Trying out a dream: My time as a fan-turned-journalist

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Whittaker press 700

Whittaker press 700

Editor’s Note: As the old saying goes, there’s no cheering in the press box. From the moment he first set foot on the ninth floor at TD Garden until the day he decided to go back to simply being a fan of the Boston Bruins again, Wayne Whittaker never once broke that golden rule every sports journalist must follow. From Game 7 heartbreak to Stanley Cup jubilation, it wasn’t always easy. A longtime friend and colleague of those of us here at Along the Boards, Wayne’s story is more than just a goodbye. It’s a chance to share how much his time as a credentialed writer meant to him and his family, and an opportunity to express gratitude for the whole experience. Take it away, Wayne.

First off, let me get something off my chest. On Jan. 7, 2012, after the Vancouver Canucks had defeated the Boston Bruins in a chippy Stanley Cup Final rematch, I spoke with one of the Sedin brothers about their victory. To this day, I have no idea which twin I was talking to.

I had print/web credentials with the Boston Bruins from December of 2010 through October of 2013. That means I had access to games from the press level, as well as post-game interviews with the players and coaches. It’s probably one of the coolest things I’ll ever have the opportunity to do, and I felt like a fraud the entire time.

I grew up in Southeastern Massachusetts as a giant Bruins fan, but really didn’t develop an interest in writing about them until around 2007. I was living in Boston, going to Berklee College of Music, and regularly attending Bruins games from the $10 balcony seats. I had a lot of opinions and, for whatever reason, I decided that others might find them interesting.

Luckily, I already had a few friends who were writing for various media outlets, and it was through them that I became involved TheHockeyWriters.com. After I got the gig, I almost immediately contacted Mike Miccoli, the other Bruins writer. Mike was insanely nice enough to offer splitting the season’s worth of press credentials with me.

It was like I hacked into the system without ever really trying.

The first game I covered was Dec. 7, 2010, against the Buffalo Sabres. I put on what can only be described as job-interview attire and made my way to TD Garden. After getting my credentials, passing through security and finding my way upstairs, I spent the next four hours trying to act normal.

It was difficult.

I don’t remember much about the game itself other than the Bruins won in overtime. Immediately after the game, I followed the herd of actual reporters down to the locker room and joined a few media scrums around Mark Recchi, Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas. After writing a quick piece for the website, I slowly left the building unsure of how many more opportunities I’d have to do something like that.

As it turns out, I’d have quite a few over the next three seasons, as I’d go on to have this access during some of the best years in Boston Bruins history.

Surprisingly, I was able to keep my cool throughout and blend into the crowd. I knew the game of hockey, had some friends who were already at press level, and eventually felt comfortable in my role as blogger and closeted fan. I was able to interview players like Sidney Crosby, Martin Brodeur, Joe Thornton and Jaromir Jagr, attend tense/hilarious John Tortorella press conferences, and (at 6-foot-4) tower over Nathan Gerbe in the visitor’s locker room.

But interestingly enough, my favorite memory that my press pass was responsible for was not hockey-related.

In March of 2011, I visited my grandfather for the last time. He was at the very end of his life and having a hard time remembering familiar names or faces. When I walked into his hospital room, he was already surrounded by family members and had apparently been fading in and out of sleep for most of the day. I said hello, and he perked up a little bit, squinted his eyes and looked at me with the concentration of a man determined to have one last conversation with his grandson. He finally gathered his thoughts and said, “So, you’re writing for the Bruins, huh?”

Alfred Whittaker died on March 17, 2011, just three months prior to the Bruins winning their first Stanley Cup since 1972. The 2011 Cup run was so healing for myself and for my family– my dad in particular. It was never discussed, but there’s no denying that my dad felt his own father may have been pulling some strings with the hockey gods to help the Bruins get through three Game Sevens that spring.

Whenever I arrived at the Garden to cover a game, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I’m not a journalist, and I’ve never claimed to be. There’s a lot of integrity in journalism and I completely understand that these guys would want to protect their profession from the drooling loud-mouths they imagine all bloggers to be. But honestly, the lines between the two professions have become so blurred it can be incredibly hard to tell the difference.

The assertion that only those who graduated with a degree in journalism have the ability to responsibly cover sporting events is beyond ridiculous to me. Sports journalists seem to have an inferiority complex typically shared by hockey fans in general. They feel that they’re always fighting for respect, and they’re afraid of being misrepresented by the masses. This fear appears to be completely self-conjured. In my mind, sports journalism should be closer to music journalism. Do you think music critics are terrified that someone will find out they’re big fans of the band whose show they’re reviewing? Probably not. They’re probably far more busy soaking in the experience to try and defend the honor of their profession from phantom attackers.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a Bruins fan. It’s part of my identity, and has been for as long as I can remember. The June 16, 2011 issue of the Boston Globe, featuring the bearded and screaming face of Zdeno Chara hoisting the Stanley Cup, is framed on my living room wall. I paid $400 for a ticket to Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011 (one of two playoff series I opted out of press credentials for, fearing that I wouldn’t be able to conceal my true identity). Yet when I attended the 40-plus games that I covered in Boston, I was able to keep my fandom in check and confine any emotional outbursts to a strictly mental capacity.

In my bedroom, there’s a small wooden box which holds every press pass I was granted. I’ve never erased a file from my voice recorder, and I still have the stat sheets from the majority of games I covered. These are little items that will only appreciate in sentimental value the farther away I drift from my hockey blogging past. Many of the other young writers and bloggers I chatted with at the games were consummate professionals with aspirations of becoming career sports journalists. There’s no doubting many of them will succeed. I, on the other hand, was just happy to be there. I had seen what being around the game too much can do to a person’s enthusiasm towards it. So many mainstreamers looked miserable being at the rink. What’s the point? When I decided to step away from blogging in November of 2013, it was because I never wanted to feel comfortable.

There are things I’ll never forget from my experiences on Level 9. The first game in Boston following the marathon bombings in 2013; Patrice Bergeron’s double-overtime goal in Game 3 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals; the now-famous and fight-filled early February 2011 tilt between the Bruins and Habs. But what was truly embedded in me from those nights was the feeling of excitement I got entering the Garden before every game. I feel as though I’m one of the few people on Earth that got to try on a dream before they decided to chase after it, and I’m so thankful I was afforded that opportunity.

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