By Stu Hackel
A number of hockey writers took the opportunity this weekend to speculate about who might win the NHL's major individual awards, many of which, including the Hart, Calder, Selke, Norris and Lady Byng, are selected by a vote of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. But three PHWA chapters --in New York, Long Island and New Jersey -- are apparently not casting ballots this year to protest the Islanders revoking the credential of Chris Botta, a PHWA member and former Islanders public relations director who was occasionally critical of the club in his Islanderspointblank blog.
This means that at least 20 of the 177 eligible members of the PHWA won't be casting their ballots.
The Islanders have never offered a reason for yanking Botta's media credential, although they did release a statement saying last Friday that the PHWA protest "is not hurting the Islanders organization or changing our stance on the past matter. Instead it is directly affecting the various players that rely on these votes to earn nominations. Players such as Michael Grabner, who is considered as one of the frontrunners for the Rookie of the Year award, or Frans Nielsen who is considered a possible nominee for the Selke Trophy, will not receive votes from New York media members who watch these players every game....
"It is unfair to punish the players that had no direct impact on the decision made by the Islanders organization. The Islanders request that the New York members of the PHWA change their position and vote for those NHL players who deserve consideration for an NHL award."
How laughable. That the Islanders would preach fairness after being so unfair is, well, you can fill in the blank. Here's an organization that would love the publicity and exposure it would receive from having a major award-winner or even a finalist. It would be an endorsement of the Islanders' rebuilding efforts (the latest version of which has gone on for a mere four years) as well as lend a glimmer of respectability. That the Isles themselves denied Botta the respect of any explanation or due process in his revocation cheapens their desire for the measure of respect accorded by the PHWA chapters' votes.
But the league, which either did not or could not convince the Islanders they were wrong, bears some responsibility here as well. One has to wonder how hard the NHL pressed the issue with the club or if it took the path of least resistance with the Islanders, as it did after the infamous Feb. 11 game against the Penguins, in which the league did what was cosmetically needed and moved on. Well, that wrist slap to Trevor Gillies turned out well, didn't it? Now this episode has taken on a greater dimension, too.
The PHWA members have little recourse besides this boycott. The three chapters seem to have thought very seriously about it. "I consider it an honor to vote for the awards and giving up that right was not something I did without serious consideration," wrote Tom Gulitti who covers the Devils for The Bergen Record. but because it not only impacts the Islanders, but the Rangers and Devils. These are the writers who have seen their players the most.
It's too bad that the entire PHWA won't boycott, although it issued a strong statement today to say that it was "adamantly opposed to – and distressed" by both the Islanders decision and the NHL's unwillingness to intervene on Botta's behalf to defend independent coverage of the sport by journalists as a whole.
"To its credit, the NHL and its teams have aggressively taken on the challenge of creating and enhancing their 'own' coverage on several platforms, going beyond the more traditional 'in-house' broadcasts to now include team web sites and other outlets," the statement reads. "Yet the league’s savvy fan base understands the need for, and desires, independent and objective coverage that doesn’t pass through league and team filters."
The PHWA says it will honor its agreement with the league to conduct the awards voting, but warned that the Islanders' action and the league's acquiescence "if allowed to stand and become precedent, signals an end to the league’s agreement that independent and objective coverage not only benefits its fan base, but the NHL itself."
Still, as Andrew Gross, the Rangers' beat writer for The Bergen Record explained, the PHWA apparently did not feel the Botta matter was worth jeopardizing its status as the body that selects these awards. "As our chapter chairman, Larry Brooks of the New York Post, has said on several occasions this season, what is the point of paying dues if the national organization is not willing to protect its own?," Gross wrote last Friday. "Job No. 1 of the PHWA should have been to have Botta’s back, not to have been so concerned about possibly losing the right to vote in the future."