Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Assassination of JFJ

What's going on with John Ferguson Jr. these days in Toronto is disgusting.

Distasteful. Embarrassing.

Oh yeah, it's because hockey means more in Toronto. C'mon folks - yeah, you, Ken Campbell, you too, Mr. Strachan - get over yourselves.

Everyone sitting around analyzing every loss. The countdown to his possible dismissal. The team President saying publicly he may have made a mistake hiring a first-year GM - because it's TORONTO! A current GM gathering the press around to tell them he wasn't interested in the Leafs job. I'm sorry: had the Leafs asked?

Reports of THIS game being a must-win or he'll be fired (oh no, what happens if the Leafs fight hard to tie it late in the third and only lose in a shootout? uh, we'll have to get back to you on that one).

In a departure, I'm not just going to blame the media. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has blood on their hands for this one.

It was just five years ago that John Ferguson Jr. was a highly-respected hockey executive with the St. Louis Blues. He was considered one of the brightest minds in the game and has always been one of the kindest people. Soft spot full disclosure: a lot of people don't know he spent part of his childhood on Long Island when his dad worked for the Rangers.

Now he's 40 and is regularly disrespected, thrown under the bus and over-analyzed to death. I don't know how Ferguson deals with taking it from people with only a fraction of his knowledge, work ethic and dedication.

How he's managing to put on the suit and tie and show up for work every morning determined to get it right for the Leafs and their fans, I have no idea.

Only one thing is for sure. John Ferguson is a better man than all of them.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Getting Defensive

When he did his First Star interview with Deb on Saturday night, Richard Park made an interesting declaration. The subject of the Islanders' defensive system came up - understandably, after split 2-1 games with the Bruins and a run of games where the Islanders have not scored more than two goals. Park seemed to take offense, not at Deb or the question, but over the possibility the Islanders were getting a reputation as a close-to-the-vest, trapping team.

"We are not a defense-only team," Park said, rather adamantly for what is usually a pretty casual post-victory interview on the Coliseum ice. "We are a team that knows how to play good defense."

I don't think Richard was being, uh, defensive. I believe he wanted to set the record straight. Ted Nolan's disdain for a suffocating trap system is well-known and I'm not aware of his new assistants John Chabot and Gerard Gallant even thinking of trying to change Ted's mind.

From my vantage point, the Islanders are doing everything they can to push the play. Their offense has not clicked as well as it did the first few weeks of the season, but I don't think you can say they are sitting back.

A home game on Wednesday against the high-flying Senators (likely with a returning Daniel Alfredsson), followed by Battle Royale IV with the Rangers in the Garden 24 hours later is the latest test.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Saturday's crowd...great scoop on Estrada...Boudreau's NYI connection

One thing that never, ever gets old: taking my seat in the press box late first period and seeing the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum completely jam-packed with Islanders-loving fans. From my colleagues on the staff, let me say thank you, thank you, thank you. Let me also tell you that more than a half-dozen players, plus Ted, said something to me after the game in the room about the crowd. Fans: never think for a moment it goes unappreciated.


As thousands upon thousands of column inches are wasted in discussing the Yankees' and Mets' pursuit of Johan Santana, remember this: did ANYONE have the scoop on the Mets' deal to get Johnny Estrada? Did anyone even mention Estrada as a possibility? Nah, didn't think so.

When the deal fell through with the catcher from Colorado with the long name, we had a few days of articles with "sources" saying what the Mets were going to do next. Maybe go back to LoDuca for another year. Or Barrett. Or this guy. Or maybe that guy.

NO ONE had the Mets getting Estrada for Mota. So keep those "sources" coming, guys. And all those wasted, pointless back pages.


New Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau is another guy whom it's tough to root against because he has worked so hard to get his first NHL head coaching gig at age 52. But here's another reason: he has a connection to your NYI.

When I started with the Islanders about 47 years ago, one of my "beats" on the publication staff was the franchise's AHL team in Springfield, Mass. Boudreau, then 32 years old, was the veteran scorer on that team. Big-time scorer: 42 goals and 116 points his first season in 1987-88 before being dealt midseason a year later. His teammates in Springfield included many players well-known to Islanders fans:

Bill Berg, Brad Dalgarno, Derek King, Jeff Hackett, Jeff Finley, the dearly departed Duncan MacPherson, Mick Vukota, Ken Leiter, Ari Haanpaa, Richard Kromm, Tom Fitzgerald, Rob DiMaio, plus two games with a rehabilitating future captain named Patrick Flatley.

I doubt Flats or Bruce remember much about those games. Either way, good luck, Coach.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Reason to believe

I wonder if there is any correlation between this team's play and the fact that this is hands-down the best group of players I've been associated with in my ten years on the PR side.

It's not even close. For my colleagues and I, there's never been a better team to deal with. (Yes, Garth, you and your boys from 01-02 were princes. But sorry, nothing compared to Guerin's Gang).

I was watching the game last night at the Garden and experienced an unusual sense of calm during the third period. That's when it started to hit me that maybe it's not a coincidence the way these guys are off the ice translates to how they perform on the ice.

I see Richard Park out there and I get the feeling everything's going to be fine, just as I felt on the eve of his recent speech to new U.S. citizens at Stony Brook. I see Brendan Witt and I know enough about his focus and preparation that he's not going to over-react to Sean Avery when his bigger task is being ready for Jagr at the blue line. Some people might be tired of hearing about Billy Guerin's leadership, but tough: Guerin is the best leader this team has had in a generation.

Corey kicks open the locker room door post-game to the media and we know win, lose or overtime loss the guys are going to say the right things. Nobody is better in a tough spot with the media than Mike Sillinger, so is it any surprise Mike wins most of the big faceoffs and important little battles? Bruno Gervais and Chris Campoli are two of the most dedicated players of any age we've had here when it comes to giving their time to community projects. No wonder they have developed so well and so quickly as home-grown players.

Mike Comrie? Didn't know anything about him when he got here. Now we know he's a brilliant center and a complete class act. I asked Ruslan Fedotenko a few weeks ago to help me out with an autograph for a child I know who was going through some tough times. Now every time I'm around the locker room, Ruslan asks if he can do anything else to bring a smile to the kid's face. I see the passion Tank plays with and I feel like I know where it comes from.

As for Rick DiPietro, his rising star in goal mirrors his growth as a man. Rick has always been a dedicated and respectful young man. It's just all coming together for him now, and nobody deserves it more. He's ours, and we'll take him.

Of course, it starts with the coach. Although Ricky socked Avery - kicking off DP's candidacy for People magazine's Most Beautiful list for 2009, perhaps? - seems clear to me Ted Nolan has said all the right things to his team about ignoring Sean. The comments from Witt, Rick, Andy Sutton and the classic line from Radek Martinek in today's coverage illustrate that.

As Garth wisely pointed out in phone interviews this afternoon with Pierre Lebrun of the CP and Kevin Allen of USA Today, it's early. But there's good reason to believe this team will be just fine during the peaks and valleys of the long NHL season. In fact - because of the makeup of this team and the GM and Coach running it - you could make the case that they haven't even come close to peaking yet.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Roster update, and a Globe writer is all giddy over her teams' success

Turns out Springsteen is playing the Igloo tonight and I just happen to be on this road trip. Unbelievable coincidence!

Here's the roster update:

Bill Guerin was cleared to play this morning by the NYI medical staff and made the trip. With a good morning skate, he should be in the lineup Thursday against the Penguins.

Ben Walter has been returned to Bridgeport, meaning you could see a line of Richard Park centering Simon and Jackman tomorrow. (Or not).

Shawn Bates has been sent to the Sound Tigers on a conditioning stint. The plan, as I understand it, is for Shawn to play a few games before his return to the NHL. He has worked so hard to get back, so here's wishing him well.

Bryan Berard is likely to return to action tomorrow night. Could Ted play seven D again? Hmmm...

While waiting for "PTI" to come on a little while ago, I caught the end of "Around the Horn," which continues to stun with its awfulness. The Boston Globe's Jackie MacMullan "won," so she got to rant for the final 30 seconds of the show. Ms. MacMullan used her time to gloat about how great the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots are, even thumbing her nose at Roger Goodell.

This is one of the many things that crack me up about sports reporters. They go to lengths to separate themselves from the teams they cover. When the teams aren't contenders, it's usually an endless run of one-liners. But when the teams are champions, many of them act like they're in the club directory.

Hey Jackie: you are not a part of the Patriots' and Sox championships or the Celtics' revival. Deal with it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

At Disney World, alone

On Monday the job took me to another place I'd never have predicted: the Major League Baseball meetings in Orlando. MLB called a few weeks ago to invite me to be on a panel on blogging. Apparently I've become an expert (that noise you just heard was my guy Corey and Blog Boxer B.D. Gallof falling over themselves laughing). Regardless, the chance to represent the NYI and the 36 hours in Florida were too good to pass up.

I arrived at the Caribbean Beach resort at Disney World late Sunday afternoon. At the front desk was a really nice young lady on her first day on the job. With a wide, Disneyesque smile she told me her fiance (from Enfield, Conn.) was a huge Islanders fan. She also told me it was my lucky day because the Magic Kingdom is open until midnight!!!

I'm at Disney World completely on my own. I know no one there. If you saw me on It's a Small World by myself, wouldn't you wonder?

I passed on the Jungle Cruise and instead headed to Downtown Disney, the stretch of shops and clubs where I figured I wouldn't feel so self-conscious. Wrong. I went into the Magic Shop to maybe get a gift for my three boys and the guy behind the counter says, "Sir, my magic show starts in five minutes. Go get your kids"!

Monday was much better at the meeting at the Yacht and Beach Resort Hotel on the Disney grounds. I was real impressed by the MLB staff and everyone from the teams. At my session, I picked up a few good tidbits.

Scott Reifort, who has a job similar to mine with the Chicago White Sox, has a blog that he often uses to even the score with the media. Picture my poke at Jim Baumbach last week and then imagine me doing that a few times a week. Scott started his blog the year the White Sox won the World Series, but was just as aggressive when the ChiSox struggled badly this season. Scott made the point that it wasn't like the newspapers were going to stop covering his team just because he ripped them.

The other thing Scott does, which I haven't yet, is open the blog up for reader response. He told me he now has a "community" and it's worth all the effort. I've been hesitant to do that because I know it could turn into a fulltime job eliminating pesky posts from Rangers fans (ask Logan). I'm going to look into adding that feature in about a month.

The San Francisco Giants do a nice job of communicating with their season ticketholders. Whenever possible, they try to get their breaking news to their subscribers first. For example, they sent out a letter from management explaining the decision to not bring back Barry Bonds. I believe the NYI have made a lot of strides in this area, but it is definitely worth continuing to explore.

Tomorrow I leave with the Islanders for two big games in Pittsburgh and New Jersey. I spoke with Billy Guerin this afternoon and it sounds like he's going to make the trip. If he gets the OK from the doc Wednesday morning, there's a chance Bill could play on Thursday. Also sounds like Bryan Berard will be back.

Thanks, Islanders fans, for playing a big part in what has been a pretty amazing start to the season on a lot of levels. Let's keep it going.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Vintage home team hockey broadcasting

On my way home from a CVS run tonight, I heard the perfect little illustration of how a home team hockey announcer treats his team compared to the opponent. It just happened to be Dave Maloney on the Rangers radiocast, but I'm not doing this to show up Dave, a good guy and strong analyst. Dave's no different than Kinger or Sherry or the guys in Buffalo and Calgary. That's just the way it is. I found this first period sequence tonight amusing.

Dave on Pittsburgh's Colby Armstrong getting a penalty for pulling down the slowish Rangers dman Jason Strudwick: "Oh, that's a bad play by Armstrong. Strudwick's not a guy who's going to beat you with his legs, so if you're Armstrong you have to be crisper on the forecheck. You have to come in with speed, you have to be smart and ready. The coach isn't going to be happy with that penalty by Armstrong." (Good, fair analysis).

Dave just seconds later on Sean Avery, who costs the Rangers their power play soon after it starts when he's called for interference when he gets in the way of Pens dman Sergei Gonchar: "Oh...Sean, Avery's gotta be better than that."

That's harmless, understandable home team broadcasting, but sometimes it gets real stupid out there.

There was a game during the 2000-01 season in St. Louis when the Blues got an early lead and the home announcers decided to take the next two hours to poke fun at the state of the Islanders. One of the guys was Bernie Federko, who you'd think would know better. To the Blues' broadcasters, the Islanders were a joke of a franchise and they were part of one of the elite ones. I made a call to Bernie's executive producer the next day and it was never returned.

