’Tis the season for NHL general managers to meet the media for year-end inquisitions. Twenty-nine teams end the year on an unhappy note, so managing the message in the face of fan disappointment is a challenging proposition. The fourth estate attends such séances with pointed questions. As former Toronto president Ken Dryden told Sportsnet Radio host Bob McCown, “To succeed in Toronto, you have to manage the media and the public in order to manage the team. If you can manage the media and manage the public you can get enough time to manage the team.”
Tuesday it was Vancouver Canucks president/general manager Mike Gillis meeting the Vancouver media to discuss the implosion of the 2011-12 Presidents Cup winners in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The desire for a dramatic change is palpable in a Vancouver market that hasn’t won a Cup in its history. Gillis's moves this season had not delivered another trip to the Cup Final. Canuck fans may not have rioted this year, but they were no less upset at an early exit.
Those advocating a carpet bombing of the roster were left disappointed, however.
“The thing Gillis did really well (Tuesday) was move the news cycle,” CBC’s Elliotte Friedman told Usual Suspects Tuesday. “Fans there are angry because of the loss, but he's given them different things to chew on...His own future, his passionate defence of (coach Alain) Vigneault, the (Cody) Hodgson stuff, the way teams like L.A. built their roster, then (goalie Roberto) Luongo's decision to reveal he'll move. Fans weren't expecting any of that.”
Noted Greg Brady, co-host of the morning show on Sportsnet Radio Fan 590. “@bradyfan590 I am dropdead shocked how patient Mike Gillis is being w/ some of these questions. At least seven ?s far lamer than anything Burke got.”
That would be a reference to Leafs GM Brian Burke blowing a gasket at his season-ending presser over a question about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ model. “They won a goddamn lottery and they got the best player in the game (Sidney Crosby). Is that available to me? Should we do that?... Pittsburgh model, my ass.”
So is there a best approach to media in a frantic Canadian hockey market, where yesterday is a long time ago?
It's accepted that former Montreal GM Pierre Gauthier made his job infinitely more difficult by ignoring Montreal's voracious media mob, appearing to snub them for long periods of time. In part because he couldn't manage the press and the fans, Gauthier was fired before the season ended. Former Calgary GM Darryl Sutter also poisoned the well with local media before losing his job in 2010-- a point not lost on current GM Jay Feaster, a media favourite. Edmonton's Steve Tambellini had the unenviable task of explaining another top draft pick after flopping again.
In Winnipeg, Kevin Cheveldayoff benefited from the media honeymoon of the Jets' return, but by season's end he, too was facing probing questions about his handling of the roster. For Ottawa's Bryan Murray, everything has gone right this season, but he, too, will face heat if the Senators blow a lead in their Eastern Conference series with the New York Rangers.
Then there is the voluble Burke.
“I think Burke has forever damaged his relationship (with the Toronto) media,” Brady told Usual Suspects. “He slams us all personally and our critiques of him are professional.”
“From a media perspective, you love the guy that will give you the great clips and quotes like Burke,” says TSN’s hockey host James Duthie. “But the danger for a guy like Brian is that when it goes bad, the media turns on you faster and harder -and the bold statements come back to haunt you. i.e: that quote about not wanting to finish 8th to get killed in Round 1 is getting talked about a ton in Toronto because of L.A. and Ottawa.”
As different as Burke and Gillis's approaches appear, Friedman thinks the men can be remarkably similar in how they view their press corps. “Two very blunt guys who believe what they are doing is right,” Friedman observed. “(Gillis’s) quote about Vigneault... ‘We lost the seventh game in the Stanley Cup final, he’s the winningest coach in this team’s history, is that when you decide to get rid of him?’ I could close my eyes and see Burke saying the same thing about Ron Wilson. (Albeit with different qualifications, obviously.)”
How the Canadian GMs manage expectations will say a lot about how long they stay in charge in their emotional markets. And how long they keep their jobs.
Cutting Edge: The disappearance of CBC's Battle Of the Blades - put on hiatus by the Corporation - had many people wondering why because the show, while expensive to mount, seemed popular and a moderate ratings success. A hint about the move may come from the fact that Battle of the Blades is managed by ISport, the same company that produced Grand Slam Curling, cancelled in January. ISport and CBC are at loggerheads over financial and creative issues related to the curling show. Industry sources suggest resolution of the curling issue might resurrect Battle of the Blades.
Speaking of managing expectations: We don’t know if Artie Fufkin of Spinal Tap fame works for CBC, but if Ottawa succumbs to the Rangers on Thursday in Game 7 of their opening-round playoff series there may be someone on Front Street bending over a table and begging for someone to kick him. “Enjoy,” said the fictional Fufkin. “Come on. I'm not asking, I'm telling with this.”
As reported by The Globe and Mail, CBC compounded the ratings impact of possibly losing both Canadian teams in the first round by holding back advertising inventory for sale in later rounds, gambling that Vancouver would make another deep run. Should the Senators lose, that will leave the cash-strapped Corporation scrambling to maximize precious dollars from the remaining three rounds. And that means trying to excite sponsors over Nashville-Phoenix or St. Louis-Los Angeles.
Meanwhile Kirstine Stewart, the CBC executive vice president for English services, told a TV Bureau of Canada conference last week that CBC will try to keep national NHL rights for NHL hockey in 2014, according to people in the audience at the time. Stewart cited CBC’s ability to attract casual viewers, versus TSN’s and Sportsnet’s more limited appeal to the hard-core sports fan.
However, TSN’s highly rated broadcast of the Grey Cup game (averaging 4.6 million viewers) debunked the notion that only conventional carriers can deliver large Canadian TV audiences. It’s no longer a given that Canadian specialty channels are deemed insufficient for the NHL postseason.
In addition, it’s felt in the industry that if Bell Media wants the NHL rights - as it did the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games - then it will pay whatever it takes. Stewart’s protestations otherwise are understandable, but she doesn’t have the financial bullets to win this fight alone.
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