Ellison and famous gas pump no. 3. (Photo: Ian Oland)
During the first day of Winter Storm Jonas, a WUSA9 news crew stumbled upon Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin while conducting man-on-the-street interviews. It was the stuff of legend. The future hall of famer, whose game against the Anaheim Ducks had been postponed an hour earlier, was hurriedly getting gas right before the full brunt of the snow storm struck.
What resulted was internet gold. The reporter gasped when she saw who she had approached. Ovechkin, laughing, agreed to do the interview. The resulting video went viral, with national publications like Deadspin, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, Washington Post, Yahoo, and TSN all picking up the story.
The reporter who conducted the interview was WUSA9’s Prince George’s County Deputy Bureau Chief, Ellison Barber, a rising star in the industry. I spoke to her about her experience.
The Red Gas Can
— Ellison Barber (@ellisonbarber) January 22, 2016
On Friday, January 22, 2016, the WUSA9 newsroom went into overdrive to cover the impending snowstorm. WUSA9 sent all of their general assignment reporters out to cover the snow. Barber, who normally covers news in Prince George’s County and DC (such as crime, immigration, education, local artists, and pigs), was sent to Virginia’s Tysons Corner around 2 PM. “Very rarely am I there,” Barber, first hired by the station in March 2015, said.
That day, Barber was to cut her teeth on her first big snow storm. Previously, she had worked in politics for about three years, writing and researching on the United States Congress with the Washington Free Beacon. About six months into her tenure there, the Beacon asked Barber what she wanted to do during her performance review. Barber replied something in broadcast. “I don’t love politics, I just love the news, and there’s always news in politics,” Barber said. After some initial successes, she found herself regularly appearing on some of the biggest political shows in the country including “Special Report with Bret Baier” and Megyn Kelly’s “The Kelly File.” But it was her love for human interest stories that found her applying to and being hired by WUSA9.
That Friday would be one of the biggest days of Barber’s young career.
“So I got out here with my photographer Michael Fuhr,” Barber said. “I really didn’t know where we were going to go and I’ve never done this type of coverage before. I really wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing, but I’m like let’s start immediately so that we have footage.”
Her first thought was to go to a gas station.
“We always say gas stations are the gold mine for man on the street interviews because people are essentially trapped,” Barber said laughing. “So you can go up to them and be like, ‘Heeeeey! Will you talk to me to me on camera?’ A lot of people are having to stand there anyway so they’re like ‘sure,’ which is what we need to put them on TV.”
It was essential, Barber explained, that they talk to people quickly before they stayed inside their homes for the entire weekend. Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC officials had all declared states of emergency. Snow was scheduled to fall so fast that night that plow trucks would not be able to keep up. WUSA9 had reserved hotel rooms for Barber and her photographer in Tysons Corner because of the dangerous conditions.
As Barber and her photographer began their search, she recalled that they noticed one gas station, but it was mostly empty. So they kept driving. Right before Leesburg Pike turns into Route 7, her photographer noticed the Schmitz Exxon. The gas station, with 12 gas pumps, a repair shop, a car wash, and a convenience store, was extraordinarily busy.
“Great!” said Barber. “Let’s stop there and we’ll find somebody to talk to.”
So Barber and Fuhr pulled into the gas station, got their camera out, and began to set up.
“And I look up and I see this car that just pulled in and I noticed kind of two guys and one of them had a red gas can,” Barber exclaimed. I did not understand the significance.
“Those guys are getting extra gas!” Barber said. “That’s why I was so excited. So I told Mike, ‘Let’s go talk to them!’ Literally, you have somebody’s who’s clearly worried about the storm and it piling up. Maybe they have something good they’re getting gas for.”
Ellison told Fuhr to hurry. This was their moment.
“So we walk up and there’s the gas pump and I see the one guy holding the gas can and the other guy is about to start filling it and I ask ‘Hey, can we talk to you guys?’ And the one guy looks at me and starts smiling. Then I get around the corner a little closer, and I look up, and I see the other guy cracking up and I realize it was Ovechkin.”
Barber, a 2012 graduate from South Carolina’s Wofford College, grew up in Georgia near Atlanta, the home of CNN. The middle of three sisters, Barber, a slender woman with striking features, considered herself a tomboy. She’d regularly play paintball with her friends. Barber’s favorite sport growing up was baseball. Her hero wasn’t Bob Woodward, Barbara Walters, or Anderson Cooper. It was Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. In her garage, Barber had a Cal Ripken, Jr. branded baseball mitt.
When Barber turned 10 years old, she fell in love with hockey, a sport to this day still struggling to gain popularity in the sunbelt. As a child, Barber watched Mystery, Alaska, a movie about an amateur team that played an exhibition game against the New York Rangers, spurring her interest in hockey. The movie starred Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, and Burt Reynolds.
