Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Tough Questions with John MacKinnon

I recently approached Edmonton Journal columnist, John MacKinnon for an interview. He kindly agreed. His bio and Edmonton Journal page can be viewed here. Below is the email transcript.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions and weigh your mind. I've been impressed by your journalism over the course of the season, which inspired me to have you as a Q & A guest. Let’s begin.

1) How did you become an Oilers fan? How did you get in the journalism business? What's the best part of your job? What are some of your other hobbies and interests?

For starters, I am not an Oilers fan. I just cover them. Over the course of my career, I have also covered the Montreal Canadiens, for the Canadian Press, and the Ottawa Senators for the Citizen. I covered Ottawa's successful campaign to land an NHL franchise and the first two seasons of the expansion Senators as the beat reporter.

As for how my career unfolded, I wanted to be a sportswriter since I was a kid. I read the Montreal papers, French and English, as a kid, and also regularly read the New York papers, growing up.

My heroes were Red Smith, who won a Pulitzer Prize, Jimmy Cannon and John Lardner, son of the journalist and short fiction author Ring Lardner. Ring Lardner covered the 1919 'Black Sox,' in Chicago.

In John Sayles' movie treatment of Eliot Asinof's seminal book, Eight Men Out, Sayles himself played Lardner.
I always have been keenly aware of the tradition of sportswriting and read the work of as many of the greats of the past as I could.

I majored in journalism at Concordia University in Montreal, working part-time for the Canadian Press all through school. (I later obtained a master's in media administration at Syracuse University.)

For three straight summers (1978-79-80) I compiled the Expos home box scores for the Associated Press, for example. I also did some stringing for the CP, doing the occasional assignment solo and helping out at Canadiens and Alouettes games as a quotes runner.

My first full-time job in the field was in Montreal with United Press Canada, a wire service affiliated with UPI, back in the day. Both services are defunct.

I then worked for 10 years for CP, based in Montreal. Since then I have worked in Ottawa and here in Edmonton, with a two-year detour as communications manager for Hockey Canada (1996-1998) in Calgary, along the way.

I was Journal sports editor from 1999 — 2003 and have written a column from 2003 onward.

The best part of the job is being close to the immediacy and the human drama of sport and telling interesting stories about the people in that world. It's hard but rewarding to do it well and it rarely feels like work, in the 9-to-5 sense. Of course, the hours in the job are elastic, to say the least. Nights, weekends.

Apart from work, I like to work out.
I read as widely as I possibly can across a broad spectrum of interests. I try to sop up as much culture as I can — movies, theatre, dance, visual arts and lots and lots of music (I'm a jazz buff.)

2) On February 20, 2007, Patrick LaForge was quoted in the Globe and Mail:


["The cap has climbed dramatically," said LaForge, referring to growth from $39-million a year ago to $44-million this season. "Much more than people thought it would or I thought it would.”

"We're in Year 2 of a six-year deal and we'll see where it goes. But if the cap was a few million dollars less it would change the world for us."]

Given the fact the Oilers ended up spending close to the cap in the summer of 2007 (perhaps in response to Katz ownership bid) and Katz pledged to spend up to the cap annually if successful in taking over the Oilers, can we infer that this statement was misleading? What are your thoughts on this statement?

First, in reading the Naylor piece, it seems to me this was written not in Feb. 2007 but Feb. 2006. LaForge is quoted, for example, talking about an 89 cent dollar. But the dollar is at par with the U.S. greenback right now. And the cap is $50.3 million, not $44 million, which was the ceiling last season. Plus, this is season three following the lockout, and hence, it is now year three of a six-year CBA.

So, I think the comments are at least a year old.
The cap is no panacea to ward off economic trouble entirely. But I think it does level the playing field by narrowing the immense payroll gap that once existed.

As the cap climbs — owing, significantly, to full arenas north of the border — small-market teams still will be squeezed, particularly if they consistently miss the playoffs. That's where the big profits always have been, since the players' salary payments cease by season's end.

