NHLers can’t count on privacy anymore

If Mike Comrie was surprised, he shouldn’t have been. When you buy Hilary Duff a $100,000 Mercedes for her birthday, expect to end up in People magazine. The same goes if Jose Theodore parties with Paris Hilton or Sean Avery flips off a photographer while escorting Elisha Cuthbert. In the end, it’s all just fodder for the entertainment media.

In the NHL’s Original Six era, there was a gentleman’s agreement between hockey reporters and players that what happened away from the rink wasn’t to be printed in the papers. Especially in the mainstream Canadian press, that agreement still carries some weight. Athletes are still given more space and covered differently than movie stars and musicians. But now, the rise of 24/7 media, from the blogosphere to TV entertainment channels to paparazzi earning six figures, is eroding those traditional boundaries.

Try Googling the phrase, “We’re in the entertainment business,” along with “NHL.” You’ll discover that hockey people from Paul Kariya to the late Herb Brooks have used that phrase to describe the NHL. The more hockey becomes synonymous with entertainment (as opposed to the religion-like status it’s always enjoyed in Canada), the less players can expect to simply sidestep questions about their personal lives by saying they want to keep the conversation hockey-related.

Earlier this year, I interviewed an emerging NHL star for a 2,000-word magazine profile. With a story that long, there’s plenty of room to explore some off-ice stuff as well as hockey. So toward the end of the interview, in addition to inquiring about his favorite movies and restaurants, I asked how he met his wife. “I don’t think I want to talk about that,” he said. “That’s a little too personal.”

I didn’t press this guy, and not just because he’s pretty good with his fists. In my opinion, he had every right to respond that way if he didn’t care to share. It really isn’t anyone’s business but his.

However, by today’s general media standards (and certainly those of the entertainment media), I didn’t exactly cross the line with my question. When Jay Leno or Ellen DeGeneres asks an actor, “How did you meet your wife?”, getting a 30-second, laugh-punctuated monologue is a common response.

The way the entertainment media interacts with NHLers is quite unlike traditional sports coverage.

For instance, on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the comedian-host joshed Wayne Gretzky about whether he’s known as “The Great One” around the house with his wife Janet. Also, at this year’s ESPY Awards, Kimmel quipped at Gretzky about David Beckham’s potential impact on soccer in the USA: “Maybe he can do what you did for hockey, and in 15 years no one will be watching soccer, either.”

Would Canada’s ultimate hockey god ever receive such irreverent treatment when interviewed on Hockey Night in Canada or in The Globe & Mail? Historically, no.

But as Martin Brodeur wrote in his 2006 autobiography, Brodeur: Beyond the Crease: “[Rightly] or wrongly, people believe they have the right to know what’s going on in your life. Most of the time, the interest of fans and the media is simply that: interest, or curiosity.” And that ever-increasing hunger for the latest dirt will color and change how hockey players are covered now and in the future, even if the players don’t like it. That comes with the territory when you make a lot of money and date movie stars as a pro athlete.

Of course, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s not as if US Weekly and Gawker Stalker are now chock-a-block with NHLers.

In many ways, that would be an American marketing dream come true for the NHL head office in New York–provided there weren’t too many shots of players cavorting drunkenly in nightclubs.

Despite the current massive effort to market Sidney Crosby, the NHL still lags behind the other major North American pro leagues in terms of impacting the mainstream entertainment consciousness, whether you’re talking about Shaquille O’Neal’s rap albums or Derek Jeter dating Mariah Carey.

So even though Mike Comrie will never be nicknamed “Mr. Hockey” like Gordie Howe, the NHL marketing department must hope he’s someday known as “Mr. Hilary Duff.”

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