Thornton should have been given a pass

Joe Thornton was named captain of the San Jose Sharks prior to the 2010-11 season. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

My name is Mark Spector, and I am a member of the mainstream media. Have been for 26 years, though I didn’t know I had MSM until five or six years ago, when I was diagnosed by a group of bloggers and media wannabes.

Thursday Joe Thornton made waves when he broke into a teammate’s media scrum in Vancouver with a poorly-timed and vulgar joke. Thornton thought it was off the record, and the San Jose Sharks clearly thought so too, releasing a statement condemning the reporter who went with the quote.

I would not have quoted Thornton, though I won’t criticize Jason Botchford of the Vancouver Province for doing so. He’s MSM too, and us dinosaurs, we stick together. He’s a big boy, and does not need my advice.

Clearly Thornton took a chance when he shouted at a large group of reporters, over-borrowing on trust he’s built up with the media during his long career. I would have given Thornton a chance to word the sentiment more appropriately, as he clearly was not planning on having his words reported verbatim. But he ran the risk, and someone took him up on it.

Of course, that makes me a patsy in the eyes of all those Twitter voices who have attained a deeper understanding of journalistic practice and dressing room politics, without ever having spent a moment in either environment. The quotes were crude, which is fine with most of you, I know. But though there was plenty of shock value in what the Province went with, there was little news value in my opinion.

A four-goal game makes a hockey player feel invincible? No kidding.

Personally, I might have taken that sentiment, and asked Thornton to expand upon it for a piece on the foolishness of the “Tomas Hertl disrespected the game” argument. That’s just my style, not Botchford’s. It doesn’t make one of us right and the other wrong.

Why wouldn’t I have quoted Thornton verbatim? Because for more than a decade, Thornton has gone out of his way to help us in the media with thoughtful quotes and information to a level that most star players do not offer — both on and off the record. He has enhanced many of my columns by directing me down a path of accuracy. So, by extension, Thornton has improved your read on far more occasions than you know. He gets credit for that, in my book, and he should in yours.

There are some reporter-player relationships worth protecting for future columns. Thornton is one.

For players who aren’t so helpful, the immediate juicy quote or incident is far more valuable than the future relationship. It’s risk and reward, or picking the metaphorical hill for the relationship to die on. Botchford will likely never get another Thornton quote, and I’m sure he’s fine with that. Would he value his relationship with a key Canucks player more? Of course he would — he’s a Vancouver Canucks beat writer/columnist. He should value a Kevin Bieksa relationship more highly.

We in the MSM call it “beat management,” and it’s a purely individual thing.

Here’s a story that describes how I would have worked the situation: I’m covering the World Cup of Hockey in Minnesota in 2004, and veteran Brett Hull is a healthy scratch early on. He’s been a willing interview for years, but now he’s frustrated and mad. He’s not talking to the media after practice, yet my boss is asking for a column on Hull.

As he leaves the dressing room one day, we’re staking out the exit. My colleague Neil Stevens of the Canadian Press asks him for an interview, and Hull says, “No.”

Stevens: “But Brett, what about the fans?”

Hull: “(Bleep) the fans.”

Of course, the Team USA P.R. man knew this wasn’t going to look good. That quote was spoken directly to a reporter who had asked Hull a question. There was no grey area here, like Thornton, and everybody knew it.

There was no Twitter in 2004, and no one had recorded the quote.

The P.R. man pleaded with us not to use the quote. Stevens, myself and a couple other scribes discussed the fact that what we truly sought was a piece on Hull’s plight — a former first-line Team USA player who was now hanging on, and couldn’t make the lineup. A column on that theme would be 800 words of intriguing copy, not simply a throw-away, three-word epithet that Hull had said in frustration and without thinking.

So we gave the P.R. man an hour to get Hull back from the hotel and sit him down for a proper interview. We would give Hull a mulligan; he would give us (and readers) a column. The P.R. man quickly called Hull to lay out the parameters of our bargain.

Hull responded by stating, and I paraphrase because I wasn’t in on the phone call, “(Bleep) the media.”

We used the quote, and the next time I saw Hull he gave me — and you — another fine interview.

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