Spector on NHL: Player-media relationship a tricky one

Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov lashes out at the media in only a way he can after it was reported he fell asleep during a team meeting.

Mr. Universe, A.K.A. Ilya Bryzgalov, may or may not have fallen asleep during a recent team meeting of the Philadelphia Flyers. But one thing the Philadelphia hockey writers will never write about Bryzgalov, is that he isn’t readily available to them, and thus, to you the hockey fan.

The on-the-record sources have stated it’s not true. The not-for-attribution sources have “confirmed” that, yes, Bryz was catching a few Z’s while the coaches were talking powerplay.

Of course, Bryzgalov denied it and challenged the Philly scribes on that this week, from a dressing room stall that has spawned some of hockey’s best stuff over the past few seasons.

“You know guys, to be honest, I don’t know where you get this information,” Bryzgalov said. “Be honest — did you read yourself what you wrote? That’s embarrassing. You have to prove your sources.

“That was never happening. You became not professional journalist.”

It is Bryzgalov’s constant availability to the media, and the fun he has during those times, that makes him one of my favorites. He’s there not only in the good times, when it’s easy, but the tough times as well.

Unlike Calgary Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who, upon news he had told the Flames he would refuse to report to a team if traded before the recent trading deadline, at first avoided all contact with the media for a couple of days.

When he was finally compelled to speak, Kiprusoff gave it the old, and we paraphrase: “I don’t want to talk about that. Let’s talk about hockey.”

If the trade block wasn’t true, he’d have denied it. It was true, so he tried to set down a few interview parameters, which is always a futile tactic.

Players like the Sedin brothers in Vancouver, who are out front every single day — and become even more accessible after a Canucks loss — have my unbridled respect. Not because they talk to me, but because they allow me to more accurately write my piece for you.

No guessing. You have a question, Henrik is there for a straight answer. Daniel as well — even when they question is, “Why aren’t you playing better?”

Every team has their Henrik or Daniel, and every team has an Ales Hemsky or Dustin Byfuglien — two guys who wouldn’t pour their beer on a burning hockey writer.

It’s a strange dance we dance every day across the National Hockey League, between journalists, players, and media relations staffs who are the go-betweens. Almost always, when we ask the P.R. man for a player and the player refuses to speak — or the GM or coach declares him off limits — it’s the poor P.R. man who faces the wrath of the journalistic pack.

Full disclosure: I am a vice president of the PHWA — the Professional Hockey Writers Association — that puts itself at the forefront of access to NHL players.

You probably didn’t know this, but there are actual written rules in place — “NHL MEDIA ACCESS POLICY,” as agreed upon by the league and the NHL Players’ Association — in place to guarantee access to players so that you, the reader and the viewer, can hear from your favorite players.

So that when a player becomes the focal point of a game, or ‘The Story’ on an off day, you, the reader or viewer, can learn more about it through your friendly neighbourhood journalist.

As the document says, and we quote: “Violation of this policy will be considered conduct against the welfare of the League.”

Even us access nerds would admit that some terms of access inside that document are a tad pie-in-the-sky. Like this one: “No later than five (5) minutes following the conclusion of the game, all players must be physically present and available for media interviews in the main dressing room for a minimum of 30 minutes and a maximum of 45 minutes.”

As journalists, we only need the guys we need. The guys you need — who you’re talking about after the game in either a positive or a negative way.

But when we/you need them, we/you need them. Not tomorrow. Today.

Not an hour past deadline. Now.

So when Aaron Rome ends Nathan Horton’s Stanley Cup with a high, late hit in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, we all understand that a concussed Horton won’t be up on the podium the next day. (Injured players are exempt from the access rules.)

But we never did accept that Rome was also shielded by the league and the Canucks. Journalists had gathered from the four corners of the hockey world to cover that Cup final, and the Rome-Horton story was the primary story on that off day.

For a league that, historically, received perhaps its biggest publicity hit ever from the HBO series 24/7, why wouldn’t Aaron Rome be made accessible at this time of such acute emotion and vulnerability? The guy played his whole life to compete for a Stanley Cup, and as a result of a split-second decision, had been suspended for the remainder of the series.

Readers and viewers would have flocked to the product to hear him speak.

It was compelling, it was real time, it was raw emotion. And it was denied that day by the NHL to us, the reporters, and you, the reader.

The league gave us Mike Murphy, who in Colin Campbell’s absence had handed down the suspension, and I wrote the Rome column anyhow.

And I hated the column, because it was nowhere as good as it should have been.