kind of fell into covering hockey...essentially, nobody was writing about British hockey - certainly the blog/media scene in Britain is so small even today that everybody knows everybody else and the fan and media market is INCREDIBLY nepotistic. Imagine "Mean Girls", but on the scale of a nationwide sports fandom, and that's how British hockey works. As long as you're saying and doing the right things...you're fine.
I am incredibly lucky genetically in that I was born with a mind that could recall ephemeral data around something I am interested in...I don't know why, but one, maybe two looks at a team's roster (particularly in the UK EIHL, where rosters are usually around 20 players and there are only 10 teams) and I can instantly memorise it.
I've also watched hockey in the fashion of a PBP commentator for many, many years...even in my first flushes of hockey fandom I knew the danger players on teams, sought out statistics, and wanted to learn as much as I possibly could. I sought patterns and nuances in play, agonised for hours over line combinations and types of player. It helped that I've played for almost 20 years now (only at rec hockey hack level, but still...), so could see every move from both a fan and player perspective. It used to frustrate me beyond belief when fans shouted "he should have done that easily" at a player not taking a speeding puck on his stick perfectly while charging through traffic to place it home...because I knew how bloody hard this game was to play well.
In short, I was as close to the stereotype of an obssessed fan as you can imagine - and my match reports and writing reflected that. I began to build myself a reputation and slowly this hockey writing/watching thing went from being a fun diversion to something that consumed my life.
Then came jackpot - being asked to call live games on my home teams' web broadcasts. This, I thought at the time, was my dream job. Now I could be a fan and get paid to do it!
The trouble is...I quickly learned that being a great commentator and being a rabid fan of a team don't go well together. Look at the complaints that certain broadcasters in the NHL get for being "homers"...in broadcasting, as in indeed in writing, there's an expectation that the best writing has to be objective.
And so I learned to park my fandom. In fact, I effectively switched it off. This wasn't the team I cheered for...this was my job. Emotion couldn't come into it.
As I called more games, and wrote more, the number of people curious about what I had to say grew - and this, too, began to weigh on me. I was conscious of the fact that I was a key factor in these people's game experience and interpretation of the game...and it had to be fair. I had to call and write what I was seeing, whether it was good or bad. That meant that my hockey fandom (in terms of team allegiance) pushed itself deeper and deeper inside. I actively surpressed it in the pursuit of objectivity.
Unfortunately, in the small, closeted world of British hockey, where team bias is all and "we all support the team" for good or ill, objectivity is rare and not that prized an attribute, often by fans but especially by team owners.
During my time commentating on Coventry Blaze games, I was told on several occasions to ignore possible incidents in the game - including one time where I was effectively told "a player on the opposition is going to "get his" tonight - if you see anything happen off the puck, don't mention it in case the league see it" - also physically threatened by players and team staff for something I'd said and written about games for "criticism" that they felt was unfair.
One night in a pub, I had a high-ranking member of the team's front office drunkenly grab me around the throat and ask if I was "still going to call games like I had been", before spending a long time telling me that I knew nothing about hockey, throwing the vilest sorts of insinuations about my sexuality around and...oh yes, threatening to break into my house-something that was later passed off by the team as "drunken banter".
While writing about the British Elite League I also regularly received abuse from some other EIHL team officials who would then badmouth me at every opportunity publicly up to and including mental illness jokes and homophobic insinuations (although, conversely, I also received great support from others, which underlines just how small and personal this can get),
I also received physical threats from members of my own team's fanbase, and abuse from anonymous accounts became pretty much a daily event. There was also the incident when players won a championship and seemed to care more about publicly mocking me on Twitter than actually celebrating the achievement. This from my own team, remember.
That eventually pretty much killed any wish I had to watch the Elite League as anything other than a neutral observer.
Now, obviously I'm not saying I'm the only hockey media person who's ever been subjected to any kind of attack - but you can't go through an experience like that without having the way you watch the game changed irreversibly.
In short, it utterly killed any fandom impulse I had, at least with regard to my native league. Starting to write about it began to see my fan instincts surpressed...actually seeing what happened to people who covered the EIHL objectively killed it.
What I thought was my "dream job" effectively destroyed my emotional connection to hockey in my native country.
Now, when I write about any team, I write as a dispassionate observer. I watch games as a dispassionate observer, looking for trends and patterns, coldly analysing the play. Whether it be NHL, European or international, I watch in what I refer to as "writer mode"...I'm watching the game without the emotional connection dialed right down low - a situation 20-year-old me would have thought unthinkable.
This has some benefits. It means that it doesn't matter what the jersey color of the player who pulls the amazing deke, great save or dirty penalty move is. It doesn't matter who's involved in a play situation or what that player is wearing...the emotional impact is something that, for me at least, is something that now has to be carefully filtered and controlled.
I've also found that it has increased my passion for the game itself. Sometimes, cutting off any team allegiance means that you can enjoy hockey for what it is...the greatest game on earth, no matter which two teams happen to be playing.
But it does, occasionally, mean that I wonder if I should be reacting more joyfully or happily to something.
And It makes me wonder whether or not this increased knowledge of the game and insight - and the joy of being able to share it with others - that so many gain from hockey writing takes a toll.
Whether that toll merely be in time and effort or whether it be at the price of having your mindset warped and changed from that of a joyful fan into something a little more cynical, a little more world-weary, and occasionally opening you up to the worst of hockey culture, fandom and attitudes, our game will take it.
Now, I'm not saying hockey fans can't write about their team unless they cease to become fans...it's the passion and joy in fandom that leads to some of the greatest writing - SBN NHL is proof of that.
However, what I am saying is that hockey writing, no matter who you are, changes your outlook on the great game we love. Unconsciously, it changes the way you process games, whether it be in the positive way Jonathan describes (your understanding of the game improving and widening) or in mine (exposure to some of the more unsavoury elements of fandom killing your emotional attachment to a team you love).
Now, writing about the NHL, I am beginning to rediscover that fandom - though perhaps the hardest thing is learning to accept it and allow it back in without the fear that it'll compromise the writing.
Despite all the above, I wouldn't change my experience of hockey writing for the world.
After all, it's still one of the best jobs in the world. It's just a job that, like the game, will leave its mark on you.
What that mark is, you'll never know till you get it.