The Best and the Worst: My Four Seasons with Hockey Ink!

Last Monday, my Street Academy trivia team took home the big prize at Revolution Hall – which included tickets to the Albany River Rats game on Halloween weekend.

For me, it will be the first time in over 12 years that I’ve seen a Rats game.

Why so long?  For that answer, I have to warm up the WABAC machine. Set the dial to 1993.  My writing career was in its infancy, with big articles in small publications – mostly in sports yearbooks for the local minor league teams.

At the time, the American Hockey League was producing a glossy color magazine called Rinkside, and I had hoped to join up with that publication.  I sent some of my writing samples, met with the publisher, and it looked as if I would be the writer covering some of the AHL’s New York-based teams for the 1993-94 season.

Unfortunately, Rinkside’s main publisher went out of business, and the last thing the editor of Rinkside told me – after he delivered the news that the publication was shutting down – was that I should consider another minor league hockey publication, a monthly tabloid paper called Hockey Ink!.

Thus began a four-year journey that was part apprenticeship, part discovery, and mostly tragicomic.

Hockey Ink! was produced in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and was owned by Fort Wayne businessman Max Orn and his son Dave, along with family friend Gerald Mommer.  Their goal was to cover hockey’s minor leagues – mostly the International Hockey League, where the Fort Wayne Komets were based, but also the AHL, the East Coast Hockey League and the like.  With that in mind, they tried to hire as many writers as possible to cover each team.  They liked my writing samples, and within a week I had acquired an AHL press pass and would be covering the Albany River Rats for the publication.

I was on top of the world.  My first consistent writing client for a newsstand publication.  I started out covering the Rats, and every so often sent them stories about players on the Providence Bruins, the Rochester Americans, and the Adirondack Red Wings.  My editor for the American Hockey League section was Dan Sernoffsky, who was the beat writer for the paper that covered the Hershey Bears.  Everything was great.

Then I discovered that Hockey Ink! had some problems.  Really bad problems.  This was a monthly newspaper, so any idea of putting in box scores or game recaps wouldn’t work, as the news would be three to four weeks old by the time the paper hit newsstands.  And that was, of course, with the hope that Hockey Ink! would actually get their issues printed on time – sometimes the issues would run six weeks apart, sometimes two months apart, depending on whether the publication had the advertising support.

There was also an issue with the number of writers hired.  Hockey Ink! wasn’t loaded with cash, but what it lacked in finances it made up for in enthusiastic writers.  Hockey Ink!’s coverage ranged from beat writers to freelancers like me, from team and league public relations scribes, to hockey fans who loved to write about their favorite players.

Hockey Ink!’s cadre of decent writers and photographers kept on charging forward.  In my tenure with Hockey Ink!, I was able to find the missing Atlantic City Boardwalk Trophy, which is now in the Hockey Hall of Fame.  I also found information on the 1942 AHL All-Star Game, a game the AHL completely forgot it ever played.  In an effort to bring more readers to the publication, I created a continuing column called “Booster Shots,” which covered the doings and activities of the various hockey booster clubs.  Near the end of my run with the company, I was able to put one of the all-time leading scorers in AHL history, Rochester’s Jody Gage, on the front cover of the magazine.  I even got to meet Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr, during my time with Hockey Ink!.  Sweet.

I traveled to various games throughout the Northeast; I saw contests not only in Albany, but in Rochester, in Worcester, in Fredericton New Brunswick (where I saw the River Rats win the Calder Cup) and in Hershey for the 1996 AHL All-Star Classic).  I learned how to do post-game interviews by watching the Albany beat writers like Pete Dougherty, Phil Janack, Mike Dyer and Bob Dittmeyer.  I learned what to do and what not to do.

