The Gathering

Monday, April 3rd, 10:15 PM — Rochester, N.Y.

I’m watching squeakball on the tube. Mateen Cleaves just hurt his poor wittle ankle. Woogums has to get taped up in the locker room, missing several minutes. If he were a hockey player, he would have tied his skate tighter and stayed on the bench so he wouldn’t miss a shift.

I hate basketball.

Pituitary-challenged guys in squeaky shoes lobbing a big orange ball around. 63 mind-numbing games.

I leave in 12 hours for the real March Madness.

Except now it’s in April.

Go figure.

Tuesday, April 4th, 3:00 PM — somewhere in Massachusetts

You’ve probably heard of those “fantasy camps” where middle-aged guys pay exorbitant fees to pretend they’re big-league ballplayers. For a mere $12,000 or so, you can hang out and shoot baskets with Michael Jordan for a week, or take BP with Sammy Sosa.

For one week a year, this is my fantasy camp. While I’ve been broadcasting and writing about college hockey for more than a decade, it’s an avocation, not a job for me. I have a wife and three kids to support, and my college degrees are in techie-business stuff, so that’s what I do for a primary source of income.

But my real passion is hockey, especially that played at the collegiate level. I’ve been the Division III guy for U.S. College Hockey Online for the past three years, and when my season is over, I’ve been invited to join the D-I folks for USCHO’s annual blitz on the Frozen Four.

Talk about a small fish in a big pond. Press conferences in D-III usually consist of catching the coach on his way out of the dressing room or when he’s about to board the bus. Here, there’s conferences attended by dozens of “real” reporters, whole media areas with power and phone access for laptop connectivity, all the media guides and stats you could ever want, and a buffet that runs before and between games.

I’m excited about pitching in with the rest of the crew. I’ll be doing a notebook for the BC-St. Lawrence game, covering the Humanitarian award, and doing a feature on the large amount of ticket scalping that is sure to go on before the games.

Oh, yeah. And a “travelogue.” The last ones, Five Guys in Milwaukee Parts I, II and III by Scott Brown, and Strangers in A Strange Land, Parts I, II, III and IV by Jayson Moy, were popular with the readers. I have some big shoes to fill.

I’m so pumped to get started that I leave a day early. I’ll be able to get the seven-hour drive out of the way on Tuesday, so I can focus on the team practices and press conference that start at 10:30 on Wednesday morning.

Wednesday, April 5th — Providence, R.I.

I walk into the Westin hotel and see Lee Urton in the lobby. Lee is one of the founders of USCHO, and currently does media relations, as well as editing the D-III and women’s sections. Although we talk almost daily via phone and email, it’s the first time I’ve seen Lee in person since last year’s Frozen Four, in Anaheim.

We check in and pick up our credentials and the traditional gift. This year it’s a sweatshirt. Much more functional than the lethal weapon we were handed in Anaheim last season, when Alaska-Anchorage was the host school — my “Ulu, knife of the arctic” has to be kept under lock and key, so my kids don’t use it to open a major artery.

Lee and I head over to the Civic Center to check out the practices and press conferences, only a five-minute walk from the hotel.

When we get to the doors, I realize that I’m not wearing my “media” badge that came in my credential envelope. We trudge back to the hotel, where I frantically look for it — until I remember that it’s in my briefcase. The one that was in my hand the entire time, including the first walk over to the arena.

Nerves? Hey, if players can get ’em, why not journalists?

On the way back to the Civic Center, Lee and I run into another USCHO contingent. It’s Tim Brule, the owner and founder; Scott Brown, chief editor; and Paula Weston and Todd Milewski, writers for the CCHA and WCHA, respectively. For some of us, it’s the first time in a year since we’ve seen each other face to face.

Hugs and handshakes abound, as do the wisecracks. In this day and age, the idea of virtual friends and colleagues isn’t rare, but nothing can replace good, old fashioned face-to-face conversation.

Then it’s on to the practices and press conferences.

Unlike other sports, the only jerks that I’ve seen in hockey press conferences have been on my side of the microphone, and they’ve been rare. Virtually every college hockey coach whom I’ve dealt with has been a class act.

The four guys talking today are no exception. Shawn Walsh, not the most popular guy outside of the state of Maine, loves his players and loves the game of hockey. Oh, and he wins a lot, too. Jerry York and Dean Blais are two of the best coaches in the game. All three have won national titles.

Then there’s Joe Marsh, who came within in goal in 1988 of joining the others. Marsh has everybody laughing about four seconds into his opening statement.

I’m genuinely glad that Marsh has a team here, especially since it’s from the much-maligned ECAC. I’d love to see the Larries win the whole thing.

Aren’t journalists supposed to be impartial?

No surprises in the press conference. All the coaches praise their competition, and generally agree with each other. Walsh was the most opinionated of the bunch: no surprise there.

One of the cool things about Walsh is that he takes his kids everywhere. They are at the press conference, a pair of very well-behaved children wearing their youth hockey team’s colors.

That’s one of the great things about college hockey. It’s still small enough where a coach can bring his kids to a Frozen Four press conference and nobody thinks twice about it. I have the feeling that all four coaches like and respect each other, no b.s.

When we get back to the hotel, there’s an urgent message waiting from our general manager, Jayson Moy. He’s still in Albany, but had been informed that in a few hours UMass would be calling a press conference at our hotel to name a new head coach. We had heard the day before that Niagara’s Blaise MacDonald had taken himself out of the running, leaving Princeton head coach Don “Toot” Cahoon as the leading candidate.

Sure enough, it’s Toot. Unfortunately, he’s late to the press conference, and the natives are getting restless, so the UMass people hand out the press release. We give up waiting (refreshments are on our minds) and leave after about 20 minutes.

On the way out, I run into MacDonald, who is on hand, apparently to congratulate Cahoon. See what I mean about coaches being class acts?

The day’s work done, the USCHO staff conclude with some liquid refreshments at a pub across the street from the Civic Center. We discuss our strategy for the next day, which will be non-stop hockey!

We also discuss some strategies for growing our audience and driving up the hit rate (which has doubled in two years — we had over 12 million in March). Perhaps adding a little sex appeal? What about changing the name to, say, “Ultra Sexy Coed Hookers Online”? Same initials, right?

Ahhh — no.