The other shoe has dropped in the strange case of Bob Stauffer and Michael Nylander. I have to admit, I'm a little surprised to hear such a loud thump. On Monday evening Stauffer, best known in Edmonton as a host on micro-rated sports-talk radio station Team 1260, reported on the air* and on the Web that the Oilers had signed UFA centre Nylander to a contract. The report, which was quickly picked up on the strength of Stauffer's word by TSN.ca, was unequivocal: it did not say "the Oilers are in talks with Nylander" or "the Oilers are close to a deal with Nylander," but that Nylander was signed and delivered. Dan Tencer of rival 630 CHED, who like Stauffer has close ties to the team (and who might have been a little annoyed at being beaten to the story by a station that doesn't control the Oilers radio rights), quickly followed up using his own sources and reported the rumour himself, as did other local journalists.
And then the strangest thing happened. After Oiler fans had pored over Nylander's statistics and scouting reports overnight and begun to slaver over his Jagr-augmented assist totals, the morning dawned, and the widely anticipated official announcement about the contract failed to materialize. By Stauffer's own account, he began to panic and consulted his sources, who could not account for the delay. In the late afternoon, official word came from Washington, D.C., that Nylander had reached a deal with the Capitals. Eric McErlain wasted no time passing along the baffling bulletin to the ColbyCosh.com fortified information centre.
I switched on the radio just in time to hear Stauffer sheepishly break into a Northern League baseball broadcast to announce that his scoop had gone bust. Later, on his regular drivetime show, he staged an underwhelming bit of theatre; he took full responsibility for the faceplant as a couple of local media pals made sarcastic remarks (CP's Robin Brownlee: "So how are YOU doing today, Bob?"), but the damage control quickly began as Stauffer started to refer nebulously to the story behind the story and his tormentors reassured him that his fine track record of breaking news wouldn't suffer too badly from the disaster. What I kept waiting for Stauffer to do, and I guess what he wasn't quite ready to do yet, was to out his sources. That's what's ought to happen, at least in news-page journalism, when you stake your reputation on information from an anonymous source that turns out to be bogus. You can name names or throw away your reputation; when you use anonymously-sourced information, the burden of trust is all on you.
Meanwhile, after an ugly effort at spin control by nonagenarian CHED talker Bryan Hall, Dan Tencer—who hasn't been in the game nearly as long as Stauffer—figured out which way the wind was blowing and wrote a rather extraordinary post for the Oilers forum at HFboards.com.
I was at the Blackhawk Golf Club for 'A Day With The King'...Arnold Palmer and Peter Jacobsen were in town. While there, I had a nice chat with Jarret Stoll (Jake Daniels from 1260 was there for part of it). During that conversation a couple media members got to asking about the Nylander thing. It was Stoll who told me that he heard it was done and that 4 years is what he was hearing. Players are often fairly reliable sources (I first heard about the Pitkanen trade from a player not on either team involved about 30 minutes before TSN reported it, as an example). I didn't leave it there...I called the Oilers. Won't say who I talked to, but I asked about the deal and was told that at last word they were just awaiting the paperwork. I asked about the 4 year term and was met with the same 'no comment' attitude that I was met with yesterday when I asked about the Pitkanen deal. In their defense, they did not indicate that a deal was done. The inference, as I took it, was that a deal was imminent...maybe I'm guilty of misinterpretation.
So, I had a fellow media member reporting it, a player on the team who had knowledge of the deal and had knowledge of term and acknowledgement from the Oilers that the deal was in its latter stages. Was it a lock? In hindsight, obviously the answer is no. But from my chair, I'd probably go to air with this 100 times out of 100 and the deal might fall through, as it did here, once.
My apologies go out to those of you who were upset by this. I hope you can understand that in the rat race that is free agency, it's not an unforgiveable error. I also apologize for those who thought I handled it poorly during my few minutes on this afternoon...to their defense, the Oilers always maintain a 'it's not done until we say it's done' attitude, and anyone who interpreted something I said as a criticism of the organization...well, I certainly didn't mean it that way.
I take full responsibility for my error in judgment. I'm keenly interested to find out exactly what went down and why a deal so seemingly close ended up not coming to fruition.
Today, after this truly surreal and unprecedented sequence, came something still more so: an official announcement from the Oilers that they really did believe themselves to have a binding contract with Nylander and that they are contemplating "every course of action available." This means partial vindication for Stauffer and Tencer; in essence the team has confirmed leaking them the inaccurate, or possibly even accurate, information. But they are going to have to follow through on the claim made today if they expect fans to believe that they aren't just making excuses for a legal screwup which was followed by carelessness in keeping channels open with other unrestricted free agents and then the negligent overscrewing of a few innocent broadcasters. After 13 months of unmitigated psychological torture Edmonton fans are not above wondering whether the whole thing isn't a cheap attempt to bury the mystery, or whether it might not even have been concocted intentionally by the Oiler front office to excuse miserliness in the free-agent market. Certainly some will raise questions about a front office possibly left in disarray by the departure two weeks ago of assistant general manager Scott Howson.
Meanwhile, the litigation-minded will be on the lookout for the equitable remedy if it can be shown that the Oilers were swindled by Nylander's new agent, Mike Gillis. The situation is not one can that be rectified by cash alone, and there must be a doctrine applicable to the situation in the league regulations, if not an actual precedent. Will the organization be left to drag Gillis into court? In a salary-capped universe, how can Gillis compensate the team for the lost day of negotiations and the value to the club of having a particular deal with Nylander? What if Nylander's contract with Washington is voided?—that hardly seems fair to the Capitals, who presumably negotiated in good faith themselves. Is it possible that an extra draft pick will come into play as the fairest possible solution? That would certainly let the Oilers off the hook for the coming year as the Pitkanen-augmented roster grinds noisily toward a 12th-place finish. The key for the Oiler fan is to await word on a lawsuit. After today's press release, not suing means acknowledging that it's them who messed up. And if that's the case, sponsors and ticketholders have a right to know who did it and how.
[UPDATE, 11:08 pm: Ken Berard has a hilarious before-and-after portrait of Oilers VP-communications Allan Watt. Watt, before the Washington announcement: "The deal is done when [GM] Kevin Lowe tells me it's done." Watt afterward: "I don't have anything to say to bloggers." Well, gosh, Mr. Watt, why don't you? In general there seems to be a little confusion over on 110 St. right now about who talks to whom and when.]
[UPDATE, 12:22 am: Tyler Dellow, new paid-up member of the Law Society of Upper Canada, has informed legal commentary. Letter of the law aside, I find the comment from "Relio" especially compelling. Good stuff in Mirtle's comments too. Like Dellow (but without the years of expensive training), I would instinctively assess the chances of Nylander's Caps contract being voided as close to zero.]
*[UPDATE, 5:53 pm, July 4: A minor factual note—Stauffer apparently didn't go to air personally with the story that night. He finished his original round of reporting and doublechecking quite late, after a long on-air shift, and took it to the Hockey's Future/HFBoards web network instead.
Those following the Nylander Affair may be interested in a short backgrounder on Mike Gillis's career as a player and agent.]