A light goes out

10 May

“HOLY SHIT IT’S THE ALL-STAR TEAM!”

There are few bellows that quite match the one Jason Botchford possessed.

Since we learned of his passing last week, I’ve heard more than once people referencing the way he would greet people: he’d draw out your name, in a raised voice, in a tone that caught your attention.

As in “PADDDDY-JAYYYY!” (He’d say that most days when I arrived in the press box at Rogers Arena.)

Sometimes it would be lowered in volume because, well the moment actually called for it, but most of the time, it was full-force.

On that day in January 2013 when he got fired up by this apparent all-star team, it was definitely the latter.

There was Wyatt Arndt, Cam Charron and me, standing by the top railing at UBC’s Father Bauer Arena, the day before Canucks training camp was officially to start. From our right came Botchford’s now well-noted cry.

The three of us were there for Canucks Army. You may have heard of the blog.

The 2012-13 NHL lockout had just come to an end; it seemed we were finally to have another season of Canucks hockey.

Province sports writers Steve Ewen (left) and Jason Botchford at the 2016 Carsonis Awards in Vancouver. (Photo: Patrick Johnston)

This was also going to be our only chance to bag interviews from Canucks players during pre-season, since the team still had a solid no-non-traditional outlets policy.

Those were the days.

Botch’s exultation said so much about how much respect he held for us and what our site represented. At the time, Charron and I were writing just about every day for Canucks Army; Charron was also writing for the Legion of Blog, the new setup The Province had started the year before after the popular Kurtenblog departed. Arndt, of course, was writing plenty for the LOB too.

(There were six other regular writers for Canucks Army in those days: Thom Drance, editor, plus Dimitri Filipovic, Jeff Angus, Jordan Clarke, Marda Miller and the notorious PetBugs. Drance of course now works for the Florida Panthers, as do three successors of ours at Canucks Army, Cam Lawrence, Josh Weissbock and Rhys Jessop. Filipovic also spent a period working for a team, too. It’s been quite the stable of promising talent and Botchford was one of its greatest champions.)

The way Canucks Army was covering hockey led the charge towards where we are today; with data underlying everything, driving the narratives.

A couple years later, at the first Vancouver Hockey Analytics Conference, Botch declared that he’d learned an important lesson from Charron: the wunderkind, who now works in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ hockey analytics department, had once accused Botchford of “using quotes as a crutch.”

For Botchford, this was a watershed moment, he said.

It flipped the way he told stories. The Provies/Athletties became about adding “why” to the what: we all saw what happened, but why did it happen.

The beginning of the answer lay in the number, and not so much in the person’s own belief of what happened.

Jason Botchford displays a Nikita Tryamkin fan-produced Tshirt in July 2017. (Photo: Patrick Johnston)

So, the post-game quote, which rarely provides insight on its face, became less about driving the narrative and more about explaining the evidence.

That said, that didn’t meant that Botchford didn’t pursue post-game quotes; many of his best bits actually came from the relationships he built in that room.

It was quite the thing to witness first-hand, once I joined the Canucks beat this season (due, of course, to Botchford leaving the paper for The Athletic). Botch would wait for the scrums to dissipate, then embark on a particular line of questioning with a player, often centred in on a thing that often only he had noticed.

On Dec. 1, the Canucks lost a game they should have won 2-1 to the Dallas Stars. I got what I felt was a pretty solid, heartfelt reaction from Bo Horvat after the game. I remember feeling pretty good about what I’d gleaned.

Then I read the Athletties from that same game. Botch got some great stuff about Horvat’s frustrations, digging deeper into them than I did.

And at the end of that edition of the Athletties, a particularly long one in this case, Botch also revealed that he’d talked to Horvat about the challenge of being the team’s chief PR man, the replacement for Henrik Sedin, the Canuck who always stands in when the going is tough.

It was a brilliant exchange. It was exactly what Botch wanted his post-game pieces to be about: they took the fans into the room and relayed what he could about what he’d found there.

