Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Blast From The Past: Tagging Along

I am not a hockey fan. Back in 2001, that didn't matter.

I was in the final semester of graduate school at New York University, enrolled in a Sports Jounrnalism class. I was expected to cover one game of baseball, football, basketball and hockey. Baseball? Too late and too lazy to go for press credentials, I go into the stands of Shea Stadium, and watch Armando Benentiz blow yet another game against the Braves. Football? I covered a close game at Fordham? Basketball? Took a train as far as it could go before covering the Manhattan Jaspers beat the Denver Pioneers.

Hockey ended up being a little trickier. I had to do another assignment: follow a reporter as he covered his beat. After many attempts, I got to follow John Dellapina, who covered the New York Rangers for the Daily News. On December 6, 2001, I followed him before, during and after a Maple Leafs/Rangers game. The following article was my finished product, released today to commerate the return of the National Hockey League.

The date is December 6, 2001. The New York Rangers are set to play against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden. After a tepid 4-5-1-0 start, the Blueshirts have become a hot ticket, going 17-10-2-1, good for 37 points and the lead in the Eastern Conference standings.

While Daily News beat writer John Dellapina has a choice seat at MSG, not to mention the ability to talk to the Rangers before and after the game, he shows no sign of being egoistic. Of course, he immediately acknowledges that he invented the “FLY Line.”

“I have the written proof,” he said, in regards to the acronym of the starting line of Theoren Fleury, Eric Lindros and Thomas York. “It’s a rare line that works from left to right.”

The scene from the pressroom at the Garden is never totally serious. Dellapina jokes with his fellow writers as he prepares for the game. He kibitzes with Joe Benigno of WFAN about the NFL. He even takes part in a few online fantasy leagues with the other scribes. “You have goals, assists, penalty minutes, goals-against-average and when a goalie wins,” he explained. “It’s a fun way for us to razz each other, but it’s also a way to keep us interested in other teams. You get so absorbed into the Rangers, that you don’t pay attention to the rest of the league.”

For Dellapina, there is no better job. Growing up in Astoria, he was an avid Rangers fan. In college, he combined his love of sports and newspapers, although it took a while for him to realize there would be a career in sports journalism for him.

He worked with various small newspapers, including the Bergen Record and the Middletown Times Herald-Record. He landed with the Daily News as a beat reporter for the New Jersey Devils during the 1993-94 season, which ended when the Rangers defeated them in the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games. The following season, he became the beat writer for the Rangers, and he has been following the Blueshirts ever since.

While Dellapina likes his job, it occasionally wears down on him. Travel takes him away from his family: his wife, Joy, his son, Andrew (age 7) and daughter Abigail (4). The summer brings little rest, as he has to follow the Rangers and their offseason moves. “I’m on call like a doctor,” he said. “I’m going on vacation next week, but I have to take my laptop, in case the Rangers make a major move.”

On a typical day at the Garden, Dellapina checks in at 4:30 p.m. He makes himself at home at his desk in the pressroom, sifting through a folder of statistics and notes provided by the Rangers. Soon, he walks into the arena, stepping downstairs, through a tunnel, and into the entrance of the Rangers locker room. The players are prepping themselves for the game. A few of them use power tools to make their hockey sticks game-ready. The writers stand in the hallway, looking for a good pregame quote. Dellapina has a few words with Fleury, who has one ankle wrapped in a towel.

“Hockey players, to me, are the best people to deal with,” Dellapina says. “They’re very humble, very accessible, very agreeable. They’re good people to get to know. With other sports, that’s a down side of the job. With hockey, that’s a positive part of the job.”

So, what does Dellapina expect from the game tonight? “There’s not much of a rivalry, so they don’t hit each other much. Both teams have skilled players, so they can rev it up both ways.”

