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David Pollak: Swimming with the Sharks

Submitted by on March 30, 2010 – 1:02 am

40-year-veteran journalist left editor’s desk for grueling schedule as Sharks’ beat writer

Article appeared on March 30, 2010 in the Silicon Valley Pulse
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David Pollak, the San Jose Mercury News’ beat reporter for the San Jose Sharks, sits alone in a hotel room in Buffalo. He’s waiting for a phone call confirming that the Sharks just traded left wing Jody Shelley to the New York Rangers.

He was awake until 1 a.m. in a different hotel room in Detroit the night before, after covering the Sharks’ 3-2 shootout victory against the Red Wings.

The night before that, he was in a hotel room in Columbus.

“My job is basically chasing a hockey team around North America,” Pollak said. “It’s the perfect job for guys in their 20s – guys just starting out.”

Except that Pollak isn’t in his 20s. And he definitely isn’t just starting out. The 62-year-old reporter has been in journalism for more than 40 years, the last 22 with the Mercury News.

“I never like it when the players or the other guys in the press box figure out I’m old enough to be their father,” Pollak said.

Yet, he’s only been on the Shark’s beat for three years. Before that, he served as editor or assistant editor in many different departments, including the city desk, features and science and technology. And now, to cap off his fourth decade in the press, he has traded in his office editor’s chair for chairs in airports, airplanes, hotel lobbies and press boxes. Not because he had to – but because he asked to.

“I wanted to go back to writing,” Pollak said. “After all this time in the business, I’m always looking for ways to keep it fresh.”

When Pollak arrives at HP Pavilion – “the Shark Tank” – for morning skate his graying beard and eyeglasses give clues to his age, but his smile is still that of a kid at his first hockey game. He wears jeans and New Balance tennis shoes, a light blue dress shirt and a gray sweater that keeps out the chill of the ice.

He keeps a Blackberry in his pants pocket. He carries his laptop, a Dell Latitude D610 model from 2005, in a black briefcase to almost every game and practice he attends. On that laptop, he files three stories every game day and posts to his Sharks blog, Working the Corners. In fact, he files all his stories from home or from his homes away from home: ice arenas, hotels and airports. He only goes into the Mercury News office “about once a month, to drop off reimbursement receipts.”

Bud Geracie, the Mercury News sports editor, remembers when Pollak decided to make the switch to beat reporter. He said the sports staff had “serious concerns” about Pollak’s ability to keep up with the rigors of the hockey beat.

“He had been an editor a long time,” Geracie said. “Then, for a while after that, he was a feature writer. Those are nice deadlines. You know, a couple of days, maybe a week to turn a story. The job of a beat reporter is at the other end of the spectrum. You write every day, three or four times a day, and it’s all on deadline. All the time. It’s incredibly draining, and it’s one of several reasons I made the career change from writer to editor.”

But, Geracie continued, saying Pollak exceeded his expectations in his first night on the job. “The very first game, something went haywire… The game changed late – very late – and went from a win to a loss or vice versa. Whichever it was, it was a beat writer’s nightmare. And David made the deadline.”

On the Road 41 Games a Year
Hockey – and hockey writing – have always held a certain charm for Pollak, but he wouldn’t exactly call this his dream job. He follows the Sharks on the road for 41 games per year – often to the east coast or Canada.

“Hockey beat writers have the worst travel schedule of anyone,” Pollak said. “NHL Western Conference cities are all over the place. You cross the U.S./Canada border, and you have to go to cold places. It was negative 40 in Edmonton!”

The background on Pollak’s laptop is a summertime photo he took of the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, Calif. It’s a little memento of home, he says, that helps him through when the Sharks schedule swings through snowy cities.

In addition to taking road trips and writing about them, Pollak also books his own travel. He strings together six-city itineraries, complete with plane tickets, hotels and rental cars. He often finds himself making these reservations at 2:30 in the morning – his “free time.” He doesn’t mind too much, though, he says.

“Just like the players, I have such an adrenaline rush after the games. I can’t go right to bed when I get in.”

When he’s on the road, he leaves behind his wife Marsha, his college sweetheart who is now a librarian at the Sunnyvale Public Library.

“The travel is a hardship for her,” Pollak said. “But she’s known me long enough to know that this is a job I love.”

It’s also the sport they both love. Marsha used to go with Pollak to Sharks games before he was covering them. And long before that, he was playing pick-up street hockey games after school with his friends in his hometown of St. Louis.

Pollak covered sports for his high school and college newspapers, but soon started to see sports writing as “fluffy” and moved on to cover “more important things.”

