NHL awards voting has been in the news recently, with the decision of four chapters of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, which is entrusted with the responsibility of voting for the Hart, Lady Byng, Calder, Norris, Conn Smythe, Masterton and Selke Trophies as well as the end of season All-Star teams, to abstain from voting this year in protest of the decision of the New York Islanders to refuse access to Chris Botta. Botta, who used to work for the Islanders, has been covering them independently at Islanders Point Blank and, in the latest of a long series of gong show moves on the Island, was prevented from having access to the team after he somehow angered the team.
The PHWA issued a statement after the voting thing came to a head, explaining their position on the matter. I’ll excerpt a few parts of it:
As the NHL’s 2010-11 regular season winds down, and with voting on the league’s awards imminent, the Professional Hockey Writers Association remains adamantly opposed to — and distressed by — the early season decision of the New York Islanders to revoke the media credential of a PHWA member.
This is even more objectionable than the original decision itself: In the months since, league officials have refused to intervene and overrule the Islanders’ decision, which would serve to re-emphasize the NHL’s commitment to facilitate objective and authoritative coverage from PHWA members…
“Our concern is that this decision, if allowed to stand and become precedent, signals an end to the league’s agreement that independent and objective coverage not only benefits its fan base, but the NHL itself…
“The PHWA takes seriously its role as an authoritative, objective and independent voting body for these awards, and is honored to participate in the process.
Authoritative. Objective. Independent. Now, some might quibble with those claims. Certainly, we can all think of writers who come off as less than objective. One also wonders just how much independence you can claim when you’re dependent on an organization for the access necessary to do your job, which is certainly the case for those who fill their stories with quotes. I’ve written about these issues at some length in the past and I’ve got my doubts. It’s the claim to be authoritative that really catches my eye though.
On what basis can the writers claim to be authoritative? It is, I think, an impossible claim. They watch a lot of hockey? Lots of people watch a lot of hockey. If you accept the claim to authority, it must derive from the fact that, if you’re writing about hockey as your job, there’s a sort of implied statement that you’re consuming a lot of hockey – you can’t write game stories if you didn’t see the game. The authority is enhanced by the fact that the body is self-governing, admitting only people who can prove that they have considerable knowledge about the game. This enforced consumption of hockey and self-governance presumably provides the basis for the claim to authority.
While surfing Twitter the other night, I came across a curious tweet from Dan Tolensky.
This was somewhat surprising to me because, as you’ll note from his description, he doesn’t seem to be a professional hockey writer.
As an aside: after discussing this issue with me, Tolensky tweeted “Remind me not to be nice to people anymore. I answered a message from a blogger who’s site I’ve visited before thinking he wanted to know how to get into the PHWA. Instead I find out he wants to write story that I dont deserve to be a member bc I dont write enough anymore. Hopefully he can mention my profile image and the Matt Cook Foundation somewhere in the piece.” The Matt Cook Foundation is a charity founded by Matt Cook, a sledge hockey player who died of cancer last year. Before anyone forms any judgments on the basis of what I’ve written, I want to be perfectly clear: Tolensky’s profile image is an image of Matt Cook that is related to the Matt Cook foundation. I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, but there it is.
There was, as of Sunday night, a link to Tolensky’s blog at TSN, which shows no writing more recent than July of 2010. This seems to have since been removed. Tolensky is not, as far as I can tell, a hockey writer at this point in time any more than the next guy who tweets about hockey, let alone a professional hockey writer.
Tolensky’s vote got me thinking – how does the Professional Hockey Writers’ Assocation decide who votes for the awards that it decides? I spoke with Kevin Allen, president of the PHWA, about their process. He explained to me that it’s a bit of a misconception that all members of their organization get to vote. In effect, the voting pool is made up of three groups of writers – Eastern Conference writers, Western Conference writers and at-large members, who are national writers and, curiously, some bloggers. I understand that Tolensky is classed as an at large member.
There are always more Eastern Conference writers than Western Conference writers, which forces the PHWA to limit the number of Eastern Conference writers who are permitted to vote, in order to achieve geographic parity. The at-large members are, as I understand it, predominantly based in Eastern Conference cities.
The admission of bloggers and, in particular, Tolensky, raises some questions. In particular, one might wonder what, exactly, are the criteria for admission. While I enjoy Tolensky’s writing, and think he wrote one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read theorizing that Cliff Fletcher meant to sign Kurt Sauer from Colorado rather than Jeff Finger, I can rhyme off an awful lot of bloggers who turn out similar material. They are not, as far as I’m aware, voting on NHL awards.
According to Allen, each chapter sets its own standards for admission. A writer who is accepted in, say, Los Angeles, might not meet with approval from the Toronto chapter. The size of the chapters in the various cities is not uniform but varies from city to city, with some cities having chapters consisting of only a few members. Writers can also be accepted into the PHWA not as members of a local chapter but as members of the national organization. Tolensky was accepted as a member at the national level.
