Sports teams mutate over a decade, and so the Capitals and Penguins — teams that take the ice Thursday night — will bear almost no resemblance to the ones that played here in 2009. That was the first time the Caps advanced to the second-round in the Rock the Red era, and it was the start of hockey taking center stage in D.C. sports — or as close to center stage as it’s ever been.
Only a handful of players from that series were still around last year, when the teams met again, but the continuity for me came in other ways. In seeing some of the same faces in the Pittsburgh media crew. In interacting with some of the same Pittsburgh fans. In revisiting the same ghosts from the 1990s. And in reading Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun.
The ESPN veterans were both at Verizon Center for Game 7 back in 2009, writing about Washington’s stunning collapse. (Here and here.) They both were in Pittsburgh when the Penguins finished off the Caps in the second round last season, joining the rest of us hacks in a dive bar a few blocks from the arena after Nick Bonino’s goal. This might sound silly, but when Burnside and LeBrun showed up in the press box, big events felt bigger, so I assumed I would be seeing one or both of those men as the teams got ready for Round 3.
Then came this week’s massive ESPN layoffs, and I can’t imagine any sport is more rattled by the results than hockey. Not because Burnside, LeBrun and Joe McDonald — who also lost his job — were the most famous or powerful ESPN employees caught up in this restructuring, or whatever the anodyne term is. But rather, because they were so central to ESPN’s relatively small hockey footprint — the sign that America’s most powerful sports outlet still cared, a signal that marked certain hockey events as Big and Important enough for four-letter interest.
Now it’s late April, and the most compelling second-round series again involves the Caps and Pens, and Burnside and LeBrun won’t be covering it, at least not for ESPN.
“It almost doesn’t feel like the playoffs, because those guys aren’t here,” said the AP’s Stephen Whyno, one of D.C.’s veteran hockey writers.
Not everyone around the series knew of the layoffs; “I’m shocked,” Karl Alzner said on Thursday, when I informed him. But those who knew were almost incredulous at the news.
“It’s wild,” said Caps defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who is close with Burnside. “Maybe you can tell me what they have left in hockey?”
The answer: There’s the well-respected Craig Custance, and Corey Pronman at ESPN Insider. There’s Barry Melrose in studio, some interested studio hosts, and not all that much more. Maybe this changes eventually, and the network rebuilds its staff. But that seems unlikely to happen in the next few hours, as this Penguins-Capitals series gets underway.
“They decimated their hockey coverage by taking some of the most respected voices that we have,” said Jason Mackey, who covers the Penguins for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“They obviously decided that hockey coverage is not a priority at this point,” said John Walton, the Caps radio voice. “They let a lot of good writers go [Wednesday]. And that’s unfortunate for them personally — they’re friends — but it’s unfortunate for our sport that they obviously thought it was expendable.”
“It saddens me because I think ESPN’s hockey coverage online was the best in the business before they got rid of those guys,” Whyno said. “Even though the network didn’t pay hockey the same attention it paid other sports, the online coverage was fantastic. It was original reporting. It was coverage you’d expect to get from a network in Canada, because of the quality of the journalists that they had.”
Whether that now continues is the question. Since hockey left ESPN’s air, fans have been convinced that the on-air news and highlights shows consistently underplay their game, relegating it to also-ran status it doesn’t deserve. The American hockey fan’s inferiority complex runs deep, and ESPN’s coverage was a constant prod. The salve was that ESPN.com continued to boast in-depth coverage from veteran, well-respected writers and columnists, which is why this week’s news seemed particularly dire. No one thinks ESPN is giving up on Major League Baseball by getting rid of Jayson Stark, or that it’s giving up on college basketball by getting rid of Andy Katz. In hockey, though, this feels like more than just a tremor.
“The difference is hockey was just a small slice at ESPN, and now it’s been cut to a ribbon,” wrote the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur. “Officially, ESPN doesn’t care about hockey.”
Shattenkirk said he wouldn’t be getting worked up over this, “because to be honest, since I’ve been in the sport, they haven’t really had much coverage anyway.” He said the sport feels to him like it’s thriving despite ESPN’s indifference, that its partnership with NBC seems to be working, that players have found their own ways to promote the game.
“It is disheartening, though, to see that they don’t want to be involved as much, especially after them taking the World Cup coverage,” he went on. “It’s just one of those things that I think we’re disheartened about, but at the same time we’re used to it, so it’s kind of ho-hum to us. … [The laid-off writers] are well-respected, for sure. None of us worry about them finding another job, that’s for sure. I’m sure that there’s a lot of people that are kind of champing at the bit to get them on board. So it’s something that I don’t think is going to be too detrimental to those two. But they lose a big piece at ESPN, losing those two guys.”
And this series loses something too, not least in the press box. Countless hockey writers describe Burnside and LeBrun as mentors and teachers and advisers, the sorts of people who can shape newcomers. Even to a well-established nobody like me, they were welcoming and kind. And they brought a certain legitimacy when they showed up: that our series was the big one.
“For me, it’s surreal to think about covering a series like this without Scotty, in particular. He was a constant, and someone from whom we all took our cues when it came to how to cover a big series like this,” wrote Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski, another veteran of Washington press boxes. “As many have said, Pierre and Scott played a special role in the writing community during the playoffs. It’s a lonely road out there. It’s also a confusing one for young or novice writers. And both of those guys would graciously invite you enter the big tent of veteran scribes for a beer or a conversation.
“So aside from what this means for ‘the business,’ I’m mournful of the fact that these guys might be off the beat,” Wyshynski wrote. “Consider that I frequented the Irish Channel after Capitals games for roughly seven years. Scotty would come to town for a handful of games each year. And yet, he was affectionately referred to as the ‘mayor’ of the bar and other writers were in ‘Scotty’s crew.’ That’s his gregarious nature. I’ll miss that, and, hopefully, someone like NBC is smart enough to put him back on the beat.”
Indeed, everyone I talked to assumed these men will stay in hockey. Some — who couldn’t be quoted — offered a few unhappy profanities as well. This series, though, will start without them. It’s disorienting for someone who’s been around the previous Pittsburgh-Washington tilts. And it’s not good for anyone who cares about the game.
“Any time you lose coverage of hockey in the United States, it hurts the sport, because it has so little exposure outside of a niche audience anyway,” Whyno said. “Losing quality reporters at a mainstream outlet hurts. Those guys will land on their feet. But you’re not going to get the same attention for the sport as you did when those guys worked at ESPN.”