In Conversation: Chris Johnston

Chris Johnston is a key member of the new Canadian hockey media. As a reporter and insider, he provides coverage for National Hockey League games and other events like the World Cup of Hockey. On any given day, you can find him writing features for Sportsnet, appearing on radio and podcasts, and breaking trades or responding to hockey fanatics on twitter. 

I spoke with Chris about how fans and media apply narratives to hockey when we talk games, seasons, or decades of misery. 

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One of things that I’m interested in is how we apply narratives or stories to different things in our lives, and I think sports is definitely a common narrative subject. So I want to start off by talking about how you approach writing a hockey story. Is it about describing a specific event? Or is it about storytelling?

For me, I wouldn’t say there’s one thing I focus on. My personal interest is in stories. I like hearing about what people have been through, things they’ve had to overcome in their life to either find a spot with a team or to make the NHL to begin with. That is definitely a type of story that I enjoy doing. There's also more nuts and bolts of kind of work that’s involved too, where you’re writing about a team’s power play struggles or something less tied to a bigger narrative. I think there’s definitely room for both kinds of work in this business.

Do you think that it’s possible to talk about a hockey game, for example, in an objective way? Or is there always going to be some sort of barrier that requires that we pick out certain narratives within the game?

It’s probably possible, but I don’t think you’re going to see it very often in the media where there’s a purely objective analysis. I think more people are doing hardcore statistics work, and trying to analyze and understand the game in a way that we haven’t always understood it, and to explain it in a way that hasn’t always been possible. I think by really getting down into the minutiae we’re probably doing a better job of looking at it sort of without applying that narrative. 

    But I’m also of the belief that there’s room to tell stories around this game. On some level, this is entertainment still, and I think that a lot of the people that are involved themselves almost view their own life through that narrative. I certainly think in most media coverage you would see, including some of that that I provide, that there are parts are aren’t exactly objective - they’re stories. And I mean it’s objective in the sense that I don’t watch a game and hope for one team to win. Rarely do I go in with a distinct notion of what I’m going to write about, and the game points me in a direction. But what you’re getting certainly isn’t purely objective. And really, it’s rarely about the game - stories often extrapolate something that happened in the game, and then apply it to the team or the player or whatever you’re writing about.

That’s definitely something I’ve noticed, the ability to take an event or something that happened within one or a couple games and extrapolating some kind of principle out of that.

Definitely. And because you do see certain events repeat themselves, this is where I’ve actually quite enjoyed getting familiar with the statistical approach to hockey. It’s been at the forefront of the way the sport’s been discussed during the last three or four seasons. I think it challenges some of those assumptions that we had when I first came into the industry. I think that now there’s a new way of viewing things, and you see a lot less of the obvious narratives. The conversation around this sport has changed, so now we’re seeing a little bit deeper into what’s happening in the games or with the teams or players themselves. 

    I think that’s much better, but you do see people looking for certain trends. We’re in a funny point in time with the traditional media in this sport, because most publications and newspapers have gotten away from the traditional game story. Editors don’t really have a desire to see a pure recap of what’s happened in a game. There’s more of a pressure put on writers to tell stories about these guys, to find some deeper trends to focus on, because they feel that the people that care will already have seen the game themselves. That might help explain why you see that approach so prevalent around the NHL.

That’s really interesting because hockey interviews are notorious for being empty. Is it a case of the media or fans trying to push past that and create that narrative arc, or are those stories simply what people read now?

I think that some of the push for story is probably driven by that. It’s difficult to get into in-depth conversation. One of the challenges with hockey in general is that not everything can be explained neatly. You might want to ask about a certain player or a certain thing that’s happening, and the answer might leave either the reporter or the public feeling a bit empty. Even the players themselves that have spent their lifetime playing the game can’t always explain what’s happening. 

Are players aware of these larger story arcs that we see as the seasons progress? Or are they simply focus on the next game?

