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Jim Benning's 'tampering' could cost the Canucks more than money

I hate that I'm writing a post ripping an NHL general manager for his candour. To be perfectly candid, I love candour.
Benning

I hate that I'm writing a post ripping an NHL general manager for his candour.

To be perfectly candid, I love candour. I would far rather that GMs like Jim Benning felt comfortable being forthcoming and frank in interviews, and made efforts to keep fans abreast of their plans. But there is a line, and on the eve of last week's NHL draft, Jim Benning crossed it.

That's according to Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin. He actually said those words. “He crossed the line,” Bergevin told Postmedia's Jason Botchford. “I don’t know where the line was crossed but he definitely crossed the line. It can’t happen.”

I'll tell you where. It was right about the time Benning spoke candidly about his interest in another team's player, and then another team's player, telling TSN 1040 that he had called the Canadiens about P.K. Subban, and planned to talk to pending free agent Steven Stamkos following the draft. As Mike Leggo would say, you can't do that, and on Tuesday, the league slapped the Canucks with a $50,000 reminder.

"Canucks General Manager Jim Benning violated the provisions of NHL By-Law 15 relating to inappropriate public comments by speaking generally to his Club's potential interest in players under contract to other NHL Clubs," said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. "I spoke with Jim and accept his representation that he intended no harm with his comments and that he will handle similar questions from the media differently in the future."

The mea culpa that followed was equal parts fair and facepalm-worthy, as Benning explained, "I was trying to be candid with our fans and media... but said too much about players on other teams." 

That's right, fans. Benning screwed up, but he did it for you. It's like when you trample your mom's rose garden to pick her some flowers.

Naturally, Canucks fans strained to find some injustice in the fine, and it's certainly there if you reach for it. The Toronto Maple Leafs were fined half that, just $25,000, for expressing a desire to sign the Sedins in the summer of 2009, and one wonders why Benning's fine was double for "tampering" with, in effect, the same number of players. But the Sedins' twinness has confused the league from the outset, and they're often treated as a single entity -- except when they suddenly aren't, like at the NHL awards, where the league handed Henrik and only Henrik the King Clancy trophy for his leadership and humanitarian contributions as though he was the Matt Damon to Daniel's Ben Affleck

Or you could argue that the fine is ten times what Andrew Shaw paid for using a homophobic slur in the playoffs. But that has more to do with the deal the NHLPA struck for fine limits in the last collective bargaining agreement. The league doesn't actually think it's ten times worse to express interest in P.K. Subban than to hurl an epithet at him. Those are just their dumb rules.

Or heck, you could point out that the league actually sanctions the hell out of tampering, so long as you do it on their terms, as Ed Willes noted on Twitter:

This is absolutely true. You want to float some interest in a player? Use one of the league's slick middlemen, who are available day and night to rumour-monger, opine and manage public perception on your behalf.

That said, I'm a locavore on this issue: if you really want to connect to your community, you could throw a damn bone to the local journalists who actually live and work among you, and share your juicy gossip with them. Granted, that's sort of what Benning did, but maybe next time do it off the air.

And I won't be blaming interviewers Blake Price and Matt Sekeres for this, as friend and colleague Jason Botchford casually did in a recent edition of the Provies, suggesting they let Benning say too much -- you know, by asking him questions. Let's be clear: if it's the media's job to keep Benning from screwing up in his, then he probably shouldn't have that job anymore. (And if the Canucks GM can't handle a phone call with Sekeres and Price, one wonders how he could ever hold his own when, say, Doug Wilson calls.)

No, this is Benning's mistake, entirely self-inflicted, and it's a bigger one than I think many realize. It's not about the money. It doesn't count to the cap, and it won't come out of my pocket, so who gives a crap about that. But one suspects any trade discussions surrounding P.K. Subban hit a wall with that interview.

And then there's the larger issue of perception: a blunder like this undercuts the notion that the Canucks are the sort of competently-run team a free agent would want to join, and on the eve of free agency, where the Canucks intend to be very active, a self-inflicted shot to their credibility is the last thing they need.

The players aren't stupid. Public opinion right now is that the Canucks' braintrust is more trust than brain, and I can assure you that this has made its way to the players. Yesterday, a report had Milan Lucic spurning his hometown team because he was unimpressed by Vancouver's prospect pool. It's not like he's taking meticulous notes, though -- he's just reading the same websites you do. After hearing several people suggest the Canucks aren't smartly-run, Benning's inability to be selective and strategic in what he shares is only going to add to the evidence, and set the Canucks back in their pursuit of the summer's top guys. (On the bright side, that fine will be even more affordable if all their summer money winds up going unspent.)

All that said, I do hope this isn't the end of Jim Benning's Open Era. As Thomas Drance notes, his candor is pretty refreshing: 

As someone who has dealt extensively with Benning, his candidness and accessibility are remarkable and to his credit. We'll have to hope that going forward Benning continues to be at least nearly as forthcoming as he's always been during his time as Canucks general manager, because I genuinely do believe that having a top executive who speaks his mind openly is a good thing for the team, the league and fans in general. 

I agree, unless we're talking about a top executive who speaks his mind openly to the detriment of his stated goals, and unfortunately, right now we are.