Sportsnet Shellacs ESPN

TORONTO (Nov. 2) — National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman held a Zoom media conference, Monday afternoon, to entertain questions about the horrific sex scandal involving the Chicago Blackhawks. Accompanying Bettman, in New York, was deputy commissioner Bill Daly. I later examined, with interest, how the NHL’s broadcast partners on each side of the border covered the story via their websites. After a quick perusal, it’s clear the match–up wasn’t even close: Sportsnet here in Canada clobbered ESPN in the United States.

Web reporter Luke Fox proved his value to the company that shelled out, in 2013, $5.2 billion for 12 years of national TV rights. Fox wrote a strong, opinionated story on the news conference. He criticized Bettman for clouding the issue with “lawyer speak” and for slapping the $1.085–billion Chicago franchise (according to Forbes Magazine) “on the wrist” with a paltry, $2 million fine — recalling that the NHL had initially docked the New Jersey Devils $3 million for circumventing, in 2010, the Collective Bargaining Agreement while structuring the contract of forward Ilya Kovalchuk (the fine was reduced, on appeal, to $1.5 million). “The league has come down harder on salary cap violations… than sexual assault allegations,” wrote Fox, who correctly pointed out that Bettman works for the league owners and therefore “… has bosses [he] prefers to keep happy.” As a side note, I’d prefer that Fox cover the Toronto Maple Leafs with the same voracity. He generally tip–toes around Leaf matters, recognizing that his paycheck is signed by the company (Rogers Communications) that owns 37.5 percent of the hockey club. Which is, to be fair, a more direct conflict–of–interest than reporting on league–wide matters. Still, Fox clearly demonstrated, with the Bettman follow–up story, that he can bring it, big time. When he chooses.

Sportsnet counterbalanced the opinions of Fox by precluding readership comments, which was rather undemocratic. But, the network and the NHL are in bed together, inducing, I suspect, a form of “protection.”


Meanwhile, south of the 49th, Greg Wyshynski either chose to pen a straight news story on the Bettman media conflab… or was instructed to do so by ESPN. Either way, Wyshynski’s coverage of the matter strongly paled when compared to Fox and Sportsnet. Which leads me to conclude that he was working under restriction. Long an exceptional observer of the NHL, Greg has earned the privilege of the editorial license he liberally deploys while writing for the website. ESPN reclaimed American NHL rights this season after a 16–year lull in favor of NBC.

To this point, only one mainstream hockey reporter has called for Bettman’s scalp. Surprisingly, it was Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star, who also tends to soft–soap around the Maple Leafs. McGran has covered the hockey club since January 1999. He, too, can provide decisive, hard–nosed commentary… which he should, with the Leafs, more than sporadically. The newspaper world is screaming for the caliber of opinion and analysis it has lost, in droves, during the Internet era. The Star, several months ago, hired Chris Johnston away from Sportsnet, as Rogers was likely thrilled to lop off yet another senior salary. Johnston inked a side–agreement to appear on rival TSN. He knows the game and is well connected, but almost never takes off the gloves. Conversely, veteran sports columnist Dave Feschuk does speak his mind, commendably and authoritatively, on Leafs and hockey matters. Somewhat unfairly to Feschuk, the Star has chosen to feature Johnston as its lead hockey voice. Feschuk, in my view, is a more–compelling writer, but political correctness is foremost, today, in the conflicted sports media landscape. Viewers and readers are not served nearly as well as prior to the turn of the century.

A former Toronto sports columnist, instantly recognizable across Canada, told me recently: “With the newspaper industry contracting, even the veteran sports guys are scared sh**–less about writing words that will piss off the wrong person and cost them their job.” I’m not sure I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment, though the written press — independent of rightsholder agreements — is being restrained by something.

There is a glaring dichotomy as it pertains to Bettman and his governance of the Chicago scandal. While McGran felt it should spell the end of the commissioner’s 28–year term, Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail praised Bettman for his handling of the matter — albeit a day prior to the New York Zoom conference. Kelly, arguably the best sports columnist in Canada and easily the truest writer, favorably compared Bettman’s work (“firing” Chicago GM Stan Bowman and Florida coach Joel Quenneville for covering up the sexual abuse in the 2010 Stanley Cup final; dropping the $2 million levy on the Blackhawks) to that of the other leaders in North American sport.

As of late this afternoon, Cathal had neither updated nor altered his stance.


TSN here in Canada took the lead role in the Blackhawks’ scandal thanks to the extraordinary work of reporter Rick Westhead, who broke the story and provided the essential follow–up interview with victim Kyle Beach. But, Canada’s first all–sports network lacks a strong, opinionated voice on its website. Darren Dreger, Pierre LeBrun and Craig Button overflow with knowledge and league connections but do virtually all of their work in studio. needs someone that can bring down the hockey hammer when required. It retains only regional telecast rights to Canadian NHL teams, having ceded the national platform to Rogers and Sportsnet seven years ago.

As such, there are minimal conflicts–of–interest.

The website hockey page can (and should) be, in my view, a more–domineering presence.


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