Elliotte Friedman: Accountability is key in hockey bloggers/press box controversies

(Ed. Note: In case you missed it on Sunday, we covered the backlash against the Edmonton Oilers for their treatment of a hockey blogger in their press box. This incident continues to spark widespread debate about the relationship between alternative media, mainstream media and the NHL's teams.

Elliotte Friedman is a Canadian journalist for CBC Sports and a contributor to Hockey Night in Canada who has covered this blog/MSM/NHL issue before. Elliotte had some thoughts about this latest controversy, and we're honored to offer him an open mic. Enjoy, and keep this conversation going.)

By Elliotte Friedman

One year ago, Hockey Night In Canada did a piece on hockey bloggers. It wasn't my idea -- too bad, because it was a great thought -- but it was one of my most enjoyable features from the 2007-08 season.

I love reading blogs. It doesn't matter if they are from mainstream media sources or insightful fans who do it on the side. Every day, Kukla's Korner, Puck Daddy and James Mirtle are checked at least twice each. I get annoyed when Danny Tolensky is slow with the updates (not that I should talk). I click on at least one newspaper beat blog from every NHL city.

I can't help it, I'm an information junkie.

There is a place for people on the inside -- the daily reporters from newspapers, radio stations and television -- and on the outside, the fans who passionately follow their teams. At times, the MSM can be overly snobby when it comes to these fan sites, using the worst examples to smear an entire group. Yes, some are unreadable. But, some of them are very, very good.

It never hurts to know what fans are thinking, even if you disagree with them. But there would be times I'd read them and say, "I understand why some teams wouldn't put up with this."

That brings us to Covered In Oil.

I understand why much of the blogosphere is hammering the Edmonton Oilers on this one. You're supporting a teammate, and that's hockey. You stand together. To you, this is an access issue. To me, it's not.

(Slight detour: It's true the Oilers do not credential independent bloggers. As far as I know, none of the Canadian teams do. Is there a prejudice against them? Maybe a little, but the real concern is space. Press boxes and dressing rooms are jammed in Canada's six NHL cities. The Washington Capitals and New York Islanders, for example, deserve full credit for their forward-thinking on the issue. However, if they had the kind of regular coverage the Oilers do, would independents still be accepted?)

But, like I said, this is really about something else: Accountability.

What we have to realize here is that we've only been presented with one side of the story.

I'm not calling Dave a liar, but as we all know, there are three sides to everything.

What Dave learned the hard way is that things are very different on the inside. You can write whatever you want from your couch. If you never have to show your face, there are no repercussions. No one is going to call you on something face-to-face.

Once you step into the press box or the dressing room, that changes. It doesn't happen often, but there will be confrontation. Maybe it's quiet and professional. But there are other times it's loud and confrontational.

That doesn't mean you can't be critical. But it means you have to be fair, you have to be professional and you have to understand that the subject of your criticism isn't going to like it.

Early in my career, the Toronto Blue Jays re-acquired Tony Fernandez. Dave Perkins of The Toronto Star, a major influence during my start, ripped the idea of bringing him back. Next day, he made sure he was there, so Fernandez could respond, if he wanted to. I've never forgotten that.

Pat Quinn and I went a year without speaking after a one blow-up. But, it never changed the way I covered him and, to his credit, it never changed the way he answered my questions. Charles Oakley and I once screamed at each other for 10 straight minutes, but forgot about it the next day. (Thankfully, I don't get into these very often. But the fact is they happen.)

What struck me is that the flashpoints in those two incidents were mild compared to what was being written during that Oiler game. Here are some of the blog entries from that night:

"I'll bet Paul Lorieau cleans up at the retirement home mixers."

"Zack Stortini is just a disgusting hockey player."

"We had better be good on the powerplay, because we can't do [expletive] all at even strength: that whole sequence before the disallowed goal was just horrific."

"Penner is the early leader for the Mike Peca Award for the player who I most wanted to spit in the face of a year ago who I now kinda like."

The Stortini line is a matter of opinion; but the other three, I'm sorry, just don't belong in a professional atmosphere. The Capitals -- subject of the HNIC blogger piece -- do a great job of laying down the rules. After meeting some of their bloggers, I'm confident they would never abuse the privilege like this.

I can't speak for the Oilers, but if I ran the team, and knew that someone in the press box was posting that, I'd throw them out, too. First, it's unprofessional. Second, you are just asking for confrontation. I suspect that what the media relations staff was really worried about. The writer had access to the dressing room. It is unlikely that anything would have happened that night, but, in the future?

It's certainly possible. And those remarks could have caused a real problem.

Now, when this happens, people scream "censorship!" or say that MSM want to protect their press passes by not criticizing the Oilers. That's just not factual. I have never seen anyone lose their credential for criticizing anyone in an organization. I have seen people lose access for abuses (such as idiotically sneaking friends into a big game or cheering), but never for criticism. I'm sure it happens occasionally, but in 15 years, I've never seen it.

No one gets it worse than Gary Bettman. Every year, he gets annoyed with reporters who grill him at the All-Star Game or the Stanley Cup, but he has never struck back in such a punitive manner. Sure, there are heated arguments, but the only time I've ever seen a reporter punished was when one lost his mind and yelled at an intern for taking too long to deliver Bettman's quote sheets. (The NHL banished him to an awful seat and told him he'd be outside if it happened again, an impressively forceful defence of an undeserving victim.)

Geez, Bob Stauffer is the Oilers' new radio analyst, and he's been killing Craig MacTavish for years.

Fact is, if I said anything similar on-air to what was written in that blog, the Oilers would throw me out, too, and I'd deserve it.

It's too bad that Dave is giving up his "blog persona" because of this, since much of his stuff is very good. But this is a very valuable lesson. If independent bloggers want the access, you can't dish it out without taking it.

It's a different world in there.

Elliotte Friedman
Hockey Night In Canada's 14th most important on-air personality

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