It was the middle of the first period, and the Phoenix Coyotes were battling the Montreal Canadiens in a pre-holiday tilt. 14,000 fans were watching the players chase the puck, and three racing journalists were bent over their smartphones, furiously tapping out updates on the just-released press release about Kyle Busch's immediate future to their social media followers.
Later, Nate Ryan, Jeff Gluck, and Dustin Long apologized to me for letting work intrude on the game, as if I would be offended that they had to do their jobs when they should have been enjoying a night off. It was a very polite, but wholly unnecessary gesture on their part, because six years ago I had been doing almost precisely the same thing chasing down scoops about Kyle's brother Kurt and his now-infamous run-in with Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
I may be an aging, disconnected blogger now, but a few years ago I was a member of the "scoop" community too. Like a corporate network administrator, my hours knew no limits - a bit of breaking news had the potential to hit at any hour of the day or night, and so I annoyed my family by constantly checking voicemail, e-mail, and every other source I could find to be on top of the news so I could ride the wave when it broke.
The irony is that I absolutely hated - and still do hate - the chase for "the scoop." I was cured of the thirst for the adrenaline rush that comes with breaking a story before anyone else very early in the long, rocky process of becoming a semi-credible racing writer.
It was almost 15 years ago when I got hold of what I thought was a juicy tidbit of inside news about a particular race car driver's future plans. These were the days before I learned (the hard way) of the value of sourcing and confirmations, but after the advent of Internet gossip and rumor sites. Long story short, I sent the rumor on to the biggest NASCAR gossip site and was rewarded with my name in lights.
And very shortly afterwards, I was rewarded first by angry denials from the driver's management and sponsor, then by the furious operator of the rumor site who thought I was playing him for a fool. The worst part was that, once the vitriol was stripped away, they were right. I had been irresponsible in the way I had treated the rumor and downright stupid to pass it along.
They teach you about this in journalism school - I know, because I spent almost a year and a half in J-school in college before I switched majors. But I wasn't a journalist at the time - at best, I was an early, early version of a blogger.
It was my first in a long, long series of sometimes devastating personal experiences that shaped me into the person I am now. I look back on some of them and cringe, still haunted by the idiocy of my choices even though I am now separated from them by years. But that first experience was the one that began to sour my appetite for being first to a story.
That souring process was aided and abetted by my foray into the other side of racing journalism - the PR side. Working as a member of a team marketing crew, I saw for the first time what happened when rumor - substantiated and unsubstantiated - saw the light of day, and exactly how many people were affected by what fans consider to be mostly harmless gossip. Teams lost sponsors because an "enterprising" rumor-publisher broke leaked information on future plans in public. Drivers lost rides because supposedly "off-the-record" comments to a reporter saw the light of day in print. The casual power of technically above-board but ethically questionable information became distressingly clear to me during that time.
So I stopped chasing scoops and started chasing stories. It dawned on me as I spent more time interacting with people in the paddock that I felt more rewarded when I was able to shift my own focus from "What is going to happen?" to "What happened, how did it happen, why did it happen, and how did it affect you?"
I don't begrudge those who thrive on, or are required by their employment to participate in, the pursuit of the leading crest of breaking news. I simply realized that I felt more fulfilled when I abandoned that chase to settle into the role of storyteller. It turned out that telling stories suited me well, probably because I enjoy it so much more - and I think it shows when I write.
I don't want anyone to see this as a slam on Nate, Jeff, or Dustin, or anyone else who do yeoman's work in bringing the news to people. In fact, if anyone is to be criticized it probably should be me for a failure of will or courage - after all, the reduction of risk often means a corresponding reduction in ultimate reward. Certainly, my three friends are better-informed on virtually all racing subjects than I am because they are in there, positioned squarely in the hub of current events, while I am largely limited to the periphery.
But when I saw my friends hard at work on the Busch story, I had no problem sitting back and watching the game while they worked. I respected their ethic and their professionalism... and at the same time, I was content to be an observer instead of a participant. I have no designs on being a latter-day Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein.
That's my story, and I'm stickin' with it.