Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Harrington: Part Two

The next installment of my chat with Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News. Again, I'm in italics and Mike is in non-italics.

You mentioned the Flyers marring your childhood in 1975. A lot of people might not realize that you were born and raised in Buffalo, right?

Born in Buffalo, raised in Amherst, Sweet Home High, Canisius College, the whole nine yards. I played hockey in Amherst house leagues for seven years too. Went to Sabres hockey school at old Holiday Twin Rinks in the 70s. Fred Stanfield got on my case one day for being tired. Told me to "get tougher."

I take it you were a Sabres fan as a kid. How much were they a part of your childhood?

In the early-mid '70s, the Sabres were bigger than the Bills, who mostly stunk and were OJ and nobody else. At the Farewell to the Aud thing in November at the Convention Center, I bought a program to the first game I ever attended, 3-1 loss to Chicago on Dec. 9, 1971. We had half a season ticket and I started going regularly in the '73-'74 season.

I'm taking a lot of pictures of the Aud demolition and it's tugging at me because of all the things I saw there. High school and Canisius basketball games, Braves games (I was a Junior Brave -- if you're over 40, you remember those). And all those Sabres games in Section 25 of the Blues.

Any favorite players or memories?

I saw a ton of great Sabres games. All those old ones with the great Montreal teams, some of the playoff games (did not go to any in '75 unfortunately but got to several others in the '70s and the '80 semifinals), was at the '78 All-Star Game and the '82 game where Gretzky broke Espo's record and Perreault had a hat trick the same night.

A wild one people forget - 1976 game against the Kansas City Scouts, featuring a bench-clearing brawl and the Scouts getting just 8 shots (a record that still stands). Steve Durbano gets the tar beat out of him by Lee Fogolin and has to skate off the ice for repairs. Holding an ice pack by his head, he whips it about 30 feet at Fogolin in the penalty box. Danny Gare and all the Sabres pile off after him while a lineseman desperately tries to hold Fogolin back. Ah, old-time hockey. Folks, that '07 Ottawa brawl was a wuss brawl by comparison!

Players - Gotta like the French Connection of course. But I really liked Jim Schoenfeld and Jerry Korab too. Big, tough defensemen. Don Edwards is the best forgotten great goalie in Sabres history too.

When you were first offered the hockey beat, was there any kind of moment where you thought, "The Sabres! Sweet!" Did you think at all about covering the team of your childhood? Or were you far enough removed from that time that it was just another assignment?

Didn't think for a second about the whole covering the childhood team thing. It was all about internal journalism issues, e.g. different travel requirements and how they would affect the family, different job pressures, deciding whether to take the leap and lose 15 years of college hoop sources, who would I be working with etc.

You didn't think about covering the Sabres after watching them for all those years at ALL? I think that's weird.

Nope. Didn't think about covering the Sabres that way at all. Thought about it strictly from the journalism standpoint of how I would do the job. I can do the Sabres, the Bills, the Bisons, the Toronto Blue Jays (my favorite team) and be completely objective about it. That's a trained skill.

I didn't expect it to color your objectivity or anything like that. It just seems like you know, that kid who watched the Sabres would peek out enough to say, "Wow, I'm covering the Sabres! That's awesome!"

It helps that it's not the old players and it's not the Aud. They had me cover one game in 1991. I was only 26 and I was so flipped out I hardly remember the game. I had never been in the press box or the Sabres locker room. They had an emergency and needed a fill-in. I did a good job but I wasn't ready as a reporter or emotionally either.

When I started last year the Sabres fan was totally buried. I had done ECF games in '06 and '07 and it was buried then too. Then it was like covering a major event, not a Sabres game. No problems.

I find it interesting that you keep saying oh, it's no problem, it doesn't affect my objectivity because that's not what I'm getting at at all. To me it just seems like it would be totally normal for you to look down at the stands and think, "Wow, I can't believe I'm up here now." Since you've been on the Sabres beat have there been any moments when you've thought, "I can't believe this is really happening." Have you met any of the players you watched growing up? Had any interactions with people otherwise involved in the organization that kind of take you back to that time?

