Last week we had an interview with Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun as a kick-off of a new series of media interview here on S7S. To balance things out, this week we're talking to an Ottawa Citizen reporter, Ken Warren. He was gracious enough to answer a whole series of questions for us. We hope you enjoy!
S7S: You started working for the Citizen before there was even a bid for an NHL team in Ottawa - did you ever imagine there'd be an NHL team in town?
KW: No, way back when, I never really thought that would happen. I began working at the Citizen in 1988. Back then, I remember, the dream "beats" were covering the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Ottawa 67’s. After I started at the Citizen, the city also brought in the Triple A baseball Lynx. So, suddenly there were two more pro teams to cover. It seems like ancient history now, but in the early days of the Lynx, they actually sold out and I travelled with the team. I do remember being in high school when the Colorado Rockies [NHL team] were about to move and looking for a new home. There was some talk about them moving to Ottawa and there were some thoughts about the possibility of major renovations to the Nepean Sportsplex — next door to my high school. I vividly remember telling my friends it was a crazy idea and that the NHL would never come to Ottawa. I’m glad I was wrong. At least I was right about one thing. The Rockies didn’t come to Ottawa. They went to New Jersey.
S7S: It's hard to imagine you as anything other than a sports journalist - was there anything else you ever wanted to do as a career?
KW: I was always a huge sports fan and I loved reading about sports. I gobbled up everything in Sports Illustrated and, if anyone remembers, a magazine called Inside Sports. When I was really young, I was a fan of — you don’t need to make a big deal out of this, do you? — the Toronto Maple Leafs. I remember in the late 1970’s when my friends who were Montreal Canadiens fans never let me hear the end of it after Montreal stomped all over Toronto. I then became the biggest Montreal Expos fan, making 10-15 trips a year to The Big O. I played a lot of sports, too: hockey, baseball, football, tennis. As much as I loved sports, I never thought it would be a career. I loved writing and I went to Carleton University for journalism. For a long time, I had my eyes set on covering politics. When I was at Carleton, I spent a lot of time at Parliament Hill on a variety of reporting assignments. I loved everything about the press gallery. The road to sports came when there was an opening to be sports editor at The Charlatan in 1988. The following summer, I applied and got hired at the Citizen. In the early days, I covered things like high schools and Little League and wrote a lot of sports features. People might laugh, but I loved covering that stuff. One of my favourite stories was about a mosquito-aged football team (maybe 8-10 years old), who had lost their first six or seven games by something like 50-0 or 60-0 every time. I went out to watch them play one day because I wanted to know why they kept on playing. On that day, they scored a touchdown, their first points of the year. They might have lost 50-6 or something, but it was the greatest moment for them.
Job-wise, I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time and never really had to consider anything else. At one point, I had thought if I didn’t get a job in journalism, I would look into teaching. I like history.
S7S: It's been more than 20 years of covering the Sens now. What are some of the highlights you've had from covering the team?
KW: Highlights from Senators? The Stanley Cup final was pretty good. It wasn’t really much of a series, but the excitement before the series was pretty good. Seeing Daniel Alfredsson score the game-winner against Buffalo in the Eastern final was a big moment and the Steve Duchesne goal to send the Senators to the playoffs for the first time was thrilling. If you go way, way back, that very first game at the Civic Centre was a special moment for the city. My assignment for that game was to get crowd reaction. I dropped my pen and Mila Mulroney — yes, the wife of the Prime Minister — picked it up. Turned in to a good story.
S7S: Do you ever get tired of watching hockey? Are there other sports you follow?
KW: I love the game — everything from watching my girls play year after year in Nepean all the way up to the NHL version. I love being at NHL games, whether they’re at home or away, because you never know what could happen in any particular game at any moment. I was in Buffalo the night when Ray Emery fought Andrew Peters. It was crazy. There is an adrenaline rush which comes from writing on deadline most of the time. What I do get tired of sometimes is being away from home and the downtime between games. That’s the downside to the travel involved in covering hockey. I do follow other sports — I will pretty much watch anything with a puck or a ball. I enjoy watching the Grand Slams in tennis and the drama of golf majors. I have to admit, though, I can’t spend my Sundays sitting on the couch watching football like I did once upon a time.
S7S: What was it like covering the team in 2003 when they declared bankruptcy but won the Presidents' Trophy?
KW: It was like that old song, the band just played on. I’m sure the players were distracted by it when they weren’t on the ice, but they were all business when they were playing. After a while, they got tired of answering questions, because, well, they really didn’t know what was going on. Before Eugene Melnyk bought the team, Rod Bryden was trying to figure out a whole series of complicated ways to maintain ownership. It was a test for a sportswriter to try and figure that out. Good thing we have business writers at the paper.
S7S: Which Sens teams was better, the 2002-03 team that lost to the Devils in the Conference Finals or the 2006-07 team that lost to the Ducks in the Stanley Cup finals?
