Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Tough Questions with Robin Brownlee

I recently approached columnist, Robin Brownlee for an interview. A veteran hockey writer who has covered the team with both the Edmonton Journal and Edmonton Sun, is now contributing for the Canadian Press, Metro Newspaper, and Oilersnation blog, combined with the TEAM 1260 on air. Journalism awards include 1985 and 1987 MacMillan Bloedel Award for editorial and column writing, 1997 Associated Press Award for enterprise reporting, 2001 Ron Collister Award as Sun Media sportswriter of the year and 2003-04 Professional Hockey Writers Association runner-up award for best hockey news story. He kindly agreed to the interview. Below is the email transcript.

Thanks Robin 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 years, which inspired me to have you as a Q & A guest. Let’s begin

1) Tell me a bit about yourself. Are you an Oilers fan? If so, how did you become one? How did you get in the journalism business and what is the best part of the job? What has been the highlight of your journalism career? What are some of your other hobbies and interests?

I'm not a "fan" of the Oilers, but I've certainly grown to respect the franchise and the tradition built before I arrived in Edmonton in 1989. Having had the opportunity to become familiar with every franchise and a lot of the people who run them around the NHL, I can say fans here have a lot to be proud of. There's some quality people here.

The journalism business? Once I realized lack of natural ability and work ethic, not to mention a broken back at the age of 20, would make it nearly impossible to continue my mediocre athletic career beyond the level of weekend warrior, I had to find a way to stay near the games I loved -- pretty much all of them, but especially hockey, baseball and lacrosse. That's it, really.

Best part of the job has been the ability to make a good living doing something I enjoy and have not yet lost my zeal for. Corny, but true.

Highlights? Too many to list. All those Oilers playoff series against Dallas. The 2006 Stanley Cup final. Covering the WHL in the 1980s and watching youngsters like Mike Modano, Mark Recchi, Joe Sakic, Theoren Fleury and Cam Neely long before they'd earned a dime playing the game. Covering the Trappers of the PCL. Lots of rising stars there during my time -- Alex Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, Tim Salmon, Jason Giambi -- and a couple of PCL titles before I left the beat. Almost running over Ken Griffey Jr. while speeding through a parking lot at spring training in Arizona. Visiting Dodgertown. The circus that was any Mike Tyson fight in the years I covered boxing. There's a few.

Hobbies and interests? My wife Analyn and sons Michael and Sam, all of whom have come into my life in the last four years and changed it forever. I've got a weakness for cars and have owned 70-something of them. I'm an avid and ridiculously inept golfer.

2) Many people have alleged that the Oilers control the media? Having a wealth of experience covering the Oilers, do you find truth in this statement? Have there been instances where you've been forced to remain “hush-hush?”

Like who? That said, there's some truth in the statement.
When you travel with the team day-in and day-out for seasons on end, there's some issues there. Objectivity is the goal, but you get to know certain people over time and friendships are struck. The trick is not allowing any personal relationship to influence what you write or how you write it. It's easier said than done. Some guys you like, some guys you don't.
It's a stretch to suggest there's an ongoing attempt to control the media, but those who follow the team the closest are certainly made aware when something is written that's deemed overly negative. Sometimes it's subtle, sometimes not.
I've never once been forced to keep quiet on anything. I have, however, sat on information or not used it right away while a story develops. That's my call, not theirs.

3) Ryan Smyth was a great ambassador for the city. So naturally speaking, fans (such as myself - are curious and trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. How do you think the Smyth saga went down in terms of negotiations and eventually the

I know how the Smyth "saga" went down, but I'm not going to re-visit it. Information that's received with the understanding it's "off-the-record" has to stay that way -- unless you feel capable of doing your job without sources.

4) Did Kevin Lowe seek quantity over quality in the Chris Pronger deal to Anaheim? Is so, do you feel it was an adequate return, or should Lowe have waited out the situation a bit more? Was Lupul + Smith for Pitkanen + Sanderson an adequate recovery?

Not in my opinion. That Lupul was a mistake here is pure hindsight. Some of the other Ducks players who have turned into elite players weren't on the table for Pronger. Adequate return? At the time and under the circumstances, yes.
Waited? For what? Sitting on a player who has said he doesn't want to be here is a no-win proposition. Like he'll change his mind in six months? If anything, the value of what you can get back goes down the longer you wait when it becomes clear the impasse is permanent.
As for the Philadelphia trade, I was on the record leading up to it as not being the biggest Pitkanen fan, and that's an understatement. I wouldn't have made that deal. I still would not make that deal, although Pitkanen does tease you.

5) Speaking of Pitkanen, how are negotiations going with him? Has he shown enough consistency to warrant a long term contract? Is this a guy who wants to stay in Edmonton?

I haven't talked to agent Larry Kelly or Kevin Lowe about negations since before the trade deadline. I don't think Pitkanen has shown enough consistency to warrant the kind of dollars he wants. I'm not sold on him, particularly at anything over $3.5 million a season. I'll be convinced he wants to stay in Edmonton when he signs for 4-6 years for sane money.

