McKenzie: Bad blood results in ban for Isles beat writer

Bob McKenzie

12/1/2010 1:47:45 PM

I woke up recently and thought I was in the middle of a Harold Ballard flashback.

If I didn't know better, I would have thought we were back at Maple Leaf Gardens, circa the 1980s, when the cantankerous old coot of an NHL owner was wielding his power, and his cane (literally), to prevent some poor ink-stained wretch from doing his, or her, job.

There was the infamous night when a Ballard-banned Globe and Mail reporter, flanked by his hockey writing brethern, stormed the Maple Leaf dressing room after a game. As the persona non grata reporter was given the bum's rush out of the room by security, Ballard was right there waving his cane at him and bellowing something to the effect of, "Your mother should have smothered you at birth, you four-eyed (expletive deleted)."

Oh, yes, those were quite the days. We are, of course, much more civilized and professional now. No one is ink stained these days, unless they have a tattoo. Women in the dressing room is no longer an issue. And Pal Hal, his cane and his foul mouth, are long gone. We've come a long way, right?

Uh, apparently not.

Today's calendar reads Dec. 1, 2010, but a Long Island, N.Y., based hockey writer by the name of Chris Botta has effectively, and apparently legally in the NHL, been banned by the New York Islanders from attending Islander games and practices at the Nassau Coliseum.

Really? Seriously? We're going there? Again?

You've got to be kidding.

Admittedly, the Botta-Islander situation is unique in the annals of pro sports media relations gone wrong.

Botta was a 20-year employee of the Islanders, 15 of them in public relations and the last 10 as vice president of communications. He left the organization in May of 2008  and started an on-line blog, NYI Point Blank, that was originally funded by the team. But the Isles withdrew financial support of it in 2009, at which time Botta began working for AOL FanHouse, which then picked up sponsorship of Point Blank.

In this day and age of discussions on bloggers and mainstream media (MSM), and their associated rights and privileges, the only two things you really need to know about Botta are these: One, he's a professional journalist. This is what he does for a living. Two, he's a member of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association New York City chapter.

Botta is, by all accounts, welcome in 29 of the 30 NHL buildings. He's been accredited by the NHL for Conference Finals, Winter Classics and various other league-sponsored events.

But he can't get into an Islander game or a practice at the NHL rink nearest his home in Rockville Centre, Long Island, just 10 minutes from the Coliseum.

The issue here is clearly between Islander general manager Garth Snow and Botta. That much is obvious. Snow has not talked publicly about the ban and the only communication Botta has received from the Islanders has been through the team's media relations department. Snow and Botta have not spoken and, apparently, there are no plans for that to happen. Botta maintains the Isles haven't specifically told him the reason for the ban. The Islanders' stance is that Botta knows why he's no longer welcome.

The surprising aspect of all of this is that in this day and age an NHL club can arbitrarily choose to ban a member of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, who has a legitimate affiliation with a legitimate online outlet (AOL FanHouse).

The NHL, according to its media regulations, maintains individual clubs do have the right, within reason, to do business with the media as they see fit. And Botta's ban apparently falls within the rules as currently laid out. So the NHL either can't or won't intervene on Botta's behalf.

But here's the thing.

The Islanders are actually pulling a bit of a fast one here. The media rules that permit a club to decide who gets accredited for games and/or practices are as discretionary as they are not to allow teams to punish reporters they don't like, but to simply separate the serious reporters/writers, online or in print, from the dabblers. Not every guy who has his own website and blogs about hockey is entitled to a press box seat just as not every guy who works for a community newspaper should be given one either. The rules are in place to allow the team to make a subjective decision on who gets in, but based more on reach and respectability than having an axe to grind.

By any standard the Islanders or the NHL care to use, Botta should be entitled to be accredited. The only reason he's been excluded is because Snow has an issue, personally and/or professionally, but that standard should not good enough to warrant a ban. If the league isn't going to hold the Islanders' feet to the fire on this issue, how long before some other GM decides he doesn't like the ride he's getting from a media member and arbitrarily bans that hockey writer?

It really could be a slippery slope and the longer this situation goes unresolved, the more likely it is some other hockey executive will take note and play copycat.

It's hard to believe it's 2010 and we're still doing the media access dance.

It's silly, really.

The media should never get a free ride. We should all be responsible for what we write and say and if that sometimes requires hashing it out with the owners, GMs, coaches, players or whomever, so be it. And if that gets heated, that's fine too. The media dishes it out; it has to be able to take it, too. But NHL clubs and the league need to be accountable, too, and they can't be throwing media bans around like bodychecks.

Hey, if the Islanders' ownership or management or coaching staff or players want to freeze out Botta and not talk to him, fine and dandy, so be it. That's entirely their right. But don't prevent an otherwise accredited member of the media from getting into the building for games and practices. That's not how the game is supposed to be played.  

What's needed here is a face-to-face sitdown with the principals. The NHL needs to mediate this, encourage Snow and Botta to sit at a table across from each other and yell, scream and do whatever is required to settle the differences and reach an understanding that simply allows Botta basic access. That's how civilized people get it done. That's how professional people behave. 

Because the way it currently stands, no one wins.