Ethics On Ice

CBC Sports rarely does any real hockey journalism. Even when it tries, it trips

Aaron Kylie
March , 1999 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

 

"I want to be in a position to average out 1.5 [million dollars]," says Don Meehan, a National Hockey League player agent, as he argues with Bill Watters, assistant to the president for the Toronto Maple Leafs, over a new contract for Tie Domi.

"Jesus Christ!" responds Watters. He pauses. "Well, that's not a bad raise. That's 250 percent!"

The negotiation continues until the narrator's voice breaks in: "Tie Domi, a seven-year NHL veteran, is a fan favourite in Toronto. And scoring goals has little to do with it." Then comes a sequence of shots accompanied by eerie, slow music. First, Domi lands three straight lefts in a slow-motion punch-up with Buffalo's Rob Ray. Next, Domi chases down an opponent, landing a body check to muscle control of the puck. Then another slow-motion shot shows Domi, arms intertwined with an opponent and a linesman, giving an icy, murderous stare. Finally, a linesman breaks up the Domi/Ray fight. Back in Meehan's office, the agent explains the fine points of the new contract to his client. "This is all U.S.?" asks an incredulous Domi. "Oh, my God." After listening to Meehan outline each year of the contract, Domi bursts into a grin. "Let's get it done!"

This scene is one of the best-and one of the most controversial-from The New Ice Age: A Year in the Life of the NHL. A six-part, $2.3-million documentary about the business of professional hockey, it aired on CBC from September 29 to October 3, 1998. What viewers didn't know at the time, but would discover about a week later, courtesy of Toronto Star sports media columnist Chris Zelkovich, is that CBC Sports gave the NHL the right to make changes to the series. One of those changes just happened to be the Tie Domi contract negotiation scene. At the league's insistence, CBC Sports forced Peter Raymont and Joseph Blasioli, who directed the series, to include shots of Domi skating, instead of just fighting. In addition, the filmmakers had to shoot an interview with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman the week before the show aired to replace a scene in which he reacted strongly to Brett Hull's public pronouncement that the league "sucks." The NHL felt the scene would embarrass Bettman and wanted it changed. And CBC Sports, hoping to satisfy a long-time meal ticket, readily agreed.

One of the most common criticisms of sports reporting is that it's just public relations. While CBC Sports is certainly not the only offender, many Canadians expect it to live up to a higher standard because it is part of the public broadcaster. That's why it's surprising when CBC Sports' hockey coverage routinely misses meaningful sports news stories. By giving the league editorial control over The New Ice Age, CBC Sports is ensuring, as the Hockey Night in Canada tag line goes, the tradition continues.

One of the only profitable divisions of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CBC Sports made $1.9 million in 1995. And that's despite losing money on amateur sports, such as the Canada Games, the private broadcasters rarely touch. Much of the profit comes from hockey. (Hence the bidding war for NHL broadcast rights among Canadian networks-newcomer CTV Sportsnet, for example, paid $60 million for a four-year deal, outbidding TSN.)

Although it sometimes produces specials, often of the documentary film variety, CBC Sports is primarily a broadcaster of sporting events. Hockey broadcasts have long included play-by-play, colour commentary, and interviews with sweaty, short-of-breath athletes. Increasingly, however, CBC is trying to offer more. But the amount of journalism, in the true sense of the word, remains minimal. This season, Hockey Night in Canada has added a half-hour pregame show largely in response to competition from other networks. (Last season TSN's Esso Saturday Night served as the pregame show for the hockey broadcast on CBC.) But the pregame show is not much of a improvement, serving mainly to set up the two or three games CBC is broadcasting that night. It does include a feature segment called "The Headliner," that has offered, for example, interviews with Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman while he was recovering from surgery and former Vancouver Canuck sniper Pavel Bure after he was traded to the Florida Panthers. Such interviews, however, are by no means hard-hitting.

The kind of stories that "The Headliner" could and should cover are likely the ones that profoundly affect the game. Stories like the Alan Eagleson or Graham James/Sheldon Kennedy sagas, or even the current increase in the number of head injuries, all of which have received sparse coverage from CBC Sports.

It wasn't until Eagleson's conviction in January 1998 that CBC Sports, through Hockey Night in Canada, aired a short piece on Eagleson's legal woes, even though the story had been building for almost a decade. In 1989, about 100 NHL players hired labour lawyer and former head of the National Football League player's association Ed Garvey to investigate Alan Eagleson, who at the time was the head of the National Hockey League's Players' Association and a prominent agent. The players were following the lead of agents Ron Salcer and Rich Winter, who were suspicious of Eagleson's methods. In 1990, Winter filed a complaint with the Law Society of Upper Canada accusing Eagleson of unethical conduct. In December 1996 the RCMP charged Eagleson with eight counts of fraud. Though most Canadian media failed to investigate or even follow the story, Hockey Night in Canada had one of the best platforms in Canada to let fans know what was happening. Indeed, Bruce Dowbiggin, one of the only Canadian reporters investigating the Eagleson story, worked for CBC Radio Sports and could have easily provided reports for HNIC. But it was Russ Conway, a reporter for a small-town paper in Massachusetts, who broke the story.

The Graham James/Sheldon Kennedy case was another missed opportunity. In September 1996, Kennedy, then a member of the Boston Bruins, went public with the story of how his former junior hockey coach had sexually abused him. In January 1997, James was jailed for sexually assaulting Kennedy some 300 times over 10 years. Nearly two weeks after the conviction, and after Kennedy had done numerous other television interviews, Hockey Night in Canada aired a 17-minute interview with the abused hockey player. Toronto Sun sports columnist Rob Langley claimed Ron MacLean looked more uncomfortable than Kennedy.

"To work a story like Graham James is to do investigative journalism, which few sports reporters are capable of doing, with notable exceptions," says Mark Douglas Lowes, whose book Inside the Sports Pages, an analysis of the sports press in Canada, will be published this spring. "And quite frankly, I don't think a lot of hockey writers have the skills to do investigative reporting of the kind that would lead to breaking a story such as Eagleson or James. They're trained to report, not to investigate."

Even simply reporting unpleasant news has proven difficult for CBC Sports. It has all but ignored the concussions issue, even though the 1997-98 season was marred by some 60 head injuries. After sitting out the entire season with a concussion, Nick Kypreos retired in the off-season. Pat Lafontaine did likewise, after suffering the sixth concussion of his career-a career that had already included sitting on the sidelines for a season due to postconcussion syndrome. And youthful stars such as Rob Niedermayer, Eric Lindros, and Paul Kariya missed significant chunks of the season recovering from head injuries. Kariya not only missed 28 games, but also the Olympics and NHL playoffs. Meanwhile Lindros's brother Brett retired two years earlier from recurring concussions.

CBC Sports appears happy to report who's out, but it rarely goes beyond the numbers. This year, for instance, the number of groin injuries has increased. Some experts believe poor ice conditions may be a contributing factor, but CBC Sports has made little or no mention of the connection. It does, after all, have a 47-year relationship with the NHL to maintain.

Given CBC Sports' dismal journalistic track record, The New Ice Age offered it an opportunity to be taken more seriously. The promos for the series called the film an unprecedented investigation that "would uncover stories and secrets previously reserved for insiders only." And given the outstanding access Raymont and Blasioli had, the series certainly lived up to its billing. Chris Zelkovich called The New Ice Age "possibly the best hockey documentary ever."

In episode one, New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury paces the arena floor at the 1997 entry draft, trying to trade a first-round draft pick. He scurries to and fro, bartering with competing GMs, throwing players' names out like a car salesman tossing extras into a deal for a new car, all in what turns out to be an unsuccessful bid to trade a player. The series also contains numerous scenes from closed-door meetings where general managers and governors of NHL teams discussed proposed rule changes and other sensitive issues.

That Blasioli and Raymont, who directed the series and produced it for CBC Sports, are both award-winning, documentary filmmakers, certainly lent some credibility to The New Ice Age. Coincidentally, they've also both produced films about questionable media ethics. Blasioli's most famous work is the critically acclaimed Blast 'em, a 1992 documentary about the paparazzi. Raymont is perhaps best known for his 1988 documentary, The World Is Watching, about ABC News' misrepresentation of the civil war in Nicaragua, which aims to illustrate how the media spin reality. Raymont also worked with CBC on a 1993 documentary Chasing the Dream, about the experiences and challenges of bush-league baseball. On that occasion, he had no problem with CBC Sports. But there's a huge difference between a six-hour, prime-time series made with the cooperation of CBC Sports' major source of revenue, and a one-and-a-half-hour film about minor league baseball. "I think the stakes were much higher for the CBC on this project," says Raymont. "The CBC will argue that you've got to be able to give an organization like the NHL editorial input and that they never had final control, that they had input. I think they had more control than they should have had."

