When the game ignores your deadline: Freelancing to the buzzer

By Chris Fox

I’ve always known journalism can take you to some odd places.

I just never thought one of them would be an empty student union building at four in the morning. But there I was taking up residency on a tucked away couch inside the University of Guelph SUB, furiously writing a story about the second longest hockey game ever played, while stressing about the possibility of a janitor kicking me out onto the street.

After all, it was pretty cold out and being able to feel your fingers is somewhat integral to the writing process. Rifling through notes can become a gargantuan task when the wind picks up and the temperatures dip below negative 10. Crafting a witty lead can be even harder.

These are of course just some of the bizarre lessons you learn as a full-time freelance journalist. Another is that you never turn down a story or fail to deliver on what you promise. Reputation is everything. Actually, that last thing is kind of what had me playing the part of homeless journalist in the first place.

Earlier in the day I had received a call from an editor at the Kingston Whig-Standard. He was interested in coverage from game one of the Ontario University Athletics Women’s hockey final in Guelph between the Queens Golden Gaels and Guelph Gryphons. I’m based in Toronto, but will generally go pretty much anywhere for a story–so long as it’s possible to get back.

I checked to ensure there was a bus returning after the game. There was, and I said yes. The bus was scheduled to leave at 10:45 p.m. and with my deadline at 10:15 p.m. it seemed pretty reasonable.

As you may already know the Gaels and Gryphons ended up playing the longest college or university hockey game ever recorded. It was a six overtime affair that stretched on for five hours and fifteen minutes, ending at 12:52 in the morning—that’s only six minutes short of the longest hockey game ever played, a 1936 NHL classic between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins.

Suffice it to say I missed my bus and my deadline.

Now at this point a staff reporter would have gone to a hotel to get a night’s sleep on the company dime, then headed to the office in the morning to write up a report. As a freelance journalist my response was a little different.

I headed for a 24 hour restaurant to write, but I couldn’t find one and I ended up having to settle for an unlocked building an hour or two later. The game had become such a story the Whig-Standard wanted a front page feature for the following day’s paper. I would have little time to write during the day because I had already made a commitment to the Mississauga News, one that would to take me to Brampton for an 11:00 a.m. assignment.

It was now or never. So I wrote and wrote and wrote. Cold and tired I wasn’t thinking all that clearly, but I managed to craft a 1,000 word story I thought captured the emotion and historical significance of what I had just witnessed.

I made sure to save editing for later in the day when my head might be a little clearer and headed out for the bus station to catch a 6 a.m. ride back to Toronto. I ending up getting home just in time to shower, brush my teeth, and head out to my next assignment.

When I returned home for good at about 6 p.m. that night I did some quick tabulations.

I had gone 33 hours without sleeping and barely eating; I spent about two hours on the cold streets of Guelph and another two paranoid I’d be sent back out to those cold streets.

The weird part?

Given the chance I wouldn’t have changed a thing. As a journalist you want to cover big stories—I was the only reporter at the rink that night and there was no doubt this game became a big story around midnight.

There are plans to send the puck Morgan McHaffie fired into an empty cage to finally end the marathon battle to the Hockey Hall of Fame and I was the only one around to write the first draft of what transpired.

I was proud to be able to do that, regardless of at what cost the opportunity came personally.

No sleep? Whatever. Hours wandering in the cold? So. A 24 work day? It happens.

Really, it’s just part of being a freelance journalist, something an increasing number of us find ourselves doing whether by choice or circumstance. You make commitments to clients and you have to honour them whether your previous assignment ends on time…or 12 hours late.

Chris Fox is a full time freelance reporter living in Toronto. He has worked at both the Fredericton Daily Gleaner and Oromocto Post Gazette, but he is enjoying life without the safety net of a pay check for now. His work has also appeared in Maclean’s, the Ottawa Sun, the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal, the Moncton Times and Transcript, the Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal, Open File, the Toronto Business Times, the Mississauga News and the North York Mirror.