At first, what controversy there was in the aftermath of Tomas Hertl’s four-goal outing against the New York Rangers was confined to the relatively inane question of whether or not he’d been showboating by scoring his fourth in an unusually flashy way.
Then, remarkably, Joe Thornton made an off-color comment making it clear how stupid the debate was. At least as remarkably, Vancouver Province reporter Jason Botchford quoted Thornton verbatim.
Via the Province blog, Thornton first tells an unidentified reporter to “shut up” after he asked Patrick Marleau a question about the perception that Hertl was showboating. Then Thornton continued:
"I’d have my c*** out if I scored four goals. I’d have my c*** out, stroking it."
Let’s ignore the specific language used for a second (we’ll circle back to that in a minute) and look at the point Thornton is making: Namely, it’s ridiculous that there’s a public debate about whether or not Hertl was showing off when he scored the goal.
For starters, the last time I checked, the whole point of the game of hockey is to score more goals than the opposition. Hertl’s job is to score; the Rangers job is to stop him. If they don’t want to be embarrassed when he scores, all they have to do is play better defense. More than that, the NHL is in the business of entertaining fans, something Hertl certainly did with the display of skill he put on.
In short, the entire discussion is misplaced. What Hertl did was good for the league. The more players feel free to express their offensive creativity without having to worry about crossing some unwritten code, the more fans will see highlight-reel goals.
As for Thornton’s reaction to it, it’s easy to understand his frustration. Hertl’s a rookie, and he did an incredible thing on the ice this week; rather than praising him for showing the kind of creativity the league could really use, the story has instead focused on whether or not Hertl crossed the line into disrespect by showing that creativity.
But there’s more to this than a player acting out in frustration, or even just a team captain defending a rookie. As it happens, both Thornton’s comment and the fact that it was reported in full are also good for the NHL.
Hockey players, especially those trained in North America, are often criticized for speaking in cliché. Covering the World Juniors a few years ago, I marveled at how young that pattern started. Players as young as 17 had already been trained to give careful statements reciting hockey maxims and offering little or no insight.
Thornton, whatever his motivations and whatever the language he used, offered a frank assessment of a relevant story. That’s the kind of candor that hockey coverage desperately needs and often lacks, and Botchford—the only reporter in the throng to initially report what Thornton said—deserves credit for divulging it.
Naturally, Botchford isn’t getting that credit from the Sharks organization. As per David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News, Sharks media relations director Scott Emmert described the comment—addressed directly to assembled reporters—as “off the record” and Botchford’s reporting of it as “a pathetic attempt to generate some page hits and controversy.”
There are two basic problems with Emmert’s tack here. First, based on Botchford’s description of events, there’s no way the comment was off the record:
There should be no reasonable expectation of confidentiality when making a comment to a room full of reporters; the idea that the Sharks would expect a throng of journalists to quietly sit on that kind of freely offered remark shows an appalling lack of understanding for what their job actually is (or, worse, if it's conventional to sit on that kind of comment, it says something unfortunate about the current state of hockey reporting).
Second, and at least as important: This isn’t a case where the Sharks need to slam the journalist and try to spin a statement. Joe Thornton may have made a crude joke, but both his point and his candor do the game and the organization credit. The debate over whether Hertl was too flashy is a waste of time, and there’s something wrong with a league where a player has to take criticism—such as that offered by Adam Oates to the Washington Post's Katie Carrera—because he had the temerity to have some fun while doing something exceptional.
If the Sharks say something along the lines of "We would have put it differently, but we agree 100 percent with the intent behind Joe Thornton’s comments," nobody would have batted an eye. It’s 2013; fans are ready for a little bit of flash and a little bit of honesty, and they got both from San Jose’s players this week.