Chris Botta is a rather interesting fellow. Until his surprise resignation as the team's vice president of media relations this month, he had to spin news for the New York Islanders for well over a decade; and since that decade included Mike Milbury, the Fishsticks logo, John Spano, the Trevor Linden trade, Charles Wang, the Roberto Luongo trade, Alexei Yashin and Chris Simon ... well, Botta certainly earned his salary, and then some.
He also was behind one of the more controversial developments in the relationship between the MSM, NHL teams and the hockey blogosphere: The NYI Blog Box, which Botta detailed in an interview with Deadspin and which bloggers like Eric McErlain criticized from its inception.
What I always found most intriguing about Botta was the way he used his blog, NYI Point Blank, to pull back the curtain on how an NHL team works; from setting up interviews with the media to how a trade is made. He would also use it to aggressively go after members of the MSM whom he felt treated the team unfairly. Like in November 2007, when he slammed Newsday columnist Jim Baumbach for a "blatant grab for reader feedback" when Baumbach was critical of Al Arbour's special guest appearance behind the Islanders bench.
It was an ongoing dialogue with Islanders fans, and it's one that appears will continue until at least July 7, according to the banner on his blog. Botta was already a candid and opinionated blogger; now, as his time with the Islanders is at an end, he's being brutally honest about everyone from former Isles like Kirk Muller to Sports Illustrated columnist Selena Roberts -- and it's fascinating.
Botta is taking questions from readers, and letting loose with some interesting answers. Today's query was: "In all your years experience, which player would make you worry the most every time they were interviewed by the media?" Botta responded:
John Vanbiesbrouck: We had John during the infamous 2000-01 season, when the team finished 30th. Beezer is a good man and great quote, but he'd scare the heck out of me from time to time. The most notorious moment was when he led Post reporter Barry Baum into the locker room and roasted him in front of the rest of the Islanders players for a story John said was untrue. Trouble is, Vanbiesbrouck didn't include me in the meeting - or tell me he was having it, or even tell me he was pissed about Baum's article - so I looked like a stiff. We played the Senators that day and the Ottawa writers, a bit shy to take on the veteran goalie, ripped the PR guy in their newspapers instead. I learned my lesson and vowed it would never happen again.
Kirk Muller: From the day he was acquired until the day he was traded, Kirk never once told the truth - to the team, to the media, to me.
Wow. But what really caught our attention were his comments aimed at Roberts, who was with the New York Times when Botta was the media man for the Islanders. Roberts was recently featured on Bob Costas's HBO forum on the sports media (a.k.a. The Will and Buzz Good Time Happy Fun Show), and spoke about how she yearned for better access to athletes in order to get to know "the real" person. Botta called this position "a load of made-for-TV crap," citing the behind-the-scenes tale of Roberts' only column about the Islanders in five years at the Times:
Game 1 of the first round of the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Islanders at Lightning. Islanders defenseman Eric Cairns has a nightmarish pair of shifts, with two giveaways leading to two goals and a Tampa Bay win. To be clear, Eric had a horrible game at the worst possible time. To be fair, there isn't a defenseman in the history of the game that hasn't had one just like it.
For the record, Selena Roberts was not at the game. In the aftermath - her column ran two days later - she did not contact anyone at the Islanders to request Cairns or his head coach on the phone. She did not travel to Tampa Bay for Game 2. You could say Eric Cairns is not Lebron James, but that really wouldn't be the point, would it? Cairns would have spoken with Roberts on the phone for as long as she would have needed him. I would not have written, or emailed, the answers for him. That's not how we do it in hockey.
Without speaking to anyone, Roberts decided to use Eric Cairns as Exhibit 1-A for her theory that "the playoffs prove that the embrace of goons is borne of historic habit, not necessity." Read the whole thing here.
Roberts wrote that Cairns' performance in the game was "a singular example of goon liability, of enforcer irrelevance, of a sport's cultural ambivalence." And yet, Roberts never took the time to meet Cairns, to "have a connection" with him, to see "what's inside him." Ever.
To be fair, writers are allowed their opinions, right or wrong. But Botta makes an excellent point: There is unparalleled media access to players in the NHL in many cities and with many teams. One conversation with a player like Cairns, and you understand his place in the game and fighting's place in the game and what happens when things go badly in a playoff battle. Roberts's piece read like so many other assembly line ad hominem attacks on hockey; it wouldn't have, had she used the access available to her. Access that MSM columnists so desperately fight for when covering an NBA celebrity, but rarely use when it's time to start attacking the usual targets in hockey again.
I haven't always been in agreement with Botta -- Lord knows there was a bit of guilt by association in that Blog Box deal -- but I anticipate he'll continue to be candid, honest and unwavering on his blog through the early summer. He's got some stories to tell, and here's hoping puckheads get to hear a few good ones.