The Media Column: Bruins beat writers and pundits sound off on their hockey-ignorant colleagues

Alex Reimer
May 30, 2019 - 1:42 pm
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The blast from Dale Arnold rang like a slap shot off Zdeno Chara’s stick –– back when he could actually play. Last year, Dale tore into his WEEI colleagues on the “Zero Pucks Given” podcast, lambasting them for their blithe hockey ignorance. 

“Could sports talk show hosts give half a damn about the possibility there are people who want to (talk hockey)?,” Dale yelled. “There is a rabid fanbase in the city of Boston that’s interested in the hockey team. For some reason, it just grates their nerves that there are people who would like to talk about the Bruins now and again. And you know what it is? I’m convinced of this. They don’t know whether a puck is stuffed or puffed. They have NO IDEA about the game. I include almost everybody on this radio station, and almost everybody on that radio station. They don’t know s— about the game of hockey, and it’s way too hard to, like, learn, so it’s, ‘Nobody wants to talk about it anyway!’”

Dale’s anger is understandable, provided one is going to be mad about such things. A large number of us who talk and write about sports for a living –– every day in this job is a blessing –– routinely mock the sport of hockey and flaunt our lack of knowledge. I mean, I recently pronounced “Sean Kuraly” as “Sean Koolery,” in the middle of the Bruins’ playoff run. If I mangled the name of even a marginal Patriots special teamer in August, I would never hear the end of it. But it’s deemed acceptable to not watch the Bruins with any regularity, because, well, who watches anyway?

That is one of the great contradictions of Boston. We are considered one of the preeminent hockey towns in the country, with generations of diehard hockey lovers who played growing up and still follow their alma mater, which is naturally located within state lines. Amherst is the furthest we go.

The Bruins’ TV ratings largely support this theory, especially in the playoffs. Boston was the highest-rated market in the country Wednesday, with Bruins-Blues drawing a 22.9 TV rating for Game 2. 

In the regular season, the Bruins’ TV numbers are often similar to the Celtics’, and yet, the C’s regularly dominate the late-winter and spring airwaves –– after NFL free agency, NFL Combine, NFL Draft, Bill Belichick going on vacation to Bermuda, Tom Brady not showing up to OTAs, Brady going to the Kentucky Derby, Rob Gronkowski-something, human-trafficking (at least this year), and Red Sox Opening Day. 

That’s largely because sports talk radio is about issues, and the NBA is littered with egotistical, mercurial, and yet, downright captivating superstars. There is no Kyrie Irving equivalent on the Bruins, or at least we’re told.

Perhaps one of the reasons why hockey laymen don’t latch onto in-season storylines is the fact that the bleep-stirrers and carnival barkers often sit the regular-season out. WEEI’s Matt Kalman, who grew up in New York, told me recently he’s shocked at the lack of ink the Bruins receive for the bulk of the year. 

“I’m from New York, and the columnists there do all of the sports,” he said on the phone. “Teams that the Bruins play against, columnists cover them all season. Even in Tampa, columnists go to the games. But here, you almost never see a columnist at a game during the regular season. I don’t think (Dan) Shaughnessy did a game all year. Then he pops in, and next thing you know he’s waxing poetic about Jake DeBrusk, or something, and it’s like, ‘We’ve been saying this all year.’

“I don’t know how you get to become a sports columnist without knowing about or covering all of the sports. You’re supposed to be a general columnist. That never made any sense to me.”

Ken Laird understands why hockey doesn’t receive a lot of play, at least on the morning show. The show seldom dives into mundane on-field matters, unless there’s some sort of controversy involved. David Price’s early season bout with carpel tunnel was a big talking point last year; David Price’s solid and drama-free to this season has been less of one. 

Still, once the playoffs start, and the games conceivably start to matter, even the morning guys delve into the more serious X’s and O’s. We spent hours last fall talking about the Red Sox’ Rover position, and dissected Kyrie’s shot selection like CNN covered the missing Malaysian airline. 

Laird says there are just as many storylines and angles to uncover within a hockey game, and doesn’t understand why the idea is mocked. 

