TORONTO (June 20) — We’re all aware of the old bromide “many a truth said in jest.” This was, perhaps, best–exemplified early today by my Facebook “friend”, Michael Augello, in Buffalo, New York. After I posted, incredulously, that it’s okay for us to learn British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had tested positive for COVID–19 — yet unpardonable for such knowledge to be revealed about Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews — Augello replied, “Boris didn’t score 47 goals.” So remarkably true. And, pathetic.
Steve Simmons, the veteran columnist of the Toronto Sun, came up with the biggest scoop involving the Leafs in years. He found out, on Friday, that Matthews had incurred the coronavirus while at home in Arizona. And, he wrote about it… absolutely trouncing all other news–gathering outlets. Now, that presumes there is still competition among hockey reporters and pundits, particularly here in Toronto, where all professional teams are owned by the companies that employ such individuals. As I’ve written many times, that Rogers and Bell are 75 percent co–proprietors of the Maple Leafs and Raptors is the most–egregious conflict–of–interest in Canadian media history. But, no one seems to care if ethics are compromised by such an arrangement. If, however, an independent reporter such as Simmons (though he freelances for TSN, owned by Bell) unveils that a Toronto athletic superstar has tested positive for COVID–19, the bleeding hearts among you come out in full force. Talk about a double–standard. It’s the Blue–and–White disease that we’ve discussed on so many occasions in recent years, magnified by the absurd presence of social media. Any person, no matter how ignorant, misinformed or corrupt, can pontificate, drawing those of parallel stupidity toward them. It becomes cyclical and grows beyond management… like a giant, cancerous tumor.
Perusing Twitter (which should have long–ago been abbreviated to “Twit”) and Facebook in the past 24 hours, you’d think that Simmons perpetrated a crime on humanity. It’s as if he unveiled secrets about Matthews’ sexual orientation. Dozens of famous people have tested positive during the pandemic. And, dozens more surely will before the evolution of a vaccine or therapeutic compound. When it happens, it is news. Pure and simple. You may not be fond of Steve for breaking the story, but he neither impugned any privacy law nor embellished what he had learned. The Leafs, no surprise, responded cravenly by issuing a terse (and haughty) “no comment” on the matter. You can, however, be sure — without equivocation — that if the news about Matthews were false or inaccurate, the club would have denied it with maximum vengeance. Commenting, in that context, would have been perfectly acceptable, excoriating Simmons for his insensitivity and irresponsibility. Instead… crickets. Neither of the Maple Leafs’ “business partners,” TSN and Sportsnet, provided the bombshell any weight or merit. Rather, they published the “no comment” policy of the hockey club. Again, a flagrant conflict–of–interest that, in no way, appropriately serves the public.
I can tell you, first hand, that every Leafs administration I covered in my 23 years at The FAN–590 blatantly lied about health and injury matters. It doesn’t mean they were bad people. Pat Quinn, perhaps the most–frequent conveyor of falsehood, was among the finest individuals of that era. As a reporter, however, I felt it was my responsibility to cut through the misinformation and subterfuge. And, you might be amazed at how I frequently obtained the truth. In early–2006, for example, defenseman Bryan McCabe — well en route to demolishing Borje Salming’s club–record for points by a blue–liner (79) — went down in a game at Edmonton with a “slight groin strain”, according to the club. We were told he was likely “day–to–day” before returning. Ten days later, the Leafs were in Colorado with still no word on their top defenseman. “Slight” groin–strains do not, typically, engender such prolonged silence. Or, absence from the line–up. What did I do? Prior to a practice at the University of Denver, I called Bryan aside in the hallway outside the dressing room and simply asked him what was going on. “Ahhh, I’ve got a bit of a muscle–tear in my groin. I won’t be back for awhile,” he replied. Knowing I had fairly significant news, Bryan implored me only to not reveal himself as the informant. I immediately went on the radio back home and reported what I had learned.
Now, you don’t need a medical certificate to understand that a “slight groin–strain” and a muscle “tear” are different maladies. After the practice, I put it straight to Quinn: “Pat, I’m told that Bryan McCabe has a tear in his groin muscle. Is that accurate?” To his credit, and rather than pressing me for my source, the Leafs coach responded, “yeah, I’m afraid he does. We’re gonna have to watch him closely for the next while.”
So, I ask: Did I breach reporting ethics by relaying my unassailable information? Would you have pummeled me on social media because it wasn’t Bryan (or a team representative) that delivered the news?
Or, did I simply work a little harder to gather the goods?
Given the sheltering of professional athletes today — it seems that all “information” is acquired in a group (or podium) environment — how can young hockey fans even relate to a time when a reporter could sit alone with a Leafs player and obtain knowledge? I was fortunate enough to have worked, substantially, in that climate. Which no–longer exists. So, the teenagers that flock to social media with indignation over such a report as the Matthews’ COVID–19 test don’t know any better. But, there are intelligent, long–time members of the hockey media that have become apologists for the Blue–and–White. Not all, but too many. And, that saddens me. Even if it’s inevitable amid the cross–pollination of media and team ownership.