The CBC's journalistic policy sides with Raymont. It prevents subjects from being shown, let alone having a say on, the final product. The policy states, "Participants in programs will not be granted the right to veto any portion of a program." The network recommends CBC Sports adhere to the guidelines, but it doesn't insist, even when the department covers news, as is the case with The New Ice Age.

Alan Clark and Nancy Lee, head and deputy head of CBC Sports respectively, refused to respond to numerous attempts to contact them about the series. However, according to Zelkovich's column, Clark claims only two significant cuts were made to the series: foul language and one scene described only as "sensitive." Clark said he was comfortable labelling the series a documentary even though the subject, the NHL, got to review the final cut. And Clark believes there was no way the filmmakers would have received the access they had without striking a deal with the NHL.

But many filmmakers make documentaries without such deals. It's as simple as asking the crew to turn cameras off when contentious issues arise. In fact, during shooting of The New Ice Age, general managers and league officials often requested cameras be shut off.

Not surprisingly, the NHL was happy with The New Ice Age. The league received $2.3 million worth of free publicity from a reliable journalistic outlet like the CBC and had the right to edit the film. Glenn Adamo, the NHL's vice president of broadcasting, doesn't acknowledge any breach of journalistic ethics occurred. In fact, he believes the show isn't journalism.

"This, in my mind, is not a documentary. This is simply an entertainment show called The New Ice Age: A Year in the Life of the NHL," says Adamo, a former television sports producer for NBC. He characterizes the series as a coproduction between CBC Sports and the NHL, citing the filmmakers' use of footage shot by NHL Productions and the league's involvement in the film. And he had subsequent conversations with CBC Sports to dictate the changes to be made to the film. "A lot of this came from within our PR department," says Adamo. "We reviewed the rough cuts of the episodes. If there were things that were going to embarrass or hurt people that they got through this access then that wouldn't be fair."

CBC Sports has always been more than fair with the NHL, and it seemed intent on keeping its cozy relationship with the league during the making of The New Ice Age. But it didn't have to go that far. In 1990, CBC produced Home Game, a documentary by Ken Dryden and Peter Pearson that was free of interference from the NHL. Pearson says most of the access granted in the Home Game series was largely a result of Dryden's personal relationship with many of the key figures involved, like Serge Savard, then general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, and Edmonton Oilers GM Glen Sather, both former teammates of Dryden's. The NHL, however, still wanted the right of final cut. "Well, we had a big negotiation with the NHL in terms of whether they were going to let us shoot that one Canadiens-Oilers game because they were all upset about violence in the NHL and that kind of shit," says Pearson. "It was one of those big-dick-on-the-desk issues, you know. They tried it out, but, I mean, people try out stuff all the time. Essentially, Savard and Sather both said, 'Come on, fuck off.'''

Home Game, however, was not a CBC Sports production. And that made all the difference. "Because we were in public affairs, the CBC was not going to let some NHL executive have final cut on information programming," says Pearson. "They weren't going to allow that precedent."

Unlike CBC Sports, the public affairs department has to abide by the journalistic policy. And public affairs also doesn't rely heavily on the commercial success of the NHL, as CBC Sports does.

"You walk a fine line to criticize your business partners," says John Shannon, executive producer of Hockey Night in Canada. CBC buys the broadcast rights to the NHL and considers itself partners with the NHL. As a result, CBC has a vested interest in the game. The show has segments that sometimes emulate journalism-interviews, for example-where the objective is to convey information to the viewer. However, Shannon believes that it's not HNIC's job to do journalism. But if there is something wrong with the game, doesn't HNIC have any responsibility to cover it? "We would separate ourselves," says Shannon, "and try to, as well as we can, try to cover the story with a great deal of fairness." The late, lackluster coverage of the games' significant issues, like the Eagleson saga, suggest HNIC isn't greatly concerned with its viewers' knowledge of the games beyond the score. But Shannon doesn't see it that way, especially when it comes to Eagleson. "Tell me what that had to do with Hockey Night in Canada and the National Hockey League as a day-to-day issue?" questions Shannon. He suggests the Eagleson affair has no connection to HNIC, saying issues the show might be responsible for covering must have a connection to the game at hand. "I mean, the Kennedy situation had terrible ramifications on the whole game of hockey," says Shannon. "But how does that reflect on a Montreal-Toronto hockey game that we're covering?"