I think they have to be aware, because I find quite often that certain players have one storyline applied to them widely. And you see it repeated and written about in different cities. As they travel the league, they get asked the same questions that fill up that same narrative. It must drive them crazy. Sometimes the story is something that’s obvious - If someone’s come back from a horrific injury, that’s going to be something that’s going to be discussed for the first week or month. This is especially true if you’re talking about someone like Sidney Crosby, who had such a terrible time with concussions at one point in his career. Some of those stories you just can’t shake because of the magnitude of them. But then I think there are other stories where maybe someone gets known as the unusual guy, or someone has done something out of the ordinary and it just sort of gets passed around. At one point Douglas Murray, the former Sharks defenseman, invented some sort of beer tap. Versions of that story were picked up and featured over and over. 

    I think the players themselves have to be aware of it, simply because they hear it again and again in the questions they’re asked. I’m sure some of them must wonder where they come from sometimes, especially those who may be a little less experienced with interviews or haven’t been around quite as long. So many of them get known for one thing and that gets focussed on for a long period of time. And frankly, if their patience gets tested and they answer the same questions, I don’t really blame them.

I’m not sure if it’s due to public desire or something else, but it definitely seems like we reduce players and teams down to their simplest form.

I think that that makes it kind of more understandable on a general level. There’s not always room or the ability to get deep on an issue. If they’re talking about a 700 or 800-word article or a 3-minute feature on one of the sports channels, it’s hard to boil anyone’s life down to something that short. I think repeating certain storytelling features can be a crutch. 

    Often there’s neither the time to get into the real depth of an issue or there’s not the space afforded to the reporter to accurately portray what’s going on. That’s something that I’ve felt a lot in my career. You kind of struggle with it, at times, because you want to tell the story as it needs to be told, without being constrained. Sometimes it’s hard to get into why certain things happen or why certain decisions are made, and I think a lot of this stuff gets simplified as a necessity of the way we both produce and consume it as people.

Is that why some of the more in-depth analytics material is isn’t quite in the mainstream? Is it typically banished to blogs or other forums just because that sort of work requires a longer form or a higher level of interest?

Definitely - I have no doubt about that. When I started to learn about what are now considered simple concepts for advanced statistics, I really had to invest and wrap my mind around it. For me, there was an obvious reason to do it. This was becoming such a prevalent force in the industry I work in, I would be insane not to try to figure out what it all means. Where as my dad, for an example, a man in his 60s who loves hockey, he enjoys the game purely for fun. It’s almost a passing fancy for him, and you know, I’m reasonably confident he doesn’t really have much idea what the advanced stats are, other than being aware that they’re being discussed. 

    Would he take the time to read through and try to apply those numbers to a game or a season? It’s just not something that interests him. It’s not how he enjoys the game. I think that as a result of that it just isn’t as digestible for the wider public. That being said, I do think it’s become far more mainstream and more understandable. And really, so many of the concepts that are discussed now, whether it’s the shot attempts or zone-starts, it’s actually quite easy to put your mind around it. As they enter the conversation, it’s going to get easier for people to tell those stories. They’re not going to have to explain every statistic as they’re discussed. Maybe the wider public will slowly adapt to this language. I think for now it’s simply a matter of finding an audience that really wants to understand it and invest the time. This stories can be longer and often end up heavily featuring charts and numbers. That turns some people off that don’t really want to look into hockey any deeper than they already do.

Just from my perspective, it seems like the league, is really trying to distance themselves from some of that work. There’s been issues with the NHL and certain contract websites, for example. They typically don’t like releasing salary information, and only recently developed their stats site to include some of the advanced numbers. Do you get the feeling that they want to keep hockey narratives more palatable to the wider audience?

I think they want the focus on all the pretty and nice things. It kind of boggles my mind that we’re twelve years into having a salary cap and that there’s no official league site with the contract information. A number of people have picked up and done that work to a degree, and we basically treat it as gospel - whether it’s General Fanager or CapFriendly or CapGeek before them. I give those individuals credit because I know that it’s a lot of work to gather and vet that information. But you know if you go back to 2004/05, when the league announced the deal to end the lockout, there was discussion at that time that the league was going to have their own site. For whatever reason, it hasn’t come to pass, but I think we’re slowly seeing it be dragged into existence. Think of the Toronto Maple Leafs, now run by Lou Lamoriello, probably the most conservative general manager, and the information that they’re now willing to share publicly. They’ve recently started disclosing the salaries when they sign a player. 