What I did learn was that Hockey Ink!’s overall editor, Gerald Mommer, couldn’t properly combine a subject and a predicate with a tube of Krazy Glue.  Several times in an issue one would find the byline of an article credited to “Jean-Paul LeFrancaise” or “Jacob Barley,” alternate identities created by Mommer to fill up bylines.  He also had a notorious habit of misspelling names.  Just before deadline, Rochester goaltender Robb Stauber scored that rarity of hockey events – a goaltender’s goal.  I scribbled out the story and sent it to Hockey Ink! as fast as I could.

When the issue finally came out, the headline read “STEUBBER SCORES!”

Steubber?  Steubber?!?!?

Another instance of typos gone wild with Hockey Ink! occurred in the 1993-94 season.  At that time, the NHL was in a lockout, and the AHL was still playing.  In order to save money on a contract, the New Jersey Devils called up Albany’s Brian Rolston – to a locked-out team.  Rolston couldn’t play, and they wouldn’t send him back to Albany to suit up.  I interviewed Rolston, and got the story into the paper – and once Hockey Ink! came out, I was stoked.  I had actually gotten my story in print before the news appeared in The Hockey News, the true hockey publication.

Yeah, I was excited.  Until I saw that the story was written by Chick Miller.  Gerald Mommer misspelled my name and it ended up in print.  My scoop turned into a dredge.

Hockey Ink! also had another problem.  While the majority of writers and photographers for the paper were hardworking individuals who cared about the game and wanted to cover it properly, Hockey Ink! on occasion hired writers with ulterior motives.  They didn’t want to cover the game.  They wanted to cover the player.  As in – to be the cover on top of a player.  The application process for a Hockey Ink! writer essentially was, “Can you cover this team and can you work cheap?”  This eventually led to embarrassing situations where “puck bunnies” were getting Hockey Ink! media credentials and trying to leave their phone numbers with players, and the residual effect was that the people who were really trying to cover the team were getting frozen out – essentially we were part of the bushel with the bad apples.

That also being said, Hockey Ink’s publication frequency was decreasing at an alarming rate.  Subscribers came up to me at games and demanded to know why they were paying for twelve monthly issues and only getting maybe six or seven.  The news that did get printed was old and stale.  And worst of all, Hockey Ink! started paying its writers in promises rather than in paychecks.  I still have an unsigned check for $50 from Hockey Ink! – it’s in a scrapbook, because I know there was never any money to back that note.

By the 1996-97 season, Hockey Ink! printed a grand total of ONE issue that year.  One measly issue.  Then it was gone.

At one time I had all 38 issues that Hockey Ink! printed.  I bound them up into hardcover books and stored them on my shelf for a few years.  About 6 years ago, I sold the entire lot on eBay for $75 to a hockey collector from Atlanta.  All I have left of my time from Hockey Ink! is a couple of framed covers, a customized jersey (the Hockey Ink! logo silkscreened on a knockoff Tampa Bay Lightning sweater), and a Hockey Ink! water bottle that was given away at a booster club convention.  That, and an archive of various articles that are stored on an old flash drive.  That’s it, baby.

I also felt that Hockey Ink!’s demise was a stain on my credibility.  Whatever went wrong with that publication – erratic print schedule, screwed-up typos, questionable stringers – was lumped on me.  I was also in a very weird dichotomy – was I a reporter, was I a fan, was I both, was I neither.  So after Hockey Ink! shut down, I stopped going to the games.  I couldn’t bring myself to actually attend and have to deal with all the baggage.

But as much as Hockey Ink! hurt me, I think in the long run it eventually helped me.  I learned from my mistakes in dealing with the publication, I learned what to do and what not to do when it came to sports coverage.  Today, when I cover basketball games for the Premier Basketball League, I make absolutely sure that I operate above and beyond the level of professionalism one would expect.  My camera batteries are always charged, and there are emergency battery packs and camera chips within grasp should I need them.  Everything needs to be spelled properly, to the point where one should be able to rattle off “Manchester Millrats forward Ifesinachi Anosike” without a single flinch.

Plus, for the first time in 12 years, I will actually be able to attend a minor league hockey game and just enjoy the competition on the ice.  That’ll be a good thing.