I recently had the pleasure of speaking with and interviewing Hockey Hall of Fame journalist and the writer of everything puck, Helene Elliott. For those living in a dark cave within the bosom of Nova Scotia (or the Valley) and unfamiliar with Helene, she is an experienced and decorated journalist with the L.A. Times. Helene’s articles and opinions are often blunt. She doesn’t mince words. That may put her under fire from fans and disagreeable types from time to time, but Surly and I look at her candor as refreshingly rare. Besides, regardless of your perspective, it’s difficult to argue with her credentials. The HHOF doesn’t hand out media honoree inductions to just anyone. Helene was a terrific interview. Kind, warm and generous with her time. Enjoy.
Q: In 2005, you became the first female journalist inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame [as a media honoree akin to Bob Miller], receiving the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for bringing “honor to journalism and to hockey.” When you learned of this honor, was your reaction, “about time,” “surprise” or something else?
“Complete shock. I just never thought it would happen. It just never occurred to me that it would happen.”
Q: What drove you into journalism and specifically writing about hockey?
“When I was a kid, I used to write little stories and poems, and in the newspaper through grade school and junior high. I remember in junior high, I had a story in our school paper, and remember the incredible impact of seeing the name in print and seeing your words there. Since I always liked sports, I figured why not just put the sports and writing together?”
Q: You were there for the “Miracle on Ice” defeat of the Soviet Union National Team by the U.S. team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. At the time it happened, did you know what impact that victory would have on the sport as well as the country?
“Not at all because you have to remember, that is an era before 24 hour news stations, before the internet, before Facebook and Twitter, before we used to communicate so quickly. Lake Placid then and to a lesser extent now is a small village in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains. It was very difficult to gauge what was going on in the outside world. Very few people had any idea what the impact was to the outside world. I remember walking into the arena and people, at that time, would send telegrams but something had to be really big news to send a telegram. Getting one was an occasion but there was this whole wall of telegrams from people all over the world, sending congratulations and cheering the team on. I was thinking ‘wow, that is a lot of telegrams, pictures, letters and things.’ Even so, there was no way to know this was becoming so much bigger than just a sports story and remains so much bigger than a sports story today.”
Q: When did it hit you what had happened and the impact it was going to have on hockey and sports in general?
“It started to register when I walked out of the building after the U.S. beat Russia. The streets were just jammed with people and people who were wearing Olympic team jackets from different countries were hugging each other, jumping up and down and chanting ‘U.S.A.’ There was a wonderful sense of joy and exhilaration. I remember…I wrote this and some nasty editor changed it…I remember standing on the sidelines and watching this. I was standing next to a Russian Olympic official. He was a coach or a team official of some sort and we were watching all this. He wore a half-smile on his face and he raised his index finger and gestured ‘one, you are number one’ and I kind of went ‘hmm.’ Here were all these people who did not know each other bonding over this. That is when we started to realize how huge this was. We started getting phone calls from editors asking us to give them more stories, to get a feature on this or that player, ‘how about Mark Pavelich’, and these editors didn’t really care about hockey or cared a little but now suddenly cared a lot.”
Scribe’s editorial interlude: As she was talking to me about it, I could still hear the excitement in her voice. There are certain moments within which you may find yourself in awe. I imagine Miracle was one of them. Most of us read about history. Few of us get to see its fresh imprint in time before our very eyes.
Q: You talked about this editor, now fast forward to today. Is your information filtered now or do you write about what you want?
“I will be asked, ‘what do you want to write?’ and I will tell them X, Y or Z and they will say, ‘ok’, or they will say what about A, B, C? Sometimes we debate things. Sometimes, they bring up a point that you had not thought of, or they will say, ‘take it to the next level’ and I may respond that we cannot because this or that may happen. The editors at the Times are pretty good at giving me leeway to get to the topics I want to write about. Sometimes, they throw in the obligatory hockey fighting story in there. It seems every couple of years, we have to do a fighting story and we say, ‘ok.’ Usually, it’s after some editor has turned on the game, seen a fight and someone had gotten hurt.”
Q: Some argue that hockey was and is a regional sport, that it simply will not be attractive to a larger audience because kids in the United States grow up playing baseball, football and the more traditional sports, and trying to develop hockey into markets such as Phoenix, Nashville, Dallas and Carolina is a mistake. What is your opinion on this subject?
