Is the NHL right in restricting media bubble access?

Justin Cuthbert
·5 min read

If there was ever a time to give the most talented storytellers in the industry behind-the-scenes access to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, ideally this would be it.

In the summer of 2020, hockey is going to be about far more than the outstanding performances, the moments of courage, the lucky bounces, the twists, the thin margins, and the overreactions and consequences to the events that come when the game is turned up to its highest volume. That’s because these playoffs will happen against the backdrop of a global pandemic, and the NHL’s unprecedented plan to resume an interrupted season while the outside world grips with an ongoing public health crisis.

Of course, the reason why hockey will be played in the secure zones of two hub cities months later than originally scheduled, as to shelter from the deadly virus spreading to parts all across the world, are the same reasons why it’s become a little complicated when determining the media’s role in the NHL’s coronavirus restart.

News leaked out this week — just days before 52-person contingents from 24 teams descend on the host locations of Toronto and Edmonton — that media inside the bubble will be restricted to the NHL’s own pool of reporters and columnists, who will tap into this exclusive access to create content for the league’s website and other platforms.

That means even reporters that work for the league’s television and radio rights-holders will be restricted, and given the opportunity, only, to watch games from the press box (apparently one per reputable outlet) before logging into Zoom to join the post-game news conference, virtually.

(For full disclosure, I am extremely fortunate to be one of those reporters with a seat in the press box in Scotiabank Arena, and an area considered outside the bubble.)

This has drawn complaints from many who cover hockey professionally for several reasons — including but certainly not limited to the legitimate concerns of reporters being constrained in their ability to tell unique stories and provide unfettered analysis.

Under normal circumstances, this would be less of an issue. For reasons both deliberate and unintentional in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as players become more hyper-focused and media relations departments far more aware, the insight is often already quite limited. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Zoom conferences — and its handy raised-hand function and built-in social distancing — might be more efficient (and certainly more hygienic) than the scrums that are already claustrophobic and too-often become a little unruly with the extra attention that arrives in the spring.

However, if that’s what reporters feel they’re really losing out on, they’re missing the mark. The real opportunity lost is the chance to accurately report on and detail one of the most significant challenges and moments in time in the league’s history — which is, again, to resume a season amid a global pandemic.

Sure, there will be issues and some loose ends that the league would prefer to not have handfuls of reporters drilling on. But to discourage coverage would mark extreme carelessness — that is, if it weren’t extremely careless to open up the bubble to just anyone.

And this is, unfortunately, the key above everything else.

For the NHL to continue its success with this ambitious endeavour, it must do everything in its power to limit the number of people that can enter the bubble. More people equals more risk, which the NHL acknowledged as the principal factor when explaining its rationale for the rules regarding media coverage.

“What we want to make sure of from the outset is we limit the likelihood or the risk of missteps,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman interjected during a media availability Friday. “If we're not completely fulfilling the media's expectation on access on day one, we apologize. We're going to continue to monitor things, understanding your sentiments. But at the end of the day we have a greater responsibility to the people who are required to be in the bubble and to the communities in which we're playing, and so we're doing the best we can. I think we're doing really well.

“But let's take a deep breath and understand the environment that all of us are operating in right now.”

What else is true, and what has largely seemed overlooked in this conversation, is that players still do deserve some privacy throughout the process — even if they aren’t allowed to experience the private things in their lives so long as they are stuck in the bubble.

Maybe mixing athletes with the 17 independent reporters inside the NBA’s secure zone hasn’t been an issue. But they’re also at the Disney World resort in Orlando, which is obviously far more expansive than Toronto’s Hotel X or the J.W. Marriott in Edmonton.

With NHL players and a handful of reporters living in the same building, and constantly crossing paths while sharing elevators, restaurants and other common areas, the freedoms that players deserve in their time not spent at the rink will be compromised.

For these reasons, namely safety and privacy, the NHL was right to restrict access inside the bubble to only a small number of reporters.

Where the league missed the mark was reserving those opportunities exclusively for those on its payroll.

Loyal fans willing to forfeit two summer months to watch hockey from their couch deserve coverage from an impartial and critical lens.

And it might not be pretty at times, but it will be part of the story.

A story that would be better told in full.

So who should tell it? Well, we all have our preferences. But I guess that’s an issue unto itself.

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