My heart was pounding the entire drive down the Conception Bay Highway. I was so wracked with nervous energy that I thought I was going to be sick. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think I was on my way to play a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals, or my first ever NHL game, that’s how anxious I was.
But I wasn’t driving 23 kilometres down a countryside highway to play an important hockey game. In fact, the stakes of the day were so low that I felt kind of foolish afterwards for being such a mess at the outset. I was on my way to CBS Arena, just outside of St. John’s, Newfoundland, to cover the Newfoundland Growlers home opener, my first time in the press box as a credentialed hockey reporter. A moment that was over two-and-a-half years in the making, ever since hockey saved my life.
This is the story of how that happened.
Full disclosure here, I was extremely drunk the first time I ever thought about reporting on hockey as a career. It was a Saturday night in February 2019, I was 25 years old and even though the Leafs were relatively good at the time- Auston Matthews had just signed his extension and the Muzzin trade was already paying dividends, I was miserable.
About a month before, I travelled to Miami to visit the woman I was dating at the time. She was my first serious relationship, a longtime friend that became something more. Hockey brought us together initially, so to celebrate that, we planned to make the trip outside the city to the Panthers’ home arena to watch the Leafs take on the Cats, the first of many (or so I thought).
It was an awful game, the second half of a back-to-back and a typical Garrett Sparks ‘swimming in his crease’ performance leading to a 3-1 loss, but it was also my first time seeing an NHL game live in person, so I had a great time. I was in love and mentally making big plans to build a life with this woman, even if it meant working in a field (construction safety and manual labour) that I didn’t particularly like. I was willing to work any sort of job as long as it paid the bills and got us closer to our goal of living in the same country.
This is why I was so blindsided when she told me we were finished on the last day before I went home to Canada.
I didn’t see that particular bit of news coming, I don’t think anyone could. Despite the difficulties of a long-distance relationship, I thought we were doing good, but then, just as suddenly as it had begun, I was lost and alone, adrift in the ruins of the plans I’d been working on for months. I got home and tried to process what happened, and eventually learned that the entire relationship was based on a lie, her so-called love for me was conditional on getting her Canadian citizenship.
That realization completely broke me, and to be truthful, it still affects me to this day. At the time, I coped the only way I knew how- by drinking to numb the pain. I didn’t know how to talk about it, and I couldn’t see anything in my future other than agony and trauma. I felt used, worthless, and sick to my stomach every single day. I wanted to die on a couple of occasions just to stop hurting and briefly started to develop suicidal thoughts. Mentally, I was in a hole that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to crawl up out of. Before learning the truth, I was in frequent communication with the now ex-girlfriend, desperately trying to find a path to reconciliation. Instead, I eventually found salvation from a pair of unlikely sources.
The first was the aforementioned night out with some friends in February where, while the Saturday Headlines segment played out on Hockey Night in Canada, I found myself looking at Chris Johnston and Elliotte Friedman and found myself thinking in my extremely intoxicated state ‘I really like this segment, these guys have the coolest job… how cool would it be if I could do that?’
The second source was a little over a month later when I read the final two paragraphs of Steve “Dangle” Glynn’s autobiography This Team is Ruining My Life (But I Love Them): How I Became a Professional Hockey Fan:
“Hopefully my story can convince you to try something you’ve been afraid to try for far too long- maybe learn a new skill, change career paths, or win a Stanley Cup Ring.
Listen, I’ve believed in the Toronto Maple Leafs for my entire life. The least you could do is believe in yourself.”
All at once, the light came on over my head, I was going to become a hockey reporter, or I was gonna die trying. Just a few days before I finished reading the book, the Leafs announced they’d be holding their 2019 Training Camp right here in Newfoundland. I figured it would be a great opportunity to meet some media members and ask for advice on how to start, and when that weekend in September finally happened, I was not disappointed. I met Chris Johnston, Mark Masters, and other reporters on the Leafs beat and picked their brains on the topic of getting into the media. CJ in particular was extremely gracious with his time, and gave me some contact info, telling me to reach out if I ever had questions.
Fast forward through to present day, I worked on myself throughout the fall of 2019 and the entirety of 2020, started the journalism program at a college here in St. John’s last fall, was invited to start writing for the site a few months ago and over the course of the last few weeks, applied for and received credentials for the Newfoundland Growlers.
I parked outside of the Growlers temporary home at CBS Arena around 4:45pm on Friday, November 5th, 45 minutes before the doors would open to the crowd and just over 2 hours before the first scheduled puck drop for a professional hockey game in Newfoundland in 608 days. I took my college-assigned video camera out and got to work before even walking up to see if I was allowed to head inside, picking up a few exterior video shots for an assignment I’ve been working on. Once I got inside I met a member of the Growlers’ communications team, who verified my identity and handed me my credential. This little lanyard and plastic badge with my name on it means the world to me. It represents the culmination of everything I’ve worked for, the struggles I’ve pushed through, and, for the first time in a very long time, it’s a symbol of hope for my future.
I made my way up to the press area (as a community rink, the CBS Arena doesn’t have a dedicated press box or broadcast booth, so the Growlers staff improvised together a curtained-off section along a walking path behind the top row of seats), set down my gear and let it sink in: I was here, I was working in hockey. I took a moment while I was alone to let the emotion wash over me, then once I composed myself, I sent a quick message to Chris Johnston, thanking him for all the advice he’d given, and got to work on filming for my video assignment. When I returned to my seat just before warmups started, to put it simply, my phone was blowing up because of this:
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) November 5, 2021
I was definitely crying after that. Never in a million years would have expected anything like this and I was absolutely floored to see the love and reception being shown. It was validation (that I was really grateful to receive) that I was really here, and I belonged, and I can’t thank everyone enough for the support as I start out on this journey.
Hockey has a lot of problems, the ongoing controversies in Chicago are overwhelming evidence of this, but there’s also good to be found within it. This sport saved my life, and being involved in it, both through my writing work and learning to skate and play the game, have become therapeutic for me as I continue to work past the mental scars from my past.
Growlers home opening weekend went about as perfect as you could imagine, and I look forward to covering more games throughout this year, but I still have growth to do as I come into this career path in my late 20s. Will I ever let go of the grudge I hold against the Panthers? Probably not, (unless they get relocated to Quebec City,) but I’ll work on it. I’m never going to take my life for granted, because the start of my career in hockey has been a dream come true. I wouldn’t be here without the great support system I have as well as the many friends I’ve made in the hockey world. Thanks everyone!