By R.L. Bynum
As the Canes’ in-house reporter, Smith stays busy
No writer has better access to the Carolina Hurricanes than Michael Smith.
As the team’s senior web producer/writer, he’s most visible as its in-house reporter and co-host with Mike Maniscalco of the weekly “CanesCast” podcast, as well as sometimes offering insights on TV, video or on the big screen during home games.
What sets him apart from the rest of the reporters in the press box is his ability to interact with the players and team personnel outside of the normal press-availability windows. Not every reporter can just walk into General Manager Don Waddell’s office.
“I guess the way it differs most is just the access,” said Smith, shown in the middle of below photo recording a podcast with Maniscalco while talking to Greg McKegg. said. “If I need a question answered, I can just walk upstairs and ask Don or one of the assistant general managers.”
For years, no local writer reported from Canes road games. That changed when Smith, who took the job in 2011, added coverage of road games for the 2014–15 season. He had company this season since The Athletic’s Sara Civian covered most road games. She was his seatmate on the team plane during the regular season, but Civian is flying commercially during the playoffs.
“Looking at the market and looking at what sort of press coverage is provided, we realized the opportunity to kind of seize that market of being able to provide a true day-to-day coverage of the team even while they are away,” Smith said of the decision to send him on the road four seasons ago. “We recognized that opportunity and credit to the powers that be here.”
— Mike Maniscalco (@mikemaniscalco) May 8, 2019
Between flying on the team plane to being in the team hotel, at morning skates and around the dressing room, it’s as if he was part of one big organization family.
“I probably see these guys more than I do my wife during the season, so you do have to like who you’re working with in order for the season to be an enjoyable experience because you do spend a lot of time together for sure,” said Smith, shown in the below photo with Pace Sagester, the manager of communications and team services.
His job requires long hours and draining travel schedules, but it’s an easy tradeoff for someone who loves hockey and enjoys writing.
“It’s an incredibly demanding job, but it’s incredibly rewarding,” Smith said. “It’s led me to a number of experiences that I never really could have imagined being a part of. It’s a lot of credit to the people here. That’s really the one thing that keeps you going when working in sports is the people you work with. … As Justin Faulk will say this year, it was easy to go to the rink, and that certainly been the case in my time here. It’s been easy to come to the rink because of the people I work with.”
Since he’s a team employee, his role obviously is different from that of beat writers such as Chip Alexander at The News & Observer/Herald-Sun, Cory Lavalette at the North State Journal, Civian, N&O/H-S columnist Luke DeCock or other website reporters.
“When we discuss what kind of content we want to produce here, it’s about giving fans that inside access behind the curtain that maybe the other people can’t provide so easily,” Smith said. “I think it can be done from an outside perspective. But there’s just a lot more nuts and bolts to it, whereas we have that access and we are around the team every day.
“We should be the ones providing that true peek behind the curtain,” Smith said. “I think that’s probably where my role differs the most. We all do the day-to-day beat reporter type of stuff and, hopefully, taken as a whole, we provide a full, comprehensive look at what’s going on with this team.”
Smith conveys when the team is doing poorly, like after its 5-2 Game 2 thrashing in Boston. But writers for independent news organizations are obviously much more likely to be highly critical when writing about what they see as a questionable decision or poor play.
“There’s a certain picture that I have to paint some nights, but I also try to be honest,” said Smith, pointing out his reporting on Carolina’s 8-1 March loss to Winnipeg in March as an example. “It’s an honest look at the situation of ‘hey, here’s what happened tonight.’ There are, I think, certain topics that I have to sort of stay away from. But, at the same time, I try to approach it with an honest look at what’s happening with the team.”
Like any newspaper beat writer, he’s almost always on call and must respond whenever news happens, regardless of what he’s doing at the time. Even if he isn’t writing about a breaking story, it’s his job to post the release from the public relations department on the website.
An example came last August when Carolina traded Jeff Skinner to the Buffalo Sabres.
“That happened on my anniversary, and I had dinner plans with my wife,” Smith said. “I had to delay those for an hour or two while we finalized that trade and took care of everything on our end.”
Smith, who grew up in Kernersville, followed the Carolina Monarchs of the American Hockey League as a kid during their two seasons playing home games at the Greensboro Coliseum from 1995 to 1997. That’s when he became interested in hockey.
When the Canes moved to North Carolina in 1997, their home games the first two seasons in Greensboro were convenient for him. He attended a good number of games, including a 1999 first-round playoff series game against the Boston Bruins.
“That’s really when I fell in love with the sport, when this team arrived in North Carolina,” Smith said.
Although he wrote for his high school newspaper, he didn’t write for The Daily Tar Heel at UNC, where he earned a public relations degree through the journalism school. He opted for other outlets, such as a humor magazine and the Carolina Review magazine.
During Smith’s senior year, he was a website intern for the Canes for the 2010–11 season. One of his duties was writing features on players with the Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ AHL affiliate.
Luckily for him, the job he now holds opened up shortly after graduation.
