One of the most anticipated games of the NHL season takes place Wednesday night, but the significance of the matchup has little to do with how the teams involved are playing.
The Washington Capitals will not be measuring themselves against the top team in the Eastern Conference - that happens Saturday against Boston - but there will be plenty of buzz for their game at Mellon Arena against the floundering Pittsburgh Penguins.
The reason: The meeting is the first between the teams since the Capitals’ Alexander Semin gave an interview to a Russian reporter in which he made unflattering remarks about the league’s most famous player, Sidney Crosby of the Penguins.
Semin’s comments spread quickly throughout the North American hockey community - “I wasn’t surprised because when it came in I knew the quote was gold,” said Greg Wyshynski, editor of Puck Daddy, the Yahoo Sports blog where the interview appeared. More importantly, they are the most publicized example of a new development in how the sport is covered.
The interview was conducted in Russian with Dmitry Chesnokov, who also works for Sovetsky Sport. Semin speaks minimal English. He does interviews with North American media infrequently and always with a translator. Yet somehow he gave, along with Sean Avery’s comments about former girlfriends, one of the two most controversial interviews of the season.
“What’s so special about [Crosby]?” Semin told Chesnokov. “I don’t see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there’s nothing else.”
“New media” has had a profound impact on coverage of sports in general and hockey in particular. The translation of interviews done by Russian (and other European) players in their native languages has been one of the more interesting developments.
“I think it started on the [message] boards,” said Wyshynski, who was recently named one of the 100 most influential people in the sport by the Hockey News. “You have these people who find these Russian interviews and maybe they know a few words or whatever or maybe they would just link to it. Then there would usually be some guy on the board who would know Russian and then all of a sudden translate it.
“It kind of gradually and naturally extended itself to the blogs. Now you have bloggers that speak Russian or speak whatever and they’re able to translate these interviews in a timely fashion. That led to us working with Dmitry Chesnokov to get interviews with Russian athletes and ask them our sort of goofy [stuff], which in another natural progression led to The Washington Post hockey blog hiring their own Russian guy [Slava Malamud of Sport-Express] to ask the Capitals’ Russian players some similar things.”
The result has been access to new information about European players that members of the “old media” in North America would struggle to provide. For years, fans have read quotes that were limited either because of a player’s grasp of the English language or his comfort level with the North American media.
Now there are video clips of Alex Ovechkin doing interviews with Russian television splashed across the Internet and long, thought-provoking interviews from Chesnokov on Puck Daddy with guys like Semin, Viktor Kozlov and Columbus rookie Nikita Filatov. Blogs Alex Ovetjkin and Tuvan Hillbilly are dedicated to translating interviews with the Caps’ Russian players.
The Caps’ Sergei Fedorov said he didn’t start seeing Russian media members covering the NHL until 1995. Even then, before the explosion of the Internet, what Fedorov might have said to a Russian newspaper likely never would have been public knowledge in North America.
“It is different for us - especially for me - because I am more comfortable speaking in Russian than English,” Kozlov said. “I think in my case it is probably more interesting in Russian than English because my English - it is just always the same words all the time. I think it is a good thing. If the people like it, then why not?”
More access for fans, especially when the NHL is involved, is generally a positive thing. It can lead to more exposure for the league, which is still trying to regain its place in this country after the lockout of four years ago.
But that doesn’t mean it is always great for teams. It is an interesting dilemma, especially for a team like the Caps whose management doesn’t like information - whether it is speculation about trades or injuries or, in this case, bulletin-board material - making headlines.
Team owner Ted Leonsis was at the forefront of helping new media gain access to the NHL. The Caps have more blogs dedicated to their team than any other club, and more of them are credentialed at Verizon Center than at any other arena.
At the same time, he was among the many people in the organization who initially said Semin’s words were lost in translation, and he confronted Chesnokov about the interview after a game.
“I think it expands the universe, and all these Russian bloggers and media - I enjoy reading them, and I think for the most part they have been very, very helpful to us,” Leonsis said. “Specifically on the Semin issue, I was disappointed because I had never had that kind of [substantial] conversation with Alex Semin. So I couldn’t tell - was that him talking, or was it the translator?
“I’ve gotten to know [Chesnokov], and he seems like a reasonable guy. I don’t think he made any of it up, but it isn’t like we’ve done media training with Semin, so in hindsight I don’t think it was a good thing for him.”
There have been other issues. Leonsis was not happy with how an article about Ovechkin from Maxim portrayed his franchise player.
“That was done with Alex and his Russian manager, and we just read about it,” Leonsis said.
While the Caps have guidelines about when and where their players are available to the media, those rules don’t always apply to the Russians.
“I am never nervous about my interviews,” Ovechkin said. “If I say something bad, I say something bad. I think I can speak English pretty good. If I say something bad, it is just my mind. It is a free world.
“If you want to say something, you can say something. I have no shame.”