I have not had any real interactions with any of the former Sabres except for Rob Ray and Mike Robitaille, who are both fabulous guys and have just as much hockey insight in person as you see them offer on TV. The one perhaps "thrill" of taking on the Sabres beat has been talking to Rick Jeanneret and Harry Neale. They have oodles of hysterical stories from seasons gone by. And the best thing is they're just regular guys who love the game. It would be interesting how I'd be the first time I'd have to talk to, say, Gil Perreault or Rick Martin.

So if the Sabres win a Stanley Cup while you're on the beat, there's no part of you that would be jumping up and down, going crazy?

If the Sabres win the Stanley Cup while I'm on the beat, not one part of me would be jumping up and down celebrating the game. My entire thought would be, "Holy cow, what a great story this is, what a story for the ages for the city." And then my next thought will be to be aware of what time it is for deadline.

But still, I'm human. It's just that I think the reflection on how cool everything was might come in a day or a week once I would start to decompress. I've felt that way on many things I've seen. Things like the 2001 World Series, the 2004 ALCS, some Final Fours, couple MAAC tournaments, Bona-Kentucky game in 2000. When you're in the moment, you're thinking about the story you're working on and your mind can't wander to anything else.

So if the Sabres win the Cup, I'll be working on my stories and the folks tipping cars and setting bonfires on Chippewa Street can go about their business and not worry about me joining them.

Okay, logically I understand this. You're obviously serving a very different role at a game that I am. But I will confess that from my point-of-view that doesn't seem like a very fun way to watch sports AT ALL. Do you ever watch any kind of game with a clear rooting interest? Do you go to sporting events just to kick back and have fun? When you do, do you cheer and boo? Or is it difficult for you to get into that frame of mind now?

I no longer have any real rooting interests and I admit that's kind of sad. But at the same time, I actually enjoy sports more. If I'm at a game as a fan, I might cheer good play by either side. I might boo an official acting too blind for my liking. But that's about all. My mood isn't compromised by a team's loss or poor play because, even when I'm off, I'm still in analysis mode. What would I write? How interesting were the quotes? What were the key factors to the game? What time is it (always a key)? When Kansas hit that three to tie Memphis in last year's national championship and forced it to overtime, I sat in front of my TV thinking, "Wow, this is an amazing game we'll always remember and about 600 guys are screwed cuz they just hit massive amounts of delete keys."

Do you think always being in analysis mode sometimes puts you out of touch with your audience though? I wouldn't say this about you, but I think a lot of sportswriters have clearly forgotten what it's like to have your mood compromised by the success of a team and sometimes I think it affects their writing. A sportswriter shouldn't just be writing to make a fan happy, of course - it's your job to point out things like when the players we love are playing poorly or the coaches we adore aren't doing their jobs well - but one of my biggest complaints about TBN - and I won't name any names is that I sometimes feel like I'm being lectured for well, thinking and acting like a fan. There are writers who seem to have grown tired of the sports they're watching and the fans they're writing for. Do you think that's a fair criticism? How do you combat developing that attitude?

I don't have to be in touch with the audience's emotions because I have to report the event. Sometimes their emotions can color what you're writing. In the case of TBN and Buffalo, it's a very unique market. In any other city, the seats would be empty with the garbage the Bills and Sabres are selling that folks here shouldn't be buying.

In fact, they were empty in the 80s for the Bills (under 30,000 for some games) and earlier in this decade for the Sabres (under 10,000). Why do folks in this town show up regardless of the product at a time when their disposable income is less than ever? People gripe about the product but then they show up. If you're Ralph Wilson or Tom Golisano, why would you change anything if the money keeps rolling in? The fan base in general is pretty accepting of mediocrity here. Go a few other places and see how long these kind of charades would last.

There's not a writer here tired of the sport they're watching. Because we're not there to watch the sport. We're there to report on it, comment on it. Big difference.

I think there's a fine line between reporting to an audience and looking down on the audience you're speaking to though. I don't like being lectured by sportswriters. Make your point that our money is supporting ownership and that you think ownership is a joke and move on. Don't tell me what I should be doing and don't tell me that I shouldn't be enjoying the local sports teams if I want to continue to do so. I'm continuing to go to hockey games because I like going to hockey games. I went to some really terrible games this season and you know what? I still had a blast. That's why I still spend my disposable income on tickets. You don't have to agree. You don't have to like it. But don't talk to me like I'm an idiot for choosing to go regardless of what my money is supporting. "Tom Golisano has hesitated to spend money on his best players" is reporting. "I think Tom Golisano is a terrible owner who doesn't care about winning" is an opinion. "Fans who continue to go to games are sheep who don't get it" is passing judgment and it bothers me. I don't have to think like a journalist. Your answer here feels a little like you're talking down to me and that is absolutely not necessary for you to do your job and report your information. You don't have to think like a fan, that's fine. You have to respect us and our point-of-view. Why do people spend their money on sports? Because they love them and they have fun going to games.

