Sunday, January 27, 2008

ALL-STAR EMAIL Q & A: Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada

Over the last few years I've watched Elliotte Friedman move through the ranks of Canadian sports broadcasters to his current role on Hockey Night in Canada. Elliotte is one of those people you root for because he's one of the kindest gentlemen in any walk of life. I believe this comes through in his answers.

What's the No. 1 story for the Islanders right now if you were to do a "Headliner" segment for Hockey Night in Canada?

Chris, I don't know if anything can top the Al Arbour piece we did earlier this year, but there are a couple of things I'd like to do. One is Chris Simon. Simon is one of the league's better interviews. Very thoughtful. Very interesting. He's overcome a lot - battles with alcoholism, being labelled a goon early in his career - to become an effective NHL player and an inspiration to native children. There are many people who looked at the decline of the Calgary Flames after 2004 and said the loss of players like him changed them from a brutal team to play against into a soft one.

However, he clearly has some anger issues. Now that the Islanders have sought counselling for it, I'd like to ask him what he's learned, why he's got such incredibly different personalities on and off the ice and if he's worried he's going to lose the chance to play the game he loves.

The other is Rick DiPietro. I covered the draft where Mike Milbury took him first overall - I'll never forget Joe LaPointe of The New York Times asking Milbury if he was insane - and you could see how much the guy just oozes with personality. We did a piece with Mike Richards this year, in his apartment and around his neighborhood. Someday, we'll do the same with DiPietro. He's cocky, and sometimes it's obvious he can barely stand our existence, but he's great for the game.

Which of the two leagues you cover most - the NHL and the Canadian Football League - are better when it comes to media relations and accessibility?

The biggest similarity is that guys who play in the CFL and guys who play in the NHL are the friendliest, most easygoing, most accessible athletes in any of the major team sports. Some organizations are better than others, sure, but these leagues are generally better than others.

The biggest benefit about working for Hockey Night In Canada is that we get a little bit of extra access because we're a rightsholder. A perfect example was last year when Ryan Smyth was traded to the Islanders. That happened on a Tuesday, and we definitely had to cover it even though we weren't on-air until Saturday. We needed something different. A horde of Canadian media descended upon Long Island for his first game against St. Louis, but you guys allowed us into the room when he first arrived and for the game. The piece was outstanding. We got a ton of feedback about those first minutes when he arrived.

I'll give another example Islanders fans would like: Brendan Witt. Two years ago, everyone knew the Washington Capitals were going to trade him. We asked Witt if we could spend deadline day with him to see what it was like. He was incredible, such a gracious host. He put heating cream in one player's jock for our cameras. He sawed assistant coach Dean Evason's stick. He played cards with the trainers. You could see how tough it was for Olaf Kolzig to say goodbye. About 45 minutes before the deadline, reporters started calling him to tell him he'd been traded to Nashville. He didn't know anything. It wasn't for another hour that George McPhee finally could call because the deal hadn't been approved by the league.

You could see how much it hurt him that he found out that way. It was a powerful piece, one of the best I've been involved with.

I have a bit of a tradition: when an organization is really helpful, I buy a piece of their merchandise. (I should state that I don't do it with Canadian teams.) Last year, when I came for the Smyth piece, I saw a Islanders t-shirt with "WITT 32" on the back. I bought it (and actually got in trouble because I wore it while working out at a Montreal hotel on the day of a game between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, who were batting New York for a playoff berth at the time).

There are great stories to be told in this game. Sometimes I think that teams just want p.r., and are afraid of anything that might critique something. Two weeks ago, I did a story about the Red Wings and their attendance troubles. They were nervous, but we were fair. After it was over, they were happy they did it.

If this is going to work, teams have to be open. We have to be fair. Fans are smart. They want both the teams and the media to be honest with them.

After a setback post-lockout, where do you think the NHL stands now in popularity?

The NHL is lucky, because it has some of the most passionate fans anywhere in sports. I go into some of these buildings and see how much they care. I'll never forget watching the crowd in Carolina stand for the entire Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final against Edmonton. I've never seen that before, or since.

The problem is this: There aren't enough of them. In 2004, there more more than 20,000 people going bonkers in the building as Tampa won it all. I mentioned Carolina. Last year, Anaheim's building was so loud I couldn't hear the guy I was talking to at the bench. However, when you left those buildings after the clinching victories, you couldn't tell a major championship had just been won. There was no energy, no electricity.

I do think players - other than Sidney Crosby, who is very deserving - have to be marketed better. But the honest truth is that this is a 40-year-old problem. Maybe we just have to realize that hockey is not for everyone, and we should be proud of what we have. Because, for the most part, we're going in the right direction.

Would you change anything about All-Star weekend?

We've been talking about this on the HNIC crew. Everything should be done in one night. As I watched Rick DiPietro clearly look hurt in the skills competition last night, you couldn't help but notice that a whole bunch of players stood around a long time. You're just asking for an injury.

I'd open with the Young Stars game. The new format was very good. Then, you play the first period of the All-Star Game. In the first intermission, you have your hardest shot and accuracy competition. Then comes the second period. In the next intermission, you have the shootout challenge. Then, you finish the game.

But the players have to give a better show. The breakaway chellange last night was embarrassing. These guys knew for weeks that this was going to be the format. And, the only two who really showed anything creative were Marian Gaborik and Alex Ovechkin. That's not acceptable.

Who are the best hockey reporters in North America?

Tough one, because I read - and like - so many of them. The most connected is Pierre LeBrun, and I'm not just saying that because I've won enough in golf bets from him to pay for my future childrens' tuition.

It depends what you are looking for. Are you talking about guys who break stories or guys who tell stories? Guys who cover one team or the entire league? So, I'll be a big chicken and give you a list: LeBrun (Canadian Press), Damien Cox (Toronto Star), Jim Matheson (Edmonton Journal), Tim Wharnsby (Globe and Mail), Ken Campbell (Hockey News), Kevin Paul Dupont (Boston Globe), Bucky Gleason (Buffalo News), Terry Frei (Denver Post), Mike Heika (Dallas Morning News), George Richards (his Panthers blog is terrific), Mike Russo (Minneapolis Star-Tribune), Tim Panaccio (Philly Inquirer). I'm leaving people out, I know, but this is a sampling.

I was a huge fan of Alan Hahn's when he covered the Isles. And I really like Mike Milbury on television.

If you could do a report from anywhere in the world, where would it be?

You know what? It would be Afghanistan. Canadian troops are there now, leading the mission. I wear a green rubber bracelet (similar to the LiveStrong ones) in support of their safety. It's difficult to explain this because I don't want to glorify war or paint a romantic picture of what's happening. I have no illusions about how dangerous it is. It's just that there are so many opinions about what's happening in that part of the world. I want to see it first hand so I could draw my own conclusions.

Does Kelly Hrudey still talk about the Easter Epic?

Only when he's breathing.

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