By HOWARD BERGER
NASHVILLE (Nov. 16) – As a reporter that has occasionally risen above the subject-matter of his own story, I can empathize with Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star. What began as a fairly innocuous, multi-intentioned phone call to Manitoba last week has blossomed into a saga involving Canada’s largest newspaper; the Toronto Maple Leafs; the filtering of information, and the varied hypotheses of journalistic integrity. Suffice to say the Leafs and “hockey people”, in general, see it one way; the Star and unaffiliated “media people” the opposite.
In a nutshell, here is the sequence of events:
Just more than one minute into a Saturday-night game at Montreal nearly four weeks ago, Leafs goalie James Reimer was steam-rolled at the lip of his crease by forward Brian Gionta of the Canadiens – a player with no history of administering cheap-shots. Crossing from left to right in front of the Toronto net, Gionta collided with Reimer’s shoulder and head, violently dis-lodging the goalie’s mask and helmet. Briefly stunned, Reimer took a moment to regain his senses and continued playing for the balance of the period. When he complained, during the intermission, of what the Leafs described as “neck soreness” and a “whiplash-type” effect, doctors pulled Reimer; the visitors turning to back-up Jonas Gustavsson; coach Ron Wilson suggesting afterward to reporters it probably wasn’t a serious injury.
Save for the occasional practice; morning skate and press-box appearance, it’s the last we’ve seen of arguably the Leafs most important player.
During an era in which the scrutiny of head and neck ailments in hockey has finally risen to a commensurate level – driven by the absence, since last January, of the game’s top player – it hardly requires a Medical Doctorate to gather when a concussion has been sustained. The major determining factors are precisely those which have beset Reimer: an absence far beyond what is reasonable for a muscle strain in the neck (or any other part of the body), and sporadic participation in on-ice activity. The latter is most significant, for it indicates a recurrence of concussion trademarks (headache, nausea, vision irregularity) during strenuous activity. Many athletes have considered themselves fit to resume such activity, only to be stopped in their tracks by a flare-up of symptoms. Reimer has been on the ice with his teammates only three or four times since the collision with Gionta – virtually assuring he has post-concussion syndrome.
In and of itself, this is hardly a matter of curiosity or contention. Not so many years ago, a hockey team’s “trainer” – usually a person devoid of medical acumen – would split open a capsule of ammonium carbonate and wave it beneath the nostril of a woozy player. This “smelling-salt” compound would arouse the player toward consciousness – often without sacrificing a shift. More recently, such therapy was found to be the equivalent of putting a drugstore BandAid on a surgical wound. In the interim, professional and amateur sports teams have been lauded for their keen application of the rising standards that govern head trauma. Had the Leafs simply informed the media – and, therefore, the public – that Reimer incurred a concussion in Montreal, nary a peep would have been uttered in protest or bewilderment. Instead, the team maintained a nebulous position – acknowledging concussion-like symptoms only after it became obvious.
Now, this isn’t to single out the Leafs for shrouding or filtering information; such practice has become routine throughout much of professional sport. It is one of the few control mechanisms still available to teams in the age of Internet and mass media. Unfortunately for these clubs, the concurrent growth of competition among media outlets has largely offset such measures.
This was proven beyond a doubt last week, when Feschuk made a telephone call to the home in Morweena, Manitoba where Reimer grew up. In a conversation with Marlene Reimer – the goalie’s mom – Feschuk was assured of what most of us already assumed: that her son had received a concussion in Montreal and was unable to exert himself. The Maple Leafs viewed this as something of a witch-hunt, and Feschuk’s name turned to mud. Wilson and GM Brian Burke were beside themselves over the temerity of Feschuk to seek alternate means – conveniently overlooking that the informant had the prerogative to deny any-such request. That Mrs. Reimer chose to speak openly and honestly to Feschuk became a blight on the reporter.
DAVE FESCHUK (WEARING GLASSES) COVERS LEAFS GAME AT NEW JERSEY NOV. 2.
After arriving here in Nashville on Wednesday afternoon, I called Feschuk at home and wondered how he viewed the week-long dispute. “To be honest, I don’t want this to drag on any further because I hate it when [a member of] the media becomes the story,” he said. “I stand by what I wrote last week and am proud of it. My colleague, Damien Cox, defended the journalistic view as well as anyone possibly could in [Wednesday’s] newspaper. It’s important to me that people know I showed up at [Leafs] practice the day after the story appeared and spoke with James Reimer – face-to-face – for 20 minutes. I’ve also talked several times with Brian Burke. So, I’m not ducking responsibility.”
Feschuk also contends the Leafs have distorted his motive for calling the Reimer home. “This wasn’t a muck-raking exercise intended to out-smart the Leafs on information control,” he insisted. “I wanted to speak with the mother of a significant player about the angst surrounding head injuries. I’m a hockey parent, too, and I talk to many other parents at the rink each week. Obviously, I didn’t mind coming upon something newsworthy in the course of that discussion. But, it wasn’t my sole motive for making the call.”
Through all of this, fans of the Maple Leafs merely want an indication as to when the club’s key figure might be ready to return. Ironically, and though it sounds like avoidance, Wilson has been dead-honest in replying that he simply doesn’t know.
After all, how could he accurately assume the course of post-concussion syndrome.