I don't think the Oilers have any urgent current issues owing to the $50.3 million cap, though.

3) Have you personally met Katz? What's the opinion on him in the media circles? Any mention on the players feelings towards this ownership change? How do you the Oilers will benefit from Katz presence?

I have crossed paths with Daryl Katz many times. He's a quiet spoken, decent, family man who is extremely bright and driven. And community oriented.

He knows many of the old-time Oilers, who count him as a friend. He also knows a number of the current Oilers, (Moreau, Staios, Horcoff) who regard him well and believe he'll be a good owner.

The biggest impact Katz can have in a pizzazz sense is helping to finance a new arena, then adding his marketing muscle to programming it for all events, not just the Oilers. Keep in mind, Katz made his billions by growing Rexall continent-wide. He is a 'branding' expert and sport is all about that these days.

For the team on an ongoing basis, I think having a decisive, deep-pockets business heavyweight in charge can help the club with intangibles, like attracting free agents, shortening the line between thought and action from owner to GM (and vice-versa), and so forth.

I also think he can fortify the Oilers front office, maybe try to replicate that Detroit set-up a lot more easily than the previous administration.

The EIG was right for its time and did a fabulous service for Edmonton, but it can be hard to maintain consensus as the years pile up and, some years, the losses.

4) Edmontonians are keenly interested in the new downtown arena project and public funding. How much of a role do you think the public will play in the funding process? Is the project in stages ahead of what the general public knows?

It will be interesting to see what, if any, public money (taxpayers' money) Mayor Stephen Mandel's feasibility study foresees.

The biggest role for the public will be patronizing the activities in and around the arena — the games, the bars, restaurants, shops, on and on. Depending on what the final project looks like.

I have no doubt the game plan is moving faster than information is flowing to the public. We'll know more later this month when Mandel unveils the feasibility study.

5) There have been rumblings of Edmonton being an undesirable place for NHL players in recent years. Do you agree with the notion that Edmonton is a fishbowl and/or undesirable? From your interactions with the team and players, do you feel there are any players, besides Roloson, currently on the team that wish to be playing elsewhere?

Pronger's abrupt departure, literally sprinting for the exit hours after a spectacularly successful season had ended, caused much damage to a city with an inferiority complex and one that is undeniably geographically isolated from the North American mainstream.

A superstar with a five-year deal bolting after one year from a Cup finalist raises eyebrows, for sure. It hurt.
Any Canadian city — and a few U.S. ones — put intense scrutiny on their hockey team. I come from Montreal, where the scrutiny comes in both official languages and is, if anything, far more intense and unrelenting than it is in Edmonton.

The upside to the scrutiny is the sheer, over-the-moon energy in the community when the getting is good. Not to mention the roar in the rink through a playoff run.

That said, there are some players who don't want to come to Edmonton, just as there have been many free agents (Shanahan, Smyth, and Briere) who spurned Montreal. Calgary, Vancouver and Ottawa don't bat 1,000 in free-agent signings, either.

A big selling point for any team is the ability to win a Stanley Cup. Edmonton's chances are improving, if you ask me.
In the wake of losing Pronger, Peca, Samsonov, Spacek et al, the Oilers chances took an immediate, if not temporarily catastrophic hit. But things are turning around. It takes time.

I think Roloson's big issue is playing, not Edmonton per se. He came here — swapped for a first-round draft pick, remember — to be The Guy. He lived up to his end of the bargain back in '05-06.

To be supplanted as No. 1, to sit for long stretches and listen to trade rumors (or rumors that he is untradeable) isn't easy.

6) Do you feel the Sheldon Souray signing was a legitimate hockey move, or one that was inspired for PR purposes?

I think Souray's signing was an overpayment, which I wrote last summer. That said, I think it was largely a hockey move. The Oilers power play had suffered and Souray was perceived as something of a power-play stud, given his success in Montreal.

