Hockey smart, but media-savvy? Hardly.
How else to characterize USA Hockey officials, and Team USA general manager David Poile in particular, in the wake of a Friday morning press conference that exposed just how little thought was given to a plan that allowed media access to the group’s Olympic roster selection meetings?
That access blew up in their faces when Brian Burke’s blunt assessments of Senators forward Bobby Ryan became a bigger story than the makeup of the team itself.
“The problem, and the communication breakdown that we had, was we thought this was similar to the HBO 24/7 situation where we [would have] editorial review on what was going to be [printed],” Poile explained. “It caught all of us off guard.
“That’s on us. It’s a little bit of a breakdown.”
A little bit of a breakdown. As far as explanations go, that’s pretty Costanza-esque.
You know what they were going for here. Behind-the-scenes is all the rage in the NHL right now, what with the success of 24/7 inspiring several teams to produce their own pull-back-the-curtain series. They’re seen as great vehicles for engaging fans and enhancing the brand. No doubt Poile, in his enthusiasm for growing the game, was hoping to tap into that zeitgeist. And good on him for that.
The problem is that he, and the rest of the USA Hockey brass who were involved, didn’t exactly think the process through. Not even close.
And so instead of generating buzz about an exciting team that’s gearing up to improve on the silver medal it won at the 2010 Winter Olympics, Poile succeeded only in alienating the second-leading American-born goal scorer of the past five years.
“I’m trying right now, if I can, to apologize to Bobby Ryan,” Poile said. “If that was said about me or one of my players I would be very upset. I apologize as much as I can.
“Unfortunately the comments were a little harsh.”
The truth is, they weren’t that harsh. Blunt? Yes. Unflattering? Sure. But they were also entirely in keeping with the task at hand. These meetings weren’t about pumping tires. Burke, and every other member of the management staff, was charged with making cases for and against players in an effort to build a roster that could contend for the gold medal. Poile’s been through this process hundreds of times, both with Team USA and with his Nashville Predators. He couldn’t have been surprised that passionate, brutally honest opinions would be part of the equation.
And yet somehow it seems that he was.
“That is not what any of us signed up for,” he said. “This was just a little bit too much. For the umpteenth time I totally apologize to Bobby Ryan on behalf of our staff and Brian Burke, who was absolutely the biggest supporter of Bobby Ryan. Nowhere [was that reflected]. It’s just unfortunate.
“Brian Burke drafted Bobby Ryan. When I asked all of our management to give me their final roster, [Burke] had Bobby Ryan on his team. I’m not disputing what was said. A lot of it is tense and passionate.
“For all the things that were said against Bobby Ryan, there were many things that were said great about Bobby Ryan. I’m just sorry that this got out.”
No doubt that’s true.
As an emerging hockey power, Team USA is new to the delicate art of dealing with the hurt feelings and bruised egos that come with informing someone who has been among the best at what he does for most of his life that he’s just not good enough to be part of this particular team.
But that’s no excuse.
Poile didn’t just meet Burke yesterday. He knows exactly who he is, exactly how he speaks. Burke did his job in that room. Poile didn’t.
So it’s on him for not recognizing the potential for disaster. And it’s on Poile for not asserting some control over the end product.
That’s not to advocate for less access or less information. Far from it. Poile deserves a hearty handclasp for his efforts to open doors and expose a process that spurs endless interest among hockey fans. But at the same time, he has to keep his focus on what’s best for the team. And this, the way it played out, wasn’t it.
“What goes on in the room should stay in the room,” Poile said at one point today.
He’s learned the hard way that those are words to live by.