Illegal Curve had the good fortune of being able to interview Luke DeCock, the Hurricanes beat-writer for the News & Observer, and discuss such topics as blogging, the growth of the Hurricanes in the Carolina marketplace, and the Hurricanes’ chances for the 2008/09 season.
Here is the interview:
Richard: Firstly, I wanted to ask you your take on the increased amount of blogging that newspaper writers have undertaken. I know your Lord Stanley’s Blog is updated continually throughout the day; so, how would you say you distribute your time between maintaining your blog and writing articles for the News & Observer?
Luke: I’m not sure there’s any way to split it up. The two really go hand-in-hand, because so much of what goes on the blog ends up in the paper, in some format, later. The priority in a breaking-news situation is to get the info up on the blog, but I spent a lot of time over the past week, for example, on a story for the paper that’s more expository and may not even be mentioned on the blog. I also do a lot of work for the paper that isn’t hockey-related, particularly in the summer (in the past month, columns on everything from golf to, uh, disc golf).
That’s the long answer. The short answer is that it’s rare I’m doing something that’s going to benefit one and not the other. I do the reporting, and it’s going to end up somewhere — sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both.
Richard: Considering the recent poll that stated 18% of North Carolina natives don’t even know the Hurricanes exist, as well as, ticket giveaways like the one our writer Drew Mindell came across at a recent Durham Bulls game, I was wondering how well you think the Hurricanes are doing in the North Carolina marketplace?
Luke: First of all, I thought the poll was kind of silly. I threw it up on the blog as a sort of comic relief and it ended up getting mentioned in a very grave way on a couple other blogs — of course, often without any attribution or acknowledgment that they would have had no idea the survey existed without our blog, present company excluded — but I never took it very seriously. Obviously, there’s still a portion of the hockey media out there looking to jump on any sort of negative evidence about the viability of this market.
That being said, I think the Triangle has made great strides as a hockey market since I moved here in 2000. The two long playoff runs had more to do with that than anything, perhaps 2002 even more so than 2006 in terms of introducing fans to the sport. When I arrived, the team’s future and finances were both extremely tenuous. Certainly the whole situation is far more stable now. The onus is on the team to fully develop and maximize its revenue streams. The fan base isn’t quite where it needs to be yet, but it’s growing and can get there.
If you look in Charlotte or Greensboro, I don’t think the Hurricanes have much of a footprint. But in the core markets — Raleigh, Cary, Durham, Chapel Hill and the surrounding counties — I think they’re pretty strong. Our hockey blog ranks among the top three at the paper in terms of traffic, and some months ranks ahead of both the political and ACC blogs.
That’s nothing short of shocking, and it makes me wonder to what degree we’re all underestimating the team’s grass-roots support because it doesn’t necessarily translate into attendance.
Richard: Now, to on-ice matters. With pretty much the same team returning from last season (aside from the Erik Cole-for-Joni Pitkanen swap), do you think the Hurricanes are going to be as good as they were in the first half of last season, as bad as they were in the second half, or somewhere in between in 2008/09?
Luke: Hard to say. It reminds me a little of 2006, when the real question was whether the defense was good enough. Turns out, it was. (There were other questions, but the defense was the big one to me.) The Canes have really gambled that the changes they have made dating back to the Corvo deal (Corvo, Pitkanen, Melichar, Babchuk) are going to make them a better team. Time will tell.
But there’s one area where I don’t think there’s any argument: The Canes needed to get younger on defense. The Wesley-Hedican-Kaberle-Wallin core had clearly slipped behind the pace, with nothing really in the pipeline. Now, they have Pitkanen and maybe Babchuk, depending on his performance this season, to go with Jamie McBain and the other mid-tier prospects (Casey Borer, Brett Carson, Noah Babin, Kyle Lawson) who may or may not pan out.
Richard: Are you at all surprised that the organization decided to bring back Peter Laviolette?
Luke: No, if for no other reason than there’s still three years left on his contract. I’m a little surprised they let the issue linger as long as it did, but there were definitely plenty of reasons for the Hurricanes to evaluate his performance and plenty of reasons for that evaluation to come out on the positive side. Clearly, he’s going to be under some pressure this fall, but that’s nothing new. Really, that’s been the case since January.
Richard: Do you think the team will be able to deal off one of their excess defenseman (namely Frank Kaberle) prior to the opening of the regular season?
Luke: Someone’s going to need a defenseman. It may take the opening of training camps for it to happen, but there’s going to be a deal out there at some point, and the Canes are in a financial position where they have to do something. The real question, to me, is whether they have a better chance of winning with a $49 million payroll and eight NHL defensemen or $45-47 million and seven NHL defensemen. You could make the argument that they’re being penny wise and pound foolish, but that’s easy to say when it’s not your money.
Richard: Finally, what do you enjoy most about covering the team for the News & Observer?
Luke: I’ve enjoyed so much — the sport, the travel, the people I have worked with at the N&O, the opportunity to write and be creative, the challenge of reaching new hockey fans without alienating those who already know the game, the challenge of growing and steering the N&O’s coverage to the level it’s at today.
The two playoff runs certainly seemed like once-in-a-career experiences and as a writer you can’t ask for better material. I’ve really worked hard to bring the N&O’s coverage up to the standards of other pro markets and now we meet or exceed those standards, which is a point of pride. It has been a fun ride, and I’ll miss it when I’m not doing it anymore.
For Illegal Curve, I’m Richard Pollock.