On the day of the NHL's trade deadline last year, more than 600,000 people who were hungry for the latest comings and goings scrolled through 3.9 million pages of a blog that came into existence six years ago, one that's owned and operated by a 43-year-old Pennsylvania native who:
* Does not use his real name.
* Is not an officially accredited member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
* Looks like a cross between Corey Feldman and Oliver, the briefly-adopted seventh child of the Brady Bunch, and is often seen wearing a porkpie hat and 1980s-era skinny ties to games on the occasions that he is given a press pass.
* Wrote eight years ago, under a different name than the one he uses for his blog, a self-published book about his small-time band's song lyrics.
While dozens of fully-accredited, double-and-triple-checking-their-sources reporters toil away for endangered old-school media companies that still live by journalism's get-it-right mantra, the mysterious man known as "Eklund" from the site Hockeybuzz.com has blown past nearly all of them in daily web traffic by largely peddling rumors -- about 98.5 percent of which, according to some analysis, never actually come to fruition.
Is it any wonder that the name "Eklund" stirs heated, passionate dislike among many in the traditional hockey press -- and even in the so-called new media? For someone who is considered at the forefront of today's new-school media approach, Greg Wyshysnki -- the editor of Yahoo's popular hockey blog Puck Daddy -- sounds very much old-school when he talks about his distaste for Eklund's brand of reporting methodology.
"We typically don't link to Hockeybuzz," says Wyshynski, who penned a frank appraisal of Eklund for FanHouse in 2007, "because I don't necessarily agree with the way they approach editorial. One of the major, major problems I think we have right now in hockey media is credit and citation. A big part of the rumors game is, if you're not first, then there's no reason to do it. And a lot of the times, being first is pretending to put your head in the sand and not citing your sources. I think his site, and sites that ape his site, propagate that problem where everybody's got to make pretend that they're sourced as well as the guys that really are sourced."
Among Eklund's bigger supporters, however, are some of hockey's most prominent, best-sourced old-school reporters. But there is a very large caveat with two such veterans -- Kevin Allen of USA Today and Tim Panaccio, a former longtime reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer and now CSNPhilly.com -- in that both have working agreements with Hockeybuzz.com to provide written or broadcast content. But even before they joined partial forces with Eklund's rumor mill, Allen and Panaccio say they were swayed by his entrepreneurial spirit and new ways of thinking about hockey coverage.
"I was with him early on, before I even wrote for the site while at the Inquirer," Panaccio says. "He was ahead of his time with sports blogging on hockey. He tapped into a public consciousness both here in the U.S. and Canada, and you can't dismiss the traffic the site gets or the fact that Hockeybuzz hit their 20 millionth unique visitor this month. Say what you want about the site as rumor mongering, but he has proved there is an appetite out there for hockey rumors. And that's what troubles so many journalists. They don't see the site for what it is -- rumors to feed a hockey-crazed public.
"I told him I watched Social Network and thought about him. There wasn't a single character in the movie worth liking. But what I saw were a couple of visionary guys. Eklund is just that: A guy who had a vision for a hockey website with new technology. He's a helluva lot nicer than the people who were behind Facebook, too. I think if more journalists met him in person there would be less resistance to Eklund the man."
Allen, the chairman of the same PHWA that refuses to admit Eklund as a member because of his insistence on keeping his real identity secret, admits to plenty of previous and still-occasional reservations about associating his own name with a man whose accuracy rate on reported news, so critics say, is very questionable at best. Yet Allen, at USA Today since 1983, was slowly won over by what he said was a combination of Eklund's personal charm, passion for the game and new ways of thinking.
"I actually have a good time with him," says Allen, who does a weekly podcast with Eklund for Hockeybuzz. "He and I disagree often on the way he does his business. I don't condone everything he does, but we're friends and I can tell him that. But I'm also very respectful of the fact that he did something that few others have done. He's created a successful business out of a real industry, and carved out a pretty big niche. There are other guys dealing in rumors who haven't had the success that Eklund has had. Maybe the world is evolving a lot more to the way that Eklund does business than the way I used to do business."
Such words are no doubt a stake through the heart of the many traditionalists who revile the typical Hockeybuzz-style news flash, which often begins with something like "Just got off the phone with a trusted source who says something BIG is about to go down in Pittsburgh!" or "Something MAJOR may be going on between L.A. and Atlanta, updates coming soon!"
Most Hockeybuzz rumors, believed to come from the occasional GM, a handful of agents and players, and assorted members of the media, end with a sad fizz, never coming true. One blog named Hockeybuzzhogwash.com compiled a list of what it said was every hockey rumor on Hockeybuzz.com in 2008 and found for every one rumor that ended up being true, 30 did not, with an overall accuracy rate for the year of 2.3 percent.
"I really feel sorry for the people who put faith in what he says, but I guess they will soon realize what is going on," said Paul Kukla, proprietor of one of hockey's busier blogs, Kuklaskorner.com. "But then, another group of young fans comes around and the cycle starts again."
Believe it or not, "Eklund" started out not as a single person, but an umbrella pseudonym (in honor of former Flyers forward Pelle Eklund) for a Philly-area band named Grey Eye Glances -- an indie rock troupe whose other main passion was hockey. Several members occasionally hung out with players, and some purportedly had previous working ties to the NHL.
Around the time of the NHL's lost season in 2004-05, the group became frustrated at the dearth of news surrounding the state of negotiations between the league and players, and thought, "Why not start our own website to fill the void with what we know might be going on?"
