If the Brian Burke-Scott Burnside-Bobby Ryan love triangle has taught me one thing these past 48 hours, it is this: I thought everybody knew that this is how hockey executives talk about players.
Well, apparently not.
Bobby Ryan being questioned on intensity? Look, the kid has clearly made strides in that area, but it has been the singular knock on his game since the day he arrived in the National Hockey League. That he is a sleepy player at times is as big a scoop as revealing that, sometimes, P.K. Subban gives the puck away. Or Phil Kessel is not among hockey’s elite skaters. Or the Sedin twins don’t punch back. Or that, once in a while, I snap on Twitter. Facts are facts, and sometimes they hurt.
If there is one thing this tempest proves however, it is that access is paramount.
So the next time a player refuses to speak to the media (and thus, the fans) after or prior to an important moment—and I grouse about it—remember how much more intriguing the process of choosing the U.S. Olympic team became when they decided to let journalists Burnside and Kevin Allen in on the process from Day 1. If you’re like me, and consider HBO’s 24/7 to be a can’t-miss window into the NHL’s machinations, think about why that is. It is access. Access given to HBO’s cameras that no other media outlet in hockey is afforded. Now, after the Bruce Boudreau’s F-bomb incident, when the NHL clearly took a more hands-on approach to editing the series, did it improve? Or did it become a tad more vanilla?
The facts are, we’ve never cared this much about how the U.S. team was chosen. In fact, usually it’s a 10-minute conversation. But access, and two fine pieces written by a pair of trusted, veteran writers, made the process far more interesting than ever before. So GM David Poile and USA Hockey should be applauded here. Their forward thinking has engaged hockey fans inside their borders and elsewhere, by letting us all into a process that up until now has been a deep, dark secret.
So the question becomes, did USA Hockey mess up here? Well, as a V.P. of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association—a group that fights constantly for teams to live up to agreed upon access rights—I think you’ll be able to guess where I stand. But it’s not about the journalist. It is about the reader. A few scant quotes have been pulled out of a roughly 14,000-word piece, forging a lightning rod for why USA Hockey shouldn’t have granted access. I argue that the other intriguing 13,800 words are evidence of why they should have, and should continue to do so.
Full disclosure: Burnside and USA Today’s Kevin Allen are both old friends and trusted colleagues. Not just of mine, but in Poile’s world as well. That is why he let them in, and hasn’t criticized them in the aftermath or claimed there was a misquote. I can all but guarantee you that if Burke had looked over to the two journos in the room after his comments on Ryan and said, “Don’t use that,” the quotes would never have appeared. And with two writers taking notes throughout the various meetings, no one can say they didn’t know that their words might appear in print. And as for having someone from USA Hockey vet the final stories? Forget it. No self-respecting news organization would agree to that, nor should they.
“As far as anything to denigrate any player, that is not what any of us signed up for,” Poile said Friday. “This was just a little bit too much. For the umpteenth time I totally apologize to Bobby Ryan on behalf of our staff and Brian Burke, who was absolutely the biggest supporter of Bobby Ryan on our staff. Nowhere does (the article) show that. It’s just unfortunate.”
Poile stated on Friday that Burke’s final list included Ryan. That is a list I very much doubt the writers were privy too. It must also be said that Allen’s article, though it did not contain the quotes on Ryan, did not portray Burke as a huge Ryan supporter either. In the end, USA Hockey did a noble, ground-breaking thing here, and got about a 95 percent victory. The two stories are captivating, and like 24/7, both give an accurate, real-time look into how teams are chosen.
We’ve seen the question, “Will this hurt Burke’s efforts to get free agents in Calgary?” Our answer: More than being a nearly last place team in the throes of a rebuild, in a wintry, Western Canadian market already does?
Or this refrain: “What a mistake to let the journalists in.”
Look, folks. If you’re reading this column it is because you have a keen interest in sports. That interest is fed by information from within hockey’s walls, and the deeper inside the journalist gets, the newsier and more fascinating the read becomes. Limit us all to press conference settings, and you get sanitized, every-day quotes with injury reports that include terms like “total body soreness.”
Open the portal just a bit, and you get work that has the hockey world buzzing for days. Like 24/7, or these two pieces.
Which would you prefer?