WHL’s media access mess far from over

Just when you thought it was safe to cover the Kamloops Blazers . . . or any team in the WHL, for that matter.

Just when you thought it was safe to cover the Kamloops Blazers . . . or any team in the WHL, for that matter.

The league has ventured onto dangerous ground with its recent treatment of Kamloops Daily News sports editor Gregg Drinnan, a veteran WHL reporter and former Regina Leader-Post sports editor who — like him or not — is by far the most credible and influential member of the WHL media.

The Blazers banned Drinnan from speaking to players and team personnel after delivering a letter on Dec. 22 that outlined their concerns with his perceived “negative” coverage. The ban was rescinded on Tuesday, but if you think the controversy is going away, think again.

The decision to reinstate Drinnan came after WHL commissioner Ron Robison met with the quarreling factions, apparently while seated firmly on the Blazers’ side of the table. Following that meeting, Drinnan was “reinstated without conditions,” according to the newspaper.

But was he really?

In announcing Drinnan’s reinstatement, the WHL implied a requisite that the newspaper’s coverage shift towards reporting more “positive news.” I’ve always found Robison to be a fair and reasonable man, but his puzzling stance places the league in unprecedented territory by suggesting that newspapers must essentially write the league’s public relations. That’s simply not acceptable, at least not to members of the media who have any respect for their profession.

The situation reeks of the WHL allowing itself to be pushed around by an owner (the Blazers’ Tom Gaglardi) who has a history of trying to bully the media. Gaglardi picked on the wrong guy in Drinnan, who didn’t back down an inch.

The Blazers have been made a laughing stock by this whole petty crusade, which has garnered a flood of unwanted fan and media attention across North America. Meanwhile, the Blazers and the WHL have been either unable or unwilling to cite specific and credible examples of the damaging coverage to which they referred.

I read most of the stories Drinnan writes for the Daily News and his popular blog, which is the preeminent source of news on the league. Drinnan may not be Mr. Sunshine, but he’s not guilty of the false accusations spewed by members of the Blazers’ ownership (including NHL players Mark Recchi and Shane Doan), who are either ill-informed or making this stuff up as they go along. The reality is, Drinnan has done more to promote the league than any other member of the media — by a landslide. Most teams would kill for the Blazers’ coverage.

The Blazers’ owners claim they need to protect their players. From what? The truth? Now that’s setting a positive example and teaching young men about accountability.

Perhaps the once-proud Blazers would be better served looking in the mirror, as should the WHL.

Based upon the league’s opinion of “fair and balanced coverage,” you can’t help but wonder what’s next. Perhaps no more reporting the score of a game when the home team loses by over two goals? Hey, they were blown out, but they sure tried hard and, boy, those new jerseys looked great!

Seriously though, what if you dare criticize the league or an organization within it? Will there be a firing squad at dawn? That’s how absurd the whole thing has become.

The WHL elected to not punish the Blazers in any fashion for their blatant violation of the league’s black-and-white media policy. The league has even admitted to the violation but is doing nothing. The obvious conclusion is that the WHL’s bylaws aren’t worth the paper on which they’re written.

Another interesting precedent.

Make no mistake, this is a self-inflicted wound by the WHL and the Blazers. Not only do they look thin-skinned and bush-league, they’re unwittingly shining a larger spotlight on the failures of the Blazers’ organization. In terms of a negative spotlight, the struggling Regina Pats have had it as bad or worse than any team in the WHL over the past three years. You don’t see them banning writers or barring the doors to the press box. And you won’t, either.

Like them or not, the Pats’ philosophy under the Parker regime has always been that they covet the public profile that accompanies being on the front page of the paper — win or lose, for better or worse. They know you can’t pick and choose coverage when it’s convenient, so their coaches, management and players willingly stand in front of the microphones facing questions about their failures that none of them want to answer. As a result, they’re more likely to get the benefit of the doubt.

Granted, most people don’t care about the hurdles the media faces every day, but this fiasco has consequences beyond the media. It’s not just freedom of the press, it’s basic freedom of speech and it’s an insult to media and fans alike.

What’s really puzzling about this whole thing is the fact that business isn’t exactly booming in the WHL, where attendance is down across the league. Meanwhile, the NCAA is getting more aggressive in its recruiting war and waiting to pounce on any sign of weakness.

The WHL is making enemies in its own backyard and fighting the wrong battle. Contrary to what some might suggest, the league needs the media more than the media needs the league.

So be careful where you step.

Greg Harder is a sports reporter with the Regina Leader-Post