I asked for a copy of the list of writers but my request was turned down. According to Allen, although the list used to be public, it is currently kept private for two reasons. First, they ran into difficulty with writers being inundated with emails. In addition, they’ve had some concern about stories being published in which people scrutinize whether or not one of their members should be a member. In Allen’s view, because the PHWA is a fraternal organization, its members ought not to face a public evaluation about whether or not they’re worthy to be a member of the group. Although the list of voters is not publicly available, it is made available to the NHL for review.
I also asked for a copy of the list with the names deleted but broken down geographically. Allen declined to provide me with this as well, commenting that, if he did, he would have to provide with the anecdotal evidence that supports the proposition that there is no geographic bias in the voting. He is adamant that no such problem exists.
In the absence of any sort of breakdown of the voters, whether geographic or their names, it’s impossible to evaluate claims of geographic bias. There are some pieces of information floating around about how many voters there are and where they are. According to Eric Duhatschek, there were 177 people eligible to vote this year. A Ken Campbell post on The Hockey News suggests that six of them were in Vancouver, five covered New Jersey and the Island and ten covered the Rangers. The number of voters in Vancouver is shockingly small to me, given that the Canucks might be the biggest team, in terms of market size and relevance in that market, in the Western Conference.
We simply don’t know though. You cannot disprove a suggestion of geographic bias by pointing out, as Campbell does, that Henrik Sedin won the Hart Trophy last year – if he collected a disproportionate amount of his votes from Western Conference voters, then there could still be a geographic bias that he managed to overcame. It would be fascinating to see the vote breakdown from the year that Jarome Iginla lost the Hart Trophy to Jose Theodore in a tie vote in order to see whether there was any geographic split there.
It’s also impossible to evaluate the qualifications of the voters because we simply have no idea who is voting unless the voter discloses it. I’ve managed to turn up at one other blogger who has voting rights as a member of the PHWA. Gann Matsuda, who writes a site called Frozen Royalty is a voting member, entitled to vote on awards on All-Star teams. He attends Kings’ home games and games in Anaheim. Before writing this, I’d never heard of him or his website. With the greatest of respect, I question what makes him any more qualified than anyone else who writes a blog, or follows the game closely, to hand out awards.
I will admit to having a bit of an impulse to say “Well, who cares about the NHL awards anyway?” I see three problems with this. From a financial perspective, for the players in the NHL, there’s money at stake. Winning an NHL award comes with bonuses from the league. For a player on his entry level contract, there might be bonuses at stake. I don’t claim to be an expert in journalistic ethics but, if Taylor Hall and the Oilers progress as we all hope that they will, the members of the Edmonton media could be faced with a choice at the end of the 2012-13 season: do they vote for Hall as MVP, potentially triggering a $2MM bonus in his contract and, if the Oilers are near the salary cap as the Hawks were last year, resulting in a cap overage that makes the 2013-14 team worse as the Oilers have less room to work with? Or do they not vote for Hall, even if he’s earned it? It’s one thing to be handing out awards – in this case, writers can do financial damage to the teams that they cover (or the competitors of those teams). You’re starting to get close to being an active participant in the story that you’re covering in those circumstances, I would think.
More importantly, perhaps, is that rightly or wrongly, the winners of individual awards become part of the legend of the game. When a player’s career is measured up in retrospect, the awards that he won or didn’t won matter in terms of assessing that player’s place in history. I may not agree with it, but it seems undeniable to me that it occurs and if you’re interested in the history of the game and the story of the NHL, it seems to me that you have an interest in knowing that the voting process has structures in place that are designed to ensure a vote that, to the extent possible, eliminates things like geographic bias, differing sizes of the voting pool in various cities or people who aren’t observing an awful lot of hockey from influencing the vote. In light of Tolensky’s being issued a vote, the revelation (to me anyway) of the potential for different standards in different cities when it comes to being issued a vote and the possibility of votes being concentrated in the eastern part of the continent, it’s fair to wonder the extent to which these checks and balances are in place.
One other point, in relation to Chris Botta, bears mentioning. In light of the general disinclination of the PHWA to back him by refusing their ballots, you wonder how many of the people being issued ballots don’t really have much of an interest in getting into the dressing room. If there are more Tolenskys out there, who vote but don’t actually cover hockey, their interests are different than the interests of those who actually cover the game for a living. Similarly, while I don’t really care about the trials and tribulations of sportswriters, the next time you hear one talk about his publication not having sufficient access to the team, ask yourself whether he was willing to take steps to help a member of his fraternal organization in a similar case.
Having gained a bit of an understanding now of how the voting process works, the entire thing feels like a cross between a raccoon lodge and an anonymous papal conclave. You can be issued a ballot despite not having done more than tweet about hockey all year. If you blog about hockey, in some cities you can join the PHWA and be issued a vote. Admission standards and, therefore, voting rights, will differ from city to city. The list of voters is secret and even the precise geographic split of those voters is withheld. The entire process is opaque and seems awfully discretionary.
Ironically, you can probably fairly compare it to the NHL disciplinary process that so many writers rail against.