The Message

Since 1995, Adrian Dater, the Denver Post's hockey writer, has covered the Colorado Avalanche -- but thanks to a lockout imposed by National Hockey League owners in September, the only Avs face-offs he's written about lately have been virtual. "I go in every Friday," he notes, "to watch two kids play in a high-stakes video game."

Dater's enjoying the Post's Video Hockey League feature in part because he can invent player comments for his articles that are better than he'd get in real life. On December 5, for instance, Calgary Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff "said" he needed to be "a better padded guardian of the corded igloo."

"We're trying to have some fun with it," Dater allows. "It comes out satirizing hockey itself."

The opposing sides in the NHL labor dispute have done a pretty good job of that, too. All parties have insisted publicly that they want to quickly resolve their differences, yet a December 9 meeting between representatives of the owners and the NHL Players' Association was the first in three months. A glimmer of optimism emerged from that session, but it was promptly extinguished five days later, leaving newspapers and TV outlets in an odd-man rush to fill space and airtime commonly lavished on sticks and skates.

Right now, the only regular NHL pieces in the Post beyond video-hockey shorts are info boxes that catalogue missed games. That's a far cry from coverage during an average season, which occupies what Post sports editor Kevin Dale estimates at one or more broadsheet pages on weekdays and over two pages on Sundays. With the Avs on the bench, the Post has given a bit more room to so-called minor sports and used money from the hockey travel budget to send other folks on the road. "We did a lot more college-football traveling for non-local games," Dale reveals. But for the most part, he says, "we're saving the space" in the hope that the NHL will return someday.

Barry Forbis, Dale's counterpart at the Rocky Mountain News, knows the space he'd normally devote to the NHL -- between two and four tabloid pages on weekdays and a couple of broadsheet pages on Saturdays -- has gone somewhere, but pinning it down is difficult. "We use a little here, a little there," he says. "We have to throw out less than we did before."

To keep the NHL from disappearing from the section, the Rocky is running items written by its hockey specialist, Rick Sadowski, that recall memorable days in Avs history. Since Sadowski can knock out several of these at a sitting, he's also been given other assignments: Denver University hockey games, a spread on Colorado School of Mines footballers. Branching out has been nice, says Sadowski, who covered the Los Angeles Kings during the last NHL lockout, in 1994, and so has the opportunity to spend more time with his family. "I'm living a semi-normal life," he points out. There's a trade-off, though. Since Sadowski's working five days a week at present, instead of the six or seven that are common during hockey season, Forbis says he may have a shorter summer vacation. Talk about a slap shot.

The Avalanche's radio voice, Mike Haynes, is in an even stranger position. He loves to talk hockey, but when the topic turns to the lockout, he's got to hold his tongue because, as an employee of Kroenke Sports, which owns the Avs, he could be subject to censure for any statement. (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman imposed an unspecified fine against onetime Denver Nuggets owner Tim Leiweke, who's currently president of the Kings, and charged Atlanta Thrashers co-owner Steve Belkin $250,000 for mentioning replacement players.) Fortunately, Haynes can chat about other things, since he's been tapped to call games that Altitude, Stan Kroenke's new cable channel, is airing in the absence of new NHL product. He recently did play-by-play for three different sports in the course of a single week: School of Mines football, Metro State basketball, and hockey spotlighting the Colorado Eagles, a minor-league franchise that takes on foes like the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs. Such chores frequently require travel to spots that aren't on the NHL itinerary. "I was just in Pittsburg, Kansas, for a Division II playoff game, as opposed to going to Madison Square Garden for a Rangers game," Haynes says.

Having covered the wide world of small-time sports before landing the Avs gig, he's in familiar territory. But Haynes admits that he sometimes has to make stylistic adjustments. "At a Wyoming-versus-Colorado women's basketball game, there might have been a hundred people in the stands, and I could hear my own voice bouncing off the ceiling," he recalls. "I thought, ŒMaybe I need to tone it down. Maybe the shot that just made it 6-4 isn't quite the winning shot in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup.'"

The lockout's timing couldn't have been worse for Altitude, which is trying to lure fans accustomed to watching the Avs and the Nuggets on Fox Sports Net to an entirely new destination. The channel is supplementing its Nuggets broadcasts with classic Avs games (strangely, they always seem to win) and giving multiple plays to tepid syndicated fare and low-profile contests like a Southern Utah-Weber State basketball game Haynes narrated. As for Bill Owens' Sports Connection, it's a hilariously lame effort in which Colorado's guv exhibits all the charisma of a Precious Moments figurine.

No wonder Tom Philand, Altitude's senior vice president of sales and marketing, rues the day hockey stopped. Had the season gone forward as usual, he feels Altitude's cable contract with Comcast would have come together sooner and its viewership numbers would be healthier. "From a ratings perspective, professional games typically do best in the ratings," Philand says.

This fact helps explain why Tim Griggs, Fox Sports Net's vice president and general manager, is so chipper. He believes the stillbirth of the NHL's season thus far "helps us, because it hurts Altitude's ability to become an established network."

In addition, it's given the Post's Dater a chance to write about sports whose players have all their teeth -- or most of them, anyway. He's most appreciated chronicling high school events, because, he says, "When you do a story on a prep kid, you know they're going to keep it in their scrapbook forever. And they really like to talk to you. It's not like pro sports, where they say, ŒI don't know if I have timeŠ'"

Dater has plenty, and he's taking advantage of it. Nevertheless, he'll be happy if and when the NHL gets going again, if only because his frequent-flyer miles are rapidly dwindling. "I don't have the clout with United Airlines that I used to," he grouses. On top of that, he's getting a little tired of a certain question he keeps being asked: "Do you still have a job?"

Silent treatment: The U.S. military may dislike Iraqi insurgents more than the Denver Post, but not by much. First, as detailed here in recent weeks, an Air Force judge advocate smacked Post scribe Miles Moffeit with a subpoena regarding an article about rape within the armed services. Then, shortly after the paper filed a motion to open a Fort Carson hearing into the murder of an Iraqi general, base muckety-mucks designated Post staffers personae non grata over offerings by Marsha Austin and Eileen Kelley that told about soldiers waiting for proper medical treatment. Instead of disputing the particulars of the pieces, a Fort Carson spokesman quoted by the Post complained that they weren't "fair and balanced" -- an allusion to Fox News's slogans that should entertain Freudians.

The de facto ban didn't last long, thanks to intervention by Post editor Greg Moore, who agreed to meet with Fort Carson reps to hear their grievances. Yet the base's initial maneuver remains troubling, since it's the second instance of late when a government institution or official cut off access to a news organization for reporting things they didn't like. Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich made a similar move against the Baltimore Sun because of alleged inaccuracies he hasn't bothered to recount, and even if his actions aren't illegal, as the Sun implies in a lawsuit, they're certainly counterproductive. "History will reveal -- sometimes in fairly short order -- whether the reporting was fair and balanced or not," Moore writes in an e-mail. "But to infringe on news gathering that way is wholly inappropriate, and should be fought every step of the way."

That's a call to arms.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts