Sport Journalism Blog

Posted on November 20th, 2020 by Malcolm Moran

(Editor’s Note: David Song, a student in the M.A. program in Sports Journalism at IUPUI, produced this analysis of the work of Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post, whose coverage of the Washington Capitals was among the stories recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors.)

By David Song | @DeltaSigma96
Sports Capital Journalism Program

Breaking news. It’s a fundamental part of every journalist’s life.

After all, journalists are storytellers, and there is no story quite like a breaking news story. When something significant or surprising happens, a reporter needs to respond quickly, disseminating the news in a timely fashion. Yet, he or she must also be accurate, verifying every detail to ensure that misinformation is not being spread. Above all, the reporter must be professional, especially when dealing with controversial issues that may portray certain parties in a negative light. It is a difficult, yet crucial tightrope to walk, no matter what field you cover.

Isabelle Khurshudyan knows how to walk the tightrope.

A graduate of the University of South Carolina, the Russian-speaking Tennessee native honed her skills covering high school, Virginia Tech and University of Virginia sports. Next, she worked on the Capitals beat from 2015 to 2019 as an employee of The Washington Post. Despite having little prior knowledge of ice hockey, Khurshudyan quickly became an excellent hockey reporter, winning the 2018 Red Fisher Award for best NHL beat writer.

That same year, Barry Trotz left the Washington Capitals.

NHL teams can go through coaches the way race cars go through tires: from 2009-10 to 2017-18, the league experienced 34 in-season coaching changes. Head coaches are often fired unceremoniously when their teams perform poorly or repeatedly fail to achieve their goals. More rarely, a coach may resign due to allegations of misconduct, as Calgary Flames skipper Bill Peters did in November 2019 after two players—Akim Aliu and Michal Jordan—accused him of racism and abusive behavior.

How many times has an NHL head coach departed from his club right after winning a Stanley Cup with them? Five.

The first time was in 1979, when Hall of Fame bench boss Scotty Bowman left the Montreal Canadiens after his relationship with its owners deteriorated. In 1991, Bob Johnson passed away from brain cancer after leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to a title. Mike Keenan became coach and general manager of the St. Louis Blues in 1994 after directing the New York Rangers to their first championship in 54 years. In 2002, Bowman retired after winning a record ninth Stanley Cup championship with the Detroit Red Wings.

Then, on June 18, 2018, Trotz abruptly announced his resignation.

2017-18 was a contract year for the Dauphin, Manitoba native. In the three seasons prior, his Washington Capitals had finished no worse than second in the Metropolitan Division, but were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs each time. As frustration grew within the fan base and the organization, Trotz’s leash became shorter and shorter.

Khurshudyan sensed early on that Trotz’s contract year was also a make-or-break year for him. If the Capitals failed to advance past the second round once again, it would more than likely spell the end of his tenure with them.

Jermain Franklin, who covers the Flames for TSN in Alberta, had similar thoughts. “The Capitals were a very good team, but they didn’t get done what they wanted to get done at the time,” he said. “President’s Trophies are nice and all, but the goal was to win the Cup.”

Anticipating some form of drama, Khurshudyan and her colleagues kept track of Trotz’s situation beginning from development camp, months before the 2017-18 season commenced. As Washington experienced an up-and-down campaign, Trotz was almost fired on a few occasions—he later revealed that he was aware of the possibility of a midseason firing. Yet, the Capitals would eventually finish first in their division for the third year in a row. They won their first-ever Stanley Cup championship over the Vegas Golden Knights on June 7, clinching the series in five games, 4-1.

So why did Trotz resign a mere 11 days after silencing his doubters?

“I think there were hurt feelings,” Khurshudyan said candidly. “Talking to Trotz on the record in previous stories, he would say: ‘Oh, it’s all good’, but you kind of saw this glint in his eye. He was saying: ‘I’m ready to do a deal’, and [the Caps] didn’t want to do it. It creates a bitter taste in your mouth.”

Winning the Stanley Cup activated a two-year extension clause in Trotz’s contract. According to the salary-tracking website CapFriendly.com, this clause would have raised his annual salary from $1.5 million to over $2 million. However, that number is modest compared to what other Cup-winning bench bosses were making. Joel Quenneville signed a three-year, $18 million extension with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016 after leading them to three Cup wins. Mike Babcock was making $6.25 million a year with the Toronto Maple Leafs as the NHL’s highest-paid coach at the time—he won his championship with Detroit in 2008. According to Khurshudyan, Trotz had likely been asking for a contract similar to the five-year, $25 million deal that Claude Julien signed with the Montreal Canadiens in 2017. Julien too, has a Cup ring to his name, which he earned in 2011 with the Boston Bruins.

According to General Manager Brian MacLellan, the Capitals were unwilling to offer a five-year deal, and Trotz was evidently unwilling to accept a shorter contract. These differences ultimately caused the two parties to split.

As soon as Trotz announced his departure, Khurshudyan was on the case.

“For any sort of breaking news with the team that a beat writer is covering, it’s sort of assumed that they will be writing it immediately,” explained Mike Hume, Khurshudyan’s former editor at The Washington Post. “That’s our expectation, and if you’re a beat writer, that’s your first instinct.”

