Rich Hammond made me a believer.
In October 2009, Hammond left his beat covering the Los Angeles Kings for the L.A. Daily News, because he was hired to cover the Los Angeles Kings … for the Los Angeles Kings. It was a trailblazing moment for hockey journalism: a respected reporter leaving to work for an NHL team that wanted him as an independent beat writer and blogger for its website.
Hammond would cover every game, including road trips that other local publications wouldn't go on. His blog would be a micro site off the Kings' main site.
I was skeptical. Would his coverage, or his access, change if the team stunk? Could he take a check from the Kings and still provide warts-and-all coverage? Would there come a time when journalistic independence and the objectives of his employer would collide?
Would he just be another PR flack for the Kings?
"There's no filter on it. It's not going through anybody to be edited. It's not subject to any review. I'm not filing to any person; I'm filing to the Internet," Hammond told me in 2009.
His work for the Kings backed that up. Hammond was opinionated, and explored the angles his readers demanded him to explore, even if it meant stepping on some toes. His Q&A sessions with GM Dean Lombardi, a staple of his old blog, were still incredibly insightful. At no point did it feel like Hammond was being gagged or coerced by the Los Angeles Kings.
But on Tuesday, Hammond announced he was leaving the Kings, via Facebook:
I'm excited to announce that I will be joining The Orange County Register to cover USC athletics. I had a great three-year run with LAKings.com, but sometimes making a change is the right thing to do, and I'm excited about having something challenging and rewarding in my future. Thanks to Todd Harmonson, David Bean, Brian Patterson and all my friends (and new teammates) at the Register for giving me this opportunity. I'm honored to be joining such a great group of journalists. A huge thanks, also, to my many friends in the Kings organization. They were outstanding partners for three years, and I couldn't have asked for more.
The reason the partnership ended? Partially because Hammond had the audacity to believe he could still do his job while the NHL was locking out its players. And he was wrong.
On Sept. 17, Hammond published an interview with Kevin Westgarth, the Kings' hulking forward who had been active in the CBA negotiations on behalf of the NHLPA. It provided a soapbox to Westgarth, and he used it to espouse some NHLPA talking points:
"We're asking the owners to honor the contracts that they've signed already. To me, it's ridiculous that that's their first go-to. They keep saying, `No rollbacks,' but when you're taking 15 percent of our salary off of escrow, it amounts to the same thing. They love harkening back to that. 'There's not going to be any rollbacks.' Well, if you get paid 15 percent less, then it's exactly the same thing."
Hammond spoke to a sports business class at USC's Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism on Wednesday night, where he revealed that the Westgarth interview had received a serious pushback from the NHL. From Tom Hoffarth of the L.A. Daily News:
"The league wanted the story taken down," said Hammond, who stressed the Kings organization did not take issue with it. "Technically, they were saying that as a team employee, I had to abide by their rules of not discussing the lockout."
The story remains posted (linked here) as discussions between the team and league continued. Still, Hammond wondered about maintaining the integrity of the blog if future restrictions or threats were ever put to him again.
The NHL saw that interview and told the Kings to take it down immediately. You see, since Rich Hammond was technically a Kings employee, the NHL considered him to be a League employee. And League employees are not allowed to have any contact with players. It didn't matter that Hammond was simply a beat writer that happened to be employed by a team rather than a newspaper, he was still employed by the Kings.
Both the Kings and Hammond fought this decision. They tried to figure out a way around it so that Hammond could continue to interview the locked out players, like every other hockey writer out there. They even considered shutting the blog down. But if we've learned anything from the past decade, it's that the NHL is pretty stubborn. He could not talk to players.
Hammond was not forced to take the post down or take a pay cut or anything like that. But the fact that NHL was trying to get involved in what he could and could not write made him uncomfortable, and he did not see it ending well. Because of this, he decided to leave his post as the official Kings blogger.
First, let's assume this was the first time either the Kings or the NHL had muscled Hammond on a story. (We reached out to Rich but didn't make contact Thursday.) It's not as if his independence was constantly besieged; if it was, he kept it on the down-low.
Before the lockout started, the NHL let its teams know that promoting players via their official sites was prohibited. "Becoming Wild," the Minnesota Wild's "24/7"-esque series on their players, ceased being televised on Fox Sports North. Players' likenesses couldn't be used for marketing the team.
It's actually an NHL bylaw that prohibits contact between the teams and the players during a lockout, and it can work in the union's favor too: Ex-NHL players that now work for the owners are prohibited from working behind the scenes to, say, cut a deal with the players or influence them. You think Steve Yzerman might have some sway?
Censorship sucks, but when you work for the league, it's part of the gig, especially in a lockout.
Hammond works for the Kings. The Kings are in the NHL, and are on the opposite side of the table from the players. When the NHL is fining its own team executives $250,000 for "cattle" comments, it wasn't going to allow a blog on one of its team's official sites to offer a megaphone for the NHLPA.
The Kings, bless'em, didn't micro-manage Hammond during his time there, and he did exceptional work. The three-year experiment was a success, and it's a shame that it won't continue with one of the best beat writers in the game. (But we hope it continues.)
How do we know he's one of the best? Because the moment someone tried to apply a filter or play politics with his work, he got his ass out of there. Other writers should have that spine.