Atlanta Thrasher Dustin Byfuglien didn't tweet, "I'm taking my talents to Portage and Main" before Tuesday's re-launch of NHL hockey in Winnipeg. But the big shooters in the Canadian sports media more than filled the Twitter gap in the days following the May 19 Globe and Mail story announcing a deal to move the Thrashers to Winnipeg.
Competition for ownership of the biggest Canadian hockey story of the year was as intense as any Stanley Cup contest. In the end, it took 12 days for the lawyers to finalize the transfer and confirm The Globe's initial story. The Globe remained confident that, whatever the delays, its sources were correct that a deal in principle was reached by May 19. But TSN and CBC, to name but two, insisted that, until the final contract was signed, the deal could not be considered complete.
So which media outlet was correct? Perhaps the best analogy might be to the sale of a house. Do you celebrate the night your offer is accepted or the night your final payment goes through? Using that standard, both sides probably feel that they got the story correct.
It produced a fascinating stalemate for media watchers and a confusing read for fans. In a business where scoops are golden, rival print outlets generally gave a resigned tip of the cap to Stephen Brunt's work. Bruce Arthur of the National Post reflected this in his tweet. "I'd point out the Globe is owned by a certain billionaire [David Thomson]with connections to True North. Think he'd have to sign off on this story?" (Globe policy is not to reveal sources and to double source stories; in this case, Brunt's story wound up being quadruple sourced.)
But it was a different tone from electronic media sources who pushed back -- and hard -- within minutes of the release of the Winnipeg story. In particular, Brunt's suggestion that the move would be announced May 24 and that the NHL board of governors had pre-approved the sale and transfer of the team (pending the negotiation of a purchase agreement between Atlanta Spirit LLC, the Thrashers' owners and True North) became contentious issues.
The night the story broke, Darren Dreger of TSN tweeted, "There are still significant issues being negotiated according to Wpg and Atlanta sources. Working on it...but deal is not done. More ahead."
Perhaps no one epitomized the pushback more than CBC, an NHL rightsholder. Kirstine Stewart, CBC's executive vice-president of English Services, retweeted the company line that same night: "Sources contacted by CBC Sports deny Thrashers sale done @hockeynight @NHL" (Her employee, George Stroumboulopoulos tried to soften that by tweeting, "Saying 'a deal isn't done' can sometime be a technicality... Brunt may have info that suggests the deal is done in principle.")
For someone running a network, as Stewart does, speculating upon a competitor's story is highly unusual-- beneath their pay grade, as it were. But in an email to Usual Suspects on Tuesday, Stewart defended the tweets: "The movement of the Thrashers to Canada is huge news for everyone, including CBC, home of HNIC. And the early discussions of whether or not, or if and when it was happening is certainly not beneath my pay grade to notice. Not when I was, as in this case, in the middle of watching a hockey game."
At TSN, another NHL rights holder, the reputable Bob McKenzie, also tempered the Winnipeg rush on his Twitter account. "Deal is not done, according to multiple sources. Shocked if done by Tues. Work to be done. We'll see." Indeed, the timing of the story could not have pleased TSN. Its rival Rogers Sportsnet (which also employs Brunt) bannered the Globe story on its Blue Jays' coverage-- stealing attention from its rival's penultimate game of the season.
Instead of celebrating the game, TSN was forced into overdrive to deal with news broken by a competitor. To its credit, TSN did not try to sweep the story under the rug. But it stuck to its "story not done" angle till the contracts were officially signed. McKenzie declined a request from The Globe for comment on this story.
The most telling moment of that Thursday night probably came when TSN cameras captured a preoccupied NHL commissioner Gary Bettman reading Brunt's breaking story live on his portable device at his seat during the Bruins-Lightning game at the St. Pete Times Forum. How to describe Bettman's expression as the lens zoomed in? Pensive? Peeved? Preoccupied? All the above?
It would be fair to say that The Globe and Mail and Bettman have had a frosty relationship on a number of issues. And, as Jim Balsillie learned, hijacking the commissioner's carefully scripted machinations is a declaration of war in Bettman Land. Within moments of the story breaking in The Globe, sources unnamed and named (deputy commissioner Bill Daly, True North) were making themselves available to poke holes in Brunt's story.
The pushback against The Globe exclusive resulted in a delay of the May 24 press conference -- as recognized by The Globe in the days following Brunt's story. Still, when the deal was made official Tuesday, no one challenged The Globe's assertion of a deal in principle on May 19.
The Winnipeg press conference -- when it finally happened on Tuesday -- received blanket media coverage in Canada commensurate with the opening of Parliament. As well it should for those who remember how a low dollar and runaway salaries robbed Canada of what many consider its hockey birthright. Even an ecstatic premier Greg Selinger waxing emotional about "Mark" not "Mike" Keane couldn't dampen the mood.
But all the batting-practice-fastball questions couldn't disguise the discomfort of a commissioner forced to capitulate on his business strategy in the United States. Bettman's wan smile and self-deprecating remarks (Bettman called himself "cranky") belied the ecstatic mood of the city. His agenda for the transfer had been hijacked by the media.
As we've said before, the modern NHL is a franchise operation first and a hockey league second. Coming back to Winnipeg will do nothing to prop up franchise equity in Bettman's business. Plus, the acceptance of Winnipeg leaves the NHL with no city available for immediate relocation should Glendale, Arizona's taxpayers decide to stop underwriting the losses of their hopeless situation.
Make It Seven: Unasked Question From Media
Why was it considered bad form for Jim Balsillie to sell prospective season tickets to prove Hamilton's worthiness as a franchise but True North's quasi-telethon Tuesday for season tickets was simply good business practice? Just asking.
Share the Land
Sportsnet's Doug MacLean underlined how desperate the NHL was in accepting small-market Winnipeg. "Is it really working when you're coming in as a new franchise in the NHL and you're [already]receiving revenue sharing? That means you're dropping somewhere between 10 and 20 million a year on your operating expenses ... I don't know that the NHL should be adding teams that are taking revenue sharing."
Tell Us How You Really Feel
The hurt for those hockey fans who cared back in Atlanta was every bit as palpable as it had been when Winnipeg lost its club in 1996. Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution sums up the disappointment: "This is how it ends: With the weasel of a commissioner not stepping foot in the city, with another season passing without a playoff game, with a lying ownership group maintaining it did all it could to save a franchise that in reality it spent most of seven years wrecking." Ouch.