Over the course of the last couple of days, we've printed the first two parts of a substantive interview with Michael McKinley, author of Hockey: A People's History. So far it's run the spectrum, discussing the writing process and a lot about the history of the game, and of professional hockey in Ottawa. For the third and final part of the series, we get into more contemporary issues facing the game, and the NHL.
Silver Seven: The game of hockey is changing, especially on an international level. Do you think the KHL poses a risk to the NHL, or to professional hockey in North America?
Michael McKinley: I think competition is good. I think the WHA certainly tried it, and changed the way the NHL did business. It did it because it was so proximate, you know? They were playing in the same arenas, many of those teams in the WHA and NHL. So you could change corporate colours quite easily. I think the cultural leap that the KHL represents is one that is easily made by Eastern European players, because they're from there so they can go back and do it, but I'm not sure that it would lure the best North American players over there, to earn an extra million bucks to play in an environment totally foreign to their professional sensibilities.
It's not a rival in the sense of making the NHL nervous, but it's probably made the NHL think more strongly about expansion into Europe, because I know that's been discussed. Maybe a team in London, a team in Berlin. Logistically, you could do it; we saw the Canucks on a two-week road trip in the Olympics, and that's pretty much what everyone would do. You'd have two divisions, and have some inter-divisional play, or whatever. But I think the KHL might only sharpen the NHL's thinking about expansion into Europe, rather than make it nervous about how attractive it is to players. I mean, if it loses Russian talent to a home-grown league, so be it; now, you look at the rosters of most teams, and they're pretty international but still dominated by Canadian and, increasingly, American players. And I don't think the NHL would be too bothered if that trend continued.
It's very interesting, when we watched the World Junior Championships last year, how good the Americans were. They're seriously trying to develop hockey talent. For example, my daughter, in New York City: We'd go to a rink down in Brooklyn-a beautiful rink, big rink, state of the art-and Hockey USA, which runs the national programs, will give her all the equipment-helmet, skates, body protection, hockey stick-and three hours of hockey instruction on Saturday morning, for four consecutive Saturdays, if I give them $35. And it's not like it's 5 am on Saturday, it's 10 am on Saturday, so all it will cost me is $35, and she gets four weeks to decide whether or not she likes this game. And if she does, then you shell out for the equipment and all the rest of it, and they'll keep teaching her. It's a wonderfully attractive and affordable option for families who might consider the cost of hockey prohibitive. You put your kid in, and it's $35.
S7: Perhaps unfortunately, the story of the NHL in the 21st century so far has been money: The lockout and the salary cap have made the first questions anyone asks about contract signings about term and dollars. How do you think this changing reality to the business of hockey affects the way people enjoy the game of hockey?
MM: In many ways, it's changed the nature of how you build a team. Conventionally, you'd go out and get the best player at each position; now it's the best-value player at each position.
To go to baseball for a second, and Steinbrenner: When Steinbrenner died, I was reading an obit that talked about his management strategy, which was to buy the best player available, pay them a lot of money, and blame them if things went wrong.
I think that with the salary cap, as we've recently seen with the overturning of the [Ilya] Kovalchuk contract, there's still a tendency of the league to punish the teams that try to do business in a way that it doesn't like. And that's more interesting to me. Should a player be able to make as much money as he can, or as it's possible to get? Sure. It will affect how teams build themselves, but now we've become almost a Moneyball kind of culture when we think about hockey. And I'm not sure that's the best way to build a team.
Of course, with the cap, now you have to think that way. You only have so much money to spend, and so you have to add up all the pieces to see how far you get. But by the same token, there's some decision-making that I think, in retrospect, isn't all that sound. For example, the contract that was given to [Roberto] Luongo, which would have him letting in soft goals in playoff games into his 40s, and for an astonishing amount of money. And they saddled themselves with that contract; they're probably hoping the arbitrator overturns that one, too, and he becomes a UFA.
So by the same token, these contracts that are designed to help circumnavigate the cap or take advantage of the cap, in many ways, come back to bite the team.
S7: One thing you touch on in the book is the emerging trend of blogs and social media, particularly in hockey. How do you think blogging has changed, is changing, or will change the way people experience hockey?
MM: I think it's going to make it so much more immediate a connection, because bloggers are fans, first and foremost, and are very interested in the game and in the team. Not that the beat reporters aren't, for newspapers or television or radio, but they have a different relationship with them; they've got to see them every day, and you might think twice about what you say for fear of being cut off. Which I don't think bloggers have to worry about.
They have access to reportage, through the media, but also have much more editorial freedom, I think, to talk about. And I don't mean just ‘popping off', but I mean intelligent analysis. It might have been management, but it won't have any real consequence to the blogger because they'll still be able to post things and they're not going to get censored in a way that somebody who's got to show up at press scrums every day because he or she writes for the local paper. And all of a sudden, their questions aren't getting taken, because they said something bad about the star player's ineffectiveness during the playoff run, for example. And all of a sudden a player won't talk to you, and a coach won't talk to you, and so what are you writing? You look at somebody's post-game stuff, a scribe watches a game, reports how it goes, and goes to the locker room afterwards for soundbytes. That's fine. But there's more interesting analysis that bloggers provide.
And it's more in real-time, too. And now they're also taken seriously, or much more seriously, in terms of reach and power. Good hockey blogs have a lot of readership, and with true fans. You pick up a morning newspaper, you flip through it, and sport might not be your thing so you just cruise through the sports section or glance a picture of last night's game, whatever, and not really care. But if you go to a blog, it's just there. And advertisers and the league are well aware that.
With blogs, there are those that are a labour of love, and there are those that are labours of love and commerce, and they are increasingly attractive to not only the NHL but also professional leagues, and international leagues, too. Guys in the Olympics were certainly aware of them, and they were crediting some bloggers to get in the village.
If you were going to get accreditation, you'd have to prove your blog is not the ravings of a lunatic, but actually something that is comprehensible-wide-ranging, comprehensive, providing opinion and analysis. And then why shouldn't they get accreditation? It's how we gain information.
S7: Finally, your book is great: Any recommended reading for those who enjoyed it?
MM: Well, I loved Ken Dryden's The Game, for an insider's view; a classic. Net Worth is a really book on the business of the game, especially in the ‘30s and ‘40s, about how the league came to be. I really liked that account, it's ten years old now, maybe a little older, but it's still valid. I really enjoyed Conn Smythe's autobiography, You Can't Beat Them in the Alley. A fascinating glimpse into how he invented the Toronto Maple Leafs. If you can get by all the patting himself on the back, it's a really good read.
But also, I've written a novel which is out now, called The Penalty Killing, which is a murder mystery set in the world of pro hockey. It wasn't available when I wrote Hockey: A People's History because I hadn't written it yet, but it's out now, and people might be interested in that.
A final note of thanks to Mr. McKinley for offering his time to talk to me, as well as Stephen Crane of CraneCreek Communications for initially getting in touch with me about the opportunity. I just received The Penalty Killing in the mail; I'm a bit of a slow reader (and working on some other books right now), but hopefully we'll get the opportunity to talk to Mr. McKinley about his foray into hockey fiction around the start of the season.
If you'd like to read more interviews with Mr. McKinley, the great Boston Bruins blog Stanley Cup of Chowder had one earlier in the summer, and a few other SB Nation blogs have theirs in the works. Look across the network in the coming days and weeks for more.