“Interesting topic. In the last couple of days, I have gotten emails announcing the roster of the U.S. under-17 team and the U.S. under-18 team. The U.S. under-17 team has three kids from Southern California. The U.S. under-18 team has two. Looking at the hometowns, you see the usual Boston and Minnesota players but I saw a kid from Texas. I saw kids from what you would call non traditional hockey markets.
The one thing that will always hold hockey back is the cost. The cost of renting ice, the cost of equipment, the cost of travel teams. Those costs are huge obstacles, but if you look around, there are high school hockey programs in the Dallas area, there are high school and prep programs in Florida. There is a high school hockey league in Southern California, in Orange County and schools outside of Orange County. To get better, you have to leave like Emerson Etem and Mitch Wahl did, and a number of other kids but it is possible to grow the game at that level here.”
Q: You just became the NHL commissioner. What is the first thing you do to improve the game?
[Laughs] “I think the quality of the game is fine. I don’t see any problem with the game itself. I would not make the nets bigger and I would not do any gimmicky things like that. Leave the game alone. What the game needs is to be marketed better and to get the players’ stories out there more effectively. I think that is what we are seeing now with Twitter and Facebook, the players and their agents taking it into their own hands. The NHL promotes Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and a few players but now other players are able to promote themselves and get themselves out there to interact with fans. I think that is the best thing that has ever happened to the NHL.”
Q: How do you feel the shift from newspaper articles to blogs, tweets and Facebook as outlets have affected the way you process and provide information to readers and fans? Specifically, is it more difficult today than it was ten years ago to be a sports journalist?
“No question. It is infinitely more difficult. It used to be that once your deadline came and went, your story was put on the printing press, the papers were being printed and rolled out and delivered all over the place, your job was done until the next day’s paper and the next night’s deadline. Now, even when the game is over and the presses have rolled, there is still the internet and you can write something for the website, or you can tweet something or blog it. It is a 24 / 7 job now. I used to go to the morning practice and the coach had a different line combination. I didn’t use to have any outlet to put that information out. Now, you can tweet it, blog it, and then you can write about it later. You can even get a video of the coach explaining why he did that and put it up on your website or take pictures and send those out on Twitter. There are just so many avenues to get information out there compared to what it used to be.”
Q: Who are these days your best interviews in hockey? You define what is meant by “best”, be it willingness to talk and be open, candid, informative.
“There are very few bad interview in hockey. These guys are basically down to earth and know or sense the need to promote the sport. They recognize the incredible fanaticism of the people who follow this game and they respond to it. They are willing to put themselves out there and share their personalities and thoughts with fans. When Sean O’Donnell was with the Kings, he was one guy I would go to. Every journalist has what you call your ‘go to’ guy. There are always going to be guys that are very polite but also kind of cliche. There are sometimes guys who will get right down to the heart of it like a Dustin Brown who will say, ‘you know what, we weren’t very good tonight.’ Sean O’Donnell I found to be so honest and so frank in analyzing things.”
Q: Let’s talk Kings hockey. You have seen the different ownerships and managements of the Kings over the years. Comparing and contrasting the different managements and ownerships over time, has your role and interactions with the team changed along with the changes in management and ownership? Has there been a shift in accessibility or attitude as the team has improved?
“The current ownership and the current owner, Mr. Anschutz, does not do interviews. I believe I did the last known public interview with him and that was 1996. His people have since claimed it was meant to be ‘off the record’, which is not true, I had a tape recorder out on the table and he knew it. It is very different. When Bruce McNall was the owner, Bruce was around a lot. Bruce wanted to be the center of attention. Of course we didn’t find out until a little later that Bruce was doing all of this with other people’s money. The interim ownership between McNall and Anschutz put the Kings into bankruptcy so that was a blip and almost forgotten episode in Kings’ history. The current ownership has chosen to act in a different way than Bruce McNall did and act in a different way than other owners in this town. Arte Moreno of the Angels talks to the media. The McCourts used to before they started fighting over who owns the team. Jerry Buss talks to the media at least once per year. Donald Sterling is known to mingle with the media and even eats the stale popcorn in the press room at the Staples Center. Phil Anschutz has chosen to remove himself from that and Tim Leiweke has been the face and voice of ownership.”