    There’s all of these small, anecdotal signs along the way. Now with the NHL partnering with SAP and attempting to have different types of stats on their website, like you see with the NBA, we’ll see more than simply goals, assists, and plus/minus. Clearly they’re being dragged in this. I think, in this case, it’s simply out of desire from the fans. I think at this point the consuming public is becoming so interested in a lot of this stuff that they’re going to have to meet that need. But they’ve definitely been reluctant, based on the action - or inaction - we’ve seen here over the last few years.

From my perspective, it’s been tough to figure out whether that public desire for that sort of information is growing, or if I’ve been going farther and farther down the rabbit hole and seeing it because I’m looking for it. Do you really think that the public’s moving in that direction?

I do, especially with salary cap information, because it affects why teams make decisions.  Pick a team - let’s say Arizona with what they’ve done - as your season’s going along and you’re watching a team on a nightly basis, maybe you feel the need to have another defenseman. Well, it’s not as simple as going out and finding one. There’s obviously cap implications. I think with so many seemingly unusual trades that are almost exclusively driven by the salary cap that contract information is becoming more important for fan engagement. That’s my sense of where the public is at. 

  It’s not even so much out of wanting to know that Player X makes 4 million dollars this year and saying hey, that’s a lot more than I make. I don’t really think the interest is really about how much money some guy’s made. I really believe it’s a lot more driven by the impact it has on how teams behave. Without that information events like the trade deadline become less story driven, because it’s harder to know what a team should and can do. It’s about their relation to the salary cap, especially for the teams around the upper limit. That’s what’s talked about on talk radio around these teams every single day, and I think certainly back when the cap was introduced, nobody beyond the agents and the lawyers involved in the sport truly understood the cap. But over the last decade it’s become far more discussed by your Average Joe that watches the game to be entertained.

Do you think in markets that have struggled longer term – take Edmonton or Toronto in the last decade – that it’s more important to be transparent with some of that information just because have to show the fans that there’s some sort of plan or trajectory that you’re trying to follow?

  Yes, especially in passion markets like Edmonton and Toronto. Essentially, you have to convey to the people that are going to pay a fair amount of money for tickets why it’s okay that your team isn’t competing for the Stanley Cup. The discussion around rebuilds and the plan and the draft has taken on a new life in recent times in the NHL. It was always important. There was a lot of excitement when there was a lottery for Sidney Crosby’s draft, but I think it’s even bigger now for the markets that have really struggled. I think it’s important to remember that the fans are the customers, and they’re who will dictate whether hockey will continue to be a three, four, even five billion dollar business in the long-term.

    It’s not guaranteed that hockey will continue to grow and be popular. We need to keep a constant eye on our customer base and what they want. I do think that there’s a little bit more understanding that’s growing, and you’re seeing some signs that the league and these teams are willing to really discuss what’s happening. If I have a prediction, I think that we’re going to see far more transparency in the years ahead. I believe in today’s world, where social media is so prevalent, where really things aren’t hidden like they once were,  these teams are going to be pressured to discuss what they’re doing and why they’ve made certain choices. There’s certainly a loud segment of hockey fans that want that, and I think it’s had a positive effect. In the last three years of my career compared to the first ten, we’ve had to challenge the way we look at the game and how we discuss it and how we break it down. We’ve changed how we talk to players and general managers about the game. I think even within teams, a lot of these notions of change and looking deeper have taken effect. And I think it’s led to more of those sorts of stories that you’re mentioning. 

    And I do sense that there’s more desire for that coverage. I don’t think fans want quotes all the time. They want people who are able to analyze the game and try to explain trends and lay out their work and show how they’ve come to certain conclusions. And it seems to me that we had far less of that in years gone by. I think that it’s going to keep going in that direction, that desire to dig even deeper and explain even more. It’s going to happen because this is a very difficult game to understand, even for the people that are closest to it, that are playing it, that have spent their whole lives devoted to it. It’s not something that is easily understood, but there happens to be more answers out there, and I think that the search for those answers produces better stories.

I think that difficulty is part of the reason why it’s so exciting. It’s more of a team-driven league rather than something like the NBA where a superstar can carry a team.  

