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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Why did hockey reporters waste so many years not learning about hockey?

It’s no secret that something that’s plagued hockey coverage for so long is its dull and dreary tone, something the gatekeepers of the profession to this point were glad to uphold. For so many years the extent of reporting on this game has been limited to about three main areas: Lame quotes about drive and attitude, trade talk, and opinion on how much we should all hate hockey and the players that play it because they don’t play it like the old guys used to.

But something dawned on me recently, and it’s perhaps at the root of a lot of our criticisms of main stream media in the hockey world. It’s also overly simplistic, but I think it’s true: The older guard of reporters seem entirely disinterested in learning anything about the game itself. It’s ridiculous really. They’ve had years and years to cover teams up close and never asked a single good question about what players really see, how they process things on the ice. As such, players don’t give a shit about telling them about it. That’s how we’ve gotten column after column after column of garbage quotes “We just have to give it our all and take advantage of our opportunity” for like forty years, and why we are where we are. It’s also why the default setting of so many fans is disdain for the players, because they can never be as good as the others that came before them.

When someone does publish something remotely interesting in hockey with player or coach input, it almost seems like a treat, something that comes along maybe semi-annually. For instance, I felt like I really learned something about Auston Matthews and hockey itself when Darryl Belfry talked to The Athletic’s Craig Custance and got into how his shooting motion keeps improving to become so deceptive. But these types of pieces and discussions are the extreme exception when it comes to the NHL, not the rule. This is where a newer (and not necessarily much younger) generation of harder working individuals can take take up the mantle and hopefully take hockey media in an entirely improved direction.

If we look at the NBA, a league that seems to be doing everything right in recent years, we can see where NHL coverage can possibly go. Through their openness in social media for sharing highlights and meme-ifying funny events, and the community of analysts that has emerged to go along with it, the NBA has an online space that is inarguably top notch, especially compared to the NHL. And that’s allowed some of the forward-thinking media members and players themselves to collaborate on great moments and churn out enlightening discussion on the game.

Take, for instance, this piece from The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor on Klay Thompson and the “Hidden Art and Craft of His Game“. It’s a great piece for any basketball fan to dig into, full of good quotes and numbers to boot, but that’s almost besides the point. The fact is O’Connor got all the good information by doing something pretty simple: Talking (and learning about) basketball.

This was the point of interest: Thompson finished 1,466 possessions off screens over the previous three seasons. The next two closest players had only 926 (JJ Redick) and 878 (Paul George); few others had as much as half. Thompson is as much of an extreme outlier launching shots off screens as James Harden is shooting out of an isolation. “Jeez. Yeah. That’s crazy,” Thompson responded, and whistled, “Well, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

See, this is the thing. Players at the professional level are among the best few hundred at their craft on this entire planet. To give them a tidbit like this and break down the walls to get inside why they do what they do, it really should be something that happens all the time. For hockey in particular, it doesn’t. Is it because the hockey “analyst” ranks are so overpopulated with ex-players – often goons – who think they’re here to lecture fans on the game rather than do any real work? I’d argue that has to be part of it.

Thompson was tired when we started chatting; he had just finished his post-practice workout shooting with Warriors assistant coach Chris DeMarco, whom I later spoke with. But the shooting guard lit up as soon I opened my laptop and we broke down stats and video of him shooting off screens. This was his comfort zone: talking about the finer points of his game and the work that he puts into it.”

I was showing him his own stats on a spreadsheet because I wanted to see whether he found the numbers as fascinating as I did.

And if your the type of person who still wants your quotes about effort and hard work, they can still be there. But can we see some depth in them? Again, from that Thompson profile:

Improvisation requires endurance…“It’s all strength, balance, and body control,” Thompson said. “Early in my career, I would shoot and sway right to left because my core wasn’t as strong. I learned how to train my legs and core a lot better because you’ve gotta stay solid in your balance. Conditioning is so big for shooting.”

Contrast this type of talk with the knives Edmonton media pulled out for Jesse Puljujarvi last week, for instance. Anything I saw across my timeline was a bunch of recycled junk about losing trust from the coach or whatever.

Maybe a follow-up with Puljujarvi or the coach on what exactly he’s finding so difficult out there on the ice? Perhaps ask what kind of scoring opportunities, at the NHL level, are being closed off for him compared to the looks he got in the minor leagues? Instead it’s all “just gotta be bigger and better”. What an utter waste of time.

Now, I realize I’m mostly comparing some of the best analysis from one league to the worst in another and making generalizations, but it isn’t exactly about that. This is a commentary on hockey media as a whole, and I’d be surprised to find too many people who disagree with the notion that things have been entirely too serious, too critical, and too boring for far too long. Are there hockey writers out there doing great things? No doubt. I learn more about the mechanics of goaltending in a 15-minute read from Cat Silverman than I ever have in about 700-hours of seeing former goalies on talking head panels for TSN and Sportsnet.

But there’s still so much muck to wade through, particularly at the bigger broadcasting outlets I just mentioned. An overall change in tone in the coverage of this league really can’t come soon enough. And when things finally start turning the corner, perhaps it won’t be a huge deal to see someone break out their laptop and ask Connor McDavid some real specifics on why he’s the best skater that ever lived. We all want to learn something about the game, it’s baffling that until now the reporters who follow teams around for seven months of the year have seemingly never just gone to the source.

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  • SEBENDERS

    This was honestly music to my ears. For those of us who played especially the details of how the best in the world do what they do are fascinating. Instead, based on how mainstream media covers hockey, I’m led to believe that had I worked harder and been more ornery on the ice I would’ve played in the NHL.