By Ben Waldman
Steven Ellis was an eight-year-old boy when the last World Cup of Hockey happened back in 2004.
With Toronto hosting the first edition of the tournament in more than a decade this September, the NHL has devoted considerable resources to creating a colourful atmosphere of fanfare and media hype that Ellis understands better than most. But the setting of his first World Cup experience couldn’t have been more remote.
The Oakville native and his family were cramped into a two-bed camper in Nova Scotia’s Mira River Provincial Park. Inside, there was barely enough room to walk around. The family brought a small tube television, complete with an antenna, and began flipping through the channels.
Hockey appeared on the screen. Canada versus the U.S. Here versus there. Canada emerged with a 2-1 victory, and would go on to win the championship title.
It was the first game of the tournament and the first hockey game Ellis can remember watching. Quickly, he learned the players’ names and numbers, and before long he knew their statistics and even voices. He was hooked. But he didn’t think the tournament would become more than a spectacle for him.
“I never imagined I’d be covering the next World Cup and get the chance to talk to star players,” he said.
Twelve years after watching Canada beat the U.S., that’s exactly what he and a handful of other Ryerson students are doing at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
When we meet, Ellis is visibly exhausted. His face is flushed, his eyes are drooping and his voice trails off quickly. “I was just at morning skate. I need a nap,” he says.
He’s wearing a personalized Antarctica hockey jersey, which looks as strange as it sounds. Obscure hockey teams from outside North America are a specialty of Ellis’s.
It’s how the third-year journalism student landed media credentials for the World Cup, covering the tournament for Eurohockey.com. But there’s nothing obscure about the teams he’s covering here. At the World Cup, it’s all about the stars.
Earlier in the week, Ellis was heading to ice level at the Air Canada Centre. The elevator doors opened and inside stood Carey Price and Shea Weber, Team Canada mainstays and marquee players for the Montreal Canadiens. Price offered him a water bottle, which he politely declined, staying calm through the encounter.
Ellis even got to ask Sidney Crosby a question during a media scrum. “A pretty basic one,” he says. “But I had to make sure the wording was perfect. I wasn’t too scared, though. I just couldn’t screw it up.”
Ellis says that meeting the game’s biggest players doesn’t shake him. Nor do his experiences standing shoulder-to-shoulder with professional media members. “This tournament is the first time I’ve felt I belonged; like I stacked up [to the pros].”
Though he feels well-integrated, Ellis wishes he could talk directly to the biggest stars, instead of scrambling to make space for himself in huge scrums.
In those situations, Ellis pushes his way to the front, extending his arm so the phone he’s recording on is close enough to the players’ mouths to get a coating of spit and sweat. But he’s one of dozens of reporters and bloggers in the scrum, and it’s easy for him to fade into the background; it’s easy for anyone. Just ask Aaron Greenfield.
Greenfield applied to cover the tournament on a whim. He happened upon the application and sent in his request for credentials. Denied.
“I did not expect to get accepted,” said Greenfield, a fourth-year media production student. He applied a second time, this time with RUtv, one of Ryerson’s RTA news networks. “I’d say I slipped through,” he said.
Greenfield was granted credentials, and a few weeks later he was filming an interview with Crosby.
For Greenfield, an aspiring sports videographer, the men standing on either side of Crosby made the moment even more exciting. It was Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet, and Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman, one of hockey’s most recognized and respected journalists.
“I said hello to Friedman, but we didn’t have a long conversation,” Greenfield said. “That’s kind of one of my goals while I’m here.”
Greenfield has run through the conversation many times in his head: Hello, I’m Aaron from Ryerson. I’m looking to intern at Hockey Night in Canada…
He’s seen Friedman several times while working the World Cup. Again and again, he finds himself stuck at “hello”.
Greenfield hasn’t given up on his mission. He approached Friedman again, but business had to come first. “He was sort of busy, it seemed, so he told [me] to reach out to him on Twitter.”
As Greenfield and Ellis both know, it’s scary to talk to your idols.
“I’m terrified,” Ellis tells me as we stand in front of a needlessly gargantuan stage, surrounded by hundreds of people in the Distillery District where the tournament has set up its Fan Village.
Ellis arrives late from the ACC, where he was covering a semi-final game. Out of breath and out of time, he finagles his way up to a set of metal dividers, the only thing separating us from the figure of sporting royalty on the stage.
Wayne Gretzky sits in a white leather armchair, clad in a black suit and tie, fielding questions from Sportsnet’s Chris Simpson. After a few minutes, an event rep pulls Ellis’s arm and says something to him.
“He wants me to ask Gretzky a question,” Ellis tells me.
The question isn’t his own—the rep told him what to ask, not noticing his media pass—but Ellis is clearly nervous. He shoves his hands in his pockets and puts his sunglasses on.
After a few questions from fans, the mic makes its way to Ellis.
“Hey Wayne,” he says. “How do you think the game has changed since you left?”
Ellis immediately turns to me and smiles. Gretzky’s answer doesn’t really matter. He got to ask the biggest star in hockey history a question.
And he didn’t screw it up.