Media Burden Just Another Excuse

By HOWARD BERGER

NEWARK (Mar. 23) – Countering the oft-heard argument that the Maple Leafs are “victimized” by the Toronto media is remarkably easy. All one has to do is assemble a list of professional teams that have won championships in the past decade while performing beneath an identical spotlight.

Consider, for example, several of the largest and most intense media markets here in the United States: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Dallas and Los Angeles. Determining the magnitude of coverage by newspapers, television and radio is partly subjective, but I can offer this bit of unequivocal information: the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys are easily the most scrutinized of all professional clubs in North America.

As many of you are aware, the Yankees – since 1996 – have missed the playoffs only once in 16 years while competing in the most difficult sport in which to qualify; have been to the World Series seven times, winning five championships [four of them in a five-year span between ’96 and 2000]. The Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers are tied for most appearances in the Super Bowl [eight] and Dallas trails only Pittsburgh [6-5] for most championships, winning three in four years between 1993 and 1996.

Super Bowl XXVII Cowboys Bills 1993

DALLAS COWBOYS QB TROY AIKMAN SEEMED UNDETERRED BY EXTENSIVE MEDIA COVERAGE.

We can also mention such multiple league champions as the Steelers, New York Giants, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics, New England Patriots, St. Louis Rams and St. Louis Cardinals – all of which are subjected to as much inquiry and analysis as the Maple Leafs.

But, why go to such an extreme when a perfect example existed in our very own back-yard.

You may need to be 30-35 years old to have first-hand recollection, but baseball eclipsed hockey by a wide margin as the No. 1 sport in Toronto between 1985 and 1993.

At no time in modern history have the Leafs been followed more passionately and extensively than the Blue Jays of the late-’80s and early-’90s, yet the Jays were somehow able to win consecutive World Series titles amid such attention. Trust me: there is no exaggeration here. Major League Baseball was all the rage in our town during the Jays playoff and championship years; fervor that intensified with the construction of SkyDome [now Rogers Centre] – the world’s first retractable-roof stadium.

If you don’t believe me, ask any Toronto sports fan who remembers that splendid era and you’ll receive instant corroboration.

JOE CARTER AND THE BLUE JAYS OF 1992 AND 1993 DID QUITE WELL AMID THE MOST INTENSE MEDIA SPOTLIGHT IN TORONTO SPORTS HISTORY.

Why, then, is there a feeling that the Leafs of the 2010s have been browbeaten into submission by the media? And, why are teams in other cities and other sports able to overcome such “hardship”?

That was my motivation for asking Twitter followers to email their views of this much-talked-about phenomenon. Here is a selection of the comments I received [edited for spelling and grammar, not content]:

ROBERT DeROSE of WINDSOR, ONT. wrote: “Hi Howard. Love your work! I think the Leafs using the media as an excuse for poor play is bogus. It is simply a weak argument. Toronto is a big media market and other teams have found success in the past. The current Leafs seem to be easily intimidated and appear to lack heart. They don’t play well in tough games because they lack the drive that many former Leaf teams had. I feel that no player on the current team truly wants to be a superstar or the face of the franchise. Leafs need players who crave that environment and the media’s attention. Hockey media is a big part of playing in Toronto. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. I personally don’t want players that fear the media. Brian Burke should try to acquire those that have the character to succeed in spite of all the attention. I am grateful to the media for providing so much coverage of my team.”

RESPONSE: Robert, I think you speak to the attitude of countless Leaf fans; difference is, you have the character to admit it in a public forum while using your actual name. The hypocrisy of fans that claim the irrelevance of Leafs coverage is found in the multitude of chat forums involving the team: Any significant newspaper story; TV/radio report or Twitter submission from the media is quickly opened as a “thread” and debated for hours – sometimes days – on end.  The people behind these reports are “morons”, “idiots” and “hacks”, yet “intelligent” fans, masquerading beneath pseudonyms, cannot ignore them for a moment.  Media coverage of the Leafs is not intended to influence, entertain or disturb those that play for the team. It is funneled toward the club’s gargantuan base of rooters and is escalated by competition within the industry. It would not exist without demand.