The 2002-03 team had the more skilled players, no question. That was a loaded team. The right wingers included Alfredsson (in his prime) and Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat in their early 20s. Havlat had to move to left wing in order to get the ice time he deserved. The defence had Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden, both of them in their prime. With salary caps and earlier than ever free agency, I don’t think we’ll ever see a team with that many skilled players here at the same time again. But there was something special about the team that went to the final, too. They were a mediocre team in the first half of the season, but they found something special in the second half. Alfredsson once told me he was ready to hang up his skates and retire mid-way through the year, but he scored a big goal and everything turned around. I’m not sure we’ll ever see another Senators line as potent as Dany Heatley-Jason Spezza-Alfredsson.
S7S: During the season, you put out an article pretty much every day. Is it ever difficult to find topics to write about, or is there always a lot to talk about concerning this team and the league in general?
KW: It’s not tough to find a topic every day. Sometimes, the same story goes on for a few days in a row, and the goal is to find new angles, new people to talk about it. Or, to write an opinion column on a subject or subjects that are topical. I often write a Five Takes column where I offer my two cents. The good thing is that so many people are interested in hockey here. I sometimes think it would be tough to write about the NHL in non-traditional hockey markets. Here, people respond to your stories and opinions — either positively or negatively. I think that’s great. Hockey engages people. I like the fact that there’s usually something fresh each day — responding after a big win, a bad loss, a nasty hit or something crazy or unusual which happens elsewhere in the league. I also like to write features and profiles of players, allowing fans to get a little more background about the players. It’s hard to find the time to write those, but I think we should do more of them.
S7S: How has social media changed the way do your job?
KW: Opinions are everywhere, whether it’s on Twitter or Facebook or other on-line forums. I like social media. As I said in the last question, it allows people to express their opinions. What has changed is the weight that is given to some of the viewpoints online — people who don’t have inside knowledge, who don’t deal with players or management every day and don’t have experience in the business. An unsubstantiated rumour or speculation can get out of control and sometimes, we need to make calls and talk to people to deny something that wasn’t a story in the first place.
Social media also means a "scoop" in the business doesn’t last long. Way back when, we used to hold on to breaking news until the next day’s paper, aiming for the biggest possible impact. The physical newspaper doesn’t have the value it once had. Now we post our stories online as soon as possible and immediately tweet out links to those stories.
S7S: I'd like to end with a few questions about this season. Who was your biggest surprise on this year's Sens team?
KW: My biggest surprise is the fact that neither Shane Prince nor Matt Puempel have been able to take advantage of the injuries to Clarke MacArthur and Milan Michalek, who has since returned. Puempel had ample opportunity to take hold of a second line spot and he looked solid when he got a chance last spring. For me, Prince has been inconsistent. He has had a few good games, but way too many games where he’s too quiet and plays on the outside. There is room here to argue that he hasn’t received a fair shake from Dave Cameron. Given the team’s current scoring struggles, it’s time for him to be given a longer look on one of the top lines. Sooner or later, the Senators have to discover if he can be a full-time NHL player and what his value is to either them or another team in a trade. I’m also surprised that Curtis Lazar hasn’t been more productive offensively. After his decent rookie season, I thought he might end up with something in the area of 15 goals and/or 30 points.
S7S: What do you think is the biggest weakness with the Sens? Do you think they'll be able to fill it by the deadline?
KW: A month ago, the only answer would have been an improvement on defence, finding a consistent top-four defenceman somewhere. Erik Karlsson, Marc Methot and Cody Ceci are strong enough on most nights. After that? Patrick Wiercioch is a yo-yo: sometimes he’s up, sometimes he’s down. It’s hard to know what he’ll deliver on any given night. Chris Wideman is an NHL defenceman, but I’m not sure he can handle the consistent grind of top four minutes. Likewise, every team needs a player like Mark Borowiecki because of his work ethic, but he struggles when matched up against top lines. At this point, I’m not sure when or if Jared Cowen will play again.
Considering the current scoring woes, Bryan Murray might also have to seriously look at finding a more proven goal-scorer to fit in somewhere on the top two lines. On both fronts, it’s going to be hard, if not impossible, especially since it makes little sense for the Senators to part with a first round draft pick in a year where they may not make the playoffs. If Murray can get a decent forward return on Cowen, he may finally deal him.
S7S: Who is your pick to win the Stanley Cup?
KW: I’m sticking with success. As difficult as it is for teams to repeat, I like Chicago’s mix of speed, skill, experience and goaltending. They’ve been through the playoffs time and again and don’t get rattled. Joel Quenneville has proved to be a master of changing on the fly due to a lineup that has had to be made over because of the salary cap. He found a way to win last year by relying on only four — sometimes, three — defencemen.
S7S: And lastly, where will the Sens finish in the division?
KW: As sad as it might be for Senators fans to hear, I don’t think they are going to make the playoffs. We’re in mid-January and we’re still dealing with the same defensive question marks as in training camp. Early on, Craig Anderson was putting a Band-Aid over the mistakes, but he has not stolen games lately. The goals also came easy early, but several players need to break out of extended funks to take pressure off the defence and the goalies.
A big thank you to Ken for doing this interview. As always, if you have suggestions for future interviewees or questions to ask them, let us know in the comments!