Q: Have you stopped trying to get Mr. Anschutz’s interview?
“No. Every now and then, I drop the suggestion with Tim. At one point he said ‘maybe I will talk to him, maybe it’s time that we do this’ and then he came back and said, ‘nope, Phil doesn’t want to do it.’”
Q: Do you know why that is?
“I think the one thing that Anschutz doesn’t realize is that people have an emotional attachment to the team that they root for. People want to know, ‘hey Phil, what is going on with the Kings, why don’t you want to spend to the salary cap level?’ There were rumors that the Kings were going to move to Kansas City when AEG opened that new arena there. People want reassurance. This isn’t just a team for a lot of people. This is a way of life, it’s a passion. People want that personal touch. They want answers directly from the owner. ‘Why did you raise the cost of tickets this year when we didn’t make the playoffs,’ that was a question from two years ago. People want answers. Either he does not realize there is that close emotional connection unlike owning a railroad or something or he doesn’t care that fans have that emotional connection and want answers.”
Q: If I asked you three years ago what you consider your biggest criticism of the Kings, what would it be and does it still exist today?
“They made some mistakes and I think Dean would say so, in terms of McCauley and the goaltending and other things. When Dean came here, his idea was to clear out a lot of garbage. Clear out the mess and start over. That can be a long process as we have seen. I don’t agree with every move he has made and he would be the first to tell you that there have been some miscalculations but I think it is obvious that they are on the right track. The mission now is to get it to the next level. As we saw with the Kovalchuk situation, you don’t have a player of that caliber in your system, you haven’t drafted or been able to develop a player like that, very few people have. You have to get that player. The Kings have gotten some quality free agents like a Scuderi, like a Willie Mitchell, but they still haven’t been able to get the top tier, elite, free agents to come here. Maybe that will change, I don’t know.”
Q: Do you believe that Dean is completely in charge when it comes to who to sign and how much to pay without interference from ownership?
“I don’t think any general manager is completely free that way. Hockey teams are businesses too. General managers are given budgets. I am sure there are instances where a general manager says, ‘I want to acquire so and so’ and the owner says, ‘that is too long of a contract to take on.’ Look at some of the other teams like Nashville and some of the smaller market teams. They have to keep lower budgets. I am sure there are times when their general manager says to ownership, ‘we have to get so and so’ and ownership says that we have to stay at a particular payroll. I think every team has a budget and I don’t think every general manager gets every player he wants.”
Scribe’s editorial interlude #2: I found this answer fascinating. She is right. No general manager is completely free when it comes to signings and interference but Kings fans have seen first hand what ownership’s hands in the decision making process can do. Remember our top six forward, Trent Klatt? This is a sensitive topic to some fans. I look at it like this: While Dean may not have complete control, he has enough not to allow Tim Leiweke (to take nothing away from his passion for the team because I know that is there) to interfere with the decision making process. I am pretty pleased with the way Leiweke has stayed out of the team management decisions…although I still scowl at the “it’s about the cap, not the cash,” comment.
Q: Today, when you look at this team, what do you consider its greatest strengths as well as its greatest need to become a contender?
“Obviously, defense seems to be a strength and Drew Doughty, my God, can you imagine this kid over the next ten years? How many times will he win the Norris Trophy if he continues to develop as he has? There seems to be a good amount of depth on defense. There also seems to be a good amount of depth in goal. That is just going to be fascinating to see how this Jonathan Quick, Jonathan Bernier thing plays out. I think the other asset that you cannot see on paper is the attitude of a Dustin Brown and the attitude of a Kopitar and Simmonds. These guys, particularly a Dustin Brown, how long did he play here before he played in a playoff game? I talked to him during the rookie camp. He said ‘now that I have played in a playoff game, I want more. Those of us that played in our first playoff game, it was just so amazing to be in the playoffs. You just have to want it more, you have to tell your teammates, we are not going to settle for anything less than that.’ To have that kind of attitude from your captain, your leader, that is incredibly valuable because it will communicate itself to everyone else on the team. There is only so much a coach can do. Much of the motivation and a lot of the emotion has to come from within the locker room. From what I have seen of this team, these guys are self policing. Obviously there are going to be times when they get into bad habits and a coach has to come in and say something but in terms of attitude and what they are aspiring to, this is a pretty good group.”
Scribe’s editorial interlude #3: Our quiet leader is growing up. I worried, as I am sure some of you did, whether Dustin Brown was ready for the “C”. I am less concerned today.
Q: Do you see a huge need to take the next step or is it just a progression at this point?
“I think they need more skill up front. Who are their skilled players really?”
Q: Center, wing or both?
“Center and Wing.”
Scribe’s editorial interlude #4: For what it’s worth, I agree. I love Stoll but we need more offense from our 2nd line center. I put the need for center greater than that of wing.
Q: Where do you think the Kings finish this season and why?
“Good question. There are a lot of little factors that are going to go into this. Justin Williams. Is he going to stay injury free? Wayne Simmonds. What are his real capabilities? I want to see what he is going to do this season. I don’t think he is ever really going to be a 30 goal scorer but if he can score 25, 26, something like that, plus play both ways as he does, he is going to be a terrific asset. The whole conference is kind of goofy. You don’t know about Chicago with their goaltending changes, what effect that is going to have. Detroit gets Hudler back, if they are healthy they can really be dangerous. There are a lot of ‘ifs.’ You know Nashville is going to be a playoff contender, it is going to be 6, 7 or 8. They are a small and very fast team, they get to a certain point that they cannot get beyond and the coaching and management of that franchise is just incredibly good. I feel bad for them. Imagine if they could spend a little bit more and keep more of their players. Look at all the defensemen they have developed that are now scattered around the league. I am wondering what Vancouver is going to do. When you look at Roberto Luongo in the playoffs, I didn’t think he was that good but they seem to worship him. There is room for improvement I think.”
Q: Do you believe we finally get over the hump this season or is it impossible to tell?
“It is impossible to tell right now. It depends on match ups too. There is so much that is uncertain right now. Ask me six months from now and I think we will have a better idea of what the team is shaping up like. Maybe the Kings will add another top six forward between now and February. I think that is a very good likelihood. There are a number of teams that are over the salary cap and need to make some moves. There will be some teams that will need to make moves. There are so many things that are fluid right now, but, when you look at it, the Kings should be a major factor in the West this season.”
Q: Do you read fan blogs? Does Helene Elliott break out a cup of coffee and peruse over Surly and Scribe, Mayor’s Manor, Frozen Royalty and such?
“I do and I admire a lot of things that you guys do. Things that I do not have the space and time to do. I really do. There are some really good blogs out there and there are some not so good blogs out there. There are some very good ones, people with a lot of creativity and obviously a lot of passion and I admire a lot of the things that you guys do.”
Scribe’s self serving interlude: She loves us. I knew it all along. What’s not to love, right?
Q: What is the future of journalism in hockey? Do you foresee any major changes taking place in the next ten years?
“Ten years ago, nobody had heard of Twitter. Facebook, I don’t know if it existed back then. Things change so quickly that it is impossible to say what is going to happen ten years from now. Who knows if it is going to be ten weeks from now. There may be something invented that improves on Twitter, Facebook or all these other things. Perhaps cameras in player’s helmets, if you like that player you just call him up with that helmet cam and just isolate him in the game.”
Q: Hurry up and patent that idea before something takes it.
[Laughs] “There you go. You know, everything changes so quickly that it is impossible to predict what is going to be mainstream and popular or in current use ten years from now.”
Q: What does the future hold for Helene Elliott in journalism?
“Good question. You have to adapt. You look around the press box. You used to see reporters from the L.A. times, Daily News, San Gabriel Valley, Riverside, you used to see six to seven daily newspaper reporters and now there are two. Me and J.P. Hoornstra who works for the L.A. News Group…Associated Press is there and Rich Hammond who works for the Kings but in terms of newspapers, it is down to two. That is scary. It is a very quickly changing business. Some of these changes not for the better but you just try to adapt and you try to get the information out there in whatever form you can to keep your readers informed and educated.”
Scribe’s final thoughts: One thing I am certain of is that those at the height of their chosen craft (like a Helene Elliott) never have to worry about being phased out. Quality never goes out of style.