And that's the difference in Buffalo. Fans CAN still have fun at the games even when the team is completely in the dumper. That's a unique feeling. No other city is like that. Remember, they boo Santa Claus in Philly! But here, we fill the building for the Sabres and eat our Sunday chili in Orchard Park.

That's a good thing. Where the media in Buffalo (TBN and others) fail is not realizing that enough. We act like the media would in any other city. The fan base is different here however.

Wait, wait. Did you... just admit that TBN isn't perfect? I think you did.

Yeah. LOL. It's called corrections on Page 2. There's some proof.

I will clarify that the question about sportswriters growing tired of sports wasn't directed at anyone at TBN. That was just a question about sportswriters in general. And seriously, you can tell me that all sportswriters still love sports but I will not believe you.

Many sportswriters do not like sports. Frankly, the most codger ones I've seen are baseball writers who have sat through too many rain delays and midnight games to still be happy about what they do. They should have retired long ago.

Ring Lardner once said there's nothing more depressing in the world than an old baseball writer. I just read that a few days ago.

Hockey writers seem to like the game and be into the game more than any others. Many struggle to get their papers to recognize the sport so they have to really love it to stay with it.

What do you do to battle becoming one of those sportswriters who hates sports? Or do you think it happens to everyone and you just hang it up when the time comes?

I will never hate sports. I’m not worried about that happening. I’ve followed MLB and the NHL for instance since I was 5. I have different views about things (salaries, etc) but the game is still the game. I’m never going to stop enjoying that no matter what path my job goes down. I think I hang it up when I can’t handle deadline pressure anymore or if travel gets too much, etc. It won’t be because I don’t like the game anyway. Won’t happen with me.

Do you have a favorite Sabre interview?

Ryan Miller. By far. He's insightful and can talk about the whole game, not just his own play. But he's interesting because he's such a challenge. He can be edgy, moody, confrontational, combative and you enjoy each side because he's thinking so deep.

Any players on other teams you particularly enjoy talking to?

Every NHL reporter I know has Marty Biron love for obvious reasons. The dude just never shuts up. But Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson have been terrific to deal with as well. In fact, I have never had an issue in the visiting locker room at all at HSBC. Most guys coming to town aren't even the least bit snippy. Non-Sean Avery division. He should be playing baseball.

I take it then that in your experience hockey players really are the most down-to-earth pro athletes? Any theory on why that is?

Totally more down to earth, yep. It used to be they didn't make as much money. Not so anymore. A lot of it is they struggled early in life. A lot of them leave home at 14 to play junior. They're not coddled and recruited as big-star college athletes and don't become national icons at age 18 like NBA and NFL players. I think hockey players have more of a sense of family too. They don't come from broken homes nearly as much. Their mothers and fathers drove them to the rink at 5 a.m. It helps.

I always wondered if it helped that the NHL just doesn't get the media attention of the other pro sports leagues. Even someone like Sidney Crosby could walk down the streets of many areas without anyone recognizing him. You'd think that would keep their lives a little more normal maybe.

I think hockey players at times like the big money with the degree of anonymity they can still have. Chris Drury, remember, pointed out that was a positive of going to NYC - that he wouldn't have people coming up to him all the time to discuss the power play like he did in Buffalo.

What's the best part of your job?

Seeing so many amazing events in the last 20 years and often being the only person from Buffalo who's there to chronicle it. That's an awesome responsibility that I always take seriously.

And the worst thing?

You're rarely asked what kind of stories you can get or how good they'll be because you're ALWAYS asked "How much will it cost?"

Cut-cut-cut. Give people less and less and less .... and then you wonder why readers turn away? Please.

Are you talking about cutting money or space? Or both? And what exactly do you mean by not being asked what kind of stories you can get?

