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When Yellow Journalism Meets Hockey

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Note: I have recently written an update to this post.  I encourage you to read it here.

To Mr. Mike Wise of the Wasington Post,

I debated whether I ought to respond to your article in the this morning’s Washington Post.  I sense that perhaps your authored this piece with the self-serving intention of increasing readership through sensationalism and gross exaggreation.  However, your deviation from responsible journalism strikes at both the team and the sport that I love.  I feel compelled to expresss my thoughts.

You are a editorialist for a respected, nationally recognized news source.  As such you are expected to uphold a standard of discourse – even in editorial pieces – that maintains a level of professionalism above that of a shock jock or subpar blogging head.  The inflammatory statements contained in Beaten to the Punch demean journalists, editorialists, and sports writers everywhere.  I genuinely doubt you would have dared to write such unqualified and uninformed material had your topic been another major sport like football or baseball.

Implying that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman should tamper with officiating (a la former NBA referee Tim Donaghy) to ensure the Washington Capitals’ advancement to the second round of the playoff only begins to demonstrate your minimal grasp on the sport of hockey.  The Capitals are down by a single game in a best-of-seven series – that is nothing.  Hockey is a game founded on unexpected results.  Hence stories like 1980’s Miracle on Ice or this year’s NCAA Frozen Four tournament in which the Notre Dame team, which won only 5 games in its regular season four years ago, overturned multiple top seeds on its road to the final against Boston College.  Hence the consistent trend in the NHL over the past decade of number 7 seeds upsetting number 2 seeds in the playoffs.  Hence the Capitals rise to a Southeastern Division title despite a 6-14-1 start.  Hence rookie goaltenders like Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy and Cam Ward who emerge spectacularly in the playoffs to capture a Stanley Cup for their team and a Conn Smythe MVP trophy for themselves.  Anything can – and often does – happen when teams take to the ice.

As for physicality, it’s a normal component of playoff hockey.  Pundits in San Jose are currently debating whether Joe Thornton and his Sharks have the aggressiveness to compete against the Calgary Flames.  The Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild spend much of their time driving to the net, jamming at the puck to score goals.  In last night’s game, we saw each team take multiple roughing penalties for scrappy play between the whistles.  Even Montreal and Pittsburgh, universally considered the two strongest teams in the Eastern Conference, feature tough, gritty players who create scoring chances by establishing a strong forecheck and crashing the net.

Comparing the Philadelphia Flyers current roster to World Extreme Cagefighters and their fans to brutish medieval serfs belies an utter (and I would suspect intentional) misinterpretation of the truth.  The Flyers are indeed a tough, physical team.  But they certainly pale in comparison to the Broad Street Bullies or Big Bad Boston Bruins of the 1970s, let alone the aggressive play of the EHL league documented in the movie Slap Shot.  Ture, it is easy to write a story along the lines “Revival of the Broad Street Bullies” because of the suspensions early in the year; simplicity in legwork does not equal truth.

The only trained pugilist currently dressing in Orange and Black is light heavyweight Riley Cote.  Please do not forget that the Capitals recently extended their own heavyweight, Donald Brashear, and that Brashear trained in boxing with the Lewis brothers.  Many other NHL teams also have enforcers – Jody Shelley in San Jose, George Parros in Anaheim, Georges Laraque in Pittsburgh, Ian Laperriere in Colorado, Derek Boogaard in Minnesota, etc.  It is not a unique quality in the least.  And your own Alexander Ovechkin was credited with more hits (220) during the regular season than anyone on the Flyers roster.

The fans of the Philadelphia Flyers have long supported their team without inhibition.  Walk around South Philadelphia, and you’ll note the many bumper stickers, banners, and signs sported by homes, vehicles and businesses alike.  The entire south-central Pennsylvania region has a strong hockey base, supporting two teams in Philadelphia (the Flyers and their AHL affiliate the Phantoms) as well as the Hershey Bears (the Capitals’ AHL affiliate) and the Reading Royals (ECHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings).  Mike Richter, a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender for the New York Rangers and an US Olympic team member, hails from the suburbs of Philadelphia, as does 2007 Flyers draft pick James van Riemsdyk, who just finished his rookie season at the University of New Hampshire.  Many Flyers alumni have chosen to settle in the area and frequently appear at games to sign autographs and talk to the fans.  Philadelphia’s love affair with hockey began with the first Stanley Cup parade, and the bond continues to strengthen more than 30 years later.

Allow me to address a few other comments.  Flyer fans perenially wear orange to major games: the 2005 home opener after the lockout, the 2006 playoff games against the Buffalo Sabres, and now our current playoff series against the Capitals.  Vengeance Now is a variant on the season slogan of Back with a Vengeance.  The slogan emphasized through marketing that this year would compensate fans for the last year’s horrendous hockey – an aberration of consistent losing in a decade of winning records in Philadelphia.  It’s a shame that you missed the billboard from the first two-thirds of the season, featuring All-Star defenseman Kimmo Timonen stating his exuberant joy at the opportunity to play in Philadelphia. 

Insulting women and children among the fans was unnecessary and only highlights a striking similarity between your nature and the “punk” qualities of which you accuse the Flyers.

I understand that hockey may not be a sport with which you are intimately familiar and that your coverage assignment likely is due in large part to the dynamic style of Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals’ dramatic rise to playoffs.  They are a young, entertaining team with great potential.  But all sports require athletes to realize their own potential in spite of their opposition.  The NHL won’t succeed if it replaces the reality of its competition, traditionally physical and defense-oriented, with rigged offensive results.  To do so would make it truly resemble the wrestling and cagefighting you clearly despise.


The Frozen Fan



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