“Peeling back the layers” is how the Capitals’ Mike Knuble described his involvement with, and the ultimate success of, ‘Hockey Diaries: The Almost Season,’ the one-hour documentary on the Capitals’ 2009-10 season meticulously and lovingly assembled by independent producers Gemma Hooley and Chris Nelson. Knuble and teammate Tyler Sloan went into last season equipped with audio recorders handed off to them by the duo, just as Karl Alzner and Brooks Laich had been a season earlier, and the record-smashing history and sudden season-ending trauma of last year are laid bare in sixty riveting minutes.
Friday night at Sirius XM’s satellite radio Washington headquarters an in-studio and international listening audience was introduced to the groundbreaking hockey journalism. Upon its conclusion the narrative provoked a stream of outstanding audience questions, and even some moist eyes. The Capitals’ cooperation with the project freshly reminded the league, and its satellite radio broadcast partner, of the cutting-edge quality to the Caps’ communications operation. Gemma and Chris of course are the creators and crafters of this extraordinary work, but the Capitals — players and PR staff — must be acknowledged for recognizing the potential of this project, and participating.
And I had this thought deep into Friday evening: had Gemma and Chris, who are not NPR reporters, but rather moonlighting audio storytellers who cover hockey on their own time, on their own dime, and who believe hockey is ripe with great stories, approached the New York Rangers or Edmonton Oilers a few years back instead of the Caps with this scheme of theirs, likely we wouldn’t have all been gathered in the fancy new age studio Friday night, celebrating a new frontier in hockey media.
But there we were, gathered in a gorgeous studio, where the fruit of two hobby-reporters commanded two hours of broadcast air on the NHL’s XM outlet for all the world to hear, in prime time on a Friday night, right as a new season was dawning. I left the studio Friday night believing that I’d been audience to an extraordinary and extraordinarily fresh product, and that it wasn’t coincidental that its architects weren’t paid hockey media pros (like Damien Cox). Nor did I think that there was any coincidence to their achieving this aural gift to hockey fans in this city, working with this team.
National Public Radio has long favored the storytelling approach to news reporting. Gemma and Chris have in recent years made a passion-hobby, only once their respective daytime obligations for NPR are completed, out of crafting and producing original stories from rinks and marketing them. Hooley works in station relations for NPR, Nelson as a technical director.
Both however have an ear and heart for hockey’s heart. Hockey has been their canvas. And while all of their work in our sport has been impressive in recent seasons, with ‘Hockey Diaries’ they’ve scored a career-best product. More than that, they’ve expanded the notion of what new media can illuminate in our great game. They are the producers of Radio 3.0, from the rink.
Right from the start of ‘Hockey Diaries’ the listener notices the producers’ ear for excellent detail. Knuble very early on reveals his agony the morning after losing game 7 to Montreal in the first round of the NHL playoffs. He is at an elementary school as a parent to witness a school project competed by one of his children. But some of the children at the school recognize him, he senses their acute disappointment, and his agony doubles, unbearably. He begs out of the rest of his day’s obligations.
The greatest agony for this individual athlete wasn’t enduring a silenced throng of 18,000 red-clad in Verizon Center but the following morning and a schoolroom of a couple of dozen disappointed children. Or so it seemed to this listener. How — (where before?)– could we have gained such perspective, empathy for such a moment, absent this work?
More rich and illuminating detail:
- Tyler Sloan’s candor is striking. At times he appears to use his recorder as therapy as he struggles with being a perpetual scratch from the Capitals’ lineup. “I don’t play hockey,” he utters with fatigued moroseness, “I practice hockey.”
- For a fringe player like Sloan, the luminous presence of prospect John Carlson is a scourge. Sloan on learning of a Carlson callup late in the season: “I don’t know what I think about that.”
- Hooley describing Knuble’s pinky finger mashed into disfigurement by a crossbar: “It’s the size of a bratwurst.”
- Knuble on the virtue of being a 10-year, 600-game pro, on the road, thereby roommate-less: You get to lie on your [hotel] bed naked and watch TV.
- Knuble relates the drama of day one of unrestricted free agency, the one that brought him to Washington. Morning errands must be concluded before noon, so that he’s home to answer the phone. The phone calls come from managers directly to him, not his agent, and their substance is immediate and all business: how many years in the term, how many dollars in the deal.
- After February’s trade deadline, and addressing the question of managing so many extra bodies delivered in deadline trades, Gabby presciently reflects on the tension that in the postmortem of a season ended all too early may have proven its ultimate undoing: “A room can take a real hit if there’s four or five unhappy guys.”
‘Hockey Diaries’ is a new frontier in our sport’s journalism — players in their own words, recorded not in the cliche-cultivating immediacy of postgames but in alone hours, away from rinks, in hotel rooms, out on frozen ponds, in a child’s school. Hooley and Nelson had four hundred hours of audio to sift through from last season’s recordings — transcribing all of it first! — and together wove a season-defining narrative from a rich patchwork of exhilaration, uncertainty, fatigue, and ultimately despair. We feel it all in this journey.