The best thing about having a team-issued credential to cover the Lightning is that I'm a Lightning fan, and I like to believe that being a credentialed member of the media allows me to be an ambassador on behalf of fellow fans who will never get to experience the game of hockey that way. Through this weekly column, I'll be sharing peeks behind the magical media curtain with you. Today, we're going to talk about the ups and downs of a long season.
“I’d love to play against us right now in our own end – it’s easy.” - Lightning forward Brian Boyle, following the team’s 5-1 loss to Columbus Tuesday, their third loss in a row and fourth in five games.
The Lightning aren’t good right now. They’re a talented team, though. They’ll get better. Then they’ll be good for a while and probably have at least one more stretch later this season when they’re not as good again. None of that is a revelation. If you’ve been a fan of any team in any sport for longer than 15 minutes, you know that’s just how it always goes. It’s peaks-and-valleys, ups-and-downs, highs-and-lows.
Professional athletes are conditioned to deal with that and the best teams are the ones comprised of the players who handle that better than others. The same thing applies to writers covering those teams, especially when they’re going through a rough patch. Writers who cover a team aren’t obligated to gloss over a team’s shortcomings and paint a rosy picture. By the same token, those writers shouldn’t be moaning and groaning about how bad they are either. There’s a place for both of those things, in the form of editorial columns and feature articles where strengths and weaknesses are debated and critiqued, but opinions and emotions should be left out of news coverage as much as possible. That’s tough when emotion is both the primary fuel and by-product of sports.
It would be easy - and a lot of fun - to write the lede to a game recap in Brian Boyle’s voice:
“The St. Louis Blues are among the teams that love playing against the Tampa Bay Lightning right now, because it’s easy to beat a team that lets you get off to a 4-1 lead.”
The expectation is something a little more professional and objective like:
“The Tampa Bay Lightning’s problems with puck possession and defensive lapses were evident again on Thursday, as they fell 5-4 to the St. Louis Blues, their fourth consecutive loss.”
Players get to fuss and gripe and complain and it’s okay, because it’s a means of dealing with stress when their team is struggling. Same thing goes for fans. Fans and players should do that, for the sake of their own mental health. Writers covering the team don’t have that luxury. Our task is to report what happens, not how terrible it feels when what’s happening stinks.
It’s just as tempting to get swept up in the excitement of an extended winning streak. That has to be avoided too, lest it yield ledes that look like this:
“Once again, the Lightning kicked ass again last night. Because that’s how we DO in Tampa Bay, baby!”
Even more than players and fans, a good writer has to find a way to maintain an even keel as much as possible. Again, that’s a challenge because the very nature of professional sports is subjectivity and passion.
I guess what I’m saying is that while being a sportswriter is far from the most difficult job in the world, it isn’t always easy.