[OFB note: Last week Hockey Washington endured a shock and a setback with word that Caps' Media Relations Maestro Nate Ewell was leaving early next month to return to a top communications post in college hockey -- his first love. We'd been working with Nate over some months to generate a profile of his background and remarkable achievements with the Caps, foremost among them perhaps the team's virtual lock on the Dillman Award, handed out at the end of each season to the best PR team in the NHL. Hockey is ascendant in Washington in part because of the Capitals' embrace of new media, and Nate's been a central figure in building a league-best blogosphere here. No hockey blog in D.C. has benefited more from Nate's commitment and enthusiasm for new media than OFB. He will be especially missed by us. Below is the second of a two-part profile of our favorite hockey communicator. Part one can be found here.]
After his tenure at Michigan State was complete, Ewell moved into the sport and league he had always wanted to be a part of, the NHL. Vice President of Communications for the Washington Capitals, called Ewell and offered him a position in the Capitals’ Public Relations department. Despite finally making it to league he had always wanted to be a part of, Ewell’s experience was not what someone might call perfect for his new position. Not only was the team one of the older ones in the league, but there were some guys Ewell thought were very tough to work with. While he was very young. Of every experience over his year and a half with the team, Ewell remembers one incident that encapsulated his whole time there.
“Training camp in 2001 started on 9/11,” Ewell said after a long pause. He took a deep breath before continuing, with a blank stare. “The first day of training camp is a big deal, you have to take all of these picture and video head shots and I ended up getting in a fight with one of our veterans, or an argument. He refused to use my name and only called me ‘idiot.’ That was really demoralizing, it was just kind of like ‘I don’t know why I have to take this, you have been in the league for 18 years, you know what happens on this day. Meanwhile we have burning buildings on the TV in the players lounge and you can’t take another 20 minutes to get your picture taken.’”
Ewell’s experience on 9/11 largely embodied what his first stint with the Washington Capitals organization was like. That experience with the veteran player was the worst of his career, he says. It helped Ewell discover he was unhappy with the Caps and left the organization only a year and a half after joining them, taking a job working at the Salt Lake City Olympics. From there, he moved into something completely new and largely uncharted: the Internet.
“I figured I wanted to work in the NHL, I didn’t like it and maybe I [was] ready to get out of sports,” Ewell said. “Four months later a buddy and I started Inside College Hockey because we were out of sports and miserable.”
Recovering from a bad experience in sports, Ewell created something new and exciting with Inside College Hockey, or INCH. The website, created in the fall of 2002, is a haven for all college hockey fanatics. Filled with statistics and stories from around the world of NCAA hockey, Inside College Hockey has become a go-to references for journalists, coaches and fans alike. Despite his success with the new startup, Ewell could not resist the call of the National Hockey League.
“I called [the Caps] to recommend somebody else for a job and they said, ‘Seriously what do we have to do to get you back here?’ I knew I missed sports and I certainly wasn’t making a living with INCH and I talked to [then Capital captain] Jeff Halpern a little bit, who I kept in touch with from Princeton and Caps connections, and just asked him about the team and league,” Ewell said with a warm smile at the mention of his long time friend and former comrade. It was clear the two were close. “He kind of assured me it would be different, and I knew it would be a very young team, a much different atmosphere than I had seen before and it turned out to be even better than I could have even imagined.”
It was 2005, Washington was in the basement of the league, had just drafted one of the sport’s most promising prospects in Alexander Ovechkin, and the NHL was coming out of a lockout. American hockey was emergent, the Washington Capitals were new and emergent, and Ewell decided the time was right for him to return to the organization. Just a few years after he left the NHL team in utter disappointment, Ewell never thought he would be working with one of the best players in the world.
“I had seen him in the World Junior [Championships], and like many Americans thought he was brash and kind of a jerk and I didn’t know what to expect,” Ewell said amid a ping of Blackberry emails and updates for the night’s game. “I met him at the Hotel Monaco for the first time and he had his press conference there and immediately you could sense the charm that he had. He and I, even in the course of that first week two weeks, got a little bit of a relationship forged. So it was pretty smooth sailing all along.”
Suddenly Ewell’s revived career was off and flying just like the new NHL was off and running. The experience was different for him, the players were different, and he was happy. Despite his success and love for the job, Ewell’s position does demand a great deal from him, especially when it comes to time commitment.
