By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 12, 2009 6:17 PM
National Public Radio and the Washington Capitals hardly seem like a particularly synergistic fit for either entity. But after listening to a pair of meticulously produced pieces focusing on two members of the hockey team aired over the last few months on Morning Edition, isn't it grand to hear a kinder, gentler media approach toward a brawling, rough and tumble sport better known for its bone-crunching action than being an intellectual chess game on ice.
Independent co-producers Gemma Hooley and Chris Nelson have spent most of the last eight months trying to show a different side to the game, seen and heard through the eyes and the voices of Capitals forward Brooks Laich and rookie defenseman Karl Alzner.
Hooley and Nelson have been shadowing both players since the summer, with the full cooperation and blessing of team management. Both players agreed to speak with the producers on a regular basis, and also were given digital recorders to record their own sound that will be used in six to eight pieces aired on Morning Edition, and possibly other NPR shows, through the end of the Capitals' season. After that, a one-hour documentary will be produced, as well, and likely to be heard on NPR stations around the country.
"There is very little sports on NPR, and certainly not much hockey," said Hooley, a 40-year-old South African who narrates the features. "Chris and I thought there were so many stories that could be told, and we thought we could do it with sound. We're not interested in the games in general. We just thought we could follow two players through the season on and off the ice and explain the game in a thoughtful way, especially what it takes to play at this level."
"We've tried to build a relationship with Brooks and Karl," said Nelson, a 32-year-old native of Northern Virginia. "We wanted them to speak outside the kind of sound bites you get in the locker room after a game. We wanted to know what's going on in their lives, how it affects what they're doing on the ice, just a different look at the game for an audience that probably doesn't follow hockey that closely. They've both been fantastic."
The first story appeared Oct. 9 and focused on Alzner's quest to make the Capitals' roster after being selected in the first round as the fifth overall pick of the 2007 entry draft. He didn't quite get there after training camp, shipped down to Hershey in the AHL to play with the team's top minor league affiliate. But he's been brought back to the big club three different times, the last on Feb. 6, and his up and down saga already has provided some memorable material.
Alzner makes it a point to religiously recap every day on his digital recorder just before he goes to sleep every night. Hooley said one of the more poignant reports came the night he left his home in Saskatchewan, Canada, to report to the team, emotionally describing what it had been like to say goodbye to his friends and family before coming to training camp as one of the Capitals' top young prospects.
"He really spoke from his heart," Hooley said. "Our first piece was Karl taking listeners through training camp. He told us that when he was eight years old, he wrote on a piece of paper "I will make it to the NHL." He underlined the will several times, and he kept that on his bedroom wall growing up. The piece was about the agony of making it or not making it. At the end of camp, he didn't make it, but eventually, he did."
Alzner said he's thoroughly enjoyed chronicling his season, and clearly has embraced his radio role.
"I'm not a guy who holds anything back when I talk," he said. "I thought it would be cool to let people see behind the scenes. It hasn't been a distraction at all. I just let them know how my day went, what I'm thinking. There's no pressure on me or anything like that. When I had to go to Hershey, yeah, it was a little rough. But a lot of guys before me have gone through it. I'm still young.
"I think they (Hooley and Nelson) were probably kind of happy about me going down. They were able to get a little different perspective on hockey at that level, and I was happy to do it."
The second piece, which aired on Dec. 24, focused on Laich, specifically how he dealt with playing in pain after trying to block a 90 mile an hour slapshot with his body in one game early in the season.
"As hockey players, we know pain," Laich said in the piece. "We know good pain and we know bad pain. You know when you're kind of hurt and you know when you're injured ... It's kind of a code in hockey that you don't lay on the ice. It makes you kind of look like a wussy a little bit. Something I've always tried to do is if you're hurt or something, get off the ice and let the game continue.
"After the game, you ice it down and you're okay. Still, you're hurting. When you wake up in the morning and you're like 'oh my god, what happened to me last night?'"
Laich also is using his recorder to interview teammates and coaches, basically serving as an embedded reporter for the two producers.
He'll do it in the locker room, training room, on bus rides to the airport or team flights, and Hooley and Nelson said he's made invaluable contributions to their effort.
The pieces on Morning Edition will run in the range of 3 ½ minutes, but hours of planning and editing go into each segment. The producers attend every Capitals home game, spend time in the locker room afterward and are a frequent presence at team practices, as well.
"I'm amazed at how much work goes into it," Alzner said. "Those two also have 9 to 5 jobs on top of this."
Both Hooley and Nelson actually are moonlighting in this effort. Both work in other capacities at NPR, with Hooley serving as an executive liaison between the mother ship in Washington and a number of member stations in the Midwest. Nelson is a technical director in audio engineering and spent the last two years as NPR's technical director for the presidential campaign, from early caucuses to the inauguration last month. They've worked together on their own time freelancing other stories for various NPR shows over the last three years.
"Yes, we've spent a lot of time doing this story," Hooley said. "But we're very excited about what we're getting, and the stories we're going to be able to tell. It's always a challenge to make a story come alive, and then to get it on the air. But it's been worth the time and the effort. And who knew the Capitals would be having this kind of season?"
By the way, if you missed the first two pieces, they can be heard on NPR's web site, NPR.org, along with fascinating bonus audio snippets from the two players' tape recorded diaries. It's must-listen radio at its very best.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.