Hey, remember hockey?
It’s that game they play on ice. Rubber disks, large nets, lots of padding, you remember.
Anyway, while the National Hockey League continues to not play because of a lockout, Montreal sports media (which are always all about the Canadiens, even during the offseason) have been struggling to find other things to do with their time. Some have decided to follow the Canadiens’ farm team, the Hamilton Bulldogs, or Canadiens players biding their time in Europe. Some have written countless stories recounting every minute detail about NHL labour negotiations. Some have written a 12th story about how Montreal bars are suffering because drunken hockey fans aren’t pouring in to watch the game three times a week. Some have just decided to report on things that didn’t actually happen.
And some have decided to look at other sports. (Hey, did you know we have professional football and soccer teams in this city?)
The Montreal Stars, this city’s team in the small and misleadingly-named Canadian Women’s Hockey League, has been getting some extra attention from local journalists because of the lockout. And that extra attention from the media has prompted more turnout from fans, a team staff member told me when I went to see a game last month. The small Étienne-Desmarteaux arena that they play in had about 700 people for the home opener, much more than they normally get.
I went the next day, for a Sunday afternoon game, and I estimated about 200-300 people in attendance:
Apparently this rink, named after Olympian and Stars player Caroline Ouellette, has 2,200 seats, all on one side of the rink. That’s a tenth the size of the Bell Centre, and they still don’t come close to selling out.
There’s a lot to love about the games here. Tickets are $10, and season passes $60, whether you’re in the nosebleed section or in the front row. The concession stand in the arena has very reasonable prices – I bought two grilled-cheese sandwiches and a small slush for $6.50, tax included.
There’s no TV timeouts (since there’s no live TV broadcasts), so the game is shorter. Periods last about 30 minutes in real-time compared to 40-45 minutes for NHL games. A game that starts at 1pm is over by 3.
But you can stay later, because after each game the players sit down at tables and offer autographs to fans.
It’s everything you could want from a Canadiens game, except nobody is going. Either because they don’t know about it, or because they don’t think the quality of what’s on the ice is good enough.
There are definitely some organizational things that the Stars can improve on. For one thing, signage. I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place when I entered the building, which is a couple of blocks northwest of Rosemont and Saint-Michel. What looked like a box office on the ground floor was closed, and I had to sort of innately know that I was supposed to go up to the second floor and find the open door to the stands. It’s a simple fix – put some signs up and maybe some people in T-shirts outside to guide visitors in.
But mostly I think the problem is that people don’t know about it or haven’t tried it. And you can help to fix that.
But first, what about what’s on the ice? Obviously it’s not NHL-level. If it was, we’d have women all over that league. And with only five teams in the CWHL (Toronto, Boston, Brampton and Alberta are the others), it definitely still has some growing to do.
I could offer condescending or patronizing platitudes about how these players are just as good as the guys are. The truth is I’ve never seen the Canadiens play in person, so I don’t really know. All I know is that I had fun there, and most of the fans seemed to as well. This despite the fact that the local team got their asses kicked 4-1 by visiting Boston.
And nothing that I saw on the ice seemed the least bit dainty to me.
Boston returns for two more games here this weekend (the CWHL schedules two games in a row like this to save on travel costs): Saturday at 5pm and Sunday at 1pm at the Étienne Desmarteau arena, 3430 de Bellechasse (the 67 or 197 buses will take you there). The Saturday game is a special fundraiser to combat breast cancer.
The Stars need journalists
In August, I got an email from someone at the Stars saying that one thing they really need are people who can report on their activities.
If there’s one thing that sets the Stars and Canadiens apart, it’s this. The Canadiens dressing room is filled with dozens of journalists for every game. Aspiring sports journalists and hockey fans dream about a job as a Canadiens beat writer, covering the team and running to the dressing room for comment after every match.
The Stars, meanwhile, are looking for people who can do that, but they can’t find any.
It’s not that the team and its games get no attention from the mainstream media. I saw cameras from TVA Sports and RDS at the game. The Gazette publishes briefs before and after them. And there’s CBC sports journalists who love to talk about women’s hockey.
But most of the attention is fleeting. You might hear what the score was, but not what the players think about it. None of the same kinds of regular feature stories you might see about Canadiens players.
What they really need is someone who wants to go in-depth. Someone to be the leading source of information about this team. Someone to be an expert.
One of the best ways for young journalists to make a name for themselves is to find a niche and own it. It’s what I did, in any case. Though I work for a major newspaper, my reputation came first from my work here, which then led to freelance opportunities at The Gazette and elsewhere.
When I started, I had nothing. No one knew who I was, I had no special contacts in the industry, and nobody was feeding me scoops. I wasn’t even focused completely on media back then. But slowly, I started getting noticed, and started getting stories, and the reputation began to build. Not that I’m a big shot now, but there aren’t too many people in Montreal anglo media who haven’t heard of this blog.
If someone decided to start up, say, a Stars version of what The Gazette does with Hockey Inside/Out, it wouldn’t get nearly the same amount of traffic. But while HIO competes with other mainstream and amateur sources for Canadiens news, a Stars blog would sit alone (at least, I’m not aware of any that currently exist). It would be the best source for information because it would be the only source for information, beyond the team itself.
And someone who decided to start up such a resource could have the kind of access that Canadiens reporters could only dream of. Talk to the players, talk to the coaches, talk to anyone in the league. They’re not tired of doing interviews, they want someone to pay attention to them. There are stories there waiting to be told.
The downside, of course, is that it doesn’t pay. At least not directly. There are opportunities, like freelancing occasional feature stories for various media who feel guilty about not putting a full-time reporter on the Stars beat. But it would almost certainly start out as a labour of love. One that could provide great real-world experience for someone who wants to become a sports reporter later in life.
What the Stars say they need really is more volunteers. People to setup interviews, post things to their website, get fans engaged with the team. And if anyone is interested in doing that, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with them.
But I think a beat journalist or blogger, an independent voice that fans can trust to give them news about their team, is a big step between a team that draws a few hundred fans and sells 50/50 draw tickets, and one that fills arenas and can truly feel like stars.
And with so many young aspiring journalists looking for ways to stand out, this would seem like a win-win. So why hasn’t it happened yet?
The Boston Blades play the Montreal Stars at Étienne Desmarteau arena Saturday at 5pm and Sunday at 1pm. Tickets are $10 and food is cheap. If you’re free, go over there and give this sport a try. And if you have a daughter, bring her along too. This is the elite of women’s hockey. It deserves better than what it has to live with now.