Shawna Richer was only hoping to follow “The Crosby Show” this year.
She’s actually become part of it.
Richer, a reporter for The Globe and Mail – a Toronto, Ontario-based newspaper, put her life on hold for more than half a year to witness Pittsburgh sports history: the arrival of the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby.
Richer isn’t just watching Crosby’s progression in the NHL like the rest of the hockey world; she’s chronicling his entire season.
“It’s been done a couple times before with Michael Jordan’s comeback and I think one of the Cleveland papers did it with LeBron James his last year of high school,” Richer said. “It’s never been done in Canada, so it’s quite a unique project for us.”
Richer, who had written some stories about Crosby while he was growing up in Nova Scotia, had an epiphany while listening to this year’s NHL Entry Draft – why not follow the young star all season?
“I had been The Globe and Mail’s Atlantic Canada Bureau Chief in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the last three and a half years. I wasn’t really covering Sidney in a significant way, but I had done a couple pieces with his parents and I was very aware him,” said Richer, who began as a sports writer with The Globe in 1997 before making a move to news reporting. “In Nova Scotia, he’s like a national treasure. I was listening to the NHL Draft Lottery and I couldn’t be there to cover it because I was committed to something else, but I was listening to it on the way back to Halifax in the car. It was just really exciting. I think there had been a feeling in Canada, at least from my perspective, that people were angry about the lockout – they were angry at the owners; they were angry at the players.
“But, it seemed the minute [the lockout] was over, there was this feeling from coast to coast that people were so glad to have [the NHL] back and there was this huge excitement,” she continued. “I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be fun to write the history of his first year in the NHL as it unfolds in real time?’
“I just wrote a short email that night to my editors and they were completely on board from the beginning.”
Of course, to cover Crosby, you have to go to Crosby. That meant Richer had to leave her home in Halifax and move to Pittsburgh for the 2005-06 hockey season.
“I was just so in love with the idea of the story, that I really didn’t think a lot about that until they actually said yes,” she said with a laugh. “I really like Pittsburgh, though. It’s been an easy move to make. It actually reminds me a lot of Toronto, in a way. It’s very neighborhoody; the downtown seems very vibrant. It’s very friendly; everybody’s been very welcoming, which is really great and made the job a lot easier.”
The Globe and Mail arranged for Richer to have an apartment in Shadyside and paid for storage of her belongings in Halifax.
“They have been incredibly generous and supportive in every way,” she said. “It was an easy move in a lot of ways. We rented a furnished apartment and I just sort of decided to put my life on hold for the length of the season. I don’t regret it for a second – it’s been so much fun so far. It’s certainly a lot of work, but it’s really a treat to watch him. Every day, you see something that makes you jump out of your seat. So, I feel really lucky to be actually a witness to somebody who is going to be a great player for a long time.”
Richer didn’t even bring her car to Pittsburgh. She relies on buses and sometimes catches rides from other reporters. When the Penguins are on the road, Richer travels with the team.
“I didn’t bring my car because I just thought my focus here would be so narrow. I knew where I was living was fairly close to the rink and on the bus route,” she said. “Someone said to me it’d take a whole season to figure out the roads [in Pittsburgh] and that I should save the stress and leave my car back home. I think it was a good decision.”
Richer’s stories appear as a regular feature entitled ‘The Rookie’ in The Globe, a national Canadian publication with a daily readership around 1.3 million people. In addition, her blog is updated regularly on the paper’s website.
“I sort of went into it thinking it was going to be an occasional continuing series. I write about one major piece once a week,” she said. “The blog supplements that. In the blog, I try to cover some of the day-to-day things and the neat little things you see in practice to try to give readers just a sense of some of the stuff they don’t get to see on TV or that sort of thing.”
Richer’s writings have been a hit both in Canada and world-wide.
“I think ‘The Rookie’ is going great,” Ed Greenspon, The Globe’s Editor-in-Chief, wrote in an email. “We have come to the conclusion over the best few years that if you really want something to work out well, you have to demonstrate to the readers that you truly believe in it. Call it ‘Go big or go home,’ if you like. With ‘The Rookie’ we decided to go big, but to go big about an 18-year-old phenom as a person making the transition, we hope, to greatness. The hockey is central to the stories, but is in a way incidental. He could be a ballet dancer or an astronaut (although hockey allows us to measure his progress better).
“I think our approach has helped us turn this from a sports story to a human story, thereby broadening the audience beyond just sports fans. Any parent, anyone with personal aspirations, anyone who likes to see the inside of success, with all its ups and downs, would be drawn to ‘The Rookie’,” he continued. “I find myself increasingly addicted, day by day. I regularly check Shawna’s blog and I find myself inexorably drawn toward Penguins results to see how Sidney is faring.
“There is no denying, of course, the fact that Sidney has got off to a great start has helped ‘The Rookie’ become a success. This was Shawna’s idea and it was a magnificently ambitious idea and one she has executed well. But it was always important that her subject also come through for her. Any good biographer needs a worthy subject. So far, so good.”
Shawna can tell her stories have been a success just by the amount of reader emails and feedback she receives.
“I have never had this kind of reader response to anything I have ever written in my life,” she said. “My editor told me the other day he feels there are a whole bunch of Penguins fans in Canada now that maybe didn’t exist before. They look for [Crosby’s] stats and the Penguins scores at the same time they are looking for the Maple Leafs scores and the Canadiens scores. I feel like it’s really resonated with readers and they have tapped into it. They want him to do well. He is easy to cheer for. I think the whole country is kind of cheering for him this season.”
