Covering the Heritage Classic: When a sports event becomes a news story

Reg HamptonWhen sports becomes news the rules of the game become blurred. CTV reporter and anchor Reg Hampton reflects on the peculiarities of covering The Heritage Classic in Calgary, and the frustration of dealing with the NHL machine. (Photos by Reg Hampton)

My recent assignment—the Heritage Classic outdoor NHL game at Calgary’s McMahon stadium—had me reflecting on the peculiarities of a news reporter covering what is essentially a sporting event. Obviously, this was much more than just a game. It was a major economic generator, and the relative novelty of an outdoor professional hockey game had the city buzzing. Hence I was covering the Heritage Classic as a big news spectacle, just as the sports reporters were covering it as a major sports story. For me, it was a privilege and a chore; fun and frustrating; enlightening and infuriating; and a reminder that professional hockey is a very large and protective industry.

It wasn’t the first time I had reported on the NHL. In Vancouver, when Canuck Todd Bertuzzi sucker-punched Colorado Avalanche player Steve Moore, breaking Moore’s neck and endibannerng his career, I was dispatched to General Motors Place. As a Canucks fan since childhood, I was thrilled to be exploring the back rooms of the team’s home rink and, despite the awful incident of violence that sent me there, I was eager to put my journalism experience to work. But I very quickly discovered that the sports media play by much different rules.

When I saw several of the Canucks players in the arena hallway I wanted to ask them about their teammate’s shocking attack, but it was made very clear to me that “No! You don’t approach the players!” Say WHAT!?! Apparently there’s some rule about only getting access after practice, and only when the dressing room door is opened. Whatever. At that point it was about time for the General Manager’s news conference, which was another eye opener. 

on the iceBrian Burke was at his bullying best, berating some reporters for having it in for Bertuzzi. The suspicious glances from the sports media made it clear the message was directed at the meddling outsiders from news. I couldn’t help but notice a lot of the sports staff was still munching on their free food. Within a day or two one of my news colleagues was harshly criticized, especially on open-line sports radio shows, for having the nerve to knock on Bertuzzi’s door for a comment.

Let’s see, one of the city’s most famous citizens breaks someone’s spine in front of a crowd of thousands, and a live television audience of many thousands more, and the media was too aggressive? Clearly this was an entirely different reporting paradigm. 

I was also drawn into the NHL’s world during the lockout of 2004/5 and, as I sat in Trevor Linden’s house, I again I found myself conflicted between my roles as a dispassionate journalist and a fan. At that time Linden was President of the Players’ Association, and I was there because the NHL had become another news story. The cancelled season wasn’t just a crushing disappointment for fans; there was also going to be a significant impact on the economy and the lives of many, be they cabbies, or sports-bar waiters, or arena staff, who rely on the games for their incomes.

vanSo there I was interviewing Trevor Linden in his living room. For a Canucks fan this was huge! I’m a married father of three, but I felt like a giddy school-girl inside when the tall handsome athlete recognized me and shook my hand with a “Hi Reg.” I told myself “Hey, Shirley pull it together!” and then settled in with some tough newsy questions like “don’t you guys make enough money anyway?” Secretly I was scanning the room looking for items to tell my Canucks-crazy friends about. 

I also felt some of that awe at McMahon Stadium, especially on the brutally cold morning when the Montreal Canadiens took to the ice for their first and only practice on the outdoor rink.  I was standing with my photographer John McCrimmon along the glass when I turned and saw the team marching right towards me. They were decked out in their iconic uniforms, only slightly alterJarome Iginlaed for the Heritage Classic, along with matching toques, and for the most part big smiles. There was Roman Hamrlik, Corey Price, Mike Cammalleri, and the gigantic Hal Gill. Assistant coach Kirk Muller – KIRK MULLER! –  glanced in my direction and remarked “reminds you of when you’re a kid!” Did we get that on camera? No? Oh well. John was getting some great shots of the players taking their first turns on the outdoor ice. The images of the Canadiens, the most storied franchise in league history, posing together under the bright blue Calgary sky would look great in my story. Later, after a free box-lunch, I was in the Flames dressing room getting comments, and resisting the urge to ask for a photo with Jarome Iginla. 

We also interviewed excited fans, got some tips on staying warm, and after some free sports-reporter pizza did “live hits” for our news programs and for our national news channel.  All of that was great fun, but there was also enormous frustration and incredulity over the seemingly arbitrary rules the NHL insisted we conduct ourselves by. 

For example, we were prohibited from setting up our live shot from anywhere but the parking lot in front of the stadium.  What burned me up was that one of our competitors had been broadcasting for a couple of days from inside—amidst the seats with a full view of the ice in the background. And that station wasn’t even the rights-holder of the game! The NHL apologized for misplacing our request for similar access, but then insisted it was too late for us to also get inside McMahon. Grrr.

On another occasion, as the temporary rink was still being constructed, one of our photographers was yelled at for trying to get a shot of the crew working on the ice surface. I said loudly, in a snarky tone, “how very welcoming of you!” and then regretted it.  Agroup photofter all, this was not a typical news scenario, and I was becoming resigned in my role. The NHL owned the event and could make up the rules as they pleased. A local news reporter with a bad attitude wasn’t going to change anything. Besides, hadn’t they bought my compliance with a free hat, shirt and mittens?  I guess I could have refused the gifts, but I didn’t. They are my souvenirs, and reminders that while sports sometimes become news, the two will always be quite different. 

Reg Hampton has been working in news for over twenty years, since 2006 as a reporter/anchor for CTV in Calgary. He is currently completing a Master of Professional Communication at Royal Roads of University.