Shannon explains why HNIC shouldn't and couldn't do journalism. "I think our news department at CBC...." Shannon stops. He tries again. "Our job is to cover hockey, and to cover games, and to cover the current National Hockey League, that's our first job. I think the Eagleson thing is a very topical issue, but we don't have the resources to do that. I mean, tell me who would cover it? We, we, don't have those resources. So, and I'm not sure, and this is not a negative at all reflecting back on us, I'm not sure we have the background to do it."

HNIC does do journalism, however. Shannon mentions a piece the show did in November 1998, saying, "I think we did a great job covering the bankruptcy trial of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Totally unbiased. Gary Bettman literally said, 'I hope you don't make too much of this' And we didn't make too much of it."

If that sounds contradictory, it is at least consistent. Most sports broadcasters and press are devoted more to reporting game scores and highlights than reporting significant events or issues. "The sports pages-and this holds for radio and TV-function as a promotional vehicle for the major-league sports industry," says author Mark Douglas Lowes. "There is a very strong reciprocal relationship between the sports press and big-time sports leagues." He explains that sports teams and events need the daily coverage of their activities to build and maintain fan interest. And the press and broadcasters are happy to oblige, especially considering the audience for their skin-deep coverage of male-dominated professional sports is the coveted 18-to-49 male demographic. "Because of the symbiotic relationship between the two industries-pro sports and news-the kind of coverage you get is invariably promotional in nature," says Lowes. "Sports editors and reporters do not see themselves as having a social responsibility to do critical reporting, to really dig around in the muck."

That's certainly the experience of Bruce Dowbiggin, the former CBC Radio and local TV sports reporter in Toronto. "They don't want to deal with this. Most of TV sports is run by beer salesmen and car salesmen. Keep preaching the romance of the game and all that other horseshit and ignore the real problems when they come up," says Dowbiggin, who is now a sports columnist for the Calgary Herald. When he was one of the only Canadians investigating Alan Eagleson, CBC Sports showed no interest in any of his work. The National, part of CBC News and Current Affairs, however, took full advantage and aired his stories. "CBC Sports, ah, that's a different case," he says. "They have had no interest in this story whatsoever. The sports department at CBC is an entirely different entity in terms of its ethics and the way it does things."

To illustrate this point, Dowbiggin mentions an occasion when CBC Sports paid a high-profile Olympic athlete to participate in a documentary. He also believes the relationship between individuals in the TV sports department and the sports they broadcast is too friendly. "They're always schmoozing and golfing," he says. "The idea of having to turn on one of their own is too difficult for them." That's one reason he's not surprised by what happened with The New Ice Age. "When it comes from TV sports?" he asks. "No, not in the least."

There is an ironic scene in The New Ice Age that illustrates the cozy relationship between reporters and the National Hockey League. As the camera zooms in on reporters in the press box of New York's Madison Square Garden, the narrator says, "Hockey writers around the league can understand the NHL's need to sell itself. But it's not their job to buy in." On the ice, the Rangers face their former captain, Mark Messier, in his first visit to the Garden since signing as a free agent with the Vancouver Canucks. The fans' excitement is palpable as Messier accepts a breakaway pass, fakes a shot, then snaps the puck past New York goalie Mike Richter. The fans give Messier a rousing ovation for his clinching goal, even though the home team, their team, lost.

Over pictures of reporters flipping notebook pages, jotting notes and typing on laptop computers, New York Post sports columnist Larry Brooks comments on the battle between the league selling its image and reporters buying that image. Brooks mentions how New York Rangers GM Neil Smith has portrayed the loss of Messier as a story of greed. But Brooks says the writers aren't buying that.

The next image is a group of reporters conferring on the story of the game. One of them believes Messier left for financial reasons. "They forget that he walked out of here for more money," says Toronto Star hockey columnist Damien Cox of the fans. The narrator's voice comes in over shots of the huddled reporters. "Journalists are paid to report what they hear, see, and sometimes conclude," states the narrator matter-of-factly. "They are not paid to handle public relations."

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