At the very top of the hockey media hierarchy here there have been ominous departures this summer — Tarik El Bashir is pursuing new beats within the Post’s sports department, ones which won’t require anywhere near the travel commitments the hockey beat does, while Lisa Hillary is bolting to cover the Flyers for Comcast in Philadelphia. Tarik’s departure came as a bit of a shock earlier this summer, and is disappointing given the volume and quality of product he brought to the beat, particularly in the past couple of seasons. For a lot of hockey fans in this town, Tarik’s commitment and work ethic arrived as a breath of fresh air on a beat that for a generation of editors on 15th St. seemed little more than a way station, a step barely above internship at Redskins Central. Hillary’s departure, however, is more discouraging.
Back in 2007 Comcast plucked Hillary out of the Great White North, and she uprooted herself from a prosperous broadcast existence in her native Canada to come to Washington precisely because she was sold on Comcast overhauling — revolutionizing — its approach to hockey here. She was also enticed by the prospect of covering the world’s best hockey player, Alexander Ovechkin. The move by Comcast seemed bold at the time, a real commitment to improving the hockey beat here in broadcast media.
Early on, it looked promising. In her first season on the beat I remember Hillary approaching me in the Verizon Center press box and asking if I’d plug her special video series on a late-season Capitals’ fathers-and-sons weekend trip for games in Florida. I was flattered by her request, and eager to help. Comcast sent Hillary and a cameraman to Florida to tail the fathers and sons. At the time that project struck me as compelling evidence that Comcast was allocating important resources to broadening how hockey was covered here. That level of commitment didn’t last.
Beginning about two seasons ago Hillary was quick to correct me whenever I’d refer to her as a “Capitals’ beat reporter.”
She’d become very much a sports generalist, covering numerous playing fields here. There’s virtue in that, I suppose, but it wasn’t the pretense upon which she’d moved here. Moreover, hockey here at such a critical time needed what Hillary brought back in 2007: serious credentials, and serious devotion. It was a distinctive vision by Comcast, and it needed to be supported. From my vantage, it wasn’t.
Beat reporters follow NHL teams at home and on the road. They cover practices. Hillary’s considerable on-camera appeal led Comcast executives to increasingly assign the Canuck reporter to in-studio anchor duty, early in mornings, late at night. It was a schedule ill-suited to covering mid-morning Caps’ practices, and especially for following the team on the road. Hockey — particularly as it was first envisioned by Hillary upon her arrival here — lost out.
Hillary is well known among the biggest names in hockey broadcast media, and over the years as they would engage her in the Verizon Center press box I sensed that they were under the impression that she was on a special mission here in Washington, knowing as they all did our city’s perpetual struggle in gaining acceptance for hockey here. By late last season it was abundantly clear there’d be no such notable mission for Hillary.
Meanwhile, Comcast Sportsnet in Philadelphia accords the Flyers a status on par with the Eagles and the Sixers and the Phillies, as sports media outlets in authentic sports towns tend to do. An under-utilized but industry-acknowledged talent in D.C. was, to some extent, going to waste, and Comcast execs in Philly pursued Hillary hard. Hillary was presented with precisely the challenge there she was here four years ago, only this time there would be no Lucy pulling the football on Charlie Brown. Flyers’ fans won’t tolerate shunned status for their beloved bullies. Beginning next month Hillary will be an authentic beat reporter in an authentic sports town.
Our loss. Big time.
“I’m looking forward to this next chapter in my life — I’ll be doing more of what I love to do,” she told me via text from the studio last night.
The real shame in all this is that very quickly Lisa fell very much in love with her first American home, our nation’s capital. She accomplished a good deal on the beat in the limited access to it she was accorded, but with the needed support she could have done a lot more.
Lisa became a friend, and I enjoyed seeing my friend on the outlet’s 30-minute sports wrap shows in mornings and evenings as I readied for work or relaxed after a long day. But when I engaged Hillary at the rink I always learned a lot, particularly from anecdotes she shared about covering hockey in its home. And I felt strongly that a reporter with such passion for puck, and with such notable credentials, was desperately needed, daily, at our rinks. Comcast here didn’t quite see it that way.
A quick anecdote about how hockey and hockey friendships comprise the fiber of Lisa Hillary. A couple of years back I wrote a file that excerpted a memorable reflection from iconic Canadian author Roy MacGregor. Lisa read it and at a Caps’ game soon thereafter asked me if I knew MacGregor. I did not. A couple of days later I opened email early one morning from a quirky address suffixed in ca. In it I found a warm greeting from MacGregor, who somehow had been guided to my blog and commended me for it. I wonder who could have put him up to that? Lisa played dumb about it at the next home game. But it’ll be some years before I forget it.
On her Facebook page this week Hillary wrote, “I would much rather watch Strasburg pitch than hear Albert Haynesworth bitch.” Would that more in her profession joined her in that sentiment. It just seems all so sadly fitting that in this the summer of Fat Albert, with all the usual media suspects hyperventilating over the physicals and shuttle runs of a fraud, we’d witness a top-flight puck reporter grow exhausted from frustration and bolt for a serious sports town. Washington has great sports fans. It’s yet to achieve a sports media culture worthy of them.