He still remembers his first professional byline – for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where he was an intern while working on a bachelor’s degree in English at Miami University in Ohio.

“They were opening a drive-through African safari park in Cleveland, and they brought a cheetah into the newsroom,” Pollak said. “They put me on the story, and the cheetah posed for a photo on my shoulder. The cheetah wasn’t dangerous though. It must have been drugged… or senile… or something.”

Hockey Players: the Most Approachable Athletes
The cheetah experience ended up being a good metaphor for Pollak’s career as a hockey writer. Most people expect hockey players to be fierce and intimidating, but Pollak finds them friendly, approachable and polite.

For evidence of this, look no farther than one of Pollak’s recent blog posts. Last week he gave fans an insider’s perspective on a late hit Sharks forward Scott Nichol took from Montreal’s Maxim Lapierre. Nichol sustained a shoulder injury and sat out one game, and Lapierre, who did not receive a penalty during the game, later received a four-game suspension from the league. But, as Pollak relays, Nichol bore no ill will toward Lapierre.

Hockey players have a very admirable sense of self-awareness about who they are and their roles, so it was no surprise this morning that Scott Nichol was showing a little more  understanding of what Montreal’s Maxim Lapierre did the other night than a lot of other people.

“It’s one of those things,” Nichol said when we talked this morning. “We’re the third or fourth line and we play against other third and fourth line guys… I’m no saint by any means — I’ve  been suspended, too, before — and in the heat of the battle, you don’t  mean to do it. You’re trying to finish your check or you’re trying to stick up for a teammate. There’s so many different variables.”

Pollak recalls one instance – one of very few – when a player stormed off because he was offended by a line of questioning about the player’s interactions with teammates.

“The next day, he called me over and explained why he got so mad,” Pollak said. “Then I explained that it’s my job to report and ask questions like that. It was surprisingly healthy. Now, we’re like buddies. I don’t think you’d get that with athletes in too many other sports.”

As evidence of this, Pollak points to a baseball game he covered for the Mercury News in the hockey off-season. L.A. Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez committed an error in the game, and afterwards, Pollak and a handful of other reporters crowded around Ramirez in the locker room.

“Eight or nine people were asking Manny questions, and he ignored all of us,” Pollak said. “Eventually, all the other writers floated away, and I realized the last two standing there were me and the hockey writer for the Boston Globe. We still thought we could get something because reporting culture in hockey is just very different.”

Ramirez never did talk to them.  They kept calling his name, but he never made eye contact. He simply put on his cufflinks and walked away.

In the Sharks Locker Room
“Ask away,” Sharks assistant captain Joe Thornton said, upon seeing Pollak approach his locker with a notebook and digital recorder after the March 12 morning skate. Pollak is the only beat reporter who covers the team, so the players know him by name.

Defenseman Douglas Murray’s locker is next to Thornton’s. Pollak wished him a happy birthday after chatting with him about an injury sustained in previous night’s game.

Scott Emmert, the Sharks director of media relations said Pollak has developed a good rapport with the players in his three years on the beat.

“One of the nice things about being a small market team is that you can create relationships like David has,” Emmert said. “We – the players and the team and I – think it’s been good. The players never admit to reading what he writes, but I think they do.”

In the post-practice interviews, Pollak asked Nichol to comment on a high stick penalty he received the night before. As Nichol relived the play, his teammate Dany Heatley chimed in: “It wasn’t your fault your stick hit him in the face!”

At a locker a few feet away Brad Staubitz was belting out Travis Tritt’s hit, “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive.” Nobody especially seemed to notice, and Pollak carried on with his interview.

Several lockers down, a Sharks staff member was clearing up confusion about where the players could find the Chipotle burrito bowls that had just arrived for lunch, and former player and current Sharks scout, Mike Ricci, was showing off his new Nexus 1 phone.

“Look at my big shot phone,” Ricci said as he walked past Pollak.

“Did the company provide that?” Pollak asked.

“No,” Ricci said.

“Then you’re not a big shot,” Pollak replied, laughing.

Despite all the jokes and commotion in the locker room, Pollak walked away with a notebook full of quotes – enough to fill a blog post and a print story for the Mercury News.

Eighty-two Chapters
When Pollak looks back on his career, he says he never envisioned himself as a beat writer. “It seemed like so much work… How do you approach 82 game stories?”

But he now views his job as writing 82 chapters in a book, putting each game in context of the season’s greater story. And, each of those games – home or away – is also a chapter in Pollak’s journalistic life. As he put it, when closing out his March 13 blog post before departing on a Sharks’ six game road trip,
That’ll do it. Next stop, Anaheim.