“It’s tough, a week like this. I was in Bristol, Connecticut, last night, I am here tonight, fly to Boston tomorrow, Boston Thursday night, I guess I am home Friday night, but then a game Saturday night, so that’s tough,” Ewell said. You can see the strain travel and time away from family has had on him in such reflective moments. It is clear he wishes he could be home to help out more often.
Even with all the travel and the time his job demands, Ewell is still able to find the time to bring his own unique spin to the PR world, in the form of Twitter. With his Twitter handle, @nateewell, he is able to interact with fans and media members before, during and after games. To many on his staff, what Ewell does on Twitter is outside the proverbial box of public relations and shows it is okay to be innovative.
“He’s got an open mind. I remember when we came to him at first about what Twitter was,” said Brett Leonhardt, the Caps’ Website Producer, of Ewell’s contributions to the organization. “We all had accounts and he drew up a social media guidelines for everyone in the office. To have someone in touch with the latest technology and the changing face of media, it just, is so fun for us.”
The true rewards Ewell gets from his job go beyond he innovation he has brought to the Capitals media department. Ultimately, he gains the most satisfaction from the relationships he builds with the players. Ewell holds them very close and cherishes the trust they have in him. He admits it can be tough, though, especially with players he has to ask a lot of.
“You develop relationships with everybody, it doesn’t matter if it is Ovi or Stecks [Dave Steckel], you get along with them. If you’re doing the job right you develop that relationship so you feel comfortable with them,” Ewell noted. “It shouldn’t matter whether you are needing [a player] for media purposes. The tougher one is developing that relationship with a guy like Brooks [Laich], who I love to death. Every time you see Brooks you have to ask him for something because everyone wants something from him and that’s tough.”
As the team’s playoff runs become longer and they play more high profile postseason series, Ewell’s job becomes a bit more hectic. No matter what though, Ewell finds a thrill in managing the media for the team he has built a deep relationship with, it is the relationships that keep him around.
Ewell takes a quick glance around the now half full Verizon Center as he looks down toward the team he helps interact with the media — they are his friends warming up for the night’s game. It is clear he has a special bond with the players on the team, inside and outside of the locker room.
“We don’t have a bad guy in the room right now,” Ewell said with a clear sense of pride. “That is the biggest reason I have stuck around, the guys are so good.”
Despite the feeling of camaraderie on the Caps, on January 14, 2011, Ewell announced his tenure with the Washington Capitals organization would be coming to an end. On February 9 he will leave the NHL and join College Hockey Inc. as its Director of Communications. While Ewell will be leaving the Caps and the NHL, he will by no means be leaving the world of hockey.
“The opportunity to not only work in college hockey, but hopefully help make a positive impact on the game is very appealing to me,” Ewell said in an email. “The chance to work with Paul Kelly, who by all accounts is one of the smartest people in hockey, is another thing I’m very excited about.”
His position may still be in the communications world, but it will be much different than bridging the gap between the Caps and the hockey media. With College Hockey Inc., Ewell will be working to promote the game and help show elite young hockey players the benefits of going to college. He admitted it will be a difficult endeavor, but said his heart is also fully in it.
Even though the job in college hockey is something Ewell is excited about, he also admitted the position alone would not have pulled him away from the Caps. Not only does Ewell get to move into a new challenging job, but he also gets to move to a place he always wanted to return to.
“Moving back to [New England] has always been a long-term goal as well,” Ewell said. “My family is from [there] and we have a house on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. I’ve always found it a shame to only spend a week there each year.”
Despite Ewell’s excitement towards his new endeavor, he admitted it was a tough decision to leave the Caps. After all, he developed many relationships through the organization and really left his mark on the hockey media world. He said it was the right combination of circumstances that convinced him to leave Washington.
“On their own, I don’t think a job in college hockey or a job in Boston would have lured me from the Caps, because this has truly been a wonderful place,” Ewell said of his time with the Caps.
While many in the Washington media, most particularly us at OFB, are excited for Ewell and his new opportunity, we would lying if we didn’t admit we will miss him. He helped pioneer a social media revolution in Washington and helped put many area hockey blogs on the map. For that, we say thanks and wish him well, hoping to one day cross paths with him again, whether it be on the ice for a media skate or in the locker room for interviews.