“This is so cool,” Barber, wide-eyed, remembered saying to her father.
After that experience, Barber’s father took his kids to a hometown Atlanta Thrashers game. Barber got her first hockey jersey. It was a white CCM Thrashers jersey of Ray Ferraro. “Those new Reebok jerseys just don’t compare in quality,” Barber said.
Seemingly as soon as Barber’s hockey fandom began, the Thrashers organization began to crumble. Right before the 2003 season started, Thrashers star Dany Heatley got in an accident while driving a Ferrari 360 Modena. Heatley, who was driving between 55-82 MPH in a 35 MPH zone, lost control of the car and skidded into a brick pillar and iron fence. Heatley’s teammate Dan Snyder, who was sitting in the passenger seat, would succumb to his injuries six days later.
In 2006–07, the Thrashers won the division title, making their first and only playoff experience. On May 31, 2011, the Thrashers announced they were moving to Winnipeg after suffering huge financial losses. Barber was a junior in college.
When Barber moved to Washington to cover politics, she fell in love with the Washington Capitals. Barber went to her first Caps game after the 2012 lockout on January 22, 2013, a 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
Barber went to almost every home game that season. She bought herself an Ovechkin jersey, which she would routinely wear to the station.
“I would say I’ve gone to at least 30 or 40 games since I’ve been in DC,” Barber said. She said her favorite players were Ovechkin, TJ Oshie, and Marcus Johansson.
“I JUST INTERVIEWED OVECHKIN!”
— WUSA9 (@wusa9) January 22, 2016
“I knew it was Ovi as soon as he lifted his head,” Barber said. “But I had already asked to put him on camera. I had no idea until I got around the gas pump that it was him.”
The interaction put Barber in a tough spot. She felt terrible because she knew Ovechkin, arguably the NHL’s best player, is constantly hounded. Every media member wants to speak to Ovechkin and every hockey fan wants a photo or autograph from the Caps captain. Rarely does Ovechkin have free time to himself. She also did not want Ovi to feel like she was ambushing him.
But on the other hand, Barber was aware that an interview with Ovechkin could drive afternoon ratings and get the station some extra attention.
Semi-star struck and embarrassed, Barber gave Ovechkin an out to the interview and assumed he’d take it.
“Do you not want to be on camera?” she asked. “My voice went up like three pitches higher and I said, ‘I swear I was not expecting you!’”
Ovechkin started laughing.
“If you do this interview, you will get me huge brownie points at work,” Barber said.
After hearing that, Ovechkin smiled and nodded. “Okay, sure!” he said.
“He was so friendly and down to earth,” Barber said.
The rest is history. Ovechkin, who was accompanied by his friend Konstantin, talked about getting extra gas so he could help clear snow for his neighbors with his snow blower. “We’re from Russia so we always have that kind of stuff,” Ovechkin explained.
As soon as Barber concluded the interview, she ran back to her car and called the station. She wasn’t supposed to be on-air until later in the day, but demanded to talk to a producer.
“Once the producer got on the phone, I yelled, ‘I JUST INTERVIEWED OVECHKIN!'”
He replied, “Are you serious?”
“I said, ‘I swear. I literally just interviewed Ovechkin at the gas station'” Barber said. “So we slapped a story together as fast as we could and sent it back to get it on air in like 20 minutes.”
Barber put the raw footage of her approaching and asking Ovechkin for the interview on her Twitter account. It went viral immediately, getting nearly 500 interactions on Twitter and starting an avalanche of coverage, including on RMNB.
“Part of why I posted the raw clip on my Twitter account was because I thought everybody’s reaction was the most captivating part,” Barber said. “Initially when we went on air, we didn’t go on air with that part. And as soon as I sent it in, I said, ‘Maybe we should just post the the straight raw video.’”
“I felt like people didn’t want to see him talking about what he was going to do with the gas,” she continued. “What I thought people would be interested in online and I quickly realized when I posted the video was they were more enamored in how random it was. And the fact he did it.”
A week later, Barber graciously granted me an interview. We ate lunch at a nearby Silver Diner, talking about her viral moment while I picked at a salmon citrus salad. Afterwards, she drove me to the famous Exxon station where she stumbled into Ovechkin.
After we parked and got out of the car, Barber looked around, putting the pieces together of that fateful day in her mind. Then she saw pump number three and got excited. We walked over and reminisced. She agreed, again graciously, to pose in front of the pump. The moment wasn’t lost on me. I was photographing a talented, professional journalist in one of the least glamorous places you could be. But we both wanted to remember that moment.
“I still can’t believe it happened,” Barber said to me smiling.
Photo: Ian Oland
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