6) Jarrett Stoll has had only 8 points on even-strength this season. He's eligible for Unrestricted Free agency in the summer of 2009. Given Stoll's declining play, do you feel the Oilers should commit to him long term? Or should they sign him for one year at lower salary, making him a free agency in the summer of 2009? Or should they move him this summer? What's the scoop on the Stoll front?

I'd sign Stoll for one year at this point. If he wants to leave for bigger money in 2009, and I suspect he might if a Californian team shows interest, that's fine. Can't move him this summer when his value is so low. It makes no sense.

7) Is there any chance the Oilers will be active in the unrestricted free agent market this summer?

Yes. But I'm not Bruce Garrioch, so forgive me for declining to throw out countless names so I can say I was right.

8) This past summer, many fans were upset with the Oilers passing up on Alexei Cherepanov in favour of project defenceman, Alexandre Plante. What is your opinion on that decision?

I thought it was a mistake and still do. I saw Sam Gagner as a sure-fire NHLer and a very safe pick. I'd have taken a chance with my other picks.

9) 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 intentionally misleading? What are your thoughts on this statement?

I don't see anything as intentionally misleading, but I think LaForge should stick to shaking hands and selling tickets and leave salary cap comments to people on the hockey operations side of things -- as in Kevin Lowe.

10) Have you personally met Daryl 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?

No, I haven't.
As for the players, it's all positive, but what are they going to say? "I hate the new owner, bring back Cal?"
As for benefits, the most obvious one is the potential to get the new arena built with Katz's commitment to putting $100 million towards it. Money is influence and he's got plenty of both. He's driven and he's competitive. This won't be a hobby for him. I doubt very much he'll settle for mediocrity.

11) 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 currently on the team that wish to be playing elsewhere?

Edmonton is a fishbowl, but not nearly as much as Toronto or Montreal. Certain players don't like the media attention here -- Mike Comrie comes to mind. Undesirable? It depends what you desire. If you want to golf during hockey season and want to be left alone outside the rink, this isn't the place for you.

12) Sheldon Souray was quoted as saying:

[A day later, the Canadiens offered Souray a four-year deal commonly reported to be worth $22 million, numbers he says “are close.”

By then, he had similar or better offers elsewhere – eventually a half-dozen or so serious offers, Souray says, before Edmonton came out of nowhere, “not even kicking the tires” until July 11 – and felt he had slipped well down the Canadiens’ list of priorities.

“When Edmonton came into (talks), I honestly couldn’t believe that they’d be serious about spending that much money on a guy like me. It was a no-brainer. Everything was too good.

“It took me two minutes to say yes. I told my agent, ‘Have the papers faxed to sign before they change their mind.’]

Given this, does it seem as if the Oilers signed Souray for PR purposes (after striking out on forwards like Nylander, Kariya, Gomez)? Or was it indeed a legitimate hockey move to fill a team need?

PR? I think it was more a case of Kevin Lowe wanting to do something after the disaster of 2006-07 and not having a line-up of free agents begging to come here. I think it was a hockey move, but I thought he over-valued Souray -- my issue was with the length of the deal, given his injury history. As for the money, the Oilers came in heavy and offered more, substantially more, than any other team that kicked the tires on him.

13) 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?

Yes. I'd be more worried about Pitkanen and Gilbert than anybody else. Stoll has little value right now. Stortini? You're kidding, right?

14) 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 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'm not the least bit interested in these numbers. I know what I see and I know what I think. I'll go with that over pages of statistics any day. As for GMs, that's a broad question. I suspect there's a wide range in answers for that.

15) 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?

It went as expected. I don't know if it was succesful from a business point of view. From a hockey point of view, yes. The crowds were what I expected. And yes, Edmonton is more of an Oilers town than a hockey town.

16) Do you have any other comments you wish to add? Any message to fans who visit the Oilogosphere?

Keep reading. Keep writing. There's lots of insight, knowledge and talent out there and much of it has no formal journalism training. There's plenty of room for everyone.

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




Dennis said...

Nice job, PJO.

I think Brownlee said what I was thinking when he talked about how the reporters are reminded when they write something overly negative.

I think that over the years, you shock a mouse enough when he grabs the cheese and eventually he'll just say "fuck the cheese" altogether.

Dennis said...

Posted too soon there before I got everything out of my system;)

The thing about qualcomp is that it passes the sniff test from my end. For instance, I can watch three Hawks games in a row and make a mental note of how the guys are running their benches and who's putting in the work and then I can check the Desjardins numbers and it syncs up.

It puzzles and disappoints me that Brownlee's open-minded enough to blog but closed-minded enough not to look into the value of the new stats.

Shawn said...

Really enjoyed the two interviews there PJO.

mike w said...

Thanks, PJO.

Matt said...

I like #14 and #16 taken together. "I encourage you to continue doing something I see no value in and have no interest in."

Robin B said...

Matt: I never said they don't have any value. I don't rely as heavily on statistics, even traditional ones, in assessing a player as some people might. That doesn't mean there's no value in them.

Ease up and read #16 again -- there's lots of room for everyone.