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Trade Rumors, Bob McKenzie and Me

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So yesterday I published a rumor to the effect that a deal to sent Kovalchuk to the Kings was very close. Long time readers of this blog will know that I almost never publish rumors and I rarely even comment on rumors made by other people. I put it up there because I had some reason to think that it might be true. I heard this from someone who was in a position to know or at least hear things--and so I choose to put it out there for public consumption.

I was more than a little disappointed to see Bob McKenzie right the following about the rumor on Twitter last night.

You know what I think of these rumors of the LAK on verge of getting Kovalchuk? Total BS. Some interest but fit isn't right at this point. Will spend more time on bogus reports than actual trades. It's the silly season. Amateur hour. Like New Year's Eve and St. Patrick's Day. :) Now, if Kovalchuk goes to LA everyone will say it was good scoop. Telling u, at this time, there's no merit. Take it for what it's worth.

The truth is that I generally admire Bob McKenzie's work as a journalist. He is the baseball equivalent of Peter Gammons--he has been around forever and knows all sorts of people in professional hockey. He also reports things in a calm rational way without the shouting and ridiculous hype that seems to infect so many other hockey commentators. I saw McKenzie in person at the NHL Draft this summer and listened to him talk to other journalists but never had the opportunity to speak to him one-on-one. Having laid out my Bob McKenzie appreciation let me now make a few observations.

It is true that I published this rumor in the hope of getting ahead of everyone else. Over the years I've known some delicious scoops about the Thrashers but was told things on the condition that I could not publicize them--which can be extremely frustrating. This particular rumor came with no strings attached and so I shared it. I suspect every aspiring journalist dreams of breaking a big story--probably even a young Bob McKenzie had such dreams. Every hard-working reporter wants to get the scoop--and I can't help but wonder whether it is more galling to be scooped by a blogger? Lots of people publish trade rumors that don't come true--do they all receive the "amateur hour" dig?

If you read McKenzie's statement very carefully he doesn't say "I can confirm that the rumor is BS" or "people close to LA say it is BS." Instead he wrote  "You know what I think of these rumors. Total BS"--which is something less than ironclad. Many people have assumed that McKenzie contacted the Thrashers or Kings to disprove the rumor, but that is not his claim. His retort appears to be based on his opinion: "Some interest but fit isn't right at this point". Now perhaps I'm parsing this too closely and McKenzie really did talk to someone with the Kings or Thrashers but a literal reading of his comment does not indicate such is the case. At this point I'm not throwing in the towel on this particular rumor just yet, we will have to just wait and see what happens next.

My third observation is that if you pay close attention, the vast majority of the NHL media lacks good sources within the Atlanta Thrashers organization. Think back for a moment and see if you can remember who has written actual news stories about the Thrashers (as opposed to speculation or opinion pieces about the Thrashers). I have been following this team since day one of the franchise history and the truth of the matter is that most of the NHL simply ignores the Atlanta Thrashers and they have not bothered to cultivate the team or sources with the team. There are a handful of journalists who appear to have know their Thrashers news: 1) Kevin Allen of USA Today 2) Craig Custance of Sporting News (and former beat writer for the Thrashers) and 3) Scott Burnside who relocated to Atlanta several years ago. In my opinion that's the entire list of people with good dirt on the Thrashers organization and it is a very short list indeed.

Even in this city Thrashers reporting is often remarkably thin. The last three seasons the AJC has had a new beat writer and each has had to climb the learning curve during the season. I struggle to think of a single significant story broken by resident "hockey expert" John Kincaide of 680 The Fan. His latest reporting that "Kovalchuk is 100%" gone was known by myself and a few long-time Thrasher fans a full 10 days before he "announced" the news on his show. I shared the same news with numerous people riding on the bus up to Nashville on Saturday. There is more stuff he didn't even reveal on his show about another pending UFA who is likely on his way out of Atlanta, I'm guessing he didn't reveal it because he doesn't know about it.

My fourth observation is that if the Atlanta Thrashers issue a statement tomorrow denying that a deal with the LA Kings is pending, everyone should take it with a HUGE grain of salt. Let's take a walk down memory late to the summer of 2008. The Thrashers had brought John Anderson into town to interview for the head coaching position. The new beat reporter Mike Knobler published a story saying the Thrashers had hired John Anderson as their new head coach. Then later that same evening he reported on that the team had contacted him and denied that they had hired Anderson. Guess what happened the next day? The team announced that they had hired John Anderson. (It seemed to me like a poor way to treat Knobler, but he doesn't appear to hold a grudge.)

The Thrashers have an organizational interest in controlling this story and how the news is presented to fans. Don Waddell is not obligated to keep fans abrest of every development. His obligation is to get the best possible deal for his franchise. If getting the best possible deal involves issuing "contradictory" or even misleading statements that is the way the game is played. Case in point the Calgary Flames swore that they were not trading Dion Phaneuf--only to turn around and trade Phaneuf to Toronto. Heck, maybe this rumor was intentionally planted by Don Waddell to try and scare a rival team into upping their bid for Kovalchuk. The NHL is a cut throat hyper-competitive business every GM is seeking to beat the other GM--so you never know.

One last observation is that trading away the face of the franchise is going to result in a major PR hit to the franchise--the team probably cares more about how this particular story is released to fans than anything since the Dan Snyder/Dany Heatley story. Looking back on the Heatley-for-Hossa trade can be instructive. For example the Thrashers took careful steps taken to cushion the blow to fans including the PR department drafting a "Farewell Atlanta" statement from Heatley (it certainly wasn't a priority for Dany). Professional hockey is a form of the entertainment business. The trade of Ilya Kovalchuk is a pivot point for the franchise and they will need something else to sell fans once Kovalchuk has departed, keep this in mind when you watch the news conference announcing the trade.