A View from the Gondola

Life (or an internship) behind the camera maybe isn't all it's cracked up to be.
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First, there are the cables. They’re pulled out from under the red mobile production truck, laid out in a big figure eight, and carried into the building by two or more people. Do this for what seems like an hour, then go back and do it again with giant spools of wires, connections for headsets and microphones. Then comes the heavy stuff: lights, tripods, big bulky camera boxes. Carry these inside, up a few flights of stairs and along the catwalk running around the arena’s ceiling. Spend an hour plugging them in, testing connections, and calibrating.

And I bet you thought working on a hockey broadcast was going to glamorous. I certainly did.

In my last year of college, I spent a semester volunteering on Oshawa Generals home broadcasts. Once or twice a week, I’d bus down to the General Motors Centre and spend the better part of a day setting up and taking down expensive television equipment I was barely qualified to handle.

Like most people my age, I grew up watching CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts almost every Saturday during the winter. Unlike most people, I wanted to work on them, to be one of the people behind the scenes and call a game from the gondola like Bob Cole. It wasn’t exactly why I went to journalism school, but it was definitely in the back of my mind.

So in my third year of college, when a course required us to get experience with TV broadcasts, I immediately volunteered with the sports crew. There was a short training session hosted by the director/producer, a guy in his late twenties named Pinkerton, “Pink” for short. He walked us through the essentials: how to put together a camera, how to hook equipment up, and, most memorably, how to lay cable properly (in a big eight, which prevents it from getting tangled up and makes it easier to carry).

He also walked us through a broadcast: why you only shoot from one side of the rink, how to set up storylines, and the importance of personality in a broadcast. It’s obviously important to shoot the hockey itself, but a quick cut to a close up of goal-scorer followed by reaction shots of the bench and crowd are the little things that make the broadcast stand out, a visual way to tell the game’s story.

I joined a crew of maybe a dozen or so people. A few were paid employees of Rogers TV, but most were local people volunteering. Some were students, other adults with some free time and an interest in TV. A lunch of pizza or subs was provided, but nothing fancy. Pink ran the broadcast. He was loud and occasionally mean but had a vision for his broadcasts, which was a good thing, considering what we’d be broadcasting.

The 2008-09 OHL season was the last year in the minors for John Tavares. He was the most anticipated prospect in minor hockey that year and projected to go first overall in the NHL draft that spring, which meant our broadcasts had a much larger audience than the greater Oshawa area. Looking back, I imagine Pink was under pressure but also saw this like I did: an opportunity to get ahead in his field.

Almost immediately, Pink’s attitude ran people into two camps: people that loved him and people that hated him. He knew what he was doing, but he could be demanding towards volunteers and harsh if they fell short of his standards. Soon, some of the crew started copying him, yelling and making off-colour jokes over the intercom. I remember thinking the workplace was turning hostile.

I generally kept in his good books and quickly worked up the ladder: I started by handling cable behind a guy carrying a camera on his shoulder, then moved inside the truck operating the instant replay, and by November, I had a camera of my own, in the announcer’s box up in the rafters.

I’d carry all my equipment up a few sets of stairs, up into the rafters, and along a catwalk to a small, elevated box at mid-ice, where I’d set up a camera, a tripod, and a few lights. My job was to shoot local radio personality Roger Lajoie and a rotating cast of colour guys between periods. It was a lonely job—I was up there alone without a lot to do while the game was going on—but it was a great chance to see how Lajoie, one of the area’s biggest sports broadcasters, went about his business. Unfortunately, my new job didn’t last very long.

In my boredom, I tried to find things to do: shoot the scoreboard, for example. Eventually I grew bold, raising the tripod to its highest, moving forward and pointing it down, to get shots of the benches and crowd. But aside from the two commentators, I was up there alone, trying a job two people would normally do. A couple games into this arrangement, I tried moving the camera, tripped on a cable and toppled while the game was going on; Lajoie turned and shot me a look like “what the hell are you doing,” while calling the play without missing a beat; it’s unlikely anyone watching at home had any idea a camera just crashed a few feet behind him. With the intercom buzzing, asking if both the camera and I were okay and what exactly happened, I managed to get everything back together for the intermission segments. I didn’t try any fancy stuff for the rest of the broadcast, though.

By the next game, I was back in the production truck, operating a machine that controlled the broadcast’s brightness.

A few weeks later at J-School, I recognized a name in a local crime story. Rick, one of the people I volunteered with, and his wife died in a violent stabbing. I knew him as the guy who operated a camera in the sweatbox, a little glassed-in spot on ice-level between the benches. The next weekend, our crew of a dozen or so people were a little on-edge when Pink gave us his pre-broadcast pep talk: we all knew Rick, at least as part of our team. Before running through the usual stuff, assigning us to various duties and outlining what he wanted, Pink motioned to his pair of gloves: he borrowed them the week before from Rick and forgot to give them back, but he guessed Rick didn’t want them back any more. His little joke let cut the tension and we went about our business.

But that’s how I saw things. I didn’t know at the time, but the drama with Pink was beginning. First, Rogers wanted him and some other volunteers to cover the funeral and he objected. The local news crew went instead. It was the start of a split between Pink and his bosses. Later, as people objected to his rough way of running a broadcast, it grew wider.

The next wrinkle came about mid-way through the season. Billy, another one of our volunteers, was a local teen who loved hockey, and especially Don Cherry. But part of the rules of being a volunteer was we couldn’t interact with the players, coaches and so forth: we were playing as professionals and had to play the part. No asking for autographs or taking selfies. But when Cherry made an appearance, this kid broke the cardinal rule and asked for a photo. He was sacked a couple of days later and his dad went to the media.

I didn’t think it was a big deal until I saw Billy’s name and face on the local news, then on hockey blogs and eventually on Deadspin’s front page. Cherry defended the kid, Pink somehow refrained from comment, and eventually I think Billy was allowed back, although I don’t remember seeing him again. But again: our local broadcasts were suddenly getting national attention.

Eventually, I started having doubts about this field. I respected Pink, but he was a hard director to work for: one time I was shooting an interview with a camera on my shoulder, and he yelled at me through the entire segment when my shot wasn’t steady enough. Another time, he let me do colour on a volleyball broadcast; I mumbled my way through calling a sport I barely knew anything about and felt like a fool. I didn’t step in front of the camera again. It required a skill-set I didn’t have: a loud, confident voice, an ability to react quickly when something unexpected happened, and, most of all, having something—anything—to say.

***

The Generals were going through a rough patch, too. Although Tavares was the biggest star in minor hockey—his face was plastered on the side of the production truck—the Gens weren’t an especially great team. Early in January, they sold high on Tavares and his teammate Michael Del Zotto, trading them to London. Tavares’ face was quickly yanked off the truck. Not much later, Pink was gone, too: one too many complaints and he was re-assigned elsewhere. I haven’t heard a peep from him since.

And as spring came, I had less and less time to devote to volunteering. My course ended and I accepted an internship with CTV, where I essentially wrote recaps of Canada AM at a desk for a few weeks. Of course, it didn’t really matter: the Gens missed the playoffs. By June, I’d moved away from Oshawa.

Although I’ve since moved away from an interest in broadcasting, I still think about these games. Whenever I see Tavares on the ice now, I still think of him as a skinny teen in a red Generals jersey, streaking down the ice. When I hear Lajoie on the radio, I think of the guy who could call a game and make it look effortless, even as I caused a ruckus in his cramped broadcast booth. And when I watch the OHL on local cable, I think of all the volunteers who are maybe like me and want to go on into sports broadcasting. I hope they don’t knock anything over.


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