Paul Branecky, who had been the Canes’ digital media producer and writer, joined the Checkers in August 2011 to become its director of digital media. He’s still with the Checkers, now as vice president of marketing and communications.
“Everything sort of worked out perfectly for me to get this job,” said Smith, who has been the web producer ever since, although the duties have changed over the years.
He spends roughly half of his time working with the website and the other half reporting and writing, but it varies by the day.
“I think there is a demand for more website content and, of course, you have a fan base here who is hungry for everything,” Smith said. “Especially now with the playoffs, when you add that national media attention and enhanced local attention, you want to keep pace with all of that and provide as much content as possible. So it’s across the board, the demand for more.”
Most other NHL teams have in-house reporters in roles similar to Smith’s, although the roles vary from team to team.
The Dallas Stars have two in-house reporters who have full editorial control, and their stories aren’t subject to review. “They can be critical if they want, although I’m not sure that I’ve seen anything that’s been overly critical,” Smith said.
The Canes have a content strategy that guides the direction of his approach to the website and reporting.
“We have weekly meetings to sort of hammer out what our content goals for the week are, so we can attack it with a unified strategy both from a written-content standpoint to a video-content standpoint and to a social-content standpoint,” he said.
Smith said that there isn’t much of an editorial-review process for his stories, but bigger and more sensitive stories — such as one about how the organization scouts and drafts certain players — get more scrutiny.
“Those will get reviewed by some folks around here just so we can get more eyes on them and just to make sure I’m not touching on anything the organization obviously doesn’t want to publish,” Smith said.
The news feed on the Hurricanes’ website, as with all NHL team sites, looks much like the politics site Axios, with the headline and a few paragraphs visible and a button to click on if the user wants to see the entire story. The feed usually is a mixture of Smith’s stories and releases by the team’s public relations department.
Although Smith sits in the press box alongside the PR personnel, he’s actually part of the marketing department.
His standard for each game is a preview written the night before, a story with the projected lineups after watching the line rushes at the morning skate and a rundown after the game. The rundown goes through five key takeaways from the game and what’s next.
He also writes features as interesting stories develop. Before the Eastern Conference finals, one year after Rod Brind’Amour was promoted, Smith wrote about the culture shift that the coach has created on the team.
It all adds up to a long gameday that starts in the morning and ends around 11 p.m. or midnight, but he tries to get home for lunch and maybe slip in an afternoon nap.
“Finding time to manage that work and life balance has been especially important since I started traveling,” Smith said. “You work weird, long hours, but travel adds an extra layer to that. It’s definitely been important to find balance. I can definitely feel the effects of it this year, I can tell you that much.”
He gets a break on travel during the playoffs, though, that other reporters don’t enjoy. The others have to either drive or fly commercially to road games, which can obviously increase stress and increase fatigue. Smith boards a chartered team flight and, on the road, takes a team bus to the plane.
The schedule can get overwhelming for people working in sports, particularly when you consider that the Game 1 against the Bruins, counting exhibitions, was the 100th game of the season.
“Part of it is my doing, pushing to travel on the road,” he said. “That added a lot of stress and responsibility to the job. But it’s a direction I wanted to grow this role and there are certain things that get added each year and it’s about finding the balance of, ‘OK, if I am taking this on, maybe I can hand off this responsibility to someone else so that I’m not wearing myself out.’ ”
He has recently started making himself exercise regularly, and he’s trying to get better at truly unplugging, putting the laptop away and trying not to check the phone as much when he does have a break.
“You’ve got to find a way not to burn yourself out because too many people come and work in sports and they are very eager about it, and understandably so,” Smith said. “But you can easily wear yourself out and get burned out in a few years. It’s been important for me to try to find that balance.”
He just hopes that his first experience covering the playoffs doesn’t end any time soon.
Alexander victim of classless Boston radio shenanigans
The day before the opener of the Eastern Conference finals, Alexander was a guest on WBZ-FM’s “Toucher & Rich Show.” In the middle of answering a question, co-host Fred Toettcher (who goes by Toucher on the air) hung up on Alexander, saying that he “just can’t listen to a guy with a Southern accent talk about hockey.”
Boston sports radio is infamous for such high jinks, but it was unfortunate that a respected journalist such as Alexander had to deal with it.
Civian, in a Media Musings column in October, noted her experience while writing stories about the Bruins for radio station WEEI’s website. Calling it a “hot-take radio station,” she said that the hosts on her own station disparaged her on the air.
Toucher seemed to try to deflect rather than own up to his mistake, trying to say that Alexander was boring. Then, WCMC (99.9 The Fan) afternoon drive-time co-host Adam Gold appeared on the “Toucher & Rich Show,” and did an outstanding job of telling Toettcher on the air how he was hurting sports radio in general with actions like that.
Inexplicably, during that interview with Gold, the host who hung up on Alexander complained that Alexander sounded like a victim in this N&O story. If he did sound like a victim, there was a fairly good reason.
