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At Center Ice: How and Why I Became a Hockey Writer

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A female sportswriter and wannabe Canadian on how she came to work in sports media.

Jackie Budko Photography

Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I think of is hockey.

Hockey. Hockey. Hockey.

I’m so fortunate to have ended up where I am. And by a conversation that I had not long ago, I was inspired to reflect: how – and why – did I get here?

And there are a lot of reasons. So I guess I’ll go way back and start from there.

As soon as I learned to write back in kindergarten, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I’d go through countless notebooks and sticky notes, and when I couldn’t find those, I turned to pieces of Scotch tape and stick them around my house.

I wasn’t handed a lot in my life. I grew up in a loving but small family; my parents were divorced and my father wasn’t around – or really interested in being around – so it was just my mom and my sister. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my mom worked tirelessly, balancing being a single mom and working long hours, so that my sister and I could achieve what we wanted, and eventually, go to college.

I wasn’t one of the cool kids, either; I was a little out there, kind of weird (I still am, but I like the word “jerk” better). I was shorter than everyone else, and pretty awkward. It was also a bit awkward that instead of playing on the playground, I’d sit at a picnic table off to the side of the playground, hosting my own talk radio show. And because I switched schools, I often sat by myself, though I didn’t really mind it.

And mainly because I was able to find an outlet through hockey.

I went to my first Caps game on Dec. 18, 2009. It was against the St. Louis Blues at (formerly) Verizon Center. I forget who fought that night, but it was just an unreal experience being in that arena.

From that point on, it was always hockey.

I wore my Alex Ovechkin shirt and jersey to school almost every day. I played floor hockey and goalie by myself in my living room while my sister was trying to watch TV. And worst of all, I’d commentate the games, and even call penalties from my couch.

“Shut up, Sammi!” my mom joked.

I pretended to be a star in Be-A-Pro on NHL09 and NHL Slapshot. My wall was decorated with a 6-foot-3 Ovechkin fathead and Caps’ bobbleheads. And I cried through the Capitals second-round exits.

A young Sammi with Jason Chimera.

So all I knew in middle school was that I loved hockey. And writing fiction stories on my mom’s Toshiba. But as I grew up, I had no idea what I wanted to do in life – and wanted to find out and pursue it as early as I could.

Then came the phases: I wanted to be a professional golfer, then a jazz saxophonist (until my mom had me play the clarinet instead), a singer, a cartoonist and a soccer goalie. And that’s what I genuinely thought I’d do: go from the fourth-string goaltender on my middle school team to the NCAA – but alas, I was an outcast (all the cool girls played soccer) and I was told I was too slow.

I started bawling in the car, until my mom reminded me that I could put all my passion into something else: the school paper.

“Okay, you’re going to take all that energy, and you’ll put it into writing,” she told me.

That’s when my mom encouraged me to find my calling, but most importantly, do something I love. Don’t do it for money, or fame, or anything else. Just do what you love.

So four years went by quickly working my way up to editor-in-chief of my newspaper. At that point, the plan was that I’d be an English teacher – until I found out that I could blog and write about hockey.

I could combine those passions and see if I’m any good at it.

And while I wasn’t the greatest, I enjoyed it. People enjoyed reading what I had to say. I was told I had promise and the ability to tell stories.

So I started blogging for FanSided, landing my first gig as the site expert (basically EIC) for their Oilers website after graduating high school. Ultimately, I landed a gig with The Hockey Writers covering the Washington Capitals.

“i could end up in the press box,” I remember telling my mom. “I want to interview the Caps.”

That’s when I started to work hard every day, typing aggressively at 106 words a minute from my dorm. I’m sure I kept a couple of my roommates up late at night – but it worked out, because I lived in singles for a couple semesters.

My first real interview was with Kevin Shattenkirk, where we talked about his trade to Washington. Entering my junior year of college, I had written enough quality content to earn an invite to Caps’ training camp, and ultimately, that press box at Capital One Arena to cover games.

Ironically enough, that first game was against the St. Louis Blues, too.

All that year, I followed the same pattern: wake up at 7:45 a.m. (oversleeping sometimes), take the metro down to Arlington, walk to the practice facility, go to practice, talk to the guys, write a bit, metro back to UMD, go to class, write some more, do homework (and pretend to have interest in doing my homework) and fit some sleep and gaming in there before doing it all again the next day.

An older Sammi interviewing Braden Holtby.

It’s not easy. Writing is a very hard thing; It’s taken years to get better at, and even now, I still have a ways to go.

But it’s also especially hard when you’re a woman. I’ve had multiple men call me names and tell me I know nothing about the sport, and I’ve often not been taken seriously. In fact, in 2017, women only had 11.4 percent of sports story bylines, according to the News Media Alliance.

It’s a tough business. It’s competitive. And there’s not a lot of women in sports. And while I’m still in school and growing as a person (unfortunately though, I’m not getting any taller), it can all be a bit hard to juggle at times.

So why do I write?

For the love of it all, as cliche as that may sound. I’m not in this business for the clicks, or for the money, or to be noticed. Pageviews don’t really matter to me; my posts don’t need to be the most retweeted or the most looked at.

What matters to me is that those who do read my article get a lot out of them. I love sharing stories; I always have. And to be lucky enough to put those stories into words for those who don’t have the access that I do means everything to me.

I also do it for all the memories I will carry with me over time. Like when Jay Beagle threw a ball of tape and almost hit me in the head, then apologized, going “Oooh sorry about that! Sticky fingers!” Or talking to a very-happy Nicklas Backstrom after Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. Or being there for the Cup Final to finally see Washington hoist the Cup, then take fans inside the Caps parade.

Getting to know these players, like Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and to share their stories has been an unforgettable experience and a great honour that drives my passion for hockey and journalism.

Now, I’m lucky enough to be with the Washington Post, NBC Sports Washington and my favourite Internet blog here at Japers’ Rink.

Shoutout to all of them, by the way: J.P. and Becca for always backing all my ideas and giving me great feedback and encouragement. Jason Rogers, for being my best friend and an outstanding writer and person. And of course the rest of the Japers’ crew: Kevin, Alex, Greg, Adam, Maddie, Geoff, etc. (sorry if I missed ya). They work really hard to make sure you get quality Caps content with real and honest reporting.

So if there’s anything you can take from this, or that I hope you take from this, is that you can do anything you want with your life if you’re driven enough to do it. If you want to do something or try something, there’s nothing to lose, and there’s always someone in your corner. Also, if you’re a female interested in sports, writing or both: don’t let anyone get you down or discourage you. We need more people and trailblazers like you.

And finally, make sure what you’re doing is something you love, and don’t do it for the wrong reasons (i.e. to make money or get noticed through “clicks” or whatever the kids are doing these days).

Thanks for reading. I’ll catch you guys on the web! Be kind to each other and always know your aspirations are in reach; so never, ever give up.