I also think Lowe overloaded on puck-moving defenceman — a widely acknowledged problem last season — with the view that he might move one of Pitkanen or Souray (or someone else) as the season wore on. Injuries to key dudes, including Souray, blew that plan up.

7) Kevin Lowe made headline sports news with his RFA offersheets to Vanek and Penner. Do you feel there is possibility of "revenge" from teams like Anaheim or Buffalo? With Stoll, Gilbert, Nilsson, Grebeshkov, Stortini as RFA's this summer?

There's no question Lowe now is a target for a tit-for-tat signing. I'm not sure the likes of Grebeshkov and Stortini are likely targets for offer sheets. A team overpaying for those guys would be mighty reckless, if you ask me.

Stoll might have been at risk, but if you were a rival GM, given his tepid season, would you break the bank to sign him?

I think Lowe will sign the guys he wants to sign from this group.

8) What do you think the best move Kevin Lowe has made since the lockout? Worst move? How did you feel with regards to the 4 year extension Kevin Lowe received back in October? Is the team destined for good things in the upcoming years?

Immediately following the lockout, Lowe was Tom Cruise in his early years — he made all the right moves.
Pronger, Peca, Spacek, Samsonov, Roloson, Tarnstrom all came for a reasonable, if not eminently affordable price. He was clicking and the club just about won the Stanley Cup.

Since then, life has been tougher, to say the least.
Worst move may be the failed offer sheet to Vanek and the successful one for Penner. Lowe felt he had to replace the goals lost when Smyth was traded (I don't count that as the worst move, by the way, because it was a hardball negotiation under pressure of deadline that didn't work out, pure and simple.).

As years go by, Oilers fans may regret the loss of draft picks far more than they celebrate the achievements of Penner.

But, as with the Pitkanen trade and the Souray deal, the Oilers were trying to fill the massive hole left by the damaging departure of Pronger.

9) On the Oilogosphere, many references are made to advanced hockey statistics such as EV/60 (Even-strength points per 60 minutes), PPP/60 (Powerplay points per 60 minutes), EV+/EV- (+/- after filtering out empty net goals for/against situations). These numbers are updated daily http://www.behindthenet.ca
How interested is the media in finding out more about these numbers? Do GM's take these numbers into account, or do they take more of a conventional "Eye-based" scouting approach when negotiating contracts and signing free agents?

I think the MSM is less interested in such stats than the bloggers, but the gap probably is narrowing.
GMs and player-personnel types look at all factors in assessing their people. Their work has become way more systematic and computerized over the years than people know.

One area they place emphasis on, one which is unavailable to those not close to the teams and players, is character, personality, human qualities.

Of course, human traits are key in any workplace, including pro sports.

10) What are your thoughts on the Edmonton Oil Kings inaugural season? Was it a successful season from a business point of view? Hockey point of view? Were the crowds underwhelming? Is Edmonton more of an Oilers town rather than a hockey town?

I did not attend any of their games, so I can't offer any comment. I'm sure that will change, going forward, and I certainly am a fan of major junior hockey.

But this year, it wasn't a priority for me.

11) Do you have any other comments you wish to add?

I peruse the Oilogosphere regularly, as you may know, and believe the bloggers make an important contribution to the hockey dialogue.

Thanks for the opportunity to make my own modest contribution. I enjoyed this.

Thanks once again for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with the Oilogosphere and Oiler fans. Keep up the good work with the Edmonton Journal.



1 comment:

Mr DeBakey said...

I also think Lowe overloaded on puck-moving defenceman — a widely acknowledged problem last season — with the view that he might move one of Pitkanen or Souray (or someone else) as the season wore on.

He's still not got the Souray thing quite right.
- Not a puck moving defenceman, never was [Stauffer, another Lowepologist, has pushed the same line].
- Souray has a NTC for 3 years.

Plus, if memory serves, JM also suffers from doublethink syndrome on this topic
- not signing Smyth good
- signing Souray good