LEAFS ARE BIG NEWS, NO MATTER WHERE THEY PLAY OR HOW THEY FARE.

BRENT BOUTCHER of AURORA, ONT. writes: “Hello Mr. Berger. I am 25 years old and I miss listening to you on The Fan-590. ‘Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.’ That’s how I sum up the media as it pertains to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Off the top of my head, I can count four major newspapers; four major radio stations and three all-sports TV networks. And, those are simply the ‘big ones’, if you will. All of these outlets cover the same stories – same game; same pre and-post-game press conferences and player interviews, etc. The Leafs even have their own channel and group of reporters. As a fan, I can’t say I dislike the number of outlets that provide material about my team. I can’t start or end a day without getting my ‘fix’. But, I can easily see how taxing it can be on the players, coaches and management. This is a difficult topic to criticize; it’s like biting the hand that feeds. But, if it is a true distraction, there should be nothing less than a locker-room ban on the media. If I called the shots, that what I’d be tempted to do. There would be one microphone and one camera, and all material would then be released to the media in ‘pool’ form. But, I suppose if Brian Burke could turn this team around, the media excuse wouldn’t be such an excuse after all.”

RESPONSE: Whether intended or not, Brent, you rendered your argument pointless with your last sentence. Otherwise, you would have existed rather comfortably in the old Soviet Union. First of all, banning hockey reporters from the dressing room in Toronto wouldn’t begin to stand a legal chance unless all other teams in North American professional sport agreed to the same approach. Even then, such action would be contested so vigorously that we both know it would never succeed. You do not, however, need to convince me that what you’ve described in your email is overkill. There isn’t a person covering the Leafs right now that would disagree with you. But, there must be a reason for it; otherwise many of the outlets you referred to would either fall by the wayside or focus attention on other matters. I admire your admission of possibly “biting the hand that feeds”. I believe you are typical of most Leaf fans with your insatiable appetite for team-related news and opinion. And, I think you understand – based on your final comment – that anger toward the media is simply an outlet to vent frustration over the team.

SCENES LIKE THIS (MEDIA SURROUNDING COACH RANDY CARLYLE AFTER LAST WEEK’S LEAFS GAME IN SUNRISE, FLA.) ARE COMMONPLACE… AND LIKELY FOR A REASON.

TOM ACORN of BOWMANVILLE, ONT. writes: “I’d like to think that players are professional and media commentary has a minimal impact on their performance. That said, I can see how the negativity spouted by Toronto’s hockey media would deter free agents from playing there. If I’m Zach Parise, weighing options before signing a long-term UFA contract, I look at how Phil Kessel has been scape-goated in the midst of a career season [36 goals] and wonder if there’s enough money in the world for me to play in Toronto.”

RESPONSE: If you’re Zach Parise, Tom, wouldn’t a legitimate opportunity to win the Stanley Cup supersede any consideration on the open market (providing monetary offers are comparable, which they should be)? And, is “negativity” – as you call it – created by media or simply a by-product of uninterrupted failure on the ice? I can’t imagine a circumstance in which a reporter covering the post-lockout Maple Leafs might be considered “positive” by the fan-base. Such an individual would have been writing fiction or fantasy for the past seven years. When all is said and done, reporters simply react to what they see – some more vehemently than others.

ONCE THIS STARTS HAPPENING LESS FREQUENTLY, GOOD FREE AGENTS WILL CONSIDER SIGNING WITH THE LEAFS. UNTIL THEN… NO, REGARDLESS OF MEDIA COVERAGE.

SEAN DeLGIALLO of TORONTO writes: “Hi Howard. I’m a long-time reader currently studying at Ryerson University. I’m glad you’ve asked this question because my roommate and I are die-hard Leaf fans and we frequently disagree with columns written by Damien Cox, Steve Simmons and Dave Feschuk. In a previous blog, you pointed out how the Leafs were hassled for drafting Wendel Clark [in 1985]. I wasn’t born yet, but I remember watching Clark and Doug Gilmour tear it up for the Leafs with my dad and grandfather. This suggests there were players not at all effected by intense media coverage. Today, in the era of social media, I think it is half-true that players can be run out of town by reporters and columnists. What’s worse is that many members of the media claim they are holding players accountable for the fans. I think it’s ignorant to believe that millions of people are so influenced when it comes to the team; a management decision or a player. Also, it’s clear that certain reporters and columnists lack integrity by allowing their personal relationships to govern what they write.”

RESPONSE: Sean, I agree with your last point because I used to fight the same urge. When Pat Quinn and I were clashing on a regular basis in his early years as GM and coach, I gave it back to him in droves on the radio. Only when my boss, Nelson Millman, pulled me aside one day and said that listeners felt I had a vendetta against Quinn did I smarten up. You mention Damien Cox, who I have long considered to be among the best analytic writers of hockey in North America. He disappointed me in the summer of 2002 when Curtis Joseph left the Leafs to sign as a free agent with Detroit. Damien – clearly unimpressed with Quinn’s role in Cujo’s departure – referred to the Leafs boss as “cigar breath” and “stuffed suit” – a reference to Quinn’s bloated physique. Neither was necessary in any way, particularly from an individual that understands the game so thoroughly. Crossing the line from professional to personal is something I’ve avoided at all costs since Nelson had that talk with me. Others continue to do it today, and it’s their choice. You do seem, however, to be mostly annoyed by columnists that report with bare-faced accuracy on the Leafs. Again, I feel you and your roommate use that as a crux to minimize your legitimate frustration with the team.

PAT QUINN CLASHED WITH REPORTERS WHEN HE FIRST CAME TO THE LEAFS. IN REACTION, I MISTAKENLY CROSSED THE LINE FROM PROFESSIONAL TO PERSONAL.

DAN CAVANAUGH of HALIFAX writes: “Hey Howard! Hope all is well with you. I have to agree with Brian Burke’s assertion that the media can be a hindrance to his club. These players can’t blow their noses without a full-page article in the papers. If a player doesn’t score for a few games, he gets asked the same questions, over and over, by reporters. Why would anyone want to play in Toronto when you could play in Nashville and just concentrate on hockey, rather than worrying what will be said or written about you every day?”

RESPONSE: I suppose, Dan, you can ask why people choose to live in a large, crowded city with inherent traffic issues and line-ups at restaurants when they could avoid such hassles in a small, urban environment. I ask myself that question each time I crawl along the north or southbound Don Valley Parkway in Toronto. If a choice is involved, the answer is obvious: there’s much more to do in a large city; many more culinary and entertainment options than in a smaller locale. Accordingly, hockey players should enjoy performing in Toronto because many more people are interested in their profession. I suppose there’s an upside to working in relative anonymity in such places as Nashville, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Sunrise, Fla., Raleigh N.C., etc. and the weather is often more palatable. But, interest in the team is also fleeting at best. I’d much rather ply my trade – be it as a player or media member – in a city that truly gets absorbed in the game. The problem in Toronto is constant losing. How could anyone enjoy such a circumstance? But, go ask Doug Gilmour or Wendel Clark how “difficult” it was to be a Leaf in the spring of 1993? If the Leafs ever start winning again, there will be no better place on Earth to be a hockey player or a fan.

MAY 3, 1993: DOUG GILMOUR’S FAMOUS DOUBLE-OVERTIME WINNER IN ROUND TWO OF THE PLAYOFFS AGAINST CURTIS JOSEPH AND THE ST. LOUIS BLUES. THE MEDIA SURE DIDN’T HOLD THAT TEAM BACK.

IAN (RADAR) CUNNINGHAM of TORONTO writes: “Media’s effect on the Leafs, really? Don’t cover them and they’ll go away? I don’t think so. The fans need a wake-up call. Or better yet: the fans need to give the Leafs a wake-up call. Get mad; stop forking over your dollars and demand change.”

RESPONSE: Oh, if it were only that easy, Radar!

Email: howardlberger@gmail.com

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