By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 20, 2020) — Distinguished sports reporter Craig Morgan, who has covered the NHL’s Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes since 2000, is one of many journalists who’ve lost their jobs in recent months in the pandemic-hit media industry across North America.
Morgan is keeping busy, though. After being laid off by The Athletic, Morgan was ready to pursue another avenue to cover the Coyotes.
Earlier this month, he launched AZ Coyotes Insider, a subscription-based website. With expertise and longtime coverage of the Coyotes, Morgan fills an important role in the Phoenix-area media market.
In a recent interview conducted via email, Morgan discusses his thoughts on the Arizona Coyotes in the run-up to the NHL restart after the season was suspended due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He dishes out insights on Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet and several players, and shares his views on the top NHL reporters working today. He also explains why he believes his reporting for The Athletic represented the best work of his career, while giving the background on a few of his favorite stories written for the website.
What have been a few of your trademarks in your approach to pro hockey coverage over the past few decades?
I would say they are the same elements that I tried to bring my lengthy tenure as an NBA, NFL and college football reporter: fairness, in-depth reporting, colorful storytelling and responsiveness to my readers. Hockey is a different beat for me, however. I played the sport from age 5 through college and I grew up around many players who went on to pro or Division I careers so I have a better understanding of the game than any other I have covered. I think that produces a level of confidence in reporting and writing.
What have people come to most recognize, respect and look forward to in terms of what you have produced with the written word and other forms of hockey reporting?
It has evolved over the years because outlets don’t always want the same sort of coverage. Some want quick updates or newsy information; others want long form and features that depend upon extensive reporting or storytelling. The latter is the type of writing I did for the past two years at The Athletic, and I suspect that is the form of journalism most reporters/writers enjoy most, when provided the time and resources to produce it.
As a new online venture, is AZ Coyotes Insider modeled after other independent sports subscription websites?
Without question. I took a lot of pointers from my time at The Athletic such as long-form features and analysis, but some of the content came from my own desire to interact more with readers, such as my uniquely designed mailbags and the notes column I created that was widely read.
The Athletic also gave me a window into what people were willing to pay for exclusive content that goes beyond the run-of-the-mill coverage you find in most newspapers, or through aggregation and wire services on national sites.
Since you announced recently that you were going to launch AZ Coyotes Insider, what has the response been from your colleagues in the sports media, both in Arizona and elsewhere?
It has been overwhelming. When I announced, most of the people in the Arizona sports media (and many in the news media crafted original tweets to encourage readers to subscribe). I received the same kindness from my former colleagues at The Athletic NHL, and some of the biggest names in the industry such as Bob McKenzie, Elliotte Friedman, Pierre LeBrun, Scott Burnside, Chris Johnston and Greg Wyshysnki. Many reporters have subscribed to the site.
I think everyone wants to believe that independent journalism can survive, even thrive in such a volatile industry, and in such tough economic times. I can’t thank my colleagues enough for their support.
How has the team, in particular head coach Rick Tocchet, media relations guru Rich Nairn and others in key positions, viewed this new project?
The same way my media colleague have: They have lent me full support. The Coyotes promoted the new site and they have promised me the same sport of access that I have always had for other outlets. President/CEO Xavier Gutierrez, GM John Chayka, coach Rick Tocchet, Rich Nairn and so many others (including players) have voiced their support.
What are 3-4 of your favorite stories that you’ve written about the Coyotes in the 21st century?
I won’t dive back too far. I did the best work of my career at The Athletic so I will choose a variety.
I broke the news that Alex Meruelo was purchasing the Coyotes after months of reporting on it: https://theathletic.com/1019651/2019/06/10/closing-in-on-a-deal-alex-meruelo-in-advanced-stages-of-purchasing-majority-share-of-coyotes/
I did a deep dive into the personal and professional life of John Chayka: https://theathletic.com/569203/2018/10/04/more-than-a-numbers-guy-john-chayka-brings-diverse-skill-set-as-coyotes-gm/
I wrote a fascinating story on Austrians Michael Grabner and Michael Raffl, who grew up in the same small town and made it to the NHL from a nation that has only produced a handful of NHL players: https://athletique.com/642921/2018/11/08/sound-of-hockey-music-neighbors-in-austria-raffl-grabner-proudly-established-in-the-nhl/
I did a lighthearted piece on the Coyotes’ executives’, coaches’ and players’ love of dogs: https://theathletic.com/1160797/2019/08/26/desert-dogs-and-the-coyotes-who-love-them/
In addition to social media, is word of mouth the best way to inform people that you’ve started the AZ Coyotes Insider?
Word-of-mouth certainly helps, but I have conducted a fair amount of radio and podcast appearances since I started the site. As I mentioned earlier, the amplification by multiple reporters in the field via social media has probably helped the most.
What are Tocchet’s strengths as a head coach?
I think his honesty comes through in everything he does, whether it’s dealing with players or dealing with reporters. He is sometimes blunt, but you always know where you stand with him. I also think it helps that he played the game at such a high level. That lends instant street cred when he walks into the dressing room.
The thing about Rick that doesn’t get mentioned enough is what a hockey nerd he is. He studies so much film, crafts so many ideas and thinks hockey so many hours of the day. He is all in on the profession. He won’t fail for lack of effort.
How would you sum up the Coyotes’ season so far in 2019-20?
Disappointing, but with renewed opportunity. They were in first place when goalie Darcy Kuemper (their best player) got hurt in late December. In the ensuing 2½ months, they fell out of a playoff spot.
The paused season and expanded playoff format have afforded the Coyotes an opportunity to rest (their travel schedule was one of the worst in the NHL), get healthy and perhaps alter the narrative that surfaced in January, February and early March.
Any big individual surprises?
Forward Conor Garland would probably be the biggest. He was a fifth-round draft pick in 2015 who completely altered his style of play in the minor leagues to get a crack at an NHL job. It has paid off. He led the team in goals with 22 when the season was paused.
Forwards Lawson Crouse and Christian Dvorak have also taken major strides.
What do you expect from this club over the next few years?
So much depends on how they manage the salary cap this summer. They really want to re-sign Taylor Hall. If they can do that, and if their young players — center Barrett Hayton, Christian Dvorak, Nick Schmaltz, Clayton Keller, Lawson Crouse, Jakob Chychrun, Jan Jenik, Victor Söderström — can continue to progress, they could be a playoff team for years to come.
Who are a few must-read NHL reporters for you?
Katie Strang at The Athletic is perhaps the best investigative reporter with whom I have ever worked. Mike Russo (The Athletic Minnesota) is the best beat writer in the NHL. Mark Lazerus (The Athletic Chicago) is my favorite writer because his voice comes through so clearly in his writing. As for follows, the big names I mentioned earlier are musts because they are always on top of the news due to their array of sources.
Similarly, are there a few columnists who deliver opinions and insights that you feel you need to pay attention to?
They are connected, especially because the lines between columnist and reporter have been blurred in sports media for so long. To be honest, unless it is big-picture content, I’d rather turn to beat writers than columnists for inside information and analysis. They know more than the columnists because they are there every day; boots on the ground. I almost feel like the columnist position has become redundant and unnecessary, unless it is a big-picture analysis.
In your opinion, how has the NHL and the NHLPA collaborated on figuring out how to relaunch the season? Was it a healthy dialogue? Did the league act sensibly by choosing Toronto and Edmonton for the two hub cities?
It was an incredibly healthy and fruitful dialogue. They crafted perhaps the best return-to-play format among the North American pro sports leagues, they crafted a new CBA that provides labor peace through 2025-2026, and they were flexible enough with their hub city plan to alter it when Las Vegas ( original site of the Western Conference playoffs) experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases, necessitating a move to Edmonton.
It certainly helped the league that it could move its postseason to a neighboring nation (seven NHL teams play in Canada) that has managed the COVID-19 outbreak far better than the United States. Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NFL didn’t have that option.
How do you think the quality of play will be from the get-go when things get started back up on Aug. 1?
It’s a great question and I don’t have an answer. I have heard several theories pushed. Many analysts think the games will be sloppy early, like exhibition or early-season games can be. Some analysts think the teams with more skill will have an advantage because it takes time to re-establish defensive identity and structure. Some analysts think the teams with elite goaltending (like the Coyotes) will flourish. The best theory I have heard is that the teams’ whose players did the best collective job of staying in shape will flourish. We’re about to find out who those teams and players are.
The Athletic expanded quite quickly in the past few years, adding an impressive list of reporters and columnists around North America and in the United Kingdom. How did that work environment help you thrive and also motivate you as you reported on the Coyotes?
When outsiders asked me how The Athletic was different from past outlets for which I had worked, I gave them the same response. “We are provided three things that I thought had left the industry for good: time, trust and the resources to write the best stories possible.”
Beyond those realities, working alongside the best NHL writers in the world afforded the opportunity for collaboration, an exchange of ideas, amplification of every market’s work and a healthy drive to produce consistently higher quality content because so many people around you were doing just that. It was a privilege to work there for two NHL seasons.
The “new normal” due to the COVID-19 pandemic may be here for a long time and economic forecasts predict difficult times, maybe for several years. That said, do you believe The Athletic may prioritize reinvesting in the Arizona market by expanding its reduced staff in the future?
I really can’t predict their plans in Arizona. When we started The Athletic Arizona in 2018, we had 10 people onboard including our editor, six beat writers and three freelance writers. Only two remain so I think it’s fair to say that The Athletic is not as committed to the Arizona market as it is to many others. I explained the potential reasons for this in my introductory piece at AZ Coyotes Insider. I would love to see The Athletic return in full force to Arizona, however. I think the fans and readers deserve such coverage across the board.
Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CraigSMorgan