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Hearts And Minds: The Troubling Trend Of NHL Media As A Weapon

NHL media has always had a powerful influence on how fans view their team, their favourite players and the game, but recently, with the meteoric rise of the "hot-take merchant" and questions over journalistic impartiality, we've begun to see a trend where that influence is more clearly than ever being used by teams and players for their own agendas. The question far will it go and is NHL coverage and the game itself being harmed as a result?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Information is a powerful thing. In the NHL, this is as true as anywhere else.

In today's NHL, the way the media cover the sport has more of an influence than ever. Correspondents such as Darren Dreger and Bob McKenzie have become stars in their own right, with their opinions dissected repeatedly and influential to hundreds of thousands of NHL fans.

Mike Milbury, along with the aforementioned names like Dreger and McKenzie is chief among this new breed of "opinion-driver" talking heads.

Also  important in the shaping of opinion are team beat writers and reporters, following their chosen team and filing stories that claim to give the "inside track" on events inside your favourite team. It's a privileged position that many would envy, and was among the highest-coveted and most respected roles in sports reporting.

However, in recent seasons we've begun to see both punditry and media reporting change in the NHL. Now is the era of the "hot take" and the "expert opinion" provided by former players and GMs who've now turned their hand to essentially becoming an opinion for hire...a rent-a-mouth, who will say whatever's necessary either to get attention, support a "narrative" they're trying to push across (usually in NHL media it's to do with GRIT and COMPETE LEVEL being the way to win things above all else) or simply to get noticed.

In short, the hockey media, particularly in the NHL is now full of people, even at local level, who see their role as having changed from merely reporting and facilitating the conversation & opinion among fans and in the hockey world, to actively driving it in the direction they want it to go.

Mike Milbury, along with the aforementioned names like Dreger and McKenzie is chief among this new breed of "opinion-driver" talking heads. After a playing career in which his most famous action was to go into a stand and hit a spectator with a shoe, and a GM/coaching career which started promisingly in Boston with a trip to the Cup finals and then led to glorious moments enforcers for the All-Star game, and singlehandedly ruining the New York Islanders for ten years (Luongo, Spezza, Chara, Bertuzzi, Redden, Berard are all names traded away by Milbury, and he's also responsible for the Alexei Yashin-to-NYI trade and contract universally viewed as one of the most horrendously stupid GM actions of the modern era) he's found a new lease of life pontificating on NESN and NBC other teams' management should do.

This led to his comments last week, where he weighed in on the Joe Thornton controversy in San Jose by arguing that one of the greatest NHL playmaking centres of the 00's and a key part of his team should be "sent to the minors" for reacting to endless provocation and public criticism by Sharks GM Doug Wilson. Milbury came up with all the old clichés about "sending a message" - seeming to completely forget that a) Thornton couldn't be moved due to an NMC, b) he was a liked and respected member of the Sharks and c) if he was demoted then the Sharks had about as much hope of having him clear waivers past 29 other teams as Milbury does of actually getting another NHL GM job. In short, not much.

The thing with Milbury's comments, though, is that by themselves they are incredibly easy to mock, and shown up for the click-baiting "old-school hockey guy completely fails to do his research" stuff that they are, but they're also part of a major trend that seems to be spreading in the NHL...the hockey media as team/league sanctioned attack dog.

In short, coming in tandem with the "talking head as opinion-driver" role has been another new trend-the weaponization of hockey media by teams, leagues and organizations.

Now, don't get me wrong-hockey media has always criticized players and coaches. So has anyone. It's how journalism works. However, in the past few years we've begun to see a marked increase in team "insiders" looking to shape opinion that fits a narrative they want to project, whether or not the facts fit it. In the past we've talked about the obvious promotion of "grit" and "hard work" as key virtues by media, usually used as an attempt to answer criticism of a player's production or other play on the ice and justify their presence when all else fails, or even create an aura around them that is supposed to answer criticism (I wrote about this from a Bruins perspective focusing on Greg Campbell recently).

Now, we're seeing an increasing trend of targeted "hit pieces" from media figures...usually either used on a player that a team is looking to move or, often, to back up team management after they've traded a popular player (notably the "team concerns" about Tyler Séguin and rumours of partying and questions of character that the Boston Bruins' favored columnists (such as Joe Haggerty and the Globe's Kevin Paul Dupont) only actually seemed to raise after his trade to Dallas).

Recently, we've seen the next logical progression, where a star's character/work ethic is constantly questioned and dissected, their fit within the team is analyzed constantly, then their reacting to these pieces has been used as even further ammunition for the initial questions, which creates a self-perpetuating cycle and, one has to assume, plays right into team's hands (see Phil Kessel in Toronto or indeed Joe Thornton in SJ for particularly clear examples).

Finally, we've seen cases where a team media has clearly decided to target a player for "character issues" no other reason than they're the easiest target, or, more sinisterly, to run them out of town (see Evander Kane in Winnipeg or, recently, Nazem Kadri in Toronto). Troublingly, these are often linked to players of minority backgrounds.

It's even begun to drive the draft and prospect narrative too to some degree-look at the way Josh Ho-Sang is presented in some areas as opposed to any other comparable prospect. While one prospect might be referred to as "confident", Ho-Sang is "arrogant". While his rival is "single-minded", Ho-Sang is "selfish". It's all about creating perception through language...both words are similar, but the connotations are very different.

The most obvious and indeed blatantly manipulative practitioners of this new trend are, ironically, Boston and Toronto...with many questions being raised over Darren Dreger's constant defence of Toronto management  (among whom are his cousin, Dave Nonis) and the strange coincidence that all his "inside info" and "expert opinion" on the Leafs appears to correlate perfectly with the one that backs Nonis' decisions up.

Toronto writer Cathal Kelly also recently caused a storm by openly admitting that players who "play ball" with reporters when it comes to access get an easier ride and reporters allow their own biases to influence stories.

In Boston, Haggerty and DuPont are well known by fans as management mouthpieces, seemingly ready to trot out "expert analysis" that just happens to support the team management's views on how the Bruins should be run, or whatever party line happens to be being pushed by the team at that particular moment.

The NHL media has long been aware of the power it holds in influencing the opinion of the casual fan and getting fanbases to think a certain way about players - however, now more and more objective analysis appears to be cast aside as teams appear to run an unofficial "access for stories" racket. Play ball and put out the team line, and you'll get the key interviews, the stories, the clickbait fodder.

Even more sinisterly, there are writers who are now using their platforms to either whitewash some of the more questionable stories out there or even try to blatantly re-frame public opinion in the face of them-even at the cost of openly ignoring the story.

As an example, take this recent Scott Burnside story on Nashville's Mike Ribeiro for ESPN. At first glance, it looks like your standard "player finds redemption after tough road" tale. It talks about Ribeiro's battles with attitude, self-doubt, and how he's trying hard to turn his life around and admit the mistakes of the past. All very heartwarming.

However, when you bear in mind that this story came out barely a week after this story about the Predator being sued for a sexual assault allegedly committed during his first year in Nashville broke, it starts to take on more of an aura of "spin"...particularly when you bear in mind that the allegations, which were public knowledge at the time and Burnside will be aware of being covered elsewhere on his own site, don't get mentioned or even hinted at. Not at all. Nothing.

Look at it in that light, and it's a blatant whitewash job. The opposite of a hit piece, in fact.

This is happening regularly. Look at Puck Daddy - another serial offender. That site, read by a huge amount of NHL fans every day, has expressed a multitude of controversial views in the past. Most recently, Puck Daddy called an attempt by Nashville blog On The Forecheck to defend Ribeiro and say that a sexual assault allegation is "not enough evidence" to suspend the center a "reasonable, evenhanded piece" on the site, - despite it only presenting one side of the argument. The review was written by Josh Cooper, a long-time Nashville beat writer and friend of Dirk Hoag, author of the OTF piece. In short, the hockey media will often use personal relationships and agendas to dictate the content they share even while claiming to be writing for "independent" NHL blogs...which just leads to tighter information control. (stick tap to commenter CAustin for pointing the Cooper/Hoag link out in the comments). The staff of On The Forecheck also didn't react well to being called out, going after one of their own readers on social media and having their editor mount a pretty "vociferous" rebuttal of any concerns, as this account tells.

The default setting by "mainstream" media wherever the city, in fact, seems to be to defend questionable behaviour dependent, again, on personal relationships, too, or to automatically take the team line to find an excuse-for another example look at all the pieces by hockey media that responded to the actions of Dustin Byfuglien in messing with Evander Kane's property in Showergate by instantly hinting that Kane was at fault and this was a culmination of many Kane-driven incidents...without condemning Byfuglien and in some cases actively supporting the "send a message" defence for what in any other workplace would be considered outright bullying.

The hockey media has a powerful platform-but it seems dedicated to defending the status quo rather than questioning it, and rather than being the impartial, calm analysis that it presents itself as, we're seeing more and more evidence, particularly in big hockey markets, of major outlets being influenced by or in some cases openly pandering to team wishes, or of correspondents with national platforms not only not questioning information and providing impartial analysis but sometimes actively allowing their coverage to be dictated by what they think the hockey world "should" accept as the truth rather than what actually is.

This is a trend that isn't just present in the NHL - it's very notable in my other hockey coverage playground...the UK, only over here we're probably even further behind. Whereas in the NHL there's a large community culture of bloggers and informed fans who constantly provide their own analysis and question the established/mainstream view (like this site) - in Britain fans are still at the stage where for many, questioning what they're fed by teams is bad and the word of certain insiders/official team sources on anything is law. It's the kind of culture that allows Dave Simms, one of the most influential figures in UK hockey and the self-proclaimed "voice of the sport" in the UK to get away with a tweet like this on a charity walk for a dying cancer patient, unquestioned and indeed defended by most in the game over here.

Thankfully, North America has moved on, but even so, the weaponization of media for team/league agendas & the medias seeming complicity in it is a dangerous trend-one that suppresses change and even the ability for hockey to evolve...the media as an entity is supposed to reflect what's actually happening, not what those in power WANT to be happening.

As we've seen in society, the moment those in power are allowed to use media for their own ends, either overtly or covertly, the quality of coverage suffers, and often great insight is either repressed or simply doesn't get heard at all. In some cases, the coverage openly ignores or distorts the truth in favour of what whoever is the subject of that particular coverage would like it to be - and many fans fall for it.

And that makes everyone watching the games poorer.

Information is power, and right now, in some NHL areas, there's a greater chance than ever that that power is being misused.

It's a trend that the media needs to act to stop, before it becomes the norm...or the credibility of any major information source will constantly be in question, as will its neutrality.

That's not a good place for the hockey world to be going.