While Richer’s coverage focuses on Crosby, who was the NHL’s No. 1 pick in 2005, it isn’t just about Crosby.
“One of the interesting things about covering him for a season is that it gives us a presence in the U.S. to write about broader hockey things,” she said. “We’ve always gotten about excited our No. 1 draft picks [in Canada]. I think, in terms of No. 1 draft picks, he’s special. It made sense to do it in the shadow of the lockout ending because he’s kind of the right guy at the right time. There’s so much other stuff going on around him. The league is hoping he does well because they need him. The future of the franchise here is kind of up in the air and he’s going to be the catalyst, maybe, for good things happening here. So, there are a lot of layers to this story that are about more than just how well he does on the ice.
“We’re going to use this series as an excuse to tell other good stories, too,” she continued. “One of the good byproducts is that we watch Mario [Lemieux] – a legend sort of in the twilight of his career as Sidney’s is starting. We’ll do a big Mario piece at some point. I get to travel around to other NHL cities and there are lots of good stories.”
Richer believes Pittsburgh was the ideal spot for Crosby since he could learn from Lemieux – one of the game’s greats.
“I remember when the draft lottery was happening; because I was almost listening to it as a fan at that point, I was hoping Montreal would win the pick because I knew his dad had been drafted by them and Sidney loves Montreal,” she said. “I thought it would really mean a lot to him for Montreal to win that pick. When Montreal went by, I thought, ‘Well maybe Pittsburgh will get it.’ I knew that he had worked out with Mario and they had a bit of a relationship and I remember a story about Sidney’s mom telling me about meeting Mario’s mom and how impressed she was with her. It just seemed like a nice, warm and fuzzy angle. When Pittsburgh won the pick, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is great for him because it’s a good city, they have won some Stanley Cups, it’s a really credible hockey city and yet it’s a franchise that needs him because they have had troubles.’ With Mario being here, it just seemed like a great fit for him because he’d have a mentor and someone who he already had a bit of a relationship with, so it seemed kind of perfect.”
Richer didn’t know what to expect out of Crosby this season, but she has been impressed every game.
“I knew he was a great player with limitless potential. I tried not to have a lot of expectations with him because I didn’t want the coverage to be sort of dictated by a preconceived notion of what I expected,” she said. “He has been absolutely amazing. He’s been better every game. He looked nervous, but good in the first game against New Jersey. He just gets noticeably better every night, which is amazing.
“He definitely is the team’s best player every night,” she continued. “He’s really fun to watch. I have learned a lot about hockey just watching him and really paying attention to the way he plays.”
Richer wasn’t sure how the 18-year-old phenom would react to having his entire rookie season chronicled.
“When training camp started, I was kind of nervous about how I was going to approach him. After the first wave of hubbub died down, I just went up to him and introduced myself,” she said. “He knew that there was someone around who was doing this. I explained to him what I was doing and how I was going to approach it. He was really cool about it.
“I have learned a lot and gained a lot in this assignment just by being quiet and watching and observing a lot of times rather than necessarily getting in there and talking a lot. There’s a lot to be gained just by quietly watching. I try to pick my spots with him,” she continued. “I am around him a lot and certainly pay more attention to him than anything else, but if I feel like he needs a little space – you can tell. I can pick up on that and I tried to use that to make the relationship go as smoothly as possible. I respect that he needs a little space sometimes. Sometimes, you have great conversations with him. Other times, it’s just better to step back now and then.”
Crosby, who has been a focus of intense media attention for years, is not bothered by Richer’s coverage.
“No, not at all. I haven’t had a reporter actually come to a place and live there, but I have seen a lot of the same reporters throughout, so it hasn’t been something to new,” he said. “I don’t really think about it too much. Obviously, I see her around a lot. Besides that, I just handle her like media any other day. It’s unique and I am probably talking to her more than anyone since she is here a lot. It’s a good opportunity for her. It’s different just to see not only what happens on the ice, but in the locker room, too, and how that works. I am sure she’s having a lot of fun doing this.”
Crosby has been more than accommodating to Richer and other reporters.
“He’s amazing. He’s professional and he seems to have a lot of time for people who want to ask him questions,” she said. “I don’t know if he enjoys it; I am not sure anybody would enjoy it, but he is certainly gracious about it like it’s a regular part of his job.”
While Richer did not know Crosby well before they both came to Pittsburgh, she understands his background.
“I certainly didn’t know him, but it felt nice having a bit of a relationship with his parents. They are really nice people,” she said. “I think maybe even more important than having a relationship with him going into this, I had a relationship with the place he’d come from. I think that’s really valuable. He is very much a product of where he comes from – very hard-working and down-to-earth. You see that when you meet him, but I sort of understand where it all comes from, which is nice.”
Once the season is over, hockey fans can won’t have to wait long to read more about Crosby. Richer is working on a book about the rookie’s season, too, which is slated for release in the fall.
“I will never get out to a movie now,” she said with a laugh. “It’s going to be a lot of work.”
Will Richer be back to follow Crosby’s second season?
“We haven’t discussed it and I think it might be too much,” she said. “At that point, you might be signing up to cover his whole career and you might lose the impact. The first one is the most important one, I think. You never know, though, I wouldn’t rule anything out.”