In their last game on Tuesday at Washington, Steve McKenna of the Rangers fought the Capitals’ Stephen Peat. And former Ranger Tie Domi, known mostly for his enforcer work, is on the Maple Leafs roster. “[Fights] don’t have an effect on the game,” says Dellapina. “The only effect they have is if one team is really dead – at home, especially – the guys start to fight and the building gets alive. If Tie Domi fights Steve McKenna, the crowd will have a good time, but I don’t see what effect that will have on the time.”

Before the game, Dellapina has a variety of plots to choose from:

1. Eric Lindros facing the team he wished to be traded to last season, when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers.

2. Bryan Berard’s first meeting against the Toronto. In March 2000, as a Maple Leaf, he was accidentally struck by a hockey stick, which nearly cost him his right eye.

3. The first meeting of the year between goaltenders Mike Richter (Rangers) and Curtis Joseph (Leafs), both of whom are expected to make their Olympic teams come February (for the United States and Canada, respectively).

4. Toronto head coach Pat Quinn seeking his 500th career victory.

Dellapina opts for the goalies. However, Joseph is resting tonight, and Corey Schwab is chosen to fill in. Also, Fleury is scratched from the starting lineup by a stomach flu that has been going around amongst the Rangers.

Before long, game time arrives. Dellapina and the rest of the press corps take their seats, in a section slightly above one end of the rink. Although the writers are handicapped by the view, which makes action on the far side hard to see, monitors placed on each table allow the scribes to follow the game.

The first two periods are rather hectic, with a little bit of everything for the sellout crowd. Fleury enters the game and scores a goal, but it is disallowed because an illegally high stick from teammate Andreas Johansson deflected the puck.

A few minutes later, Rangers captain Mark Messier scores his fifth goal of the season, putting New York up 1-0. The play is physical with a little roughhousing between the teams.

At the 2:12 mark in the second period, Johansson scores his eighth goal of the year, giving the Rangers a two-goal edge. The Maple Leafs respond, as Grant Roberts brings the Leafs to within one goal. Initially, the goal is credited to Domi, prompting the crowd to chant “Domi sucks! Domi sucks!” Roberts would strike again at 17:29, tying the game. Less than a minute later, Steve Corson puts the puck past Richter, putting the Leafs up, 3-2.

Between the second and third periods, Dellapina begins to write the article, or rather, a part of it. The bottom two-thirds of the story is constructed in this time, as the third period decides the tone of the lead and the first few paragraphs. “You write leads that say something is going to happen,” he says, “Then everything switches at the end, and you wind up saying, ‘Oh, it appeared this was going to happen.’”

Sometimes, this procedure is practiced on a grander scale, as Dellapina reminisced about Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final in 1994. “We all had our stories written about how the Rangers choked again and the whole 1940 jinx and then – bing, bing, bing – the game changes and Messier [who guaranteed a Rangers win to force a Game 7] becomes God. It’s amazing how it happens. There are still copies of the Daily News of what the back page would have looked like if [the Rangers] had lost.”

The third period begins with promise for the Rangers, as Vladimir Malakhov ties the score at 3-3. From there, everything goes downhill for the Rangers. The Leafs score three unanswered goals. One of them comes from Roberts completing a hat trick. The frustrations mount, culminating when Darcy Tucker of the Leafs slaps his stick into the back of Manny Malhorta and does not get penalized for it. Before long, a fight breaks out, an example of the ugly stereotype assigned by non-hockey fans. Domi, McKenna, and the Rangers’ Sandy McCarthy are given misconduct penalties, taking them out of the game. To add injury to insult, Messier is hurt, forcing him out of the game. The Leafs win, 6-3, tying them with the Rangers for first place in the Eastern Conference, along with the New York Islanders, who had won earlier against the Capitals.

Dellapina stops briefly in the pressroom before hitting the lockers. He steps into a small room, where other writers have sat down, preparing for Rangers head coach Ron Low to come out and field questions.