— 98.5 The Sports Hub (@985TheSportsHub) May 10, 2019
After Gold wrote a good column about it, Toucher deflected again, stupidly claiming that Gold was “kissing his ass” during the appearance. That didn’t seem to be the case at all.
A) I thought we had a good time on the air on Friday, right after you complained about negative comments.
B) I certainly never kissed your ass, you might want to listen back to the show.
C) I also didn’t trash you, only a culture that allows this in hockey.
D) 😂😂😂 https://t.co/dMSCEj0mQI
— Adam Gold (@AGoldFan) May 13, 2019
If you heard about that Alexander story and wondered why you never hear him on Capitol Broadcasting Company’s sports radio stations, there’s a reason. In that interview on “Toucher & Rich,” Gold revealed publicly what has been known as policy for a while: That they aren’t allowed to have N&O writers on the air because, as Gold put it, there is a “contentious” relationship with the newspaper.
The N&O/H-S provides outstanding Canes coverage
Depth is the key for a team in a Stanley Cup playoff run, and it’s been helpful for The N&O/H-S.
Just like a hockey team, it helps to have a good first line, and the newspaper has a terrific one in Alexander and DeCock, who both have covered every Canes playoff game.
There are very few sports writers in the country who have had a busier spring than DeCock, who covered the ACC tournament, then games in four cities during the NCAA tournament. Three days after covering Virginia’s win in the NCAA final in Minneapolis, he was in Washington covering Game 1 of the Canes’ first-round series with the Capitals.
Alexander’s spring has also been busy. He covered N.C. State’s two games in the ACC tournament in addition to the Hurricanes.
Both have multiple stories practically every day.
The newspaper has done a good job of supplementing the usual game coverage with extra stories from sports writers who don’t usually cover hockey, including Joe Giglio, Jonas Pope IV, Jonathan Alexander and Andrew Carter.
Some of the extra coverage has included stories helpful for readers who don’t usually follow hockey. They’ve included Giglio writing about why teams are vague about injuries; Pope writing about riding the ice resurfacer during an intermission and what it’s like for celebrities to crank the siren before home games; and news-side reporter Zachery Eanes looking into how loud it really is in PNC Arena.
Raleigh native Ben Pope to cover Blackhawks for Chicago Sun-Times
It’s been a big spring for Raleigh native and Leesville Road High School graduate Ben Pope.
For this past semester, his final one, at Northwestern, he was an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times, covering high school sports. Now a graduate, next week he becomes the newspaper’s Chicago Blackhawks beat writer.
Personal news: I’m the new Chicago Blackhawks beat reporter for the @Suntimes.
I’m thrilled to get started covering the world’s best sport in the world’s best city. I start next week, and I’ll be at the NHL Combine the week after as the Hawks begin this crucial offseason.
— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) May 13, 2019
Pope replaces Jason Lieser, who shifts to covering the Chicago Bears.
His journalism career started as a Carolina Hurricanes columnist for Bleacher Report from 2015 to 2018 and for Today’s Slapshot from 2015 to 2016. He interned in sports for The N&O in summer 2016 and at The Philadelphia Inquirer in summer 2018.
At The Daily Northwestern, he’s been editor-in-chief (summer 2017), managing editor (winter 2018), sports editor (spring 2018) and Gameday editor (fall 2018.)
CBC podcasts on hiatus
CBC’s podcasts “Topics & Takes” and “Out of My League” are on hiatus until late August.
Both are weekly podcasts that also aired on WCMC Saturday mornings.
The 2018–19 school year was the second year of the “Topics & Takes.” The second iteration was with one host — Lauren Brownlow — interviewing one guest on each one-hour podcast. Nearly all of the guests last season were either sports writers or sports broadcasters. None of the guests, of course, were N&O sports writers because of CBC policy.
“Out of My League” finished its first season, with Brenden Whitted and Candace Cooper providing insights on sports and pop culture.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
Curtis McElhinney’s hockey career, even as a kid, has been full of perseverance, numerous stops and quietly accepting backup goalie roles. In The Athletic, Scott Cruickshank wrote about what led to him playing a major role in the Carolina Hurricanes’ sweep of the New York Islanders.
In The Athletic, Joe Person wrote that when the Carolina Panthers selected Will Grier in the NFL draft, it creating a father-son moment that was 24 years in the making.
Why did the Greensboro Grasshoppers end their long relationship with the Miami Marlins? Ken Rosenthal wrote in The Athletic that it was all about a Marlins executive, Gary Denbo, who formerly managed in Greensboro. The dogs at the ballpark were seemingly popular with everybody … except for Denbo. The Grasshoppers decided that they couldn’t work with Denbo.
In Forbes, Adam Zagoria wrote about the rebuilding job former UNC star Jerry Stackhouse faces as the head coach at Vanderbilt.
In The Daily Tar Heel, Chapel Fowler wrote about sports information trailblazer Dave Lohse, who will be inducted in the COSIDA Hall of Fame this summer. He began his tenure at UNC in 1977, and likely became the first openly gay man in athletics communications when he came out in 1992.