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EDMONTON — At the risk of violating the axiom that journalists should never make the story about them, I feel like I owe you, dear readers, a bit of a confession.
My name is Mike McIntyre. And I’m an NHL outsider.
As the most unique Stanley Cup playoffs of our lifetime get underway here in the hub city of Edmonton this week, I won’t be embedded inside the so-called bubble. I’m not taking it personally, since none of my colleagues in the mainstream media will be either. The only writers being allowed access to the secure zone are team and league employees — one social media "content creator" from each of the 24 clubs, and six scribes whose copy appears on NHL.com.
And that’s causing a wee bit of controversy around here. The Professional Hockey Writers Association, of which I am a member, is rightfully upset that the league went back on its original promise that absolutely no media would be allowed, regardless of who signs their cheques.
The NHL cited space constraints and safety concerns as the cause, then made a sneaky, last-minute exception for their own house organ. When the PHWA pushed back and asked for six spots, not unlike what the NBA has done in their Orlando bubble, they were essentially told to take a hike.
We shouldn’t be surprised. The NHL loves to control the message, and they are going to be drunk with power in this situation. For example, all practices and pre-game skates are going to be held behind closed doors, meaning no independent eyes will be around to monitor and report on what’s happening.
If a star goes down in a heap during a drill and has to be carried off the ice, there’s a good chance you won’t hear about it beyond the coach eventually identifying them as being "unfit to play" when they’re not on the ice at puck drop. If teammates get into a dust-up during practice — remember when Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler and Ben Chiarot dropped the gloves a couple years ago? — you can bet you won’t hear a peep.
Consider this: Former NHL.com employee Sean Shapiro, now covering the Dallas Stars for The Athletic, let folks know how the sausage was made the other day with a Twitter thread in which he revealed the league wouldn’t allow writers to use the term "concussion" unless a team specifically did, wouldn’t allow any reference to fights in their copy, and wouldn’t allow any news to be broken before the team was ready to release it, such as an injury or trade.
That’s not journalism, folks. That’s public relations. And the league is trying to sanitize this current set-up, one which is fraught with risk and potential danger considering a deadly global pandemic is still going on around us and teams are being made to adhere to strict health and safety protocols.
So yeah, the NHL should be taken to task for how they’ve handled this, making you wonder just what they might be trying to hide. But please don’t mistake this for me whining and crying about the situation. Fact is, being a so-called insider is highly overrated. Access journalism has its own perils, ones which should always have you viewing the end result with a skeptical eye.
If you dare stray from the message the league or the club wants, prepare to feel the wrath.
A quick story here: A couple weeks ago, I put in a request to speak with Jets co-owner and chairman Mark Chipman about a number of issues, including how his organization is weathering these uncertain economic times, his addition to the AHL’s return-to-play committee, his view on players like Wheeler speaking about social justice issues and the ongoing development of True North Square.
I was denied.
"In talking with Mark over the last little while, he’s been disappointed with a lot of the media coverage as of late and has made a personal decision to stand down from most media requests for the foreseeable future," Scott Brown, the team’s senior director of communications, told me in an email reply.
Was it due to writing about the backlash the Jets received in March when they initially said they wouldn’t pay their casual and part-time workers for income lost due to COVID-19 postponement of games, then later flip-flopped due to mounting public pressure? Maybe it was opining about the noticeable decline in atmosphere at Bell MTS Place, including the end of their sell-out streak, and the ensuing decision by the organization to slash some concession prices and announce venue enhancements.
Frankly, I don’t really care, nor am I losing any sleep over it. I had to chuckle at Brown’s last line in his reply: "I appreciate this will likely be an inconvenience." Actually, it’s not. At all. In the four years since I started covering the Jets for the Free Press. Chipman has done a grand total of zero interviews with me despite numerous previous request that were turned down. In that sense, no harm, no foul here.
I’m not about to change my ways, or sell my journalistic soul, just to curry favour with anyone. I’ll heap praise on the organization when it’s deserved, but also take them to task when I feel it’s warranted. Always have, always will.
Here in Edmonton, it will be business as usual for me, even if the situation itself is anything but usual.
I have accreditation to cover all Jets games inside an otherwise empty Rogers Place, beginning with Wednesday night’s exhibition game against Vancouver followed by the best-of-five qualifying series against Calgary starting Saturday night. I’ll ask questions daily of players and coaches, albeit via Zoom for the foreseeable future. The NHL claims this isn’t permanent, but I’ll believe that when I see it. They don’t exactly have a sparkling recent track record on these things.
It’s not ideal, but it won’t hamper my ability to bring you compelling daily stories, features and columns from the hub and document an event we’re all going to remember for the rest of their lives. And I will happily do it all from outside the bubble.
Yes, I am an NHL outsider. And damn proud of it, too.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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