I used to work with a guy at a newspaper who would grimace every time the news editor would ask him to write a headline that involved squeezing big blocked letters into very small spaces.
He would shout across the newsroom to the editor who designed the page, "When you die and go to hell, and trust me you will go to hell, I hope you have to write these ridiculous headlines all day long."
I feel the same way about the genius who dreamt up the concept of the Olympic mixed zone, where mosh pit meets the media.
It’s dark, cramped, uncomfortable and smells bad. Kind of like what I would imagine hell is like.
My experiences in the mixed zone date back to covering various test events leading up to the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
I remember one event in particular where I was having what I thought was a pleasant conversation with American figure skater Tara Lipinski when suddenly I felt this warm breath on the back of my neck and the smell of a landfill all around me. I look back and find a gaggle of humanity hovering over, around and under me. It was all elbows and eyeballs hovering inches from my ears.
I can only imagine what it looked like from little ol’ Tara’s perspective. Here you have 200 or so sumo-sized scribes who wouldn’t know the difference between a triple axel and a triple cheeseburger suddenly shouting out questions about poise and grace and artistic impressions.
But I digress.
Here in Vancouver, the mixed zone is in a rather odd location. You have to go through the kitchen and food storage area to get there. The worst part of that is they never have any sandwiches or leftover hors d’oeuvres on platters for you can grab as you go running by.
There are cases of Coors Light and Molson Canadian but I think it would look a little obvious if I went walking out of Hockey Canada Place with one under my arm. Of course I could use one as a step stool to see over the crowd.
What you will find are food service workers who always seem to time the taking out of the trash with the end of the game, and thus bogging down the mad cattle rush of media down the narrow corridor leading to the mixed zone.
Once inside the mixed zone, you hope to find a coveted spot next to the railing and pray that the player you’re featuring in your story stops in front of you. That’s when the real fun begins.
You can usually get in the first question, two if you’re lucky, before someone fires off a question about the player’s grandmother from Hackensack.
And don’t even get me started about the personal hygiene of some mothers’ sons. I had to crawl through a week’s worth of garbage during a Crossing of the Line ceremony in the Navy and probably smelled better than some members of the Fourth Estate.
And there’s always one journalist who has his Hannah Montana backpack still on his back taking up the space of three people, and two media groupies talking so loudly about their weekend plans that you can’t hear what the athletes are saying.
Some athletes are so soft spoken that you can’t hear a word they say even if you’re right in front of them. I have a great microphone that can pick up the sounds of a gnat belching, but it can’t reel in the words of Ryan Kesler. That is definitely a man who lets his actions on the ice do his talking for him.
As much fun as the mixed zone ISN’T for the media, it has to be as fun as a tooth extraction for the athletes. At the Hockey Canada Place players enter the ice from their bench, which is a short walk from their dressing room. When they exit the ice they skate through the end ice resurfacer door and walk what must seem like a quarter-mile gauntlet, answering the same questions over and over until they reach the sanctity, and sanity, of their locker room.
The trick is to not make eye contact, kind of like dealing with panhandlers in front of my hotel. The lucky few who make it through unscathed are usually showered and are already ordering an appetizer at a local restaurant by the time some of their teammates are finishing their media obligations.
Those who do get caught up in the rush, especially the goaltenders, are the ones I really feel sorry for. Here they are, having just played their hearts out for 60 minutes and now they’re standing there, dripping sweat and answering questions about everything from why British bookies have wagered a bundle on their imminent demise to their predictions of the next American Idol.
Press officers have done a good job of keeping the focus on the game, but they can only be so many places at once.
The Olympics seem to be one of the few sporting events that employs the mixed zone system. Most sports that I know of use press conferences. Some give certain press people access inside locker rooms or let athletes answer questions on the field of play. While all have their benefits and drawbacks, they are infinitely better than mixed zones.
Here’s my suggestion to the IOC: take the top three or four "stars of the game" along with the coaches, and bring them to a press conference, just like the NHL does for the Stanley Cup playoffs. If you’re a reporter from Dog Slobber, Arkansas and there’s a hometown athlete competing in the event, pull them aside so they can get what they need.
I understand that the networks have ponied up more money than the gross national product of Lichtenstein to broadcast the Games and they need their access to athletes. Give it to them. Pull aside their chosen athletes and let them hang back on the ice or field of play for a quick interview.
I’m sure no one cares what one little ol’ journalist thinks. Mixed zones have probably been around since the Games of Ancient Greece. They were good enough for scribes chiseling notes on stone tablets, they’re good enough in this modern media age.
There is finally a light at the end of the tunnel. I have only a few more hockey games to deal with. Hopefully one of them will involve the United States playing Canada in the gold-medal game.
Now that will be the Super Bowl of mixed zones.