Hockey writers vote for MVP—and the gloves come off

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On an otherwise peaceful night in the National Hockey League, a fight broke out on Twitter. Fans of the Colorado Avalanche attacked Mike Chambers, hockey writer for The Denver Post and president of the Colorado chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA), for not granting membership to the writers of a popular local sports website, BSN Denver.

While a hockey writer can do his or her job without being a member of the PHWA,  membership does have some nice benefits. With a PHWA card, it’s easier to get a season press pass to a writer’s home arena, instead of applying on a game-by-game basis. It helps get them into visiting arenas. And members benefit from the PHWA’s agreement with the NHL Players’ Association guaranteeing sports writers access to the players. Not that players always cooperate, with a goalie once even attacking a reporter for The Buffalo News over something he wrote. “Every team has (players) who wouldn’t pour their beer on a burning hockey writer,” wrote Marc Spector, the PHWA’s now-president, for Sportsnet.

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The main reason writers want to join the PHWA is to vote for NHL player awards at the end of the year. (For nine out of 17 NHL awards, the PHWA is the only group that votes.) And the reason fans of the Colorado Avalanche cared was because the team’s young superstar, Nathan MacKinnon, was a candidate for the league’s MVP award, the Hart Trophy. The PHWA has previously been accused of favoring East Coast players. Avalanche fans wanted Chambers to add more members to the Colorado chapter to, in effect, stuff ballots for MacKinnon.

“The assertion that because a member comes from Colorado means they’ll vote for MacKinnon flies in the face of how voting works,” Spector says. “We have great faith in the integrity of our members.”

Chambers stood his ground, arguing that BSN Denver was little more than a “fan blog” and its writers didn’t meet the standards of journalistic integrity expected by the PHWA:

The exchange, which grew even more heated, demonstrates many of the reasons why critics don’t think journalists should be voting on sports awards at all. From baseball, to basketball, to hockey, and even in golf and horse racing, sports writers hold balloting power over the industries they cover.

“This kind of voting puts journalists in the position of making the news that they then are expected to cover,” writes Gene Foreman in The Ethical Journalist. “The problem is compounded when huge sums of money ride on their decisions.”

Many athletes have performance-based bonuses in their contracts. In the case of hockey, the 41 finalists voted on by the PHWA in nine awards categories could earn (depending on a player’s tenure in the league) a combined $4.12 million in bonuses. In baseball, the bonuses are even higher. According to Forbes, Clayton Kershaw, the second-most valuable player in baseball, will get a $1 million bonus if he wins the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in 2018—an honor voted on by the Baseball Writers of America. In one recent season, the six finalists for the Cy Young and MVP awards earned a combined $3.2 million in bonuses.

The most lucrative bonuses are in basketball, where being voted onto the All-NBA Team by the US Basketball Writers can make a player eligible for a “supermax” contract deal. Karl-Anthony Towns, of the Minnesota Timberwolves, was nominated to the All-NBA Team and became eligible for a $40 million raise. And the contract of Joel Embiid, of the Philadelphia 76ers, required that he be named to the first All-NBA Team to get a $30 million salary bump. The writers voted him onto the second team, so he lost out on the money.

With so much money at stake, some sports writers wonder if their votes are affecting competition in the NBA.

“It is tangibly impacting the potential balance of power,” writes Ira Winderman, a basketball reporter for the Sun-Sentinel in Florida. “Sometimes—actually often these days in the changing media landscape—the job is to offer opinion, [and] accept the ramifications. But when it plays into potentially impacting the roster construction of a team, even a league, that’s when even the most cogent reasoning becomes misplaced.”

Winderman has joined a small, but vocal group of sports writers who abstain from awards voting in protest. Ed Sherman, a veteran sports reporter from the Chicago Tribune, makes it an annual ritual to call for an end to awards voting by sports writers.

“An editor wouldn’t allow a court reporter to be on a jury and then write about the case, right?” Sherman wrote on his sports media blog, Sherman Report. “Isn’t this the same scenario?”

Barry Svrluga, a sports columnist for The Washington Post, points out that hall-of-fame voting causes sports writers to impact players in retirement.

“Speaking engagements, card signings, potential endorsement deals, they’re all impacted by whether a player is in the Hall,” Syrluga writes. “‘Hall of Famer Johnny Bench’ simply earns more than ‘former Reds catcher Johnny Bench.’”

In 2010, I was tweeting out quotes from inside the locker room. The old-school reporters were standing their with tape recorders and notebooks, saying I was doing crap journalism. Now they all tweet quotes and pictures from inside.

Some major newsrooms prohibit their writers from voting, including the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. It can be a tough stance to take.

“Ever since I was a kid, I have thought about who would be a hall-of-famer or the MVP,” says Tyler Kepner, baseball beat writer for The New York Times. “It would be fun to take part in voting and have a voice in something I care about. But I have to respect the policy.”

Inside the PHWA, some members see the ethics argument as being a dinosaur from the print era, and that the demands of digital sports journalism warrants reconsideration.

“The old days are gone when guys wore ink-stained shirts and hats that said ‘Press,’” says Dennis Bernstein, president of the PHWA’s Los Angeles chapter. “I write sports stories and I’m a personality on the radio. It helps me attract readers if I am part of the story, so I’ll tweet a picture of me and the players. We’re friends; I have their cell phone numbers. How do you think breaking news stories get leaked out in the first place? Maybe we should rename the organization Professional Hockey Media Association, because that’s what it’s evolved into.”

John Hoven, who writes the hockey blog Mayor’s Manor, takes issue with the idea he should be a dyed-in-ink journalist.

“I don’t have a journalism degree,” Hoven says, “but I do work hard to develop sources and I double-check my facts. In 2010, I was tweeting out quotes from inside the locker room. The old-school reporters were standing their with tape recorders and notebooks, saying I was doing crap journalism. Now they all tweet quotes and pictures from inside. We’re in the entertainment business.”

 

One month before the Stanley Cup playoffs, the PHWA announced a transparency policy for awards voting. Starting with the 2018 NHL Awards, all ballots would be made public.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Trust us,’” says Spector. “Hockey fans deserve to know how their hockey writers are voting.”

At the awards gala, held on June 20 in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Hart Trophy was awarded to Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils. His 1,264 ballot points had narrowly edged MacKinnon’s 1,194 for the honor. The other finalist, Anze Kopitar of the LA Kings, finished a distant third, with 551 points.

The next day, the PHWA released the ballots. The fallout was the equivalent of a bench-clearing brawl between fans and writers. In New Jersey, fans were angry Hall didn’t win by a bigger margin. In California, fans took issue with Kopitar receiving only two votes from PHWA members on the east coast. And in Colorado, Chambers took aim at fellow PHWA members whose ballots he found ill-informed (and, of course, costly to MacKinnon).

In just 72 hours, the award-worthy seasons of Hall, MacKinnon, and Kopitar were outshone by discussions about the voting records of hockey writers. The PHWA’s transparency policy had become the story of the 2018 NHL Awards.

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Ryan Bell is a writer and photographer based in Seattle. In 2015-2016, he was a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow in Russia and Kazakhstan. His work has appeared in National Geographic, Bloomberg, Outside, and many other publications. Follow him on Instagram @ryantbell.