As I have said on many occasions, covering the Western Hockey League as a freelance writer during the past decade or so has been a tremendous experience.
Certainly, I think it's all about the people.
Primarily, I find the players and their personal stories to be the most captivating.
I feel like I have had pretty well-rounded hockey experience in my life as a mediocre player, a devoted member of the media, a minor hockey referee and a dedicated fan of the sport. Frankly, I think I can separate the wheat from the chaff.
As a player, I possessed skills, but little interest in the work ethic. Oddly perhaps, this drives me to explore the successes of players whose work ethic perhaps exceeds their skill set.
As a member of the media, I have learned to "sit on my hands" when I attend hockey games. This means I'm not bouncing around the press box and clapping loudly when my favorite team scores. I feel like I watch the game differently than I used to. Admittedly, I find it really hard to sit in the stands now.
As a referee, it was my responsibility to be impartial. This means being in the right position and making correct decisions, despite players being taught to push the envelope, coaches campaigning for favourable calls, and fans voicing whatever opinions might be in their best interests. Not surprisingly, some of the ridiculous drivel and second guessing directed towards referees makes it really hard for me to sit in the stands now. The overwhelming majority of fans chirping the officials have never had to read, comprehend and enforce the rule book. But, as long as they're buying tickets...
Major Junior hockey players are kids.
What makes it different is the reality that their lives are thrust into the public eye. This is not always a great place to be for anyone, let alone a youngster. But these players persevere through the challenging adventures that so often surface, and they can often enjoy some very productive experiences.
Too many adults choose to ignore this. In fairness though, that probably relates to some degree to plunking down their after tax greenbacks for single game or season tickets. I have always felt that if you buy a ticket, you're entitled to an opinion.
The player interaction that stands out above them all for me is an interview with Cole Ully of the Kamloops Blazers back in 2014. That piece is right here.
It's proof positive that many people simply don't know enough about the back story.
Today, the 21-year-old Ully is playing in the American Hockey League. I think the hockey road map he has traveled is truly a story of triumph.
I find that coaches are an interesting bunch. There are significant demands on these people, some of which I wouldn't wish on anybody because often they are treated unfairly. However, they are the adults in this environment, which I believe makes them more fair game than the youngsters.
I've experienced overwhelmingly good times in dealing with coaches, the folks that have given their time to me upon request, treating me with respect, even when I have stumbled through an interview on occasion.
There have been a couple of beauties; like the Russian clown that fed me his "selective English" BS in Kelowna, and the head coach that chose grind me hard at the Saddledome a few years ago, when it was really his team's PR department that didn't do its job in advance.
Taking the bad with the good isn't really a hardship when the good far outweighs the alternative.
I'm still enjoying the ride!