The next season the Islanders started off 11-1-1-1 and soon after the Blues had some ownership problems, a few bad seasons and a major disconnect with fans that Dave Checketts, JD and the rest of their staff are doing a nice job today digging out of.

I've never had a problem with some affectionate homerism as long as it doesn't get out of hand. Front-runners? That's as bad as it gets. I'd be real disappointed with King and Mears, Howie and Billy if they ever kicked another team while it was down. I don't think that's something we have to worry about. The class of this organization extends to our broadcast booths.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Baumbach Mountain out of a molehill

Sometimes the worst thing you can do is humor a reporter who's written something blatantly controversial because all it does is make them a hero to their bosses. Such was the case today with Newsday columnist Jim Baumbach, who decided to dump on Al Arbour's victory Saturday night because, one can only assume, he was feeling neglected.

We've worked with Jim before and he has always seemed bright, diligent, professional, usually on his medication. But this piece is so lame, so depressing in its desperate attempt to ignite an emotional response from fans. Even Rangers fans are joining their Islanders brothers-and-sisters-in-hockey and piling on, defending Al's name and coming up with inventive words to describe Jim.

Once the Reader Response meter hit 160, I decided to jump in. Admittedly, not traditional form for a PR person. But then again, neither is this blog. Here's my contribution. You'll see I refrained from calling him a "tool."


Jim: Saturday night's event will never, ever be matched by any team, anywhere. With the exception, of course, of our ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup, from beginning to end the Al Arbour game was the greatest night a professional sports franchise and its fans could have. And as Newsday might say, It Happened on Long Island.

It's too bad the Arbour family, Al's players, our fans and my colleagues had to get smacked with this blatant grab for reader feedback. Red Schoendienst - are you kidding me, Jim?

That said, perhaps something good can come from this. I would imagine your bosses are mighty giddy with all the attention your column is receiving. (160 responses and counting - did you get that many from your Phil Hughes updates from Scranton?)

While your editors will no doubt put you up for an award for your brainstorm - or at least send over a "Way to go, Jimmy!" email - here's hoping they also remember our fans' passion-in-numbers when they are deciding who gets the back page the rest of the season.

Chris Botta
VP, Media Relations

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Pin

This game tonight means so much to so many people for many different reasons. Just about two hours before Al Arbour walks to the Islanders bench one last time, please allow me to explain why it means so much to me.

I've had the incredible fortune to be part of every jersey retirement night here, starting with Potvin and Bossy through Bryan Trottier's worth-the-wait afternoon. For a kid who was raised on Long Island, for a kid who grew up with the Islanders, I don't think I could ever put into words what it's been like to play a small role in the planning of these events.

I was a part of the preparations for Al Arbour Night in January of 1997, but it was the one banner-raising I missed.

My father passed away two days before Al's big night.

I will never, ever forget coming home from the wake that Saturday night, putting on Sportschannel and catching the last few minutes of the game as the Islanders held on to beat Chicago, 3-2. For a little while, it was a wonderful distraction.

I didn't catch the ceremony, of course, but towards the end of the game one of the teams called a timeout and the TV broadcast had a close-up of Islanders head coach Rick Bowness drawing up a play. Rick and his staff were wearing on their lapels the pins the team gave out that night. The pin featured a classic shot of Al in his Islanders coaching jacket, whistle in mouth and the words AL ARBOUR 739.

When I came back to work a few days later, I told Bowness how moved I was when I saw him on the bench wearing the pin. Later that day Rick came over to the office and said he had something for me. He dropped his Al Arbour pin in my hand.

When you hear all this talk about Al Arbour and family, it's not some sort of over-hyped legend. It's real. At my father's funeral at Our Lady of Mercy on Monday, Jan. 27, 1997, in walked Al Arbour. The church, for a brief moment, got real quiet. That was understandable because Al had just been on the back page of Newsday. One of my best buddies - guy from the neighborhood I used to go with to a lot of Islanders games in the '70s and '80s - walked up to me after the mass and said, "I know this day sucks and all, but you have to admit THAT was pretty cool."

Tonight, I get another chance to be part of an event for Al Arbour. And that pin Rick Bowness gave me ten years ago? I'll have it with me all night.