Sunday, 11 March 2012

François Gagnon is a good, professional journalist

There has been some outcry in the last few months regarding La Presse columnist François Gagnon and his work from Canadiens fans. Some of it is based on his reporting of Mike Cammalleri's thoughts before his subsequent trade to the Flames.

Some of it is based on his column regarding the wisdom of trading P.K. Subban.

In any case, there is an unfair characterization of this man as a muckraker and cheap shot artist which is completely undeserved, and I would like to address it so that anglophone Canadiens fans who cannot read his columns for themselves get the full story, not just the bleatings of those who jump to opinions and conclusions without all the facts.

In the first article, Mike Cammalleri was speaking with Mr. Gagnon and I believe Arpon Basu, after a more 'official' press scrum, and in a moment when he let his guard down and probably speaking out of frustration, he stated that the team was practicing and playing with a loser mentality. He added that game planning and watching game films was all well and good, but that at some point the team had to be allowed to play, and not be trained to fear making a mistake. He compared the present mentality to that which the team had on their playoff run in 2010. He stated that he could go on, but that he would refrain from doing so and advised his interlocutors to read between the lines. He then complained about his icetime, stating that he was used to playing more when asked about his decreased performance and production this season. When pressed about a particular play during the game against the Blues on January 10 on which he left Jason Arnott uncovered and was widely blamed for a goal against, Mr. Cammalleri accepted responsibility initially, but then quickly deflected it by stating that he had only had five appearances until that point in the middle of the second, and he normally would have been more involved and had made "fifteen" big plays by then.

It was easy to interpret this as a clear shot at his new coach Randy Cunneyworth. General Manager Pierre Gauthier, who has lately been accused of using Mr. Cunneyworth as a 'sacrificial lamb', in that instance moved quickly to quell this nascent mutiny, and to send a clear message to the team that dissension and airings of grievances in the media would not be tolerated, and sent Mr. Cammalleri to Calgary. Once there, Mike explained that his thoughts were supposed to be semi-'off the record', that Mr. Gagnon (who he didn't name), had inflated his words and sensationalized the story. He seemed clearly happy and relieved to be out of Montréal.

It's interesting that initially Mr. Basu chose not to publish the Cammalleri cri de coeur, while Mr. Gagnon did. Mr. Basu may have decided that this was indeed a private conversation, while Mr. Gagnon didn't. It's important to note that Mr. Gagnon is an experienced veteran of sports journalism, whereas Mr. Basu is just embarking on his new career. In any case, I often resent the fact that reporters get all this access to teams and their players, but then don't use that access, not for our benefit anyway. We often hear the real dirt on a player once he gets traded away. Canadiens fans made Jessica Rusnak a hero for her daring to ask Jacques Martin why he refused to play Erik Cole more often on the powerplay, which all fans would shout at their TV screen, but which none of the established media would murmur at press gatherings with the head coach.

So Mr. Gagnon, in the final analysis, did his job by reporting the divisive statements of a player who was by his conduct campaigning for a ticket out of town. He didn't muckrake, he didn't exaggerate, he told us what was going on, for which we should all be thankful.

His article on a potential P.K. Subban trade is even more controversial, and even more misunderstood and misreported. The headline used was: "Trading Subban? Why Not?" His column started by stating that with the Canadiens sliding in the standings, the trade deadline looming and the need for a rebuild evident, there weren't any 'untouchables' in the dressing room, given that even Wayne Gretzky was traded. He then immediately cautions that trading doesn't mean 'giving', and that with the sorry record of the Canadiens recently with trades, that it isn't surprising that this subject is controversial and provokes an emotional reaction from fans. He then lists examples of players who left in ultimately bad trades such as Mike Ribeiro and José Théodore. To acquire players such as Ryan Getzlaf, Eric Staal or Anze Kopitar, who were the object of many fans' affection in late January, he explains that offering Travis Moen wouldn't suffice. There are two impact players on the Habs, Carey Price and P.K. Subban, and because we are devoid of depth at goalie, we can't trade Carey, unless a crazy-good offer comes our way. So logically, to acquire such quality players, Mr. Subban would have to be traded.

Mr. Gagnon takes care to explain that P.K. is the Habs' best defenceman and while he may not yet be at the level of a Tyler Myers, Drew Doughty or Erik Karlsson, he is destined to a great career, despite his troubles in his second full season. He explains that the presence of Jared Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu in the organization make him more easily replaceable, although neither is projected to be as good a defenceman as P.K. will become. So he concludes that to acquire a big centre that we have been pining for, it would be dumb to refuse to consider trading P.K. He takes care to stress that possibility doesn't mean necessity, and again that trading doesn't mean giving. He finishes with the example of the Blues, who traded big pieces in Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a first-rounder, but received Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart and a second-rounder in return.

So this is nothing incendiary, nothing provocative, just a columnist punting around an idea that is circulating throughout the Canadiens' fandom as they regress in the standings. He is not advocating that Mr. Subban be run out of town on a rail, as a call-in show host might, but simply explaining to fans that to get a #1 centre you'll need to trade a #1 defenceman, not a bag of spare parts.

It is noteworthy that Mr. Gagnon is no longer a reporter but now a columnist for La Presse, one who covers the Canadiens and hockey in general. As such, he is required to provide opinion and context, as opposed to just the 5 W's. This is just what he did with the two previous pieces. Mr. Gagnon is a pro who covered the Senators and now the Canadiens for decades now.

It is also important to nip in the bud the frequent mentions of the 'French media' as being a problem for the Canadiens. This is becoming a meme that isn't challenged, a reflexive scapegoat that's held up as an unalloyed evil. Let's be careful with this generalization. When imbeciles such as Mike Milbury or Don Cherry or Eklund babble illogically, we don't condemn the 'English media' as a whole in a kneejerk fashion, we understand that they're outliers and for everyone of them there are two Elliott Friedmans and Pierre Lebruns and Dave Stubbs.

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