TORONTO (Feb. 8) — If you follow this corner with any regularity, you’ll know that one of the prevailing topics is how soft and superficial the Toronto hockey media has become in recent years. Far different from the era (1994–2011) in which I covered the team alongside such others as Damien Cox, Al Strachan, Steve Simmons, Dave Perkins, Paul Hunter, Ken Campbell, David Shoalts and Suneel Joshi. Reporters and columnists who offered unfiltered assessment. Today’s pandering and avoidance of issues is largely the result of Canada’s two all–sports media conglomerates — Bell (TSN) and Rogers (Sportsnet) — co–owning 75 percent of the Maple Leafs. Never in the modern media history of this country has there existed such an absurd and damaging conflict of interest.
Reporters and commentators simply feed off the hockey club, being part of the same family. The result is two–fold: a singular lack of critical analysis… and absolute clear sailing for Leafs ownership and management to rest on its financial laurels. Perhaps in a more sophisticated manner than the appalling Harold Ballard of the 1970’s and 80’s, yet fundamentally alike. Of enduring bewilderment is why the so–called “independent” media — the daily newspapers — has bought into the Leaf lovefest. Neither Bell, Rogers nor Larry Tanenbaum have stake in the Toronto Star, Toronto Sun/National Post or the Globe and Mail. Yet, there is nary a detracting word uttered in print about the Blue and White. The prevailing issues that have dogged the franchise for decades are neatly sidestepped in favor of a never–ending gluttony of commendation toward the individual players. What should be the purview of the Maple Leafs media relations department is carried out, virtually every day, by local scribes and columnists: the conduit between the public and the team. Aren’t there enough myopic websites and chat forums dedicated to fantasizing about the Maple Leafs? Why the need for such boosterism and, at times, cowardice from the fifth estate?
This came to mind, once more, when I read a staggering comment from veteran reporter Chris Johnston, who works as a columnist for the Star and an “insider” for Leafs–owned TSN. Few passages have so–precisely demonstrated the media/team engagement. Johnston, an otherwise knowledgeable hockey observer, actually suggested in his latest Star submission that the Leafs “do not have one obvious glaring need.” Think about that for a moment. Here is a club that hasn’t won a playoff series in nearly two decades and will try — with the same failed cast — to not extend a North American pro sports record of six consecutive eliminations in the opening (or qualifying) round. It’s a club that has not enjoyed any form of goaltending stability since the four–year reign of Curtis Joseph nearly a quarter–century ago (1998–2002). And, a team without a Norris Trophy candidate since the late Borje Salming at the end of the 1970’s. Upon the advent of the salary cap in 2005–06, the Leafs missed the playoffs in ten consecutive 82–game seasons, qualifying only after the abbreviated 48–game schedule of January to May 2013. Whereupon the club infamously frittered away the largest third–period lead in a decisive playoff match.
What followed were three consecutive National Hockey League drafts in which the Leafs made early selections that a zoo monkey could have emulated: William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. Joining the cadre of elite forwards, at a largely destructive cost, was free agent John Tavares. Management choked off any outlook for roster balance by assigning the quartet nearly $40 million, or half the salary cap figure. It then added $7.5 million to the core by locking up its lone proficient blueliner, Morgan Rielly, a defensive liability with not nearly enough upside to rank among the top tier in his field. Given the goaltending vulnerability and the dearth of an elite player on the back end, is it any wonder the Leafs have fallen early in the Stanley Cup tournament against more–rounded opponents like Boston and Tampa Bay? Or, even such–inferior clubs as Columbus and Montreal? Yet, a supposedly trusted columnist told his readers, today, that the club does not possess “an obvious, glaring need.”
This is the downhill trajectory of coverage amid the hockey media in our city. As I’ve emphasized on several occasions, it is not a reflection of the individuals who write or talk about the Maple Leafs. Chris Johnston can argue with me until he’s blue in the face and I’ll not believe, for a nanosecond, that he actually thinks the club put together by Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas hasn’t a glaring weakness. Chris is too learned a hockey analyst to present such claptrap. Rather, it’s my contention that double–dippers like Johnston feel the need to walk a tightrope between fact and fiction. Occasionally giving in to the latter. A truly critical assessment of the Blue and White, such as that presented here, could jeopardize a lucrative gig with TSN; the same parent company (Bell) that co–signs the Leaf players to contracts authorizes whatever extra cash Chris takes home to his family each month. What incentive is there for a blunt, no–nonsense appraisal, even if supported by irrefutable evidence?
CHRIS JOHNSTON IS OFTEN FOUND AMONG THE ELITE OF HOCKEY ANALYSTS IN OUR COUNTRY.
Again, the most–detrimental outgrowth of this trend is not the potential impact on the hockey public. Most Leaf fans are sufficiently astute, even if awash in delusion. Rather, it’s the free pass accorded the tall thinkers of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, who will swear on bibles they are not influenced by what is written or said about the hockey club. But, who clearly and unabashedly avail themselves of the soft media underbelly with their indifference toward the longest series drought in Stanley Cup history. That, my friends, is the crux of the matter.