Aware of the need for timeliness that defines all breaking news, Khurshudyan filed a flash story within 15 minutes of Trotz’s announcement: a brief and simple statement that the Capitals were parting ways with their former head coach. From there, she began making phone calls to her sources, including MacLellan, Trotz’s agent and the coach himself. As Khurshudyan waited to hear back, she was filling out what Hume called the “B-matter” of the story: explaining Trotz’s recent history in Washington and how it is unusual for an NHL bench boss to be on the final year of his contract without an extension in the

works. This content, filed within about 45 minutes of the news breaking, expanded the 300-400 word flash story to about 700 words or so.

While maintaining factual accuracy under such a tight timeline is no easy feat, Khurshudyan described how she rose to the challenge.

“It’s a competitive environment where your editors want that story up immediately because you can’t lose out on the Internet traffic. But, you don’t want to get anything wrong in there,” she explained. “If you’re established on the beat, as fortunately I was, and you have the sources and you have the background knowledge, you’re in a good position. If you’re new, and you’re parachuting in and having to do this for the first time, it’s probably very hard.”

Trusting in Khurshudyan’s experience and savvy, Hume gave his writer plenty of space to operate. Later that day, Washington held a press conference, where Khurshudyan was able to obtain key quotes from MacLellan to expand her story. She credited the Capitals with being a sensible organization, well aware that a Stanley Cup-winning coach leaving his team two weeks after said Cup win is a significant event.

“MacLellan’s always been a pretty straight shooter, and I think he was expecting that the questions would be pointed,” remarked Khurshudyan. “I think the team understood that they owed [an explanation] to the fan base.”

From a certain point of view, Capitals fans had reason to be upset. Trotz, at the time of his departure, was fifth all-time in wins by an NHL head coach—nowadays he is fourth. He had been to the playoffs 11 times as of 2018: seven with the Nashville Predators and four with Washington. Trotz is one of only five men to have ever won the Jack Adams Award twice as the NHL’s coach of the year: an elite club that also includes Scotty Bowman. And, to those whom know him well, his personal character is every bit as respectable as his professional record.

Khurshudyan covered Trotz for three of his four years in Washington—during that time, she admits that she saw him more than her friends and family. In addition to his proven track record, Khurshudyan described the veteran skipper as a genuinely good human being.

Up in Alberta, Franklin had numerous opportunities to speak with Trotz during interviews and media scrums, as well as off the record, during the latter’s 15-year tenure with Nashville. He remembers one particular anecdote from that time—back when Darryl Sutter coached the Flames from 2002 to 2006—that solidified his impression of Trotz as both a savvy coach and a fiery competitor.

During a home game against the Predators, Calgary found itself on the losing end. As time ticked away and it became clear that Nashville was going to prevail, Sutter decided to deploy a hostile, bruising forward line late in the third period. The message was clear: you may have won, but we’ll take our pound of flesh.

“Barry Trotz, after the game, basically said: hey, I’m a Western boy too. I know how things work out here in the West, and we can handle our business,” Franklin recalled. “If we’ve got to do it your way, we’re more than willing to do it your way. In other words: ‘I’m never, ever going to back down from anybody.’ I have tremendous respect for him as a person, and tremendous respect for him as a coach.”

Thus Khurshudyan faced the task of explaining to her audience why the Capitals had decided to part ways with a coach of such rare quality.

Fortunately, approaching the team for comment was never an issue. Khurshudyan had fostered an excellent working relationship with Washington’s front office, including MacLellan, and conducting the relevant interviews had been business as usual. MacLellan too, approached the situation in a professional manner, making Khurshudyan and Hume’s lives a lot easier.

“We’ve had instances in the past where the team absolutely lays into a person that they’ve fired, and that becomes a little bit trickier because then you need to get the other side,” Hume described. “You don’t want to feel like you’re giving the Caps free shots at the guy they just fired. But MacLellan’s comments about Trotz were very down-the-middle. They weren’t loaded.”

Washington’s side of the story ended up being relatively simple. MacLellan acknowledged the fact that some people believed Trotz was deserving of a bigger contract, and revealed that he too was interested in Trotz’s return under certain circumstances. Ultimately, the Capitals general manager explained that, while some NHL clubs were willing to grant their bench bosses lengthy deals, Washington

was not one of them. They believed that few coaches are able to stay with one team for extended periods of time.

NHL teams can certainly be fickle when it comes to retaining head coaches. The Blackhawks fired Quenneville in November 2018—before the end of the three-year deal he signed in 2016—despite the fact that he had brought them three Stanley Cup championships. Ex-Flames skipper Bob Hartley was fired in May 2016, less than one year after winning the Jack Adams Award.

Yet, lengthy stays by a head coach are not unheard of. Babcock managed to remain in Detroit for a decade before going to Toronto. Jon Cooper has helmed the Tampa Bay Lightning for roughly seven years after replacing Guy Boucher midseason in March 2013. And, as previously mentioned, Trotz put together a 15-year stint with Nashville.

