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An Interview with Craig Custance of The Sporting News

Over the weekend, Illegal Curve was lucky enough to conduct an interview with Craig Custance, the national  hockey writer for The Sporting News.  Craig moved to The Sporting News this summer after covering the Thrashers for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Along with a number of other responsibilities, Custance will be contributing to Sporting News Today, which is a new online daily digital newspaper that is certainly worth the read. 

Among other things, Craig discusses his thoughts on blogging, his favorites to take home the Cup in 2009 and the viability of hockey in the deep South.

Here is the interview:

Richard: Before I delve into on-ice issues, I wanted to ask your opinion on the proliferation of hockey blogging on the internet?  Do you see it as only a positive thing, or are there some possible negative aspects to it as well?

Craig: I think it’s fairly obvious that I’m a fan of the blogs. They’re a part of my daily rotation, especially since I took the job at Sporting News and my focus isn’t so intense on one team. But even when I was covering the Thrashers, I read every fan blog, from The Falconer to the guy who sat at every practice and blogged about who was changing stick manufacturers. By no means do I think the mainstream media has the market cornered on analysis or information delivery. I now greatly prefer beat writers blogs to their newspaper stories, and I suspect people felt the same way about my stuff at the AJC. Writers can bend the rules a little and offer bits of insight that maybe you can’t get away with in a newspaper story. Negatives? It’d be nice if the animosity between bloggers and journalists could disappear. It seems like some bloggers take perverse pleasure in taking shots at the mainstream media and it comes off as petty. But that goes both ways for media types who do the same with bloggers.  I don’t even have a problem with a guy like Eklund, who people seem to have serious issues with. It’s entertainment, that’s the bottom line. We don’t need to take everything so seriously. Yeah, it’s a pain in the rear when you’re a beat writer and crazy rumors get thrown around and you have to chase them all down. But at the same time, you also develop a radar for what stuff is legit and what’s just thrown against the wall. The only gray area for me is locker room access. Some bloggers don’t have any desire to report from the dressing room, others think it’s the natural progression. I’m not sure where I stand on that one. I’ve never had any issues sharing space with the bloggers when they do get access to events I’m covering, but my attitude would probably change really quickly if I started noticing unprofessional behavior or people getting in the way of me doing my job.

Richard: You recently made the move from Thrashers beat writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to The Sporting News.  How has the adjustment been in terms of travel, content and day-to-day responsibilities?

Craig: I’m only two months into the new job so it’s hard to get a feel for how the day-to-day responsibilities will be during the season. The biggest challenge for me has been coming up with lots of daily content for our digital daily newspaper “Sporting News Today” in the middle of the hockey dead period. There’s been a lot of “Nothing new to report on Sundin and Sakic” going on, but that’s just the nature of the beast this time of year. Travel will pick up once the season starts, but I recently spent three enjoyable days in Dallas shadowing Sean Avery for an in-depth feature that will run in the revamped Sporting News magazine. I’m not giving anything away, but he’s one of the most interesting and complex players I’ve ever dealt with. If I don’t get in the way, it’ll be a great story. It’s a balancing act of providing hockey coverage for the magazine, the digital daily and blogging for the website. But we’re doing exciting things, and from what I can tell, Sporting News is one of the few news outlets looking to increase its hockey coverage not decrease it, so it’s exciting for me to be a part of it. Once I get moved to Detroit and the season settles in, I’ll have a better feel for how things will go on a daily basis.

Richard: Onto the ice.  Now that most rosters are set after an extremely busy off-season, if you had to list three teams that you think have the best shot at the Stanley Cup, aside from the Red Wings, which three would you select and why?

Craig: Sometimes I fall into the trap of spending time with a coach,  general manager and players then walk away convinced that they are the best team of all time. Like last year, I filled in for a few weeks covering the Atlanta Falcons and walked away convinced Laurent Robinson was going to be the next Jerry Rice. I loved the guy. I haven’t heard from him since. That said, I left Dallas convinced that the Stars can challenge the Red Wings. I’m on board with the Sean Avery signing, and not just because he told me to be. I like the dynamic of the two GMs and don’t see a lot of weaknesses on that team. I also think people are sleeping on Montreal with or without Mats Sundin. You forget that the Canadiens were a great young team last season and will only benefit from the experience in the playoffs last season. Last year, for Sports Illustrated, we had to do these polls where we asked NHL players who they would pick first to build a franchise around and guys were telling me they’d start with Carey Price. Even before Sidney Crosby. I would have liked to see them keep Cristobal Huet at the deadline so Price wasn’t thrown into the fire so quickly, but I’ll defer to Bob Gainey’s judgment on that one. It was weird, because I was in Montreal on the day of the trade deadline and when Huet was dealt to Washington I was absolutely convinced Marian Hossa was going to Montreal along with Johan Hedberg. It made too much sense. Anyways, I’m rambling. I like Montreal better than I like Pittsburgh in the East, and that’s no slight on Pittsburgh. I’ll probably love the Pens after flying to Pittsburgh and spending three days with Miroslav Satan. Okay, my third team. I’m not falling for San Jose again. I’m better than that. I think if Anaheim can get something useful in return for Mathieu Schneider, and get Teemu Selanne in the mix, the Ducks will bounce back this season. So that’s my long way of saying Stars, Ducks and Habs. But I’d be shocked if the Wings don’t win it all.

Richard: With you having first-hand knowledge of the Thrashers organization, and with their expected struggles this season, is Don Waddell’s job secure?

Craig: No, absolutely not. How can it be? Don is really adept at running a tight ship. The Thrashers are a team losing money, but he manages to minimize those losses by running a lean operation in Atlanta and I think that endears him to the owners.  Is it ideal? No, I think the Detroit model, where you have a group of hockey minds sharing ideas works well. Detroit is also in a much better financial place with stable ownership.  The same can’t be said in Atlanta and that hurts the team more than any of Waddell’s management. But the Thrashers front office could use some new blood. If they lose again this year, and there’s nothing dramatic they did in the offseason that makes me predict a crazy turnaround, then I think it’d be a tough sell to fans, to potential free agents, to Ilya Kovalchuk, to bring Don back as the general manager. He’s certainly been given every opportunity to succeed. There was talk after the season of moving Waddell to a president role and bringing in another general manager and  that was seriously discussed. In fact, I still wouldn’t be surprised if something like that ultimately happens. But is his current job secure? It can’t be.

Richard: You recently interviewed NHLPA Director Paul Kelly and while he didn’t outwardly come out and say it, it sounded as if he was looking for some of the Southern teams to start to overcome a number of the challenges they currently face.  Having covered hockey in a Southern market, are you concerned at all about the viability of the NHL in the deep south?

Craig: It’s certainly harder for teams to have success in the south because you just don’t have a huge fan base of die-hards coming to games win or lose. And the regional television ratings are brutal in some markets when the teams aren’t winning. But time after time, these markets have shown that if teams are run the right way, market their teams aggressively, and most importantly, win, they can be a success. Look at Tampa’s attendance. They draw really well, and that team was horrible last year. I think they averaged 18-plus last year. I love hanging out in Carolina where they tailgate before games like it’s a college football Saturday. When the Thrashers hosted playoff games, Philips Arena was one of the most electric places I’ve ever been in. Getting swept by the Rangers that year set Atlanta hockey back five years. At least. If they could have won a series or two, and that team was pretty talented in retrospect, we’re not having this conversation about Atlanta. The one I wonder the most about is the Florida Panthers but again, when that team was winning, the fans were crazy. Just ask Scott Mellanby.

Richard: Finally, do you think the NHL is concerned about the possibility of the KHL becoming more significant than maybe the league first anticipated?

Craig: It’s hard for me to comment on how the NHL originally viewed the KHL, but I think it’s certainly become a significant force in the world of hockey. Anybody who says the loss of a guy like Alexander Radulov is insignificant is crazy. And it’s just another vehicle for driving up salaries. Now the agents for  24-year-old players can say they’re getting an offer sheet from another team and they have a crazy offer from Russia. If nothing else, it’s a bargaining tool. The thing I’m curious about is if non-Russian players will stay there for any length of time. I had one GM tell me that he had a North American player leave for Russia and he couldn’t get back soon enough after just one season. It’s a huge cultural adjustment, just ask any Russian player who has made the opposite transition. But here’s the bottom line right now concerning the KHL and attracting the top players: I had somebody point this out to me, but when Ilya Kovalchuk scored the game-winning goal in overtime against Canada in the World Championships, every Russian player on the ice was in the NHL. As long as the top Russians are still playing in the NHL, I think we’ll all be okay.

For Illegal Curve, I’m Richard Pollock.