Are Maple Leafs “Hiding” Bernier?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Mar. 15) – I will begin today by admitting that suspicion has gotten the better of me. It’s the kind of thing that happens to a reporter after covering the Toronto Maple Leafs for ten days. When you’ve done it, on and off, for more than 30 years, skepticism shifts into over-drive. And, quickly.

So, let me allow for the chance that Leafs were talking aboveboard Saturday when they told reporters in Washington that Jonathan Bernier’s lower-body ailment “is not severe” while concurrently suggesting the goalie would undergo a Magnetic Resonance Imaging study (or MRI). After all, any one of us wearing a cast from groin to toe could hobble into a room full of people and assert that we have a “small leg problem.” We could stagger to a toilet for hours on end Sunday morning while insisting we “didn’t drink too much” on Saturday night. Or wear a 12-stitch gash on our face after a “minor shaving” incident.

Couldn’t we?

These are scenarios that come to mind among experienced hockey reporters in the 21st century – at least among those willing (or not frightened) to think outside the box. I did it, with much encouragement, for 23 years at The FAN-590 and made a few enemies along the way. It probably contributed to my demise at the radio station in June 2011. But, I always felt that seeking as much truth as possible by asking the odd uncomfortable question was an enormous part of the job.

It may not be anymore in the world of media ownership – Rogers and Bell, after all, share a 75 percent stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Perhaps TV and radio reporting is now a promotional extension… I can’t say, as I’m no longer involved at that level.

What I can tell you – unequivocally – is that professional sports teams in the 2010’s will go to any extent to control information, especially as it relates to a key player (i.e. Jonathan Bernier). When such control is of utmost concern, media relations personnel are instructed to inform reporters that a subject is “unavailable for comment.” Suspicion increases ten-fold amid a subject that is normally pleasant and courteous. That was the case two seasons ago when James Reimer, who would chat with a fire hydrant, couldn’t wave hello to a member of the media, much less speak on the record about his head/neck injury.

I haven’t yet come to know Bernier, though he seems more guarded than his goaltending partner. So, perhaps a crowbar isn’t needed to keep him from reporters. Point I’m making is that the subject is immaterial. If a team wants to disseminate information of its own accord – and which professional sports entity today doesn’t? – it will either minimize or eliminate media contact with the player in question.

MIGHT JONATHAN BERNIER HAVE AGGRAVATED A GROIN OR LOWER-ABDOMINAL INJURY BY MAKING THIS SAVE ON THURSDAY NIGHT IN LOS ANGELES? HE WAS PULLED FROM THE GAME AFTER SURRENDERING TWO GOALS IN THE FIRST PERIOD. BERNIER HAS NOT-SINCE UTTERED A SYLLABLE TO REPORTERS COVERING THE MAPLE LEAFS.

That’s why I’m led to believe that Bernier may have incurred (or aggravated) more than a minor injury in his 20 minutes of work at the Staples Center on Thursday. We all know there were extenuating circumstances, with the goalie returning to play against the team that traded him to the Maple Leafs last summer. Chances are Bernier would have taken to the ice with a walker, if it were needed. Of more drastic implication is the role of the hockey club in allowing Bernier to compete.

Again, let’s give the Leafs benefit of the doubt.

I cannot fathom Dave Nonis, Randy Carlyle and Co. choosing to jeopardize Bernier’s season under any circumstance. These are smart hockey people in a multi-million-dollar enterprise, answerable to ownership. Still, that doesn’t preclude a bit of carelessness in the face of competitive desire – namely Bernier’s, in Los Angeles, against his former team. Carlyle even admitted after the game that Bernier wasn’t completely healthy… “but we felt he was good enough to go.”

What if Bernier wasn’t good enough to go and the Leafs erred by not exercising appropriate caution? Would that provide enough incentive for the team to shield its No. 1 goalie from inquiring minds? Certainly in my experience it would. Reimer couldn’t venture to within 50 feet of a microphone or notepad two years ago until the Leafs figured it was “safe enough” for him to talk. By that time, their “information” had been all over the map. You might remember Eric Lindros nursing a “sore wrist” in his lone season (2005-06) with the Blue and White. I had been told by a very good source that Lindros would not be able to play without having surgery… which I reported on radio – again and again – in the face of constant denial. Lindros, honest and decent, had to fudge the truth for weeks on end. When I cornered him in Tampa one day in mid-March, he’d finally had enough. “I don’t know what’s going on, Howard,” he said. “But, I can’t play with the wrist feeling this way.”

Less than two weeks later, he had an operation.

This was not uncommon in my years covering the Leafs for The FAN-590, nor was I always bang-on with my best information. Almost never, though, did I accept the club’s version at face value. It was in the Maple Leafs’ best interest to control any injury message… as it is today.

That’s why my antenna shot upward when Bernier was kept away from reporters in Los Angeles and Washington. This type of silence in professional sport is often deafening. As such, proceeding without a raised eyebrow is never in a reporter’s best interest.

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