Learning to Read the Sports Page with Aaron Portzline

Posted on November 1, 2011

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I have breakfast with Aaron Portzline every morning.

Aaron Portzline

Get your mind out of then gutter–it’s not like that.

Aaron is the Columbus Dispatch reporter covering our NHL team, the Blue Jackets, which has made him something like a Greek storyteller, covering triumph and tragedy, farce and frivolity. And around our house, he is a little like Homer, chronicler of the odyssey that is our family’s life of hockey.

It was great to finally meet Aaron in person today after literally a lifetime (my son’s) of reading his coverage. Danny was born the year the Blue Jackets came into the league (we were at a game just weeks before I gave birth, sitting in seats WAY too far from a restroom), and I realized today that I have Aaron to thank for his ability to read. Every morning Danny  would ask, “Read me bout Boo Jackets,” and when he got old enough to go to school, and I got busy getting him ready for school, I said, “Hey Buddy–try to read it yourself.”

And one day he did.

Danny now learns from Aaron every morning, and today my students joined him, discovering about his journey from being the Clippers beat writer to an NHL press box. He told us about preparing for the Jackets’ beat in the months before the team’s 2000 launch by traveling with now-columnist Michael Arace to every Western Conference NHL city and spending three days profiling that team for a full-page Dispatch feature–resources it’s hard to now imagine any newspaper devoting. He told us about learning the ins and outs, ebbs and flows of hockey and the Jackets–like the fact that every team has a logo in the center of their locker room, and no one EVER steps on it.

He gave us the good, bad and ugly of sports writing:

  • It’s the original unscripted reality show.
  • Every game has possibility of great drama.
  • It has become like short-story writing, as no one needs thew newspaper article to find out the score–they need to know the how and why.
  • Going to games for free may be a big draw to get in, but it can take a lot of the pleasure from off-duty sports.
  • The novelty of meeting famous people wears off pretty quick when you see what some are really like.
  • To have 45 minutes post-game to write a story is a luxury.
  • The goal of good beat reporter is to make press conferences old news by having the news first.

He also told us how many life moments he misses with his wife and daughter while in the pursuit of hockey coverage, and most of the time he doesn’t mind–but sometimes he really does.

Aaron was filled with great writing and life lessons, like how much easier to convey point or feeling in an article with a strong vocabulary, and how blogging, Twitter and podcasting have all become part of his working life. He advocated for my students to show their “go-go-go attitude,” since editor’s detest when reports say, “Nobody’s talking. I got nothing.”

He admitted that when you are writing a story you can always do more–but at some point have to cut it off to still have a life. And most importantly, he reminded  them that you write not for yourself but for those who read you.

When I came home from work today, Danny was hovered over the jump of Aaron’s article from that morning, asking me if I thought Ryan Johansen was going to stay with the big club or get sent down.

Yes, Aaron Portzline has taught my son to be a better reader–and today I thank him for helping my students be better writers.

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