TORONTO (Apr. 17) — It is sad and rather inexplicable. The Toronto Sun, so long the go–to newspaper for sports coverage in our city, has thrown in the towel. Neither a hockey beat–writer nor a columnist will be on site in Tampa for road games of the Maple Leafs opening–round playoff series. The competition, on the other hand, is going big, as the Toronto Star will have writer Kevin McGran and columnist Bruce Arthur in person for all games in the best–of–seven rematch, thereby providing the broadsheet daily an enormous advantage over the tabloid.
“All [playoff] travel has been halted at Postmedia, which includes every paper in the chain,” confirmed a clearly frustrated source. “It’s the beginning of the end for our company. We’ll soon be gone.” Whether that assertion rings true remains to be seen. More relevant is that the essence of Toronto’s 51½–year–old tabloid newspaper appears to be no more. Forever front–and–center with coverage of the Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays and Argonauts, the Sun — first published on Nov. 1, 1971 — is evidently satisfied being a bit player. Tabloids, by nature, sell sports and sex. The decision by Postmedia, the parent company, to run the white flag up the hockey coverage pole isn’t at all sexy. Particularly with the two best Canadian teams about to enter the marathon Stanley Cup slog.
Readers in Edmonton will not have the benefit of a local scribe on hand in Los Angeles for Games 3, 4 and (possibly) 6 of the Oilers–Kings series. Incomprehensible, really, with the world’s best player (Connor McDavid) hoping to lead his club to the Western Conference title for the first time since 1990. The Maple Leafs, as all local rooters know, haven’t won a single playoff round in 19 years, but seem well–positioned to battle the Lightning. While McGran and Arthur (likely joined by Marty Klinkenberg of the Globe and Mail) have on–site access to the Leafs in Tampa, the Sun contingent of Lance Hornby, Terry Koshan and Steve Simmons will be confined to their TV sets… and to wire–copy remarks from the players and coaches. In my view, this is a particular affront to Hornby, who has covered the Maple Leafs for more than 35 years and should be in the media wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
As for travel being halted throughout the Postmedia chain, it appears to include coverage of the Toronto Blue Jays. Baseball writer Rob Longley was in Dunedin, Fla. throughout spring training and he accompanied the team on its season–opening jaunt to St. Louis, Kansas City and Anaheim. Longley, however, was not in Houston for tonight’s first of three games against the Astros; a trip that continues at Yankee Stadium on the weekend.
Without question, the travel ban comes from the highest executive branch of Postmedia… and not from the desk of sports editor Bill Pierce. Knowing Pierce, he’ll be as annoyed as his grounded writers and columnists. By nature, newspaper sports personnel are extremely competitive. To watch the rival Star have two scribes on hand in Tampa will be galling for Pierce, Hornby, Koshan and Simmons. Even if it conforms with the absurdity of keeping Simmons home from Regina for last November’s Grey Cup game, won by the Argonauts in an upset over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Though access to players has been severely curtailed since my years (1993–2011) covering the Leafs on radio for The FAN–590, it is still far preferable to be in the same city; the same hotel and the same arena as the hockey club. Tampa, in particular, is a wonderful location for media, as two large hotels (the Marriott Water Street and the Embassy Suites) are virtually across the parking lot from Amalie Arena on the south perimeter of downtown… with not much else in the immediate area. Unless the players hole up in their rooms, it is rather common to run into a member of the Leafs while in the hotel lobby, or on the streets near the arena. Even the Channelside district of Tampa, with its trendy bars and restaurants, is a short walk. Minimal effort from a writer or broadcaster can procure an exclusive story or quote; at least, it was that way in my years covering the Leafs.
There are also morning skates prior to Games 3 and 4 with (likely) a full practice on Sunday, the day between games. McGran, Arthur and Klinkenberg will run the hockey house at the expense of the despondent Sun crew.
I remember, with chills, enduring the same competitive despair when Rogers, led by a miserly corporate slasher named Paul Ski, cut my Leafs travel budget to shreds for the 2009–10 season. Meanwhile, Talk–640, holding the Leafs broadcast rights, also paid to have reporter Jonas Siegel with the club for all road games. It was difficult to swallow — for my pride and my reporter’s instinct. Ultimately, Leafs travel at The FAN–590 was eliminated.
We can suggest Postmedia’s frugality is a product of the general downturn in the newspaper industry, which has been devastated by the Internet. But, the Star budgeted for Leafs playoff travel while the Sun did not. So, clearly, it’s a choice between competing factions that encounter the same limitations. Moreover, it is fundamentally pointless for a tabloid newspaper to chinse out on the elemental lifeblood of live sports coverage. From my perspective, this is less about money and more about the involuntary trends of the pandemic, during which the print and broadcast media — blessed with remarkable talent — proved capable of compensating for travel. For two seasons during COVID–19, Dan Shulman and Buck Martinez were virtual magicians while calling Blue Jays games off TV monitors more than 2,000 kilometers apart: the former in the Toronto Sportsnet studio, the latter in Florida.
Dead air to the viewer was preoccupied with Shulman and Martinez depressing MUTE buttons and conversing among each other. They pulled it off seamlessly. Yet, Dan and Buck are back on the road with Canada’s lone Major League Baseball club, even if Rogers, which owns the Blue Jays and Sportsnet, has gone stingy with radio announcer Ben Wagner, confining him to a TV monitor for the club’s 81 away games. As written in this corner on Saturday, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, swimming in billions, has refused to spend for radio broadcasters Joe Bowen and Jim Ralph to be with the hockey club in Tampa. These decisions are simply penurious.
The Toronto Sun is truly at a disadvantage for the Leafs–Lightning series. It is shameful and unnecessary.
ESPN PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
Here are the 2023 Stanley Cup playoff forecasts from ESPN, the NHL’s American broadcast partner. I post them a) for fun, and b) because none of these “experts” are burdened by the conflict of network/team ownership, as with TSN and Sportsnet here in Canada. To summarize: of the 25 individuals polled, below, 20 contend the Maple Leafs will eliminate Tampa Bay in the first round… only one believes Toronto will win its first NHL championