Once again we are indebted to Dmitry Chesnokov for bringing us news the mainstream media couldn’t. You may have heard: our Alexander Semin recently shared a few reflections on the Obama of our sport with Chesnokov, which appeared in the Russian newspaper SovetskySport. Now that the uproar has settled (a bit) over Semin’s truth-telling, it’s appropriate and instructive to reflect on where we are in our 3.0 world of hockey coverage.
Semin, like me and a few hundred thousand other hockey fans around the world, watches Sidney Crosby and sees a better skating Ron Francis. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The young Nova Scotian is lethally efficient. However, he was also anointed The Next One before he’d scored his first NHL secondary assist. And so Semin, like hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of others, wondered: what’s all the Madison Avenue fuss about?
Interestingly, though, the outcry against his published musings came less from Canadian hockey fans with understandable pride in their native star or Penguins’ fans — no small number of whom actually voiced support for Semin’s stance in page after page of comments left at the TSN and Yahoo coverage pages of the story. One reader comment read thusly: “I definitely think it’s interesting to hear a guy’s take on Crosby like
this. I don’t think I’ve heard any other players talk about him this
way. Makes me wonder about other players take on him.”
Interestingly, it was the NHL, through its typical clandestine machinations, that sprang into a stealth defense of its poster boy. The Capitals of course were placed in a spectacularly awkward position once Semin’s sober reasonings reached international consciousness.
Truth, in this instance, was no defense.
But note, too, that when Capitals’ head coach Bruce Boudreau was pressed to comment on the matter all he could offer was a fourth party’s conjecture about the story’s origins and a smile. More telling was Penguins’ coach Michel Therrien taking a full week to formulate a response, and a not very persuasive or cogent one at that (par for the course from that source). A PR firm likely came up with that, which given the subject matter would be so apropos.
The English edition of Semin’s assault on hockey’s version of Creationism appeared where it ought to have: at puck daddy. Hip, cutting edge thoughts lodged at a hip, cutting edge outlet. So thanks to new media, a central question at the heart of post-lockout hockey was at long last raised for healthy public scrutiny. Old media in its coverage of Sidney Crosby has been, going on four years now, disconcertingly reminiscent of the complicit White House press pack that covered Camelot: In the tank. Perhaps that’s because a corporate, herd mindset leads to corporate, herd writing, broadcasting.
It needs to be stated, explicitly: the most interesting and compelling story of the season to date was unearthed, promulgated, and fomented by new media.
Don’t mistake, as some in media and the NHL have, Chesnokov’s SovetskySport affiliation with that of an old media alliance. Chesnokov is a lawyer by training and trade, without one day’s formal training in journalism. (Which is why we like him!) He’s principled, honest, hard-charging, and has a passion for hockey. In other words, a poor fit for many American old media outlets. He seeks out stories that aren’t being told in the conventions of contemporary old media. As such he’s shamed everyone on the hockey beat in this town for two years running. It was Chesnokov who approached me with his countrymen’s complaints of what Reebok’s uniform systems were doing to their gloves and boots last season (drowning them). All that led to was the abolition, by all 30 NHL teams, of the uniform material Reebok was using. Up in the Verizon Center press box, Chesnokov sits among bloggers, whom he calls friends and the present and future of National Hockey League media.
Chesnokov doesn’t set out to shame the lazy, robotic, and tenured in the MSM. They do that well enough on their own. On at least a dozen occasions the past two years he’s walked up to MSM beat reporters with offers to bring them to notable stories, stories at times carrying international impact, offering to work as translator with Washington’s elite Russian talents. He did this most recently with a Washington television reporter when he knew he was having his mid-week sit-down with Semin right before Halloween. But again he got MSM indifference. Rightly proud of his elite NHL countrymen, Chesnokov wanted a fuller, truer side of Semin recorded in the English press, so he offered to pose questions from Greg Wyshynski and me for our respective use.
And before we go any further, let’s acknowledge the portrait of Semin as it’s been brought to you by old media the past four or five years. What words should we use in this endeavor — iconoclast, withdrawn, enigmatic, selfish, solitary, immature? And yet the Alexander Semin revealed in Chesnokov’s interview was thoughtful and introspective, candid, engaging, damned interesting, frank. Wouldn’t want to read any more of that, would we?
Chesnokov is a naturalized American, and the freedoms he associates with that allegiance — free speech foremost among them — he savors and honors in ways I think many Americans take for granted.
“If we can mock the president and the vice president of our country, the very people who run our country, on ‘Saturday Night Live’ each week, why then is Sidney Crosby sacred?” he asked me, rhetorically.
So desperate were some of the back-channel attacks against Chesnokov in the last two weeks that there was even the suggestion that somehow he’d managed to mangle Semin’s replies — a direct attack on his reportorial integrity. That slur went silent not long after the attackers realized that all 55 minutes of Semin’s musings over sushi went straight into Chesnokov’s recorder.
Also, there’s this: we are at day 14 since the interview, and neither Semin nor his agent want to modify a single word from the interview. Fidelity in translation.
And mind you, this is the same Chesnokov sought out by the likes of Michael Farber, the dean of hockey journalism at SI, when he seeks court with the Ovechkin family. (Farber, incidentally, sent Chesnokov a congratulatory email for the Semin interview on November 10.) It is also the same Chesnokov who translates, gratis, press interactions between Russians and North American media whenever NHL teams (most especially including the Caps) ask.
Interesting, isn’t it, that the lone instance of “translation error” for this new media reporter would be associated with the topic of one Sidney Crosby?
Every Halloween hereafter, we in HockeyWashington, let us freshly recite Semin’s scary words for the blue blazers in the NHL’s league office:
“What’s so special about [Crosby]? I don’t see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there’s nothing else. Even if you compare him to Patrick Kane from Chicago … [Kane] is a much more interesting player. The way he moves, his deking abilities, his thinking on the ice and his anticipation of the play is so superb.
“I think that if you take any player, even if he is “dead wood,” and start promoting him, you’ll get a star. Especially if he scores 100 points. No one is going to care about anyone else. No one is going to care whether he possesses great skill. Let’s say you put someone in front of the net and let him deflect pucks in, and he scored 50 goals; everyone will say “Wow!” and then hand him a $10 million per year contract. That’s what they like here.
“And in Russia people like beautiful hockey, and not dump and chase. I just don’t get it, why when a player is skating up the ice and no one is attacking him, he dumps the puck into the offensive zone and then chases it? Why would you do this if there is no one forechecking you? I understand that if there is someone coming at you and you don’t know whether you can get past that player, then you can dump the puck, pass it or shoot. But if not, then hold on to the puck, skate forward, create a chance.
“Why would you want to dump the puck and then chase after it and crash into the boards? I don’t know. But that’s just my opinion.”
We’d do well also to acknowledge the role that Chesnokov has played in North American hockey coverage the past two summers, when many hockey beat reporters are off covering golf, tennis, NASCAR, or whatever. Photos, fun files, and intrigue from Alexander Ovechkin’s Moscow summers are largely the work of Chesnokov and SovetskySport then. His warm weather work has been a blessing of a time-passing bridge for hockey fans orphaned by the offseason. Int
eresting, isn’t it, that none of those scores of files were maligned by charges of mis-translations?
Puck daddy calls Chesnokov his “official comrade.” I call him an official friend. Hockey fans this fall should call him a godsend.