The meeting is brief. “Everything tonight was a one-on-one breakdown,” Low states. “We had guys we should have pinned them on the wall. They beat us often and that created two-on-ones in front of our net.”

Dellapina pitches a question: “Does it bother you to have a 2-0 lead in your building and have guys like Roberts and Domi just take it up a notch and have your guys not respond?”

Low replies: “I thought we played with a lot of emotion tonight in a lot of areas and we didn’t respond well in a couple of areas. We had a lot more jump than what he had in Washington, but we certainly didn’t play much smarter.”

Low attempts to take the pressure off Richter, trying to absolve him of giving up a season-high six goals. He says that Messier’s back is bothering him, and that they would find how bad it is tonight or tomorrow.

With the conference over, the writers go into the locker room, where the Rangers are in various stages of dress, ranging from undergarments to towels to suits. Since Sherry Ross, an assistant beat writer from the News, is not here, Dellapina is forced to stick with the Rangers, as opposed to going to the visitors locker room.

In several spots, individual Rangers talk to a cluster of reporters. Dellapina gravitates towards Lindros first, sticking his tape recorder near the center’s face (it is in good company; other writers use recorders along with notepads and pens.) Satisfied with the responses, Dellapina hits up Brian Leetch and gets a few quotes from him.

Soon, Dellapina joins a growing number of people, as they jockey for position. The location is the locker of Mike Richter. As Richter sits down, the press throng pushes in, trying to get a good quote. Richter is pleasant enough, at least for a goaltender that has given up eleven goals in his last two games.

Once he is done with Richter, Dellapina talks with Igor Ulanov, then with Fleury. He starts to leave, but makes a u-turn to talk with Messier. Turns out that Messier suffered back spasms, forcing him to leave.

Dellapina asks: “You think this is the first time in a while at home a team took it to you instead of you taking it to them?”

“I wouldn’t say they took it to us,” the captain replies, using an audible voice honed from two decades worth of experience. “I think we had the 2-0 lead, we did what we wanted up until that point they got the first goal. They made some plays that broke down our zone.”

Dellapina heads back to the pressroom. Inside, reporters are seated, playing and rewinding tape recorders, laptops opened and operating. A few view a tape of the game to check on minutia. Press releases appear on a table, covering statistics as well as game quotes. Dellapina has less than an hour to make his deadline. He has elected to make the Rangers’ defensive breakdown the focus of the story (the Leafs had gotten off 42 shots, the fourth-highest total Richter had to deal with this season).

“The Rangers had so much sustained success,” he says. “While people think that’s great for writers, it’s not. Anything that happens always the same a lot of times in a row is not good. This was a relapse back to some of the mistakes they were making earlier in the season, shows they’re not perfect, gives you something new to write about. Sometimes, the mistakes are more interesting than the success. Success is tough to keep describing over and over again.”

Dellapina files his story at midnight. He then departs for his Randolph, N.J., home. Traffic is light is this time of night, so the 40-mile commute will be hassle-free. He will head to Toronto with the press to follow the Rangers, as the team completes the home-and-home series against the Maple Leafs. After that, he will go on vacation with his family to Orlando. However, should the Rangers make a major move, Dellapina and his laptop computer will be at the ready.

“You’ve got to be willing to move,” says Dellapina about covering hockey. “You have to go out on your own, work in a really small place, some place far away from where you live. This business is hands on. The education’s great, you need it. You have really got to learn the job by doing it.”

Not bad, huh? I still have my one-day press badge. One thing I didn't mention was something really surreal...sharing an elevator with Mark Messier and his wife, among others. I mean, I'm not a hockey fan, but damn, I knew who he was. He was asking about plans for a new stadium, and I told him about the effort to bring the Olympics to the city (I had written an article or two on the subject back then). Anyway, I'm hoping Dellapina enjoyed his lighter workload this past year. With the Rangers stinking up the joint prior to the work stoppage, his life is about to get more hectic.

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