Talking about cutting costs - mostly travel budgets- AND space. Not nearly the room there used to be for takeouts, investigations, etc. They don’t ask what kind of stories you can get on a trip ever, e.g. are there good local tie-ins at the World Series (there’s usually 1 or 2 every year). It’s always how much is it. I understand. It’s reality. Especially now. But still frustrating.

What's your favorite thing about working as a sportswriter in Buffalo?"

People can’t get enough Sabres and Bills. It’s awesome. Other cities are far more ambivalent. And the whole "We have to win a title someday!" thing gives it a Red Sox feel like they had in Boston. I seriously wonder how different things become here if the city ever wins a Super Bowl or a Stanley Cup. That quest will be over forever.

Ever thought about going somewhere else in the last 20 years?

Thought I might be somewhere else in the early 90s cuz I was stuck on high schools for five years. We finally had some movement in the department. I wasn’t a fan of covering high schools other than boys basketball. Memo to parents: Your child’s college scholarship is NOT dependent on getting a newspaper story done about them. If they’re good enough, the college will find them.

I hate to keep coming back to this but one last time... The Sabres win the Cup. Two weeks later, when all your stories are done but people are still tipping cars and setting bonfires on Chippewa Street, would you wander by there, take it all in and think, "The Sabres just won the Stanley Cup. Awesome." SOME part of you has to think that, doesn't it?

Yep. I'll say it for sure. But it will take about two weeks. I won't be doing it that night or that day. The impact of things often doesn't hit until you start getting with other people again. I got home from 2001 World Series and 2004 ALCS and realized when I couldn't walk more than 20 feet in the office without somebody stopping me to talk about how BIG they were.

But won't it be different from those examples because it's your city and your team? The team and city you work in and even more, have lived your entire life in? Or no?

Might be different if the Stanley Cup is won in Buffalo. If it's a Super Bowl (which can't be here) or a Cup won on the road, you'll really be focused on deadline stuff. You'd have to have ice in your veins to not feel something if they win a cup at HSBC.


Mark B said...

This was very good. But it makes me terribly sad that Mike had to bury the Sabres fan in him. I know it's part of his job, but I just can't imagine not being a Sabres or Bills fan anymore.

You did a great job pressing him about the "talking down to the fan" discussion. You would have been a good reporter!

ElmaGolf said...

Excellent Interview - especially the pressing on the "talking down to the fan" exchange. Way to concisely summarize the difference between Reporting / Opinion / Judgement. You are simply brilliant (that was all 3!)

Sully should be forced to read that question 100 times before his next commentary on Buffalo Fans.

Anonymous said...

Having lived in Boston, Atlanta and now outside of Denver, Mike is right - Buffalo fans are different. I think that is good though. I have more fun when I get to a game at HSBC than any of the other cities - regardless of how the team is playing.

Anonymous said...

What is the over/under on cars that would be flipped over on Chippewa if Buffalo wins a cup?

Schnookie said...

Harrington's wrong about fans being complicit in their teams' failures. It's not the fans' jobs to set the championship tone. They're there to be entertained. They're going to come whether the team is good or bad, because they find hockey entertaining. It is the team's job -- management's job -- to make the team good. And if they're not doing it, it's the media's job to report on it. Nowhere in that job flow do the fans come into play. They are not the ones who are accountable here.

Anonymous said...

"In any other city, the seats would be empty with the garbage the Bills and Sabres are selling that folks here shouldn't be buying."

Replace "Bills and Sabres" with "the Buffalo News sports section" and I totally agree. I don't read the paper, and this is why.

Heather B. said...

Mark, I have to admit, regardless of what Mike says, I'm convinced he'll secretly be thrilled when the Sabres win the Cup. He just doesn't know it yet :P

You are simply brilliant (that was all 3!)

Ha! Funny! And also, thank you!

I have more fun when I get to a game at HSBC than any of the other cities - regardless of how the team is playing.

Exactly. That's what fans are there for. As Schnookie pointed out in her comment - which eloquently said what I've been struggling to put into words for weeks - fans are not in charge of making sure the team is better. We're just here to have fun and hopefully watch some good hockey.

What is the over/under on cars that would be flipped over on Chippewa if Buffalo wins a cup?

Snidder, I was not kidding when I referenced cars being flipped two weeks later. When the Sabres win a Cup, I expect Armageddon. The city may not be standing when people are done.

