MOSCOW (May 8, 2007) — What are four guys like us doing at a VIP reception with the likes of hockey royalty Scotty Bowman, Vladislav Tretiak, Igor Larionov, Vyachaslav Fetisov, Barry Smith, and numerous name NHL vets from Europe? Better question: how'd we get let in to begin with? (Answer: U.S. Embassy assistance) Tuesday night was a complete reversal of fortune from its preceding morning and afternoon, which couldn't have been been worse for our coverage team.
Tuesday was an off day from tournament play at the World Championships, but it was a practice day for all of the teams that qualified for the tournament quarterfinals. Again we worked obscenely late Monday into Tuesday, grabbed about three hours' sleep, and scurried over to Khodynka Arena before noon to capture some players' reflections. But as we arrived at the arena we joined a horde of press that spent upwards of three hours, like the Army, “hurrying up to wait.” Largely for nothing.
Me being diplomatic: the IIHF isn't quite a smoothing running, media-savvy engine. It's terrific at closely scrutinizing press credential requests, not bad at generating in-game stats, and woeful at organizing a hockey event at which press can be accorded efficient and reliable access to competitors. If the IIHF is concerned about the absence of media coverage in North America for its high-profile tournaments – and most assuredly it is not – the last thing you'd want to do to improve coverage is replicate the guesswork all press here are daily asked to navigate.
There is no media locker room access to players at this tournament at any time. Instead, press – photogs, scribes, radio guys, TV crews – are herded into a hall called “the Mix,” a barriered maze from ice sheet to locker room during within which the media has mere seconds to convey its interest in interviewing individual players immediately removed from the heat of battle. If a sport's governing body wanted to foster a more media unfriendly parade, it couldn't out-do “the mix.”
Fortunately, most hockey players – irrespective of nationality – bear hockey player sensibilities: humble, patient, and accommodating. Often they rise above the barriers and of their own volition assist the press.
Tuesday morning we were thwarted from recording virtually all of our intended story ideas because the IIHF never organized a single formal press availability for a single team competing in the Worlds' quarterfinals. Access to players and coaches was entirely the whim of said players and coaches. You haven't received coverage of Alexander Ovechkin from us on this trip because the Russian hockey hierarchy is guarding access to the team with Cold War sensibilities.
Some here are commendably accommodating: Andy Murray and his Canadian charges; Ralph Krueger (a thoughtful quote machine) and his Swiss team; the Swedes, particularly; we caught up with American advisory council GM Ray Shero, who helpfully gave us an update on injured captain Chris Clark's status. (He remains uncertain for Thursday's game.)
The list of accommodating included U.S. captain Clark. He's receiving treatment for a deep leg bruise, but this afternoon, when he received email from Vogel about our trouble gaining access to almost all teams here, he immediately replied and invited us to meet up with him at his hotel on Wednesday. Relatively speaking, we're lucky; most other media here do not enjoy such a cordial and accommodating relationship with the subjects at hand.
Just when we were set to leave the arena slump-shouldered and grumpy early this afternoon we received the captain's email. The rest of Tuesday our agenda was simple: catch a catnap and make our way back to the arena for an evening reception with legendary old timers and VIP guests, the invitation for which arrived only from grand good luck of being in the right place at the right time in this city.
We walked into the reception lounge and were instantly surrounded by hockey gliterati. The event was lavishly catered: fine European finger food, spirits, scrumptuous hot buffet, the works. But being in a mid-sized reception room and at every turn seeing North American and European hockey figures enshrined in Halls of Fame across continents, ever ready and gracious to pose for any number of pictures with no-name bloggers and their escorts, washed away all the day's earlier agony.
We were all set to call it a stunning success when in the arena parking lot deep in the night the lone elusive star, Russia's Minister of Sport – a cabinet-level position here – and hockey legend Fetisov, stopped his security detail to pose for a final pic with Vogs and Rucki.
At every turn away from the rink and the officious IIHF we are living the puckhead's dream of privileged access.