Saturday, April 02, 2011

Speaking Truth to Power

This PHWA/Islanders dust-up looks like it's going to become a bigger story.

As of today three local chapters of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA) have voted to boycott the vote for the year-end hockey awards. The Rangers chapter, the Islander chapter, and the Devils chapter will all abstain from voting as a protest. The writers are protesting that the NY Islanders revoked the press credentials for blogger Chris Botta back on November 16th.

Chris Botta is a writer for the NY Times blog Slap Shot and editor of the blog He was senior NHL writer for AOL FanHouse. He is also a former PR executive of 20 years with the NY Islanders.

Chris Botta with Islanders center John Tavares

Back on November 18, 2010, the NY Times reported on the pulling of Botta's credentials as follows:
Botta said the only reason that Auerbach [Islander's manager of communications] cited was management’s increasing concern that he had gone from “reporting the news to making the news.” ...
The Islanders never gave a public reason for their decision on Botta. Botta like most NHL bloggers had written some criticism of the Islanders organization that he covered.

Andrew Gross writer for the The Record and Ranger Rants blog described the the Rangers' chapter decision as follows:
Despite requests, the Islanders would not reverse their decision. The Rangers’ chapter of the PHWA, of which Botta is a member, made a preliminary in-season decision to withhold its awards votes if the Islanders did not reverse course. It was discussed, to some extent, at a national level, but the PHWA decided not to support the protest. Earlier this week, the Rangers’ chapter took a final vote to boycott the awards voting. The vote was 7-3. I was among the seven. Earlier today, the Islanders’ chapter, by a 5-0 vote, decided to join the boycott...
Joe McDonald of the Rangers' chapter, who originally voted against the boycott, now thinks the PHWA Voting Ban Is Worth It:
So last week, Chapter President Larry Brooks put it to a formal vote, where the Rangers chapter decided 7-3 not to participate in the voting.

For the record, I was a member of the three. I voted that way at the time, because I perceived it as an Islander issue and why should the Rangers be punished for something that happened in Uniondale...

My opinion has changed in the past 36 hours...

It seems to me the PHWA is more concerned about voting rights than protecting its members. The first and foremost mission for any writing organization is advocacy of its members. By not looking out for its own, the PHWA exposes its writers to the whims of the various organizations it covers. Teams want positive news, but our readership demands fair and accurate reporting. The association is supposed to protect writers and allow them to do their jobs...
McDonald was referring to the PHWA president Kevin Allen's statement on Friday, in which Allen said:
Although the Rangers’ chapter doesn’t reflect the sentiment of the other 30 chapters, I’m respectful of its decision. In America, the idea of using one’s vote as a means of protest is as old as the country itself. And the issue here is important. The PHWA doesn’t believe that an NHL team should be able to deny access to one of our members. Chris Botta is one of our members. And he was denied access by the New York Islanders....

I’m confident the integrity of the voting procedure will not be compromised by the loss of one chapter.
Well, things have escalated since Friday, now all three New York area chapters are boycotting the vote.

Rich Chere of The Star-Ledger reported on the story behind the NJ Devils' chapter joining the protest:
After traditionally having one chapter chairperson, the New Jersey chapter of the PHWA is currently run as collective group. The consensus on Friday was that the primary issue is NHL teams should not be able to revoke credentials for legitimate members of the media without having an acceptable reason. Disagreeing with a correspondent's opinions, whether that was the case here or not, is not an acceptable reason...
Matt Reitz of NBC Pro Hockey Talk summarizes the situation and looks at both sides:
There are two sides to this story. On one hand, the PHWA is standing up for one of its respected members. One of the few weapons in their arsenal is for the writers to boycott the year-end awards. They disagree with the Islanders’ move earlier in the year; the Islanders never reinstated Botta’s access, so the PHWA is making their statement for everyone to see.