Replace "Bills and Sabres" with "the Buffalo News sports section" and I totally agree. I don't read the paper, and this is why.

Anonymous, I certainly respect where you're coming from there. I've gone through TBN blackouts in the past but never stuck with it. I like Mike immensely but I was really disappointed to hear him pull out the "Buffalo fans are satisfied with mediocrity" card.

Thanks for reading, guys!

Anonymous said...

Great job at addressing the point on facts/opinion/judgement.

However, I don't feel like Mike really responds to the point you're making. He sidesteps it, saying that in any other market what they're doing is right. Well, then that makes their work a FAIL because they're not adapting to their environment. I get it, they are there to tell it how it is. But if passing judgement is okay in every other market, and he knows that its not okay in the Buffalo market (since Buffalo is not like any other city in that regards), then what the heck are they doing making judgements and writing with condescending undertones in their pieces??? (obviously this is all encompassing of TBN writers, not solely Mike).

Mike is probably my favorite Sabres writer... and I am loving this interview with him. But I definitely don't like that he avoided the question when initially asked & then sidestepped an answer when you clarified your point.

Great part II!

amy said...

I don't know if I could handle having a job where I'd have to bury my fandom. I know reporting is supposed to be neutral in tone, and commentary is for the opinion side, but it has to be weird to just flip the "fan/not a fan" switch and keep in in the "not a fan" position.

I'd also wonder what the over/under would be on the Stanley Cup making an appearance on Chippewa the night they won the Cup. Not that the boys need help attracting the ladies, but "hey, wanna see my trophy" would be a great pick up line.

Meg said...

You know, I have to say that I think the whole, "Buffalo fans are sooooo different" thing is pretty much bullshit. And I think that Harrington, for all that I like his work, is using it as an excuse for the condescending attitude that the Buffalo News sports writers often display.

The Sabres have been mindnumbingly mediocre for the last couple years, it's true. But the two years before that they were in the Eastern Conference Finals. I'd wager that there are an awful lot of fans in pretty much any of the good hockey markets who would still be supporting their team in that situation. Hell, I've been to Islanders games and even though their fanbase is depleted and their arena half-empty (and who can blame them, because frankly their situation is and has been a good bit worse than that of the Sabres fans) the fans there care about their crappy team and want it to play well and win. And it's not because they're idiots who accept mediocrity. It's because they're fans.

And even if Sabres fans were so different (which, again, I think is not-particularly-true) what the News columnists do, repeating the same story again and again ad nauseum, wouldn't be the right thing in any city. Find a new angle. Gind something else to talk about. Provide some way to analyze what's going on that hasn't been stale for a couple years now.

The situation with the Bills is a bit different, for sure. But again, I think that there's a failure on the part of the writers to understand the mindset of the fan. Here's a shocker: Maybe instead of just "accepting mediocrity" the fans are willing to appreciate having a professional football franchise in a little, economically-depressed city for the time they have it. Bills fans aren't all idiots; they know that the owner of the team is 90 and the team is likely to move when he dies. And so on and so forth. I may not be a football fan or, these days, a Buffalo resident, but if I were those things I'd still want to go to the games, just because I could.

I found this part of the interview interesting and also sad (because I think that there's a certain joy in being a fan) but more than anything I found it frustrating because it so clear that even the good hockey writers at the news just don't get it.

Katebits said...



Katebits said...

I would say too, that The Buffalo News doesn't have a leg to stand on in the "accepting mediocrity" department based only on the fact that it took two FULL SEASONS of textbook mediocrity before anyone at TBN lobbed a single softball question about Lindy Ruff's accountability.

I know most people in town, including the journalists, think Lindy's the right coach for the team (and that's totally fine), but the fact that Lindy has been untouchable is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from how the media would act in any other city. Don't blame the fans for this mess.

Also, the PAYING CUSTOMERS in Philly HAD FUN when they booed Santa Claus. To use that as an example of a fanbase refusing to "accept mediocrity" is....incomprehensible to me.

Katebits said...

I've been feeling a little guilty ever since I wrote that last comment. I think I should have acknowledged that it was actually Mike Harrington who opened the floodgates on questioning Lindy's job performance. It was way past due in my opinion, but Mike was the first guy in the mainstream media to say it, and that deserves some credit, for sure.