Well after midnight, I texted him about how what he’d done was a reminder to me of what you can still get out of a dressing room following a frustrating loss, of how much I still had to learn about our craft.

“Don’t learn too fast lol,” he replied. That was a Botch compliment; and yes, that meant a lot.

It’s been noted in many places now that what made the Provies/Athletties work was how Botchford injected his own personality into the story. That you didn’t always know who he was talking about was sort of the point. He wanted you to come to him.

Most of us can’t dream of pulling that off. That takes balls. At the end of the day, Botchford was going to do things his way. His way, he would tell you, was to look where no one else was. There were stories there. I don’t know if he was a fan of Jimmy Breslin, but the Pulitizer Prize-winner was known for going to places where no other journalist was.

Jason Botchford shows off a damaged thumb while reporting at Rogers Arena, Sept. 2017. (Photo: Patrick Johnston)

“Don’t go where the crowd is,” was Breslin’s motto, an ethos that drove him to write columns which dialled in on unique people and thus telling big stories in new ways, like the tale of the man who dug JFK’s grave. That column is now considered a seminal piece of journalism.

As many of his work colleagues have said, Botch was a guy we mostly knew through work. Family life was there, we knew, it was important, we knew, and so was a passion for music, especially Phish, but at work, with us, he really just wanted to talk about hockey, or maybe the Eagles.

(Once in a while he would gently chide me about my occasional non-sports Twitter rants. “You were really fired up there,” he’d remark, with a shit-eating grin.)

Working with him, I did realize a few things.

He cared deeply about journalism, about getting the story right, how we should all keep asking questions — there were few things that annoyed him as much as the scrum lurker, the reporter who just tapes the interviews but puts no questions forward themselves — and his writing always reminded me to take nothing at face value. Yes, sometimes he may have hyped his opinions — the man did love to frame his narratives as if he were writing a pro wrestling script — but when it came to reporting on the Canucks, he was rock solid. He got the story and I never knew him to get the facts wrong.

That’s essential to understand. In modern sportswriting, there is a clear duality: we’re there to report on what’s happening, but we’re also there to offer up our own expert analysis. It’s a bit of knife’s edge; it’s hard for most to do well. Count Botch as one of the best of these edge-walkers.

Don Taylor described Botchford last week on TSN 1040 as “a fan of Canucks fans.” Their interest, their desire for the team to be better drove him to find out what was going on with the team. So when it came time to explain those goings-on, it was always airtight.

Yes, he had his weird little fights which made him some enemies but he wasn’t there to be liked. He was there to get the story. There’s so much to be respected in that, even if you disagreed with his approach at times.

During this past season, I felt so fortunate to work the Canucks beat with him. I learned so much about how to frame questions and how to think about a story in a new way.

Jason was an incredible supporter of me over the years. He’d tell you if an idea wasn’t good but he’d also be sure to tell you how great an idea was. Shortly after I started at The Province in July 2013, I discoverEd that Botch had already raved about me to sports editor Jonathan McDonald. I never forgot that. After he left The Province for The Athletic and I took over his old job at the paper, I sent him a quick note to thank him for the support and friendship he’d shown me.

“I’m pumped for you,” he replied.

Going forward, there are a few things I’m going to keep in mind. Botch wanted us all to be better. He wanted us to carry on the fight, to seek not just the quotes, but the truth, which sometimes meant presenting a few possibilities when we relayed our stories to our readers.

And there’s another thing that Breslin apparently used to say that I find helps me to understand my friend, now that he’s gone.

“If you don’t blow your horn,” Mike Lupica relayed to us upon the New York columnist’s death in 2017, “there is no music.”

2 Responses to “A light goes out”

  1. James Brown 11/05/2019 at 7:45 pm #

    Thx Patrick … articles like this honour Botch and give us hope that an army will rise and give us insight and hope!
    James

  2. adventuresinprints 13/05/2019 at 11:31 pm #

    Thanks for sharing Patrick!

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