On the other hand, the Islanders believe (and the NHL agrees) that issuing credentials falls under their jurisdiction, and theirs alone...
PHWA ballots were sent out this past week. The writers vote on the Hart Trophy, Norris Trophy, Calder Trophy, Lady Byng Trophy, Masterton Trophy, Selke Trophy and All-Star teams. The fallout from this feud will now impact those votes.

The Islanders PR department says the local PHWA decision will hurt individual players:
This unprecedented action taken by the New York chapter members of the PHWA, is not hurting the Islanders organization or changing our stance on the past matter. Instead it is directly affecting the various players that rely on these votes to earn nominations. Players such as Michael Grabner, who is considered as one of the frontrunners for the Rookie of the Year award, or Frans Nielsen who is considered a possible nominee for the Selke Trophy, will not receive votes from New York media members who watch these players every game...

It is unfair to punish the players that had no direct impact on the decision made by the Islanders organization.
Hockey Buzz blogger Dee Karl does not like the boycott for that reason:
I’ll tell you who that will hurt the most – Frans Nielsen, the League leader in short handed goals and new daddy, Michael Grabner. Thanks. That really helps the cause.

What I don’t understand is why these writers would choose this route when it will hurt them in the long run. If the Islanders do not have enough votes, they will not be represented at the awards and no one outside of the media will really care about the catalyst of the protest. The fans only care about the players they watch and spend money on. Right now the Islanders fans care; really care, about Michael Grabner and Frans Nielsen. THAT’S who they care about...
IslesBlogger Michael Schuerlein agrees and thinks the voting boycott is a wasted effort:
What will this prove? It’s only going to hurt several players in the Tri-State market in the long run – including three players spread over the two teams these writers cover. Michael Grabner has continued to make his case for the Rookie of the Year award with 31 goals, Frans Nielsen and the Rangers Brandon Prust could each be Selke Trophy candidates. As individuals who watch those players on a daily basis, their vote is all the more important as out of market writers may not see, or appreciate what they have done this season.

What’s more, these same writers could also vote for players from teams LEAGUE WIDE – so in their attempt to protest a decision of a local team, their reach has a much further impact then they may have anticipated. Protesting rarely ever has the intended outcome, and I do not foresee a favorable outcome for the PHWA in this situation.
Patrick Williams of the Hockey News/AHL Report disagrees and tweets:
In a sport of full of asinine thinking, the argument that PHWA writers boycotting the NHL awards will "hurt" players might take the title.
So the lines are being drawn and sides are being picked. Knowing Gary Bettman's love of consolidating power at NHL Headquarters, I would not be surprised if he uses this boycott as an excuse to strip the PHWA of its voting privilege and turn these awards into some sort of fan vote.

However, I still think the local PHWA chapters are doing the right thing. Hockey writers and bloggers need to speak truth to power and we can't back down when the power wants to arbitrarily silence or obstruct us.

update - April 4, 2011:

Terry Frei /
Professional Hockey Writers Association statement on award voting, Islanders’ credential revocation -- I’m chairman of the Colorado chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, and also finishing up a term as a PHWA vice president, representing the Northwest Division. Our president is Kevin Allen of USA Today. Other vice presidents are Larry Brooks of the New York Post, Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press, Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times, Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun and Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune.

We conducted a conference call of chapter chairs on Sunday, and I was asked to compose a statement summing up the sentiments on the call and the motion passed.

Here it is: ...

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  • Section 335 said...

    "Knowing Gary Bettman's love of consolidating power at NHL Headquarters, I would not be surprised if he uses this boycott as an excuse to strip the PHWA of its voting privilege and turn these awards into some sort of fan vote."

    I hope Gary tries that. The power of the press is even greater than his royal majesty Lord Bettman.

  • jb said...

    Bettman's argument would be a populist one. He'd say that the PHWA is an elitist organization and why should only 160 writers or "choosen ones" get to decide who gets these awards. In his mind he might think he could get some traction with that argument. He's a man of the people after all.