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Gordon's PR game still evolving in 1st season

"More than anything, the biggest difference is in dealing with the media because there's a little bit more scrutiny here."

>>First-year Thrashers coach John Anderson, on the coaching jump
from the AHL to the NHL | The Hockey News, Dec. 15, 2008 issue

With the caveat that Scott Gordon's most important tasks are keeping the faith of his players and installing a sustainable on-ice system, it's nonetheless been interesting to see the ups and downs of his public comments (and fan reaction) through a difficult first season.

Like Anderson in Atlanta, the Islanders don't exactly have an intense media following. So Gordon's conduits to the Islander public include the daily Newsday coverage, comments to Islanders TV and announcers, the occasional home-game Daily News attention (whose writer also staffs the weekly Isles bit in The Hockey News), and of course the many blogs following the team.

I imagine Gordon's media mojo isn't his top priority. But keeping the faith of fans is no small issue when you're talking about a low-attendance team whose overdue rebuild has just now begun after a decade-plus of intermittent fan abuse. Every little bit matters: each frank discussion of strategy, each glimpse of personality, each opportunity to give fans Reason To Believe.

Indeed, with all Gordon's talk of an exciting, speed-friendly style of hockey, one of the few rough spots when he was hired last summer was his inexperience handling big-league external scrutiny from local media and fans -- not to mention the national media who parachute in on a team to get a "flavor of the week" story when Versus, Hockey Night in Canada, or the Maple Leafs come a-visiting.

"I've built a quiet confidence within myself where the most nerve-racking part was this right here - the press conference," Gordon said then. "And that more than anything was just because we didn't have that (in the AHL)."

We've seen what he was saying then: Gordon's quiet confidence is one of the reassuring things about him. Media scrutiny or no -- and how many coaches welcome that? -- he doesn't look overwhelmed by the massive tasks of his job.

So while lineup decisions, style choices and personnel calls have ignited the usual water cooler debate, Gordon's biggest "oopsies" in many eyes have involved how he justified or explained controversial decisions in post-game or next-day comments. Call it a question of context:

Goaltender Handling

In the season's opening week when Gordon left Joey MacDonald in for all of the 7-1 drubbing by Buffalo, his "I'm not a strong believer in pulling goalies to change momentum" or to "give them that out" didn't sit well with many followers, particularly as the issue of a dressed-but-unhealthy Rick DiPietro hung (and hangs still) over the club's head.

On that note, DiPietro is likely to be an on-again, off-again issue for Gordon's entire term on the Island. With all DP's big-contract clout and health issues, and Garth Snow's "keep it in the family" m.o. surrounding internal matters, DP is a ready-made target for media fodder. So even when DP's healthy and clicking, there will be the occasional "controversy."

The latest episode was a ding by Chris Botta, complaining that the goalie quadrant of Snow, Gordon, DP and Joey Mac can't get their story straight on DP's starter-or-backup status in Edmonton. The answer, in this instance, is simple: After medical clearance, DP's the guy determining when he's feeling physically ready. But this theme extends beyond this most recent pisode.

(No surprise that Botta's use of "Keystone Cop" to describe his former Isles colleagues did not go over well. Earlier this season Botta poked Gordon for not declaring his lineup after a morning skate as "hiding behind the excuse that he hadn't communicated with the scratched players yet." Tough crowd.)

The Enforcer Issue

When Mike Mottau took out Frans Nielsen with a flying elbow -- knocking the Islander's best player that night out for at least two months -- Gordon's controversial decision not to send little-used enforcer Mitchell Fritz out to deliver NHL frontier justice was compounded by his explanation afterward: That he didn't want to send the wrong message, start a brawl, or create more fatigue for a team about to play on consecutive nights.

A defensible argument, but one not well-received by a segment of fans hungry for Mottau's head and already wary of the Islanders' decision this summer not to employ a full-time NHL enforcer (not to mention Fritz's paltry ice time even when dressed).

If the Witt Don't Fit...

When Brendan Witt spoke, in a frank Witt-ian way, about the philosophical disagreements he's had with Gordon over his system, many Islanders followers thought -- whether or not they disagreed with Witt -- that Gordon should have reprimanded Witt rather than acknowledge differences and move on.

At least for this season's product, Witt's concerns had merit -- if not an adequate forum. Greg Logan at one point described Gordon as "tight-lipped" on the issue, but later that day Gordon diplomatically discussed the strategic concerns with Isles TV. Either way, they put a first-year coach in a tough spot.

I'm not really sure what else Gordon was supposed to do here: Witt's a popular veteran, and there's no point making an example of him -- and losing the room -- for the sake of a little show of power in the middle of an experimental, losing season. More and more today, NHL coaches are better off as collaborators than taskmasters with their millionaire players. Barry Melrose knows stars can get their coaches fired in a heartbeat (with as much speed and as little forethought as their hiring, heh.).

For all we know, Gordon may have given Witt a private talking-to about airing the concerns to a media eager to run with controversy. But other than that, no reason two grown adults can't debate strategy and still have a beer afterward. Botta even praised Gordon's diffusing later, citing the angle of preserving Witt's trade value.

Show Us Fire, Show Us Brimstone

Before DiPietro's non-start in Edmonton, the latest critique, again from Botta, involved Gordon's refusal to lose it on the bench after goals during this December-January drought. Not that the players need it, Botta implies, but that fans watching at home could use a little PR signal that the coach cares.

Considering the obvious villain of a horrific officiating performance in Edmonton, the opportunity was ripe for an outburst that would fall on the refs rather than the players. Sure enough, while or perhaps before Botta was hitting "submit," Gordon was already venting enough to earn the description that his "Cork Pops" in Logan's headline.

He's Smart. He's Thoughtful. He'll Be Alright

Those are the main themes I can think of regarding Gordon running into fanfire with his PR/comments thus far. I'm sure there are "dust-ups" I missed. Please mention them, if you think of any others or have comments on these.

The bottom line to me is that Gordon's reluctantly evolving PR tactics are another fun topic to keep an eye on, particularly when the on-ice product leaves us wanting. Nothing to get too worked up over, but interesting to watch as he gets used to all the big-league ways in which few mis-timed or misunderstood quotes lineup alterations can inflate to a mini fan frenzy of sorts.

Ultimately, I think Gordon's a promising young coach who has the respect of most of his players. Over time, as he gets more players worth cheering for, he's likely to win the respect of still more fans, too.

In the process, he'll continue to learn and hone methods for conveying his strengths to fans accordingly. By that time, maybe it will be more fun to talk about what happens _on the ice_.