Monday, April 11, 2005

 

Media on Ice-Bob Foltman

Bob Foltman from the Chicago Tribune is today's guest. Bob is one of my favorite people to talk to. A great sense of humor and a solid view of the game.

EK: How did you end up covering hockey?
BF: I expressed an interest in taking the beat and served as the backup for a couple seasons before taking it full-time two seasons ago.

EK: What do you enjoy about covering hockey?
BF: First, I love the sport and the speed and the passion that defines the game. I also enjoy the people involved in the game, the players, coaches and front office people. There is nothing quite like being in Edmonton for a Hockey Night in Canada game or Montreal or covering a Stanley Cup Final. 

EK: What has been the biggest frustration covering the lockout?
BF: I think the biggest frustration is having to cover the lockout. We're sports writers, we cover games, not legal issues. Fans don't want to read about salary caps, linkage, revenue sharing or impasses, they want to read about games and players. The fact that we haven't been able to write about any of that--not to mention the roller-coaster emotions involved in getting close to a deal then falling through has been no fun for any writer or reader.

EK: Do you feel the NHL and the PA have been honest with the press?
BF: I don't think either side has flat-out lied to the press. I don't think either side has been completely forthcoming, but I certainly didn't expect them to be. There are certain things they can't say publicly, I'm sure everyone understands that. I would prefer a complete media blackout until they get a deal. I don't need to see press releases after every meeting that essentially say nothing. Get a deal, then have a press conference.

EK: How have your job responsibilities changed at the paper?
BF: I left the Blackhawks beat last February to cover baseball. I'm sure part of the reason for pulling me off was the impending lockout. I would assume that when camps open in September--hopefully with NHL players--I will return to the Blackhawks beat. In the meantime, I'm still doing some baseball and some international and MLS soccer.

EK: With all the layoffs, do you fear for your job?
BF: Not at all.

EK: Do you want to cover hockey when it returns or cover another sport?
BF: Even knowing the lockout was coming, I would have been very happy to stay on hockey last year instead of going to baseball, but at the same time, I would have been very happy to stay on baseball full-time. If I go back to the Hawks this season, that would be perfectly fine with me. Those are really the only two sports I have an interest in covering on a full-time basis.

EK: Do you think the your relationship with the players or owners will be
strained because of an anger you feel if/when hockey resumes?
BF: In Chicago, we seldom get a chance to talk to the owner so I doubt my relationship with Bill Wirtz will change much. I don't think as beat writers our personal feelings should play any factor in how we do our job. Certainly when an entire season is lost there is enough blame to go around on both sides. This was complete failure on the part of the owners and players union and both should share the blame. I would expect my relationship with the players and front office to be the same as before all this.

EK: Do you feel the media has done a good job covering this?
BF: For the most part, I think the media has done as good a job as can be expected. I do think there are certain writers who have made it clear that they support one side or the other and as long as it is expressed in a commentary, that's fine. I think we were all taken by the "un-cancellation" story and I'm not sure who is to blame there, it seemed as if there was enough smoke to say there was a fire. Those things happen, but for a story that no one wants to cover and is completely tired of, we've done about as well as can be expected.

EK: If you were a Hockey God how would you resolve this?
BF: First off, I would have used the $300 million war-chest the owners built up to buy out six franchises--take your pick on the six--to get the league back to 24 teams, where it should never have expanded from. Two 12-team conferences, four six-team divisions. I would institute a luxury tax at $45 million and a salary basement at $30 million. Dollar for dollar tax after $45 million, revenue to be dispersed to teams between the $30-45 million range. Teams would have to have full revenue sharing on tickets--visiting teams get 35-40 per cent of the ticket revenue. An independent auditor--hired by the union and the league--determines what revenue is hockey revenue and monitors whether teams comply, failure to comply results in a fine, continued failure to comply results in a fine and a loss of draft picks. Unrestricted free agency at 27,  NO individual bonuses, bonuses are only given for team performances. Entry-level contracts are two-years, capped at $750k per season. Teams have the right to walk away from an arbitration case, resulting in the player becoming a UFA. Teams can qualify a player 100 percent of salary. I'm sure there are other "legalese," but those would be the main points. On the ice, I would be very radical. I would completely change the framework of the league. Instead of four divisions, I would have four six-team "leagues" that would play only each other during the regular season. I would re-unite the Original Six in one league and geographically align the remaining 18 teams in three other "leagues." Teams would play only within their league, 14 times each, seven and seven home and road. Top four in each league play each other in a playoff. Those winners are then seeded in the semifinals and finals. The thinking behind this is easy--rivalries make hockey. Teams no longer play everyone anyway. The Hawks didn't go to Boston or Toronto last season, ridiculous. With so many games on television either through the Center Ice package, or cable, fans can see teams from all over the country--meaning the Maple Leafs don't have to travel to Vancouver once every year. And teams can schedule outside their "league" in the preseason. Playing teams throughout the season and then in the playoffs builds rivalries. The biggest mistake under the Gary Bettman-reign was trying to make hockey a national sport. It's not, it's a regional sport. Calgary playing Edmonton and Vancouver and San Jose 14 times is better than Calgary traveling to Dallas or Tampa or Florida. The Hawks could play Detroit 20 times at the United Center and sell out every game. Plus, this would allow for each "league" to sell a regional TV package to a local cable operator. The NHL needs to realize that its strength is in its regional appeal. Fans would initially be upset with the Flyers not playing the Rangers, but would love to have New Jersey and Washington and the Islanders coming into town seven times each and then the playoffs. I would even be open to skipping the Original Six league and align geographically--Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit, St. Louis, Dallas and Nashville (or Colorado since Nashville would likely be bought out) would be a nice division.  There was nothing better than divisional playoffs back in the '80's, something that was lost when Bettman went to a conference format. Even if the league stays at 30 teams, it should go back to four divisions--either a 16 team, 14-team conference alignment or an eight-team, seven-team divisional alignment, but it desperately needs to get back to divisional playoffs to stoke rivalries. Long-winded answer, but I have been on my soap box about divisional playoffs for years now.

Tomorrow's guest: Howard Berger from Fan590 in Toronto



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