Thus, "Eklund's Hockey Rumors" began in 2005. Thanks to a largely snoozing U.S. mainstream media that sent most of its hockey reporters to cover bowling or high school basketball during the lockout, the site quickly became a hit with fans starved for something, anything hockey news-related. It didn't seem to matter that not much of anything was accurate. People just seemed to use Hockeybuzz.com to project their hopes for the NHL's return, or to confirm their suspicions that the end was nigh.
Traffic has only grown like a redwood since. Sites likes Kuklaskorner currently pull in a respectable 19,000 unique visitors per day on average during the season, Hockeybuzz.com usually averages into the low six-figures -- and the numbers skyrocket during the couple of weeks preceding the trade deadline.
According to figures from Google Analytics obtained by SI.com, on Feb. 22, Hockeybuzz.com had 350,295 unique visitors and 1,172,220 page views. From Jan. 24 to Feb. 23, the site generated 7,067,017 unique visits and 22,997,841 page views. Eklund is so hot that plans have just been finalized for him to cut an album with Flyers game-night singer Lauren Hart, a project tentatively titled "Eklund and Hart."
"I'm the least anonymous person in the world," says the man himself, during an hourlong phone conversation, his first public interview in four years. "I show up in press boxes, I walk around. But the Internet is a crazy place. We've had some threats. It's not impossible to find out who I am. But sometimes with the real popular Internet people, things can get weird."
Eklund's real name can indeed be found fairly easily, though SI.com has chosen not to reveal it because it has never actually been confirmed on the record by the man himself, who declined to divulge it to us during our interview. But the main proprietor of Eklund's Hockey LLC is a shaggy-haired, cerebral, fast-talking and altogether pleasant married father of two who genuinely can't understand why some people dislike him so much. He never said he was Bob Woodward, for Pete's sake, and this is just hockey.
"I plainly state that what often you might read on our site is a rumor, and that it might not happen, and in fact probably might not happen," he says. "But I will say that everything I write and what our correspondents are instructed to write is based on what they are hearing in talking to sources. It's a running dialogue of what's happening around the league, behind the scenes. Hockey fans in the U.S. have always had to look for hockey news in strange places, and they're good at it. We came to specialize in a niche, and that's what I always tell people who want to do something big in the Internet -- just pick something, anything, and specialize in that one little niche and you'll do OK."
He has also come under fire for allegedly falsifying his biography. In the early days of his blog, a report surfaced that said Eklund claimed to have worked for the NHL office and as an intern with the Quebec Nordiques.
Eklund, the man today, says those were members of the composite "Eklund" (though a representative of the Nordiques front office says the team never used interns in its years of operation).
There were cloudy assertions in early reports that Eklund wrote a best-selling book, which allowed him to go into blogging with financial freedom.
SI.com did uncover a book entitled A Story to Tell: Based on the Lyrics of Grey Eye Glances (Burt The Dog, 2003) written by the band member stage-name of the person Eklund said. Ranked at 6,748,959 by Amazon as of Thursday, it was likely never a best-seller, but Eklund said he never claimed it was.
There were also reported claims that Eklund falsely stated that he had received a journalism degree from Montreal's McGill University, but he's said that he was only accepted by McGill and never attended, going instead to Temple University. Indeed, listed as a recipient of a journalism degree from Temple in 1990 there is a name like the one suspected of being Eklund's real name.
Not that Eklund is holding anything against his doubters and accusers -- another rap he's faced -- and is vindictive toward those who write bad things about him. He's not ready to sue at the first libelous word with a cadre of lawyers.
"Preposterous," he says. "I've never sued anybody, period. I believe in getting along with people, which is why I never rip anyone on my site. I just don't do it. I think there are so many better writers than me, but who have been trapped in a dying paradigm. You have to do something that makes sense with the medium that you're looking at, the Internet, and that's why I think mainstream people have been handicapped at times, and it sucks because there's some of the best hockey writers in the world who have been getting screwed in the whole process."
When two important, disputed components of his biography seem to check out, Eklund could be rightly portrayed as a victim of jealousy in the business. While much of his running dialogue has been subject to mockery (such as his rankings of trade possibilities, where an (e5) symbol is supposed to be a certificate of gold), Hockeybuzz.com has broken first word of some big trades, including Peter Forsberg-to-Nashville in 2007 and Dustin Byfuglien-to-Atlanta last summer. Still, there have been plenty of not-so-golden, seemingly "done deals" that never happened as well as unhappy mainstream reporters who were left looking like cats chasing their tails while chasing these hot rumors.
"I understand the frustration that many in my side of the business feel toward him," Allen says. "It's weird, because I'm often labeled as the guy who traffics the least amount of the time in rumors, and here I am working with the king of rumors. But I think the guy does work hard and does talk to people in the game."
Eklund says his cell phone bills average more than $2,000 a month from all his talking with sources, partially because he makes many expensive calls to Canada and beyond that are not covered in his minutes plan. But as one of the people who many believe is helping make the mainstream media less relevant -- for better or worse -- he is actually bullish on the future for those who have been practicing good, sound journalism all along.
"Newspapers and television stations that now have Internet aspects to them are starting to take kids who actually went to school studying social networking," he said. "Before, they took people from their newspaper or television divisions to run the Internet, but who didn't understand the Internet. Now, they're hiring people who do, and it's going to change things soon."
With that, Eklund politely said he needed to cut things short and get back to the phones to chase down more trade rumors. But not before one last question to a reporter who covers the game.
"What are you hearing out there?" he asks.