Why I hate Lazy Journalism: An Alfie tale

Pierre LeBrun is a great hockey journalist.  He’s respected across the country when it comes to providing NHL news and insider information.  He works for TSN (the gold standard of sports reporting in Canada) which automatically provides you with a level of integrity and gravitas based purely by association.  Over and above that, he has a history of being very even handed and unbiased when it comes to telling you like it is, his reporting during the lockout is evidence of this. If asked, I would place him just below Bob McKenzie and above other luminaries such as Elliotte Friedman, Michael Grange and Stephen Brunt in the national discussion for our best sports journalists.  But in LeBrun’s latest article speculating on Daniel Alfredsson’s future which he also reported in an-air segment last night on TSN, he engaged in some fairly lazy journalism.

I’m sure people have different definitions of lazy journalism but mine is when a reporter takes a recent development, forms a personal opinion on what that could possibly lead to down the road and then works backwards to ram in enough suppositions to allow for their hypothesis to become possible so they can use it as news.  At no point are they able to have any party involve actually confirm any of these suppositions but the mere speculation is made to be evidence enough.

This is a style often employed by local chip wagon connoisseur Bruce Garrioch with some unfortunate results.  As an example, here is an article regarding Sergei Gonchar during the lockout. It takes a recent development (Gonchar and Evgeni Malkin were enjoying playing together on the same team in the KHL during the lockout), which in Garrioch’s mind meant that Gonchar would be ending up back with the Pens and then he spends the remainder of the article trying to explain how that could happen despite there not being any evidence that the Sens were willing to move him or that the Pens were asking for him back.

LeBrun’s article about Alfie takes a recent development (the Sens devastating injuries to their top stars) and surmises from this that Alfredsson will be moved to a contender which would most likely be the Bruins.  The remainder of the article are some relatively flimsy reasons why Alfie would be best suited for the Bruins as a match as well as providing an exhausting number of caveats and conditions to this hypothesis.  LeBrun (unlike Garrioch) is a good journalist so he needs to include the caveats in order to qualify the notion that this would take place. IF the Sens fell right off the map into the depths of the Eastern Conference prior to the trade deadline (FYI, they’re tied for 5th and 3 points out of 1st currently), IF Bryan Murray considered moving Alfie, IF the Sens could get good value for Alfie in a trade that would make it worth their while, and the most important IF at all: Does Alfie have any interest at all pursuing a Cup as a rental on a team that’s not the Sens? LeBrun even makes a point of acknowledging that this is the crux of the issue, since really it boils down to a decision that Alfredsson would be free to make.

And we’ll never know Alfie’s real thoughts and motivations but I think following him for all of these years, I can say pretty convincingly that I don’t think that Alfie does prioritize this achievement above being a lifetime Senator.  I know in Canada it’s sacrilege to suggest anything other than the only reason to have a career in the NHL is to win the Stanley Cup.  But for some players, there are other considerations. As a recent example, Mats Sundin balked at the floundering Leafs dealing him to a contender at the trade deadline because he stated that he didn’t feel right going to a team as an outsider with a month left in the season to take part in something the players in there had worked for together since training camp.  As a funny aside, Sundin left the Leafs anyways that summer as a free agent so he could play with the Canucks from the start of the season which screwed them over but it’s the Leafs, so no harm no foul right?

While it is true that you’ll almost never hear a player voice an opinion publicly that he wants to playing for anyone else but the team he’s under contract to, I think there would be other signs that would indicate that Alfie would consider this that we just haven’t seen.  When Ray Bourque (the most famous of the “Get him a Cup!” stars) left the Bruins, there were hints prior to then that he was desperate to win before he retired and that he knew the rebuilding Bruins weren’t in the position to make that happen. I don’t get that from Alfie.  Every word and more importantly every action has been about what he wants to accomplish in this city, whether he is healthy enough to continue playing, and what’s best for his family (especially his 3 young children who are all entrenched in the community). I have never heard him mention “winning the Cup” as any kind of top priority although I am sure he would be thrilled to do so as captain of the Senators.  In recent years, as he has approached the end of his career, the choice has appeared to be either suit up for the Sens for another year or retire. Movement somewhere else has never entered the conversation and over the past 5 years, there has been ample opportunity for him to consider this with the fortunes of the team where they have been during that time.  I believe he made peace with the fact that he may not win with this team but he would like to retire a Sen nonetheless some time ago and there has been nothing to suggest that he has wavered from that position.

