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A New Voice in the Press Box: Meet The Athletic’s Sara Civian

Carolina was the joint-last team to get the beat writer treatment from The Athletic, but so far it seems the wait was worth it.

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Jamie Kellner

Sara Civian had never been to Raleigh before her new job brought her here, in much the same way as so many others who have moved to this area. And there is one rite of passage that each of those newcomers share, almost without exception, which Sara dutifully tweeted about when it happened:

That’s right: six days after officially starting her new gig as the Carolina Hurricanes beat writer for The Athletic, Sara got turned around trying to figure out the Beltline.

Fortunately, Sara wasn’t hired to work at the DOT, and three games into her new role she is providing a breath of fresh air and a different perspective to a group of writers and media members who have largely been the same for many years. I am in my 12th season covering the Hurricanes, as is Mike Maniscalco. Chip Alexander is in his 11th. Counting his time with Canes Country, Cory Lavalette is approaching a decade. Luke DeCock has been here since 2000. Adam Gold arrived in North Carolina the same year the Hurricanes did.

In fact, Sara is the first person to move to Raleigh with a primary assignment of covering the Hurricanes since Mike moved from Richmond in 2007 — and you have to go even further back, to Luke’s arrival the year after PNC Arena opened, to find a person who moved here from out of town specifically for a beat-writing job. Coverage of the team will benefit from a new perspective in the press box, and Sara certainly brings that - along with healthy doses of friendliness and good humor.

We chatted with Sara to learn more about her background, explore why she was drawn to covering a team in a place she’d never been before, and find out what other writers she’s reading these days.

Canes Country: Could you share a little bit about your background? Why did you pursue journalism, and why specifically did you make your way into hockey journalism?

Sara Civian: Well, I’d always loved writing (was planning on being a historian), so I joined a website a lot of my friends at Penn State wrote for, Onward State. Through that, I ended up writing about the hockey games — growing up in Boston I’d always liked college hockey way more than I liked college football — and the journalism just happened. Once I realized I might be able to try it out for a career I just went with it.

CC: You started at Penn State in 2012, the same year the Nittany Lions’ D-1 hockey program came into existence. What types of things stick out to you from the first couple of years, given that it was essentially a startup as opposed to most other Big Ten schools that had iced hockey teams for decades prior?

SC: If Penn State hockey is a start-up, I’m moving to the Bay Area and pioneering my own start-up. Terry Pegula chipped in the biggest donation in Penn State history for the rink (which is cooler than half the NHL rinks I’ve been in, FWIW), the Nittany Lions had dominated the club hockey scene for decades, they had the best coach imaginable for a growing program (Guy Gadowsky — he’s turned around three college hockey programs now), and Penn State fans are rabid. They had all the tools for a success story and here it is. I’d love to see more places like Illinois follow suit in the college hockey world, but it’s important all the right steps are followed or recruiting will be an issue. No cutting corners.

CC: You’ve covered winning teams in Pittsburgh and Boston. Now you’re in Carolina, where our team’s playoff-less streak has been around about as long as a fourth grader. What similarities do you see in how you’ll cover the Hurricanes versus the other teams you’ve covered in your career, and are there any differences?

SC: I don’t think there are any differences, to be honest. As much as I’ve jumped around to all these different places and scenarios, I’ve noticed the core of my writing personality hasn’t changed. I’m a cautiously (sometimes not so cautiously) optimistic person at heart. I’m not really one to harp on negatives when they don’t have longterm implications. But if I think something’s really going wrong and I feel passionate about it, I’m going to do the research for some answers and I’m not going to hold back.

CC: What appealed to you specifically about covering the Hurricanes, and joining The Athletic in general?

SC: I loved the idea of starting somewhere completely new to me with a coach, GM, owner, and large portion of the team in the same boat. It makes me feel like as they’re building something here I can too, and even though some of us are really new to this circumstance, it’s hockey bringing us together. That might be the corniest thing I’ve ever typed but it’s true. I was fine in Boston, but I’m not going to lie to you — Zdeno Chara is my hero. I’m young enough that when I was growing up and really getting into hockey, he’s who I looked up to. I played defense in sports because of him. And then I found myself literally looking up at him trying to ask him coherent questions. It wasn’t even like that for me with Sidney Crosby when I was in Pittsburgh. What I’m getting at here is, though current and budding legends are on this Canes squad, it’s much easier for me to ask them questions that need to be asked. I’m sure I would’ve gotten over the whole Chara thing this season, but it was just a surreal dynamic. With The Athletic, I’m super aware my readers are paying for the content, so it’s nice my 12-foot-tall hero isn’t staring into my soul when I’m trying to produce the best content possible.

CC: In a way, coverage of the Hurricanes has been lacking a bit simply because sports editors have needed to do more with less, and when a team has been as relatively unsuccessful over the last decade as the Hurricanes have been, they’re an easy target. The Athletic seems like it’s taking the opposite view and pouring resources in, although not in the traditional sense of a beat reporter covering the minutiae. What types of coverage do you plan to offer, aside from the usual breaking-news stuff, that will differentiate your stories from other outlets (possibly including us)?

SC: Yeah, I totally get the day-to-day grind as someone who just came in from the dot-com side of a radio station. It can be tough to get out of that mindset, but it feels like freedom to me. I felt a bit anxious knowing people were waiting for some kind of reaction out of me after the crazy win against the Rangers, but I was working on the story of Svechnikov’s first goal and I’m glad I took the time instead of throwing something up post-game. That’s why I think there’s a place for The Athletic, blogs, and newspapers. I’ll react to some of the games for a next morning read (especially on the road, since I’m traveling), but I think my posts so far generally offer a good idea of what to expect: a blend of deep-dig analysis based on trends over a few games, expanding on behind-the-scene moments I find particularly interesting, features like Svechnikov’s goal that show you the human behind the player. We all have tough days at the office, but my goal is to be proud every time I hit publish. Sometimes that’ll mean holding off on a story, and it’s cool that’s allowed.

CC: Who are some writing mentors of yours that we may have heard of, either people that gave you advice along the way or who you looked up to as you decided to pursue journalism as a career?

SC: Katie Strang inspires me every day. I don’t know how she does it, listening to the whole sports world’s horror stories and reporting on them all so gracefully. As someone who has been working on kicking her reporting skills up a notch (“writing” and “reporting” are really two different beasts), people like Elliotte Friedman and Pierre LeBrun fascinate me. Craig Custance has the best story ideas. Ty Anderson has given me way too many pep talks circa 1 am in the TD Garden press box — I wouldn’t be here without him. John Buccigross has given me some of the best advice, and I’m inspired by the way he uses so much of his career for charity and helping others. I’ll drop whatever I’m doing to read an Emily Kaplan longform story. There are countless others I draw inspiration from and who have helped me above and beyond the necessary.

CC: Have you given any thought to what the future holds beyond Carolina, or what your dream assignment would be?

SC: This is my future. Sometimes I’ll be sitting at a morning skate and just laugh because I can’t believe I get to have this life. Now that I’m living in what I hoped would be my future, I’m just focusing on where I’m at and trying to do whatever it takes to make sure I can stay awhile. I’m still waiting for my alarm clock to go off and my mom to scream from upstairs that I missed the school bus. It’s a truly humbling experience.

Thanks so much to Sara, who will be traveling with the team on their three-game road trip that starts tomorrow in Minnesota, for her time. We encourage you to follow her on Twitter @SaraCivian and keep up with her work at The Athletic Carolina. It’s worth the subscription.

And if you see a hopelessly lost car with Massachusetts plates circling around I-440 in the next few months, feel free to offer Sara a map.