Devils Continue to Botch Ilya Kovalchuk Benching
NEW YORK -- The New Jersey Devils have always done things their way, for worse and very often for better. So it really came as no surprise when the team refused to shed any more light on the one-game benching of their $100 million wing, Ilya Kovalchuk.
As the Devils coaches, players and staffers walked from their team bus to the visiting room at Madison Square Garden two hours before their game against the Rangers, a few could not stifle kid-like grins. For New York on an NFL and Yankees breakup Sunday, there was a larger-than-usual contingent of reporters. They were crammed in the corridor, waiting to speak with Kovalchuk, head coach John MacLean ... anyone who might be able to explain why Kovalchuk was suddenly benched for his team's dreadful 6-1 loss at home to Buffalo on Saturday. At one point, Martin Brodeur came over to work on his goalie sticks. He flashed a smile, but kept his record clean as the perfect Devil company man.
By being disappointed, no one was disappointed.
Kovalchuk confirmed his name was in the Devils' lineup for the Rangers game. He said he was "exciting to be back in the lineup." (That's how the friendly native of Russia always says it.)
Kovalchuk tried to be cute, saying he was just "rested" for the night. He would not reveal whether he was scratched on Saturday for performance or disciplinary reasons. Asked by a diligent Devils beat reporter if he attended a mandatory team meeting on Saturday morning, Kovalchuk -- clearly prepped -- said, "No comment."
MacLean, who should know better but may not be allowed to know better, was as defiant as he was in Saturday's post-game presser. He went into "no comment" mode almost from the outset. Given an opportunity to clear the air to the Devils' fanbase -- was the decision disciplinary or, for one night, did he see Kovalchuk as his team's 13th-best forward? -- MacLean passed.
"I stand by my decision," said MacLean. "Today is a new day. The issue is over. It's an internal matter."
In the relationship between sports franchises and fans and media, it's always an internal matter -- unless the team has something to sell.
In a brief moment in which he resembled a human being, the popular former Devils player and bewildered current coach acknowledged that he understood the banishment of his team's salary cap anchor was a story of interest.
A major league sports franchise is under no real obligation to communicate transparently with its fans through the media. The Devils have every right to play the "what happens in the room, stays in the room" card. But they botched their handling of Kovalchuk's benching on Saturday, and they compounded their error 24 hours later.
MacLean and his boss, general manager Lou Lamoriello, passed on an opportunity to send a message to their fans. They could have said Kovalchuk lost his right to wear the uniform for one night for disciplinary reasons, and almost everyone would have been impressed with their integrity. They could have said Kovalchuk lost the right to wear the uniform for one night for reasons of on-ice performance. That would have played well; Lamoriello has always espoused the credo of no one being bigger than the team.
Instead, they played the Devils' way. The same organization that hosted more than a hundred reporters for a fictional Kovalchuk contract press conference in July said on Sunday that no one deserves to know why their $100 million man, their true "franchise player" in every way, was in a suit for their eighth game of the season.
Here's the problem with the Devils' way this time: eventually, the secret is going to get out. You would think after the Summer of Kovalchuk, the Devils would know all about controlling the message.