In Franklin’s opinion, an NHL coach’s ability to stay with a team depends largely on that team’s specific situation and goals. For instance, the Predators lacked high-end talent throughout much of the 2000s and early 2010s. Trotz continued to run the team according to his philosophy, and his willingness to stay the course was matched by that of Nashville’s front office. Yet, when Trotz signed on with Washington, he inherited a team featuring All-Star caliber talent at multiple positions, including Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeni Kuznetsov, John Carlson, Braden Holtby, and of course, Alexander Ovechkin, whose 706 career goals are currently the eighth-most in NHL history.

On paper, the Capitals had all the talent and depth they needed to win a Stanley Cup: elite offensive forwards, mobile and well-rounded defensemen, and a legitimate number-one goalie. Trotz’s deal was to bring them over the hump, into the promised land. Therefore, Washington’s management group had understandably less patience with him than Nashville’s did.

Having said all that, it would have been unlikely for the Capitals to part ways with Trotz if they did not have a quality replacement in mind. That man was Todd Reirden, Washington’s former associate head coach. Unusually, both Reirden and assistant coach Blaine Forsythe had received contract extensions for 2018-19 while Trotz remained on the final year of his deal, generating a level of friction

within the coaching staff. The Capitals’ peculiar move ended up being a harbinger of things to come: Reirden assumed the position of head coach less than two weeks after Trotz’s resignation.

Hume and Khurshudyan had both known with a strong degree of certainty that Reirden was the preferred candidate to replace Trotz, and that he would have stepped in if Trotz was fired in the middle of the season. Inserting more details about Reirden’s situation was the only major edit that Hume suggested to his writer.

While timeliness and factual accuracy are essential to presenting breaking news, so too is objectivity. The contentious nature of Washington’s treatment of Trotz could easily have led a journalist to include subtle biases in favor of the coach, or even sensationalist reporting that depicted the Capitals as cheap or misguided for letting him go. However, Khurshudyan explained that a professional beat writer manages to compartmentalize his or her own feelings and connections with certain people in order to report the news objectively.

“As much as I like Trotz personally, and I don’t think that was a big secret, and as much as I like Brian McLellan personally, I don’t think that has anything to do with what the facts were here,” she said. “I was trying to step back and think: if I am telling my friend about this, who’s never heard about any of these people, how would I explain the situation? If you’re a pro, you’ve talked to both sides, and so you try to take all of that and lay out what the most fair picture is.”

Hume praised Khurshudyan as being just that: a consummate professional. He trusted that her story would be free of bias or favouritism, and it was. As the article continued to develop, both writer and editor remained mindful of keeping a balanced perspective.

A veteran of TSN since 2003, Franklin is no stranger to fairness and accuracy. While he admits it can be hard for a journalist to stay objective when he or she has worked with an organization for years, the line between professionalism and personal feelings has never blurred in his own career. Much like Khurshudyan, Franklin does not let his organization off the hook when something controversial occurs. During the 2013-14 season, he insisted on pursuing a story about the Flames teaching their players how to fight on ice, unfazed by the displeasure that the organization expressed about his actions.

All in all, the Barry Trotz story was typical of most breaking news coverage in the sports world in terms of both writing and editing. Khurshudyan filed three times in total: a 300-400 word flash story, a 700-word second draft including statements from MacLellan and Trotz, and a final version with more information about Reirden and Trotz’s time in Washington. Outside of recommending that supplemental details on Reirden be added, Hume did not need to make any major changes or demands of his writer. It was his responsibility to perform general line editing, check for spelling and grammar, and make little tweaks to ensure that the article flowed as smoothly as possible. The finished product came in at just over 1400 words.

Despite its relatively standard format, industry professionals acknowledged the quality of Khurshudyan’s work on Trotz. Her article became a winning entry in the 2018 Associated Press Sports Editors contest as part of the Beat Writing category. Numerous colleagues lauded Khurshudyan’s effort, including her former editor.

“It was pretty big for a news story,” recalls Hume, who still works for The Washington Post. “But it had a lot of context, a lot of original reporting in it, and also great historical chronicling of the key points in Trotz’s career.”

Franklin had an interesting interpretation of Khurshudyan’s article, which he was quick to praise as well-written. He believes that Trotz accomplished what the Capitals hired him to do and should have been treated accordingly.

“It didn’t happen in the first three years, but that’s why it was a four-year contract,” Franklin remarked. While acknowledging his place as an outsider, he maintains that Trotz fulfilled what was asked of him and that ultimately, Washington did not adjust to the changing landscape of NHL coaching.

Khurshudyan’s sports writing days are behind her for the time being. She now works as a foreign correspondent in Moscow, where she tackles a variety of material: be it breaking news or other types of stories. With extensive and varied experience under her belt, she views her piece on Trotz—and ones like it—as a unique and rewarding challenge.

“As difficult as [breaking news] stories can be, they are also pretty easy because you don’t overthink it,” Khurshudyan elaborated. “You just kind of go through the steps and end up doing everything rapid-fire. It’s not this enterprise story that you’re laboring over for weeks or something like that, thinking over every sentence. It’s something you’re doing in the moment.”