So failing a piece of reporting that indicates that he has changed his mind about this possibility, I think any article that suggests an Alfie trade is not worth writing.  The mere fact that LeBrun spends over 3/4’s of the piece providing conditions to what exactly would need to happen and how little chance there would be of all these things falling into place belies the whole hypothesis.  If you need to devote that much space to covering your own ass regarding the likelihood of your proposition ever materializing, was it worth even penning the article in the first place?

This also ignores the flimsiness of the “Bruins as most likely destination” thread of the piece as well which contains some very loose, loose arguments as to why Alfie could end up there.  I’ll say right away that the point about the Bruins supposedly freeing up cap space by trading Tim Thomas in order to be able to make a move like this is almost completely irrelevant since Alfie has an expiring contract and wouldn’t presumably be traded until much closer to the deadline in April (enough time for the Sens to drop far enough out of the playoff race to have them consider the move), making his cap commitment next to nothing and therefore open to essentially any team, regardless of their cap situation.  The only other reason LeBrun uses is that there are some Sens connections on the Bruins which would be comfortable for Alfie (Chiarelli being the GM and Chara the captain).  But I highly doubt that Alfie would care if Peter Chiarelli were the GM of a team that acquired him if he was only going to be there a couple of months.  As for having former teammates there, you can say that about an awful lot of teams in this league given how long Alfie’s been around.  Why Boston and not St. Louis to reunite with Wade Redden? Or Nashville with Mike Fisher? Or San Jose with Martin Havlat and Doug Wilson as GM who loves players with Ottawa connections? All of them are just as plausible as Boston given the criteria LeBrun is using.

The only plus I would see with the Bruins that I’m surprised LeBrun didn’t even bother to note was the fact that Boston is at least not crazy far away from Ottawa and Alfie’s kids which if you really knew him and were paying attention, appear to be the main motivators for most of his decisions nowadays.  In recent years, he hasn’t answered one question about his future in the game without mentioning his kids and where they factor into that decision.  When announcing he was returning this season back in the summer, he noted that his kids kept telling him how much they loved being able to go to practice with him and play in the dressing room with the other children while socializing with his teammates as one of things that tipped the scales for him (along with being healthy and able to still contribute on the ice).

So, with all this being said, why should it be a big deal anyways? Aren’t journalists allowed to speculate and give opinions in articles? Isn’t that what bloggers do for 99% of their articles? Well, I’ll tell you why this is a bigger deal than that. Because when Pierre LeBrun (or Bob McKenzie, Darren Dreger etc) goes on National TV in Canada or puts an article on ESPN.com, because of his stature, it generates interest.  In this day and age, any article that gets published in any local rag can get pushed out to prominence in the blink of an eye so you can only imagine the amount of buzz a National columnist and on-air personality will generate.  It’s one thing for PJ Stock to spout out on a Hockey Night in Canada Hot Stove segment last week that “the Sens have to trade Alfie” because PJ Stock is a halfwit who no one takes seriously as a legitimate media personality, even the other guys he works with on the Hot Stove.  LeBrun is different.  The mere fact that he mentioned this on-air will probably lead to a James Duthie-led panel discussion on its merits on TSN. Then Sportsnet, then Hockey Night in Canada.  I’m sure the local scribes will all have their takes within the next few days.  It will dominate the discussion today and tomorrow on Team 1200, that’s guaranteed.  And then we probably have the over/under of about 48 hours before Alfie himself or Bryan Murray get asked about the likelihood of this scenario occurring and now you’ve got an ongoing distracting.  And know this, the extension of this conversation will not contain the nuance that LeBrun’s piece did with the caveats and conditions for such an unlikely thing to actually happen.  As always, it will be boiled down to the misleading headline which is “Will the Bruins be trading for Alfie?”.  That’s a distraction folks and one the team doesn’t need.