“You can talk X’s and O’s football,” he said to WEEI.com on the phone this week. “Why are hockey match ups and pairings and line combinations made fun of, while in football that’s not the case at all? You would never mock why Tom Brady has a certain running back behind him on third downs, what role Demaryius Thomas is going to play, the ‘X,’ ‘Y,’ ‘Z’ receiver. In hockey, it’s like if you’re not a hockey fan, you totally laugh at the possibility that could be discussed.”

While Ken’s point is well-taken, the Bruins-people do come across as pretty uptight whenever the general population attempts to talk about the on-ice action: Dale telling Wiggy to “let the grown ups” talk hockey, Dale betting Wiggy $1,000 about Chara’s defensive partner, Dale telling Wiggy he has an unabashed hatred for Chara. When we do try to talk about the game, we are often derided. Laird says that’s because we all suck at it. 

“I just don’t think they like the quality of the talk when it gets there,” he explained. “They would like people to follow all year and have a little bit of a clue, because mostly it’s just a punching bag, and then come playoff time everyone jumps on board, and they don’t know how to talk about the game. … People pick it up late in the year and resort to cliches. There are so many bad hockey cliches. You turn on the radio this time of year, and you hear the typical, ‘They’ve got to get pucks on net, they’ve got to stay out of the penalty box, they’ve got to be physical.’ People are throwing around plus-minus as a stat. When you hear this stuff, it’s all surface layer. Nobody is actually citing plus-minus as a statistic anymore. That’s 30 years old. You should not be using plus-minus, you should not be saying, ‘Put pucks on net.’ You resort to these hockey cliches that for the most part are dumb.”

Sara Civian, who used to cover the Bruins for WEEI and now covers the Hurricanes for the Athletic, is similarly annoyed with talking heads who clearly don’t watch hockey at all. But unlike her finger-wagging brethren, she thinks the lecturing is a little haughty. 

“Welcome to our little gatekeeping community,” she told WEEI.com in a phone call. “I love hockey and I love the fans. They’re the most passionate. But I think our community suffers a little bit from ‘little brother syndrome,’ because we are the niche of the niche. I think you’ve got to pick one: either be happy they’re talking about it, or be happy they aren’t talking about it.”

There’s little doubt we’ll be talking about it, at least for the rest of the Stanley Cup Final. But after spending the bulk of the calendar year mocking or ignoring hockey entirely, it isn’t surprising we aren’t welcomed on the bandwagon with open arms.

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Early Bruins Stanley Cup Final ratings in line with previous runs, but have ways to go: As mentioned previously, Game 2 of Bruins-Blues drew a 22.0 rating in Boston, which led the country. The number was slightly down, however, from the 25.2 Game 1 pulled Monday (St. Louis out-rated Boston with a 29.0). 

Game 1 of the 2011 Bruins-Canucks Final drew a 25.5 number, and Game 1 of the 2013 Bruins-Blackhawks series drew a 28.1 TV rating in Boston, though that was a triple overtime thriller. 

With the Blues winning Wednesday, this series promises to carry drama into Games 3 and 4 –– and it will need it if it wants to match the final numbers from the last two Cup runs. Game 7 in 2011 set a ratings record in Boston, drawing a 43.4 rating when the Bruins took home the Cup for the first time since 1972. Game 6 in 2013, which the Blackhawks won, garnered a 33 Nielsen rating in Boston.

Why is concussion issue largely ignored in hockey?: The Bruins have now been involved in two headshot controversies this postseason: Charlie McAvoy hitting Columbus’ Josh Anderson, and Oskar Sundqvist hitting Matt Grzelcyk. In each instance, the offending player smashed his opponent’s head into the glass. And neither episode has sparked any widespread concern or discussion about concussions, even though Grzelcyk was sent is in concussion protocol. 

If these hits happened in the NFL playoffs –– never mind the Ovechkin fight and myriad of other violent shots we’ve seen during the playoffs –– you can guarantee national sports columnists would have their talking points set. 

Sometimes, it pays off being the proverbial little brother.

marC James exposes vapidness of TV: marC James is one really strange dude. He doesn’t date during football season, drinks Grape Soda, and proudly doesn’t tip for takeout. And yet, during his time with NESN, which ends Friday, he looked like every other talking head on TV. 

They say TV adds 10 pounds, but it also appears to take away your oddities.