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An Interview with James Mirtle of the Globe & Mail

Over the weekend, Illegal Curve was lucky enough to conduct an interview with James Mirtle, one of the pioneers of hockey blogging.  Mirtle is a sports desk staffer at the Globe & Mail and the manager of NHL blogs at SB Nation.  Additionally, his blog From the Rink is the lead general hockey blog at SBN.

Here is the interview:

Illegal Curve: Hi James.  Thanks for granting us an interview.  First off, I wanted to ask you about your recent move to join the SB Nation with your new blog called From the Rink.  Would you mind telling our readers about SB Nation and what role you play on the site in regards to its hockey content?

Mirtle: Essentially the concept is to create a great big network of some of the top hockey blogs and put some marketing muscle behind it.  There are businessmen involved in the project, marketing people to deal with advertisers, etc.  Some people will say SBN is “corporatizing” the blogosphere, but the way I see it is that there’s a win-win involved.  It’s good for the company in that there’s money to be made off of quality blog content, but it’s also good for bloggers in that there’ll be more traffic, partnerships with huge websites, a community to work with on generating content and some really neat tools that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

And every single blog on SBN receives a paycheck each quarter as part of a revenue-sharing agreement with the company.

My role is to (a) blog on my site, (b) help build the community by inviting others to join and (c) give a little guidance to the bloggers with regards to their sites. 

People told me for ages that I should try and start something larger than my little standalone Blogger site, and that’s really not something I would have been able to do on my own given the time/cost commitment.  SBN has been a big help in that they tackle the technical and business side of things and let me concentrate on the blogs.

There’s a ways to go before the network is where I think it can be, and the sites as they are right now are really in their infancy.  This is the beginning, and newcomers like J.P. from Japers’ Rink and Earl Sleek from BoC have already made a big impact.

Illegal Curve: I agree.  So far the progress I’ve seen at SBN has been terrific.  Another aspect of the site that stood out to me, was the site’s ability to add a blog like Five For Howling which will give readers a blogger’s perspective on the Coyotes throughout the season.  I say that because the Coyotes hardly get any web coverage, nevermind newspaper coverage (as they don’t have a beat writer with the team on the road).  The addition of blogs that focus on teams with less of a cult following than say the Oilers and Capitals, etc., is just such a great idea to me.  I wanted to get your thoughts on that.

Mirtle: Yeah, you know, with some teams, it was really easy to just talk to an established blogger and, boom, you’ve got a good presence there. But there are plenty of NHL teams that have hardly any presence in the blogosphere, and I consider that a big part of the challenge.

Sure, you can have a successful blog in a place like Washington, where the team’s cultivating that, but how about Phoenix?  Or Florida?  There are some big gaps there in coverage that bloggers can hopefully help fill.

What it’s not going to do it makeup for the lack of a true beat writer following the team. For the most part, bloggers are hobbyists and just don’t have time to get on the phone and track down people for interviews. But it’s a start.

Illegal Curve: It certainly is a start.  Before we move on to a couple current hockey issues, I wanted to ask you why you ventured into the world of hockey blogging in the first place.  Taking into consideration the fact that you did so before almost everyone who currently blogs, was it a matter of foresight, just a general interest in hockey on your part, or a combination of the two?

Mirtle: I actually started blogging when I was still finishing grad school at Ryerson. We had a guest speaker come in to give a lecture — David Akin, who was then a technology reporter at The Globe and Mail — and he talked at length about how effective his blog was at helping him do his job in new and exciting ways.

I always knew the subject I was going to write on and specialize in, and it finally dawned on me that a blog would be the perfect way to (a) write about whatever I wanted and (b) put my name out there a little bit. Sportswriting is very, very competitive, and I knew it would likely take a while before I’d actually be writing about the NHL full-time. The blog allowed me to do that right away.

Career wise, it is probably the best thing I ever did.

Illegal Curve: I’d say that is certainly more foresight than anything else.  Now I’d like to transition to a number of current NHL issues.  First, I wanted to get your take on the whole Sean Avery saga;  however, not so much on whether the punishment fit the crime, but instead, I wanted to ask your opinion on how Dallas has handled the entire controversy?

Mirtle: It’s been pretty interesting. If the Stars were a really successful team this year, as many predicted, and Avery was a part of that success, I have a hard time imagining the team throws him under the bus like this. But things in Dallas are a mess through the first third of the season, and everyone’s looking for a scapegoat. It certainly doesn’t help that the captain, Brenden Morrow, is out of the lineup for the rest of the year and hasn’t been that vocal.

Of course, this really makes it plain to see how disliked Avery actually is in his own dressing room.

Illegal Curve: The fact that his teammates haven’t stepped up for him was the biggest indictment of his character for me.  Usually, at least a couple players will step up to the plate to defend a teammate no matter how much they object to what that player has done, but not in this case. 
With the Stars struggling mightily all season and the Wings and Sharks proving to be the two best teams in the Western Conference, who do you believe it the 3rd best team in the Western Conference?  Further, do you believe that team, or any other Western team for that matter, can knock off Detroit or San Jose in a best-of-seven series?

Mirtle: I’ve said this in the past, but I don’t you can ever bet against the Wild. Even without Gaborik, who is soon to be out the door, Minnesota has been solid this season (aside from lately) and if they can ship out their top scorer for anything of value, it’ll only make them better. The Wild are always dangerous in the postseason because of how solid they are defensively and on special teams.

San Jose and Detroit are the class of the West, however. At this point, I wouldn’t pick anyone else in the conference to beat them, no.

Illegal Curve: Minnesota is always dangerous with Lemaire behind the bench.  Kevin Allen had a good piece about two weeks ago on how valuable he felt Lemaire was to the Wild’s cause.  Ironically enough, since that piece, I think the Wild has won one game but his point was well-taken and on point.
Over in the Eastern Conference, it really seems like anyone’s year.  The Bruins have been unbelievable, the Penguins have been very solid without two of their best defensemen, the Flyers have a ton of offense and the Habs have “struggled” yet still have a very good record.  Factor in Washington’s attack, the Rangers’ netminding and the Devils’ resurgence and the playoffs look like they will be riveting.  If you had to rank the top five Eastern Conference teams to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Finals, who would they be?

Mirtle: 1. Pittsburgh.  They’re going to start to get healthy soon, with Whitney coming back I believe this week and Gonchar with a least a dozen games left in the season.

2. Montreal. As you said, they’ve put together a great record for a struggling team. If they had anything going on the power play to this point, they’d be up with Boston.

3. Washington.  It’s hard to say what’s going to happen in goal, but offensively, they’re dynamite.

4. New Jersey.  They’ve been playing well without Brodeur (8-2 in last 10) and would be a very tough matchup for one of the division winners once he comes back.

5. Boston.  Their record is far too good to write off at this point, and their youngsters are just all coming of age at the right time. Kudos to Claude Julien.

Illegal Curve: Off the ice, the league seems to be preparing/already dealing with an economic downturn. How much does think the world’s current financial situation will affect the way executives run their squads in the next year and a half?  Maybe more specifically, do you still see teams handing out big money long-term deals this summer, with the possibility of a shrinking cap in the summer of 2010/11?

Mirtle: Really tough to say.  It looks like the cap is either going to stay put or decrease slightly in the near future, so you’ll see GMs act accordingly. Some teams do have plenty of cap space available this summer, and they’ll be active, but there’s no question some free agents are going to get squeezed. My guess is that, rather than those at the top taking a haircut, it’ll be those lower on the scale.

Look at how many UFAs didn’t find a home this past summer.

Illegal Curve: Staying on point in terms of ecomony, how many teams do you think are in financial distress right now?  Further, how many of those teams do you think are in danger of moving/folding?

Mirtle: I’d say there are as many as six or seven teams in trouble, with potentially a few more to come.  But I don’t think you’ll see a franchise move or fold within the next few years.  This is going to stay a 30-team league for a long time going forward because the CBA is based around total league revenues, and bowing out of a market — even a poor one — means that total revenue figure dips lower and the remaining players have a smaller piece of the pie. 

Relocation is more likely, but even then, the NHL’s going to make a major push to try and avoid it.  I think one or two teams will move.

Illegal Curve: Before we go, I wanted to ask you what lies ahead for SBN?

Mirtle: It’s funny because people are pretty excited about what’s happened there so far, but this is the very, very beginning. When I came onboard in mid-October, there were only seven hockey blogs, one of which was inactive, and now we’re up to 17 with a few more in development. Once we have all 30 teams represented, there are going to be a lot of ways we can go with the site such as partnering with larger websites and getting sponsorships.  We’re also in touch with the NHL about working together down the line, and SBN is planning to have representation at the all-star game in Montreal and other events going forward.

One of the major complaints critics have had of the blogosphere is that there’s no accountability, but SBN sites will have that.  The company has a respected businessman in Jim Bankoff as CEO, a president and managers for each of its sports, and that sort of organization is going to pay off.  I honestly don’t see any reason we can’t have bloggers in press boxes all over the NHL down the line (if that’s the direction we decide to go in).

I’m really thankful so many great bloggers have already signed on because without them, this doesn’t get off the ground.  So far it’s been a lot of fun.