Sportspinion: Behind-the-scenes access taking its toll

By Suneil Sachdeva

Our culture has a fascination with looking behind the curtain. We love a good sneak peek, and never tire of hearing any juicy detail leaked from an anonymous source. This strange media truth has been growing steadily and gathering momentum, leading us from tabloid magazines to reality television empires to where we are now — with every facet of the media taking part in their own form of this exploitation.

The world of hockey is not exempt from this voyeuristic trend. The National Hockey League has dabbled in its fair share of behind-the-scenes ventures — from granting HBO 24/7 crew access to two NHL locker rooms every year during the lead up to the annual Winter Classic, to the player tag-along series NHL 36, to the brand new NHL Life series, which grants viewers access not only to players but referees, scouts and even “an NHL exec’s wife” as their website states. The league has clearly ramped up their promotion of off-ice activity, aiming to drum up further interest in the game by giving fans a taste of the unmatched grind hockey players submit themselves to.

While such experiments have fared well thus far, the NHL’s partner in crime in this whole operation — the media — has started to go off the deep end in their obsession with getting the most coveted, headline-worthy, not-supposed-to-be-released story out there and in getting it out faster than anyone else.

The sports media landscape has taken a strange shift with the rise in up-to-the-minute news via Twitter turning the whole process into a mad scramble. This puts those directly involved in the sport in the awkward and unfamiliar position of receiving essential news from the same sources that we on the outside do or hearing things that should never leave the closed doors of the league’s head offices.

We’ve now got coaches finding out about key injuries to their players during media scrums and players routinely finding out about being traded through Twitter or TSN broadcasts before hearing it from their own general managers. The most recent controversy involves Ottawa Senator’s forward Bobby Ryan having his name dragged through the mud in statements made by Team USA management during meetings which found their way to the light of day due to an all-access ESPN feature.

While it is true that the fans deserve a deeper look into the sport they love, the media’s spiral into its current state of seemingly all-access information has begun to bring down the very figures the fans aim to raise up and celebrate. Hearing that some of the NHL’s premier managers believe Bobby Ryan, a player understood to be among the league’s elite, to be lacklustre, one-dimensional and essentially lazy is not good for anybody. It is not good for Team USA and their management, it is certainly not good for Bobby Ryan — a player who surely would’ve preferred to hear he just “wasn’t the right fit” — and it is especially not good for the NHL. As a league that struggles to make waves in the United States, the NHL is unlikely to benefit from a widespread media story that details the reasons why one of its best American players is actually not that great.

The true appeal of taking a peek behind the curtain is getting an unexpected look at what must transpire to make this thing we love appear to us as it does. We want to see the engine to understand how the machine runs so perfectly or see the actors running around chaotically to appreciate how calmly they take the stage. Once our looking starts to actually change the final product, however, things get murky. Walking backstage and knocking things over or taking apart the engine and leaving the parts strewn about on the floor seems less in line with what we’re looking for.
This is the environment we have begun to experiment with. In trying to get more and more access to fully celebrate the players we love, we’re leaving them in limbo — publicly spurned and degraded, despite working as hard as the rest and doing all we’ve asked of them, or alerted of career-changing decisions in the form of a broadcast that simply moves their name from one team’s column to another without a moment’s hesitation.

As the media’s desire to release the most revealing story will continue undeterred, perhaps it is time for the NHL to reflect upon the state of its affairs and scale back the absurd level of access offered to media and fans. The onus falls squarely on the shoulders of the league’s top brass to steer themselves out of this continuing sideshow. It is not a journalist’s job to betray his or her own integrity by purposely altering stories and keeping details under wraps in an effort to protect the game. Nor is it up to the fans to expose themselves to only that information which would give them the most positive, unadulterated view of the sport. It is the league’s responsibility to refocus its efforts on what is most important — the game itself, and the well-being of those who play it.

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