Thornton controversy could lead to a blander NHL

In coming to the defense of teammate Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton has landed in an uncomfortable spotlight – and smack in the middle of a debate about the boundaries and limits of sports journalism.

As media in Vancouver were gathered around Sharks center Patrick Marleau asking him about Hertl’s between-the-legs goal, Thornton inserted himself into the mix with a short diatribe that included an off-color remark in regard to the lengths he’d go to celebrate if he scored four goals in one night as Hertl did in the Sharks’ 9-2 rout of the Rangers Tuesday.

When a Vancouver media outlet decided to run Thornton’s words verbatim, Sharks media relations director Scott Emmert lashed out:

“I don’t think it would be a surprise to anyone in the industry that ‘locker room talk’ exists,” Emmert told the San Jose Mercury News in a prepared statement. “Professional reporters understand that concept and respect it.” Emmert went on to call the story a “pathetic attempt to generate some page hits and controversy by reporting an off-the-cuff and off-the-record comment made by someone who wasn’t even being interviewed at the time.”

Now, to be clear: if Thornton shouted the words that now have him in hot water to a group of journalists in a scrum, he can’t assume each and every one of those journalists will consider what he said to be off the record. Any media outlet would be well within their rights to publish what Thornton said.

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But I’d be lying to you if I suggested journalists don’t hear other untoward talk from players and coaches on a regular basis and keep it within their own walls. When you’re in the business of building trust and sources and gaining insight, you quickly learn that (a) your sources are imperfect human beings; and (b) constantly playing a game of ‘gotcha!’ with them will quickly get you nowhere.

Will Thornton, the Sharks and players around the league now be even more careful anytime the media is in their presence? That’s their right, but the stories reporters could tell in a more guarded NHL would surely be poorer for it.

Although Thornton and all NHLers should be on notice – and to be honest, they should have been before now – that you have to choose your words carefully when the media are around, there’s a delicate balance here that we in the press can’t ignore, either.

And if a case like this leads to a more beige, blase NHL, will it have been worth it?