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Behind the Hockey Diaries: Part 1

Matt Hendricks (Photo courtesy of Gemma Hooley / Chris Nelson)
Matt Hendricks (Photo courtesy of Gemma Hooley / Chris Nelson)

"From hockey players in North America to wildlife biologists in South Africa, we listen to people's lives, document their stories, and explore the ideas that connect us all." - mediachameleon

Four years ago, public radio veterans Gemma Hooley and Chris Nelson approached the Washington Capitals with an innovative idea: to produce a documentary that would follow two members of the team over the course of an NHL season, chronicling their year through interviews and personal audio diaries.

The result was an hour-long program that debuted in the fall of 2009 entitled "Hockey Diaries: Ready to Play" and told the tale of the 2008-09 season as seen through the eyes of Brooks Laich and Karl Alzner. A year later a second installment was released, "The Almost Season" featuring Tyler Sloan and Mike Knuble. And as training camp got underway this fall we were treated to a third edition, "Change the Game", which focuses on Matt Hendricks and Braden Holtby.

Gemma and Chris were kind enough to sit down with us for an in-depth look at what goes into these season snapshots and their impressions of working with members of the Caps...after the jump, part one of our conversation where they talk about the origins of Hockey Diaries and what goes into the player selection process each year.

Japers' Rink: Looking back at projects you've worked on in the past, the range of subjects is fairly wide - but when you started 'Hockey Diaries' a few years ago it was really, if I'm not mistaken, your first look at sports and the life of the professional athlete. Walk us through how this all came about - where did this idea come from and what was it about hockey in general or hockey players in particular that drew you to a project like this?

Gemma: One of the things that we've done in public radio is make a lot of long-form documentaries, usually thirty-minute or one-hour documentaries. So we're immediately a fan of that format and we feel comfortable in that format and we think there's a place for that format in the media. But we hadn't done a lot of sports stuff before this, you're right about that, and I hadn't even really been a hockey fan - I'm South African, and there's ice hockey activity in South Africa but not a professional league, and I grew up wanting to be a ballet dancer so I wasn't into that world at all. But Chris actually grew up as a Capitals fan, because he was born in Washington, and he's played hockey.

We felt pretty strongly that there was a lot of really great coverage of hockey but no one was really doing it in this way as far as we could tell. Maybe because no one was willing to put in the time - there's certainly an appetite for the stuff on the part of the listeners, but it's a tough thing to make a living doing. People love to hear it and want to hear it on the air but not a lot of people are willing to pay for it. But we really felt like there was a space to tell a more in-depth story about a team, about what it takes to make it in the NHL, that incorporated the stuff that other people were already covering so well, the play-by-play of games and the story of the game-by-game season.

We also thought from our background that there was a lot of stuff in between games, and how can we use that stuff to get at the rich, deep, cool-sounding story about this amazing sport to reach people who think they aren't hockey fans, who are fooled by the sort of stereotypes that prevail in the non-hockey media about hockey being a game of fighting or a game of people with no teeth. We really wanted to try to use storytelling to reach new audiences and get away from the stereotypes.

So that's what we thought we wanted to do. We went to the Caps and had a meeting with Kurt Kehl, who was the Director of Communications at the time, and Nate Ewell, and pitched it to them. We said you probably think we're crazy, and the easiest thing will be to say no, because we're going to ask you for much more access than you probably want to give, but maybe there's a way to meet us halfway. Give us a season and see what we can accomplish with the players.

The Caps are one of the more open teams in terms of embracing new media and different types of coverage but hockey is still a notoriously private sport. Was there any hesitation, either on the part of the ownership or the GM or the players themselves, at giving that much access?

Chris: I don't know that we have any more access than most of our counterparts. The way we approach the players is probably a little different than other media, certainly more traditional media who are interested in what's going on in the moment - we're often times not interested in what's going on in the moment. So many times you'd have a big media scrum around the player that we're following and we'd just sit quietly and watch it take place, and then afterwards we'd ask something that's completely unrelated, ask about their lives outside hockey or what else is going on.

