By Stu Hackel
There was a hat trick of bad news for the Islanders this week. First they fired coach Scott Gordon, which a number of observers took as a cosmetic step to rescue a plunging season. Then they lost their 11th straight game, their first under new coach Jack Capuano. Third, they pulled the media credential of Chris Botta, the team's former public relations director who for the last few years has written a crucially important blog, Islanderspointblank.com
Why is Botta's blog so important? Because it is the best and most authoritative place to get reliable news and very reasonable views on the Islanders. It's frequently updated and delivered by a hockey saavy guy with a long connection to the organization. It has credibility with the fans, averaging a whopping 1.5 million page views a month.
The Islanders, you see, are not regularly covered by any of the New York newspapers except Newsday -- and Newsday's content is behind a paywall except for those who subscribe to the paper, pay to have the paywall lifted, or are customers of Cablevision, which also owns Newsday and is using its TV product to bolster the paper at a time when print media are fading as successful businesses.
To antagonize Islanders fans even further, Cablevision also owns Madison Square Garden and the hated Rangers, so this entire situation is like pouring water on a drowning man.
Why the Islanders pulled Botta's credential has not officially been explained since they are not responding to requests for comment. The explanation Botta says he received from the club was that he had "gone from covering the story to being the story," and as Botta himself instantly realized, this step was truly going to make him the story.
Yesterday, Botta was on WFAN in New York (audio), Hockey Night In Canada's satellite radio show (audio) and Versus' NHL Overtime (sorry, there's no video for that), among other places. He told Jeff Marek on the Hockey Night show that he can't really pinpoint anything he said or did that would have precipitated the Islanders' move. He was never warned that he was in danger of losing his credentials.
The team actually funded his blog during its first season after he left their employ and admirably gave him carte blanche in what he wrote. They then pulled the money, likely a cost-cutting move, but he struck deals with AOL Fanhouse and the SNY regional sports cable network who funded Islanderspointblank.com while he also worked for them. Now his ability to do those jobs is in jeopardy as the team will not let him in Nassau Coliseum.
I spoke with Botta yesterday, and he's finding it difficult to find a cogent reason why the Islanders would think he's suddenly the story. He asked GM Garth Snow for an interview after the seventh loss of the current slide with the intention of allowing Snow to address Botta's sizable readership. Snow refused. (He and Botta had a long friendship dating back to Snow's playing days). Botta reported the refusal and perhaps that was Snow's tipping point.
It also might have been the Tuesday post Botta wrote that was critical of the Isles, expressing impatience with their player development efforts. But if Botta has been at times critical, he's also been supportive far more often, perhaps more often than the team deserved. His voice was one that offered hope and saw thin rays of sun through mostly gray skies. But Botta didn't feel it was right to ignore the clouds.
Regardless of their reasons, what do the Islanders gain by banning Botta? The beleaguered fans of that downtrodden franchise, who seem to be dwindling in enthusiasm and number, have come to rely on him for their dose of team news. In his absence, there will be even less coverage as a huge chunk of the fanbase lives with a growing alienation that threatens to overcome their passion for the team.
Don't think so? Listen to the callers from Thursday's edition of Gary Bettman's satellite radio show (audio). They're running out of patience and the Botta episode is just one more example of how the team they love doesn't return that love.
And while you're listening, catch Mr. Bettman's defense of the club's action. Better yet, here it is:
"Clubs have discretion as to whether or not to credential bloggers," Bettman told one caller. "There's no absolute right to get into a building just because you're a blogger and post things on the internet. So it's not the same as a perhaps reporter working for The Times or The Daily News when you have your own blog site and that's what you're doing and clubs have a lot of discretion in that regard."
Forgetting the NHL's half-baked policy on bloggers, someone should whisper in the commissioner's ear that Chris Botta is not just some crazy fan living in his mother's basement and ranting out of control, but one of the main sources of news -- if not the main source -- for one of Bettman's clubs.
To another caller, Patrick from Glendale NY, who called Botta's blog, "The only voice of this team, the only way we can get information about them," Bettman responded that Snow was "making decisions that he thinks are in the best interests of the club. If someone is undermining team chemistry, if somebody is causing friction in the locker room, whether or not it's changing the coach or doing some other things, you take the acts that you think are going to improve the team."
Bettman's job is to defend his teams, of course, and he does that very well, but this particular kneejerk response shows that he's really unfamiliar with the situation. To allege or even imply that Botta was undermining team chemistry or causing friction in the locker room is as absurd and unfounded as the charge that Colin Campbell's ruling on the Matt Cooke-Marc Savard hit was biased.
Bettman should take a leadership position here, bring the two sides together and, if he has to, mediate this so Botta can get his credential back. The Professional Hockey Writers Association, of which Botta is a member, should protest this matter strongly, if they have not already.
There seems to be no other reason for this action than Chris Botta being occasionally critical of the Islanders and he should have that right of expression unless someone can produce a real reason that he has abused it. None seems to be evident. If criticism is all it takes to lose a credential, there aren't going to be too many people left to cover the National Hockey League.