Monday, January 18, 2010

Sizing Up Richards Vs. Philly Media

As a former beat writer, I always find dust-ups between writers and the athletes, coaches and executives they cover irresistible reading, especially when they become public as did the spat between Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards and the veritable horde that covers the team.

In my first season covering the Thrashers, there was the time that combustible goalie Pasi Nurminen didn't like a question that I asked him about his rebound control after a particularly ugly loss to Ottawa. Nurminen, in his broken English, barked something back at me to the order of, "What game you watching?" The next day, the morning show on Atlanta's alternative-FM radio station played the audio clip over and over. Listening to it in my car, I cringed. Later in the day I learned that the team was listening to the station in the locker room before practice, which made Nurminen's slow burn grow even hotter. We smoothed it over and eventually Nurminen became one of my better sources.

However, I saw far more parallels in another incident that I went through to the Richards' affair. But first a few disclosures in regards to the group that covers the Flyers. I once worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer when current Flyers beat writer Sam Carchidi -- who appears to have been at the center of the controversy -- covered high school sports in south Jersey. I don't think I ever spoke to him. Secondly, I've been to dinner with writer Tim Panaccio once in 2004 and was once in a notes group with Delaware County Daily Times writer Anthony Sanfilippo. That's about the extent of my relationship with those who cover the team, along with small talk one occasionally makes during games and morning skates to pass the time. Also, in September I did two lengthy phone interviews with the Daily News for its Flyers job. So, as I'm not at all close to the situation, I'd say I can write about it fairly objectively.

To sum up, Richards has had a rocky relationship with the Philadelphia media, which, as almost anyone who follows this type of stuff knows, is about as aggressive as any in the country. Richards is arguably the best player on his team, which is one of the problems, but the bigger one is that he is the team captain. In hockey, that role often designates a player as the "go-to" guy for media, whose members expect the captain to be the voice of reason, hold himself and his teammates accountable for their actions and act as a sort of informal spokesman. But Richards, who is 24 and does not exactly appear the picture of the wizened veteran, has taken personally criticism -- some of it coming from his own general manager, as Panaccio pointed out -- that he and his teammates might have a little too much fun with the night life. For this reason, Richards maintained a one-week moratorium on speaking to the media in October after stories came out that suggested Joffrey Lupul was traded from Philadelphia to Anaheim, for, in part, enjoying himself a bit too much.

The issue arose again on Sunday following a 5-3 Flyers' loss to Washington after a profile in The Hockey News on Richards addressed the partying subject. (I can't link to that story since some of THN's content is subscriber-protected.) On his blog, DeFilippo transcribed the exchange between Richards and the reporters. I'll excerpt the following portion here, which isn't exactly flattering to Richards. I'll pick it up with Carchidi questioning a Richards quote in The Hockey News that the Philadelphia media "makes stuff up." Richards himself brought up the term "drinking articles" and appears to accuse Carchidi of writing something to that end.

RICHARDS: You didn’t write an article at the beginning of the year?

INQUIRER: That said you were drinking?

RICHARDS: That we’re out too much and that you asked Lupes (Joffrey Lupul, now with Anaheim) all the questions and everything? Anthony? Weren’t there articles?

DELCO TIMES: There were articles about those events but nothing naming you specifically.

RICHARDS: They said the players were drinking too much. Richards and Carter were out all the time.

INQUIRER: He (Lupul) said that?

RICHARDS: Isn’t that what the article said?

INQUIRER: No. I think that you’re making that up.


INQUIRER: You’re making it up.


Here, it's hard to tell if Richards is agreeing with Carchidi's contention that the articles saying Richards drinks/drank too much were a figment of Richards' imagination or if Richards is being sarcastic. After the session soon ended, press members and Richards exchanged heated words and Flyers coach Peter Laviolette eventually had to step in between them.

Once again we fall into the chasm between reality and perception and now I'll fall back on my own experience. Back on Nov.24, 2006, Andy Sutton ruined my Thanksgiving. It seems like a different eon, but back then the Capitals were among the league's dregs and Thrashers were atop the Southeast Division, bullying them on the scoreboard and physically, as well. The Thrashers had the game in hand when the 6-foot-6 Sutton, in the final minutes, exercised some poor judgment and decided to go head-hunting on Caps' up-and-coming 21-year-old rookie Mike Green. The Caps decided enough was enough and a brawl ensued. I'm grateful to Off The Wing Opinion for the following video clip.

In the end, Thrashers captain Scott Mellanby received an instigator penalty and a resulting one-game suspension. I remained in D.C. with my wife's family for the holiday while the team moved on for its next game in Tampa. All Thanksgiving Day long, I tried to reach Mellanby for comment on the suspension via his cell phone. (A team public relations official had told me to call Mellanby on his cell.) In a fit of pique, Mellanby was not answering. In the end, I wrote that Mellanby "could not be reached for comment."

The next day after the morning skate at the St. Pete Times Forum when I saw Mellanby, with whom I enjoyed a good relationship, he was furious. He was raging about how I wrote that he was "unavailable" -- which I did not -- and accused me of being unavailable because I had stayed behind in D.C. with family for the holiday. I countered that I was calling him repeatedly because the team's public relations staff told me to and said he would speak to me then. In an empty locker room, he told me to wait for a minute and grabbed a print-out of my story in his stall. He looked up when he was done and said, "I have no problem with that."

Now, Mellanby was in his 20th season at that point and also was probably one of the league's most respected players. He was as grizzled and wizened as veterans come. He was more angry that the league office did not grant him a hearing than he was at me. I just added fuel to the fire. That night in the press box, he sat next to me and we discussed fore-checking schemes and some ideas he had brought up at practice that the team was trying to incorporate.

I don't think that's going to happen any time soon between Richards and Carchidi or any of the Philadelphia media. But the issue is similar. Richards' perception was that the Philly media had written stories that he and others were always out partying. In fact, Panaccio in his story quotes GM Paul Holmgren in June saying that partying was an "issue" that he and then coach John Stevens had addressed. Just like Mellanby was angry that someone had told him I wrote he was "unavailable" -- which would not have been fair to him since he was at a practice and available to the media but I had previously arranged with my editors not to be at practice that day because of the holiday -- when in fact I did not write that.

In the end will Richards show as much maturity as Mellanby, now an executive with the Vancouver Canucks? It's probably doubtful. But if he's going to remain in Philadelphia and remain the team's captain, it would probably be in his best interest to make peace. Whether he realizes it or not, he will only make his own life easier. Philadelphia can be tough on captains, no matter how good they are. Just ask Eric Lindros.

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