I think that sense that what they tell us doesn't get immediately printed or published goes a long way to building trust. And so they know that what they're telling us is somewhat confidential for nine months or so, which goes a long way. Also I think when we pitch the idea sometimes the players are a little confused and maybe don't understand what we want to do - but after the first month or so of the season they see the types of questions that we ask and get a better understanding of what we're after. I just think they think of us a little differently than they do the rest of the media.

GH: We certainly don't get any different access, we just ask different things. A lot of people ask what we thought of HBO and 24/7 - jealous, we'd love that kind of access. I think just the trust we develop with the diary-keepers and the understanding on their part that anything they're recording on the diary and stuff that comes up in the one-on-one discussions isn't going to get heard until the season's over.

CN: We even go one step further. If we hear something in the course of the season that might make a player look a certain way, we'll often actually just consult with the player and make sure it wasn't just the emotion of the moment and make sure that they're okay with it when it all comes together. We've never had a player say "don't put that on" and we've always let them hear it first. But generally they understand that the project is about being open and honest; we've had really good luck with open, honest players and it's worked out really well for us.

Talk about the guys that have been featured, because you mention luck but there's obviously a lot of research that goes into picking the right players. These are guys at different stages in their career, guys who are going through some sort of transition, who are hitting milestones even signing new contracts. What is the selection process like each season?

CN: Thanks for noticing the work because, and Gemma has said this before, we often get comments like "wow, you're so lucky to have picked Player X" but we don't necessarily look at it as luck. We try really, really hard to get players that we think are going to have an interesting season and make the season better. It's actually one of the more stressful times of year for us when we're trying to think about what we've just done, how can we grow on the idea, how can we make this year's different, what's a different storyline we can tell. One of the things Gemma and I decided about this year's project is that we won't be focusing on a player that's sort of straddling the line between Hershey and Washington because we've done that two of the three seasons and we want to move in a different direction.

GH: As I keep saying, I'm not an interesting enough writer to keep making that storyline interesting year after year. Mainly what we look for, we always want two players and we want them to have some sort of tension that drives the narrative. Not tension personally between the players but just for the two players to be different enough so it's easy to go back and forth between them in the piece and make it clear to the listener who we're talking about - to not have to keep introducing the player every time. So we try to pick two players that have different enough situations but that are likely to have some sort of interaction, because that really helps drive the story and how we tell it.

The first year we knew we wanted a rookie and a veteran, we thought that would be enough tension to drive the story. As it turns out we couldn't ask for a better diary-keeper than Karl Alzner, and Brooks Laich, as well, was amazing. He kept fewer diary entries than Karl did - Karl talked into his diary a lot the first year but Brooks was very thoughtful and very available for interviews throughout the year as well as recording just a handful of really good diaries. Between those two different approaches we had a lot of material to work with.

It was sort of the same with Knuble and Sloan - Knuble being the veteran and a sort of calming and almost philosophical voice on the team and Sloan, by no means a rookie but still trying to make it, was very honest about the frustration he felt with himself and his season in his diary. And then of course last year with Hendricks and Holtby - we were thrilled to have a goaltender for the first time and really excited to get into his head a little bit and learn with him, as young as he is. We had no idea what Hendricks was going to be like; we observed him for a week in training camp like everybody else and when he told us he was a public radio fan we figured he'd probably really get what we're trying to do. And he was anxious to introduce himself to fans and saw this as a way to do that, as well.

Check back tomorrow for part two as Chris and Gemma talk about picking Hendricks and Holtby for "Change the Game", the expansion of Bruce Boudreau's role in the series and those pesky diaries...

Additional footage from Hockey Diaries is and will continue to be available on their tumblr, and you can also follow them on Twitter @mediachameleon.

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