In the hockey world, a face-off between bloggers and old media

As traditional media outlets scale back coverage of the NHL, at least one professional team is courting – and helping pay for – coverage by fans with laptops. Will the old guard toss their reporters' fedoras back into the ring?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Many sports fans have long believed that anyone could be a sportswriter – that anyone could sit up on press row, forgo cheering, and type up a few deep thoughts and pithy observations about the games professional athletes play.

These days in Washington, D.C., that widespread belief is being put to a test. To many sportswriters, it's a scandal. To the owner of the Washington Capitals, it's the future.

Press-box seats that had been reserved for newspapermen in seasons gone by are being assigned to bloggers. A reporter from the Washington Post might find himself sitting between the gentlemen from On Frozen Blog (www.onfrozenblog.com) and Puckhead's Thoughts (http://pheadsthoughts.blogspot.com/).

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That chill in the air isn't just the Verizon Center's air conditioning turned up on high.

"There are some [newspaper reporters] who regard it as fans being given too much freedom and intruding on what has up until now been a very exclusive club," says Rebecca Henschel, who launched her blog, A View from the Cheap Seats (http://dccheapseats.blogspot.com/), at the start of last season. "It seems to be a bit of a generational thing, actually. Younger reporters are maybe more willing to put up with it than people who have been in the business for 20 or 30 years."

Thus do old-media curmudgeons lurk where you'd expect. It's enough to make them throw in their fedoras.

A new type of press corps

The Capitals bloggers haven't squeezed out sportswriters who have covered the National Hockey League. "I went down to Washington in April to get a sense of what was happening in the press box," Toronto-based hockey blogger James Mirtle says. "It was deserted, even with a handful of bloggers in the box."

But neither have the Capitals just opened the press-box door to anyone with a laptop and an opinion.

Last spring, after his team was eliminated – again – from the NHL playoffs, owner Ted Leonsis hoped that the major newspapers and other media outlets might dispatch reporters to Moscow to cover the Washington stars playing for their national teams at the world championships. Wishful thinking. Mr. Leonsis, who bought the franchise in 1999, knew how tough it was to get coverage of the team even though it was playing around the corner – The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and all other outlets focus on the Redskins, the Wizards, the Senators, and all manner of college sport. They decided to give the world championships a pass.

Leonsis wasn't deterred. Just as his love of the Capitals seems unconditional, so, too, does his faith in the power of the Internet. After all, he has held a number of high executive positions with AOL over the years.

Leonsis covered the expenses of four bloggers, two from On Frozen Blog and a pair of Caps staffers, to attend the event in Russia. Afterward, Leonsis declared the experiment an unqualified success – that the reported $40,000 he spent on his crew of bloggers gave him more bang for his buck than taking out space in the Post.

"In case anyone hasn't noticed, the traditional media is struggling," Leonsis told The Washington Times recently, a bald and bold pronouncement that, by his reckoning anyway, few readers would have noticed.

This is, however, just half the story.

The Washington Capitals, a fairly hapless franchise since its start in 1974, have long had an image problem. Fact is, even by the admission of bloggers who are fans of the team, the Capitals didn't have much of an image at all.

"Pick up a copy of The Washington Post in February when the [National Football League] season has been over for a month and hockey is in full swing and count the number of Redskin articles versus Capitals articles," says Gary Kriebel, who blogs for On Frozen Blog. "The local media have ignored hockey, or given it basic lip service for too long now. Often, the 11 p.m. news would only mention the score of the hockey game and not even show one highlight."

Hockey coverage on ice

The Capitals are not alone in their struggles. Coming out of the labor dispute that led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, many newspapers scaled back their coverage of the league. For instance, citing cost-cutting, the Los Angeles Times decided not to send reporters on road trips with the Kings. Many major newspapers, particularly those in the US, opted not to send staff to major events such as the NHL All-Star Game, the entry draft, or the Stanley Cup final.

It shouldn't surprise that Leonsis would look to bloggers to fill the void. After all, he compiles his own blog, Ted's Take (http://ted.aol.com/), which unsurprisingly sees the Capitals' glass always half full.

Other teams are taking their own initiatives with bloggers – the New York Islanders have been just as ambitious with bringing bloggers aboard, and the team's owner, Charles Wang, shares with Leonsis a background in computer technology.

Instant fan reaction

Rebecca Henschel is convinced that blogs can reach fans like, well, Ms. Henschel. The daughter of a longtime Capitals season-ticket holder, Henschel says the fans of the team have been "tremendously underserved" by the mainstream media.

"Because of the way blogs are produced they can provide instant information and reactions that papers won't publish until the following day," Henschel says. "People want their information fast and, until recently, the bloggers were the only ones providing that service. I think it's extremely telling that the Caps' beat writers for the two major papers in D.C. have recently created their own blogs that can be updated as needed."

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