  Exactly. And what’s a better example than last year’s Pittsburgh Penguins? I mean, that was a team that from 2009 until this spring would have been on most lists for teams to contend for the Stanley Cup, and constantly failed. And all of a sudden last year, with what is kind of an aging core - not over the hill by any means, but Crosby and Malkin are ten years into their careers - they find a way to get it done with some players, frankly, on their lines that most people had never heard of. When Mike Sullivan came in to coach in the middle of the season, basically every metric that team produced changed.

    There’s a lot to this. They go from out of a playoff spot in December to winning the Stanley Cup in the spring, so we’re constantly reminded that we have to look for those deeper answers, because success is such a hard thing to find. It’s so hard to predict success from year to year, because there are so many variables influencing each game, each month, each season. There are injuries, hot streaks, and meltdowns. Predicting success is the hardest part of the job.

The past few years have featured storylines about tanking, aging cores, and youth movements. Are players aware of the larger narratives that we apply to each team?

  I think it’s often miserable for the players. I actually feel bad, because on a lot of the teams that end up doing something that looks like tanking – whether they call it that or not – you have veteran guys who are proud people and have had success in the past. They probably look around the room and just know on a night-to-night basis that even their best isn’t going to be good enough. I think that’s a really difficult position to be in. That difficulty is compounded because it’s become such a talking point that you see players asked about it. And really, if you’re a player, what are you going to say? I don’t think there’s one player out there that wants to tank. No one wants to be part of that. And If you bring in a first overall pick, someone’s going to lose a job, because the first overall pick is going to play a position – usually forward, usually centre – and of course there’s only so many spots on an NHL roster. 

    A lot of players really struggle, on a month-to-month or year-to-year basis, to maintain their careers. It’s such a competitive industry. So many of them are getting driven out at younger ages by salary cap considerations, by the changes to the game that have put such an emphasis on speed and the ability to play the game quickly. I think so few of them want to be in a situation where a team is tanking because it’s miserable and they know that changes are coming and they probably won’t be around when things get good. And then, the fact that fans sometimes cheer for it and reporters and people in the media talk about it – it’s an uncomfortable situation for the guys that work to be there every day.

Do you think that uncomfortable feeling carries over when the narrative is something else besides tanking? Do you think they’d much prefer if fans just watch the game as opposed to following a story around the season or their careers, for example?

  I think most, if we’re being general, would probably prefer that. I think so few of these stories are positive. Even the ones that are positive in nature might make the people that are subject of them uncomfortable for one reason or another. In a lot of ways, I can’t imagine that it’s great because so many stories take on a life of their own, especially in big media markets that feature a large number of reporters or blogs. I do think that there is a detachment from reality that occurs quite often when we get into the sort of hot take storylines and oversimple explanations of events. I’m sure most players just wish that everyone understood the game like they do and that they watched it and evaluated it on their own and that all of the extra noise didn’t exist.

Looking at the Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson trade, there was fairly heavy media coverage in Canada, much of it negative. How aware would Larsson be about the coverage, and what impact would that have on him, especially considering that the trade was described as lopsided, even historically lopsided? 

It can’t be a pleasant. You know, I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. Throughout the course of my career, I’ve been in situations where I try to imagine what it would be like to be in the player’s position, dealing with someone like me or when dealing with certain issues that come up. I would think not Googling your name and not kind of being aware of all the discussion around you must be difficult.  I don’t think very many of them do it. Frankly, I think most players are at least generally aware of what’s being said about them and what the perception of their play is. The same is probably true when there’s a big incident, or if they have a certain reputation on or off the ice. In the case of Adam Larsson, it can’t be good. Perhaps for him – and I don’t know him – hearing people talk about him like that could be a motivation hearing people say that he’s not valuable enough to be traded for Taylor Hall. Hall definitely took the trade as a motivator, hopefully Larsson can turn it into something positive as well.

    I think that the best athletes are able to either block it out enough that they’re able to perform or to turn it into something they use as fuel. But think about the player’s family, which is something we don’t often consider. I think that must be the toughest part of the scrutiny. Maybe the individual involved feels that it’s part of his job and that he can handle it, but maybe his partner is up in arms or his dad or mom have a harder time adjusting. That’s something that doesn’t get talked about much, but it’s sadly part of the territory of being such a public figure, but I would think it’s a very uncomfortable part.

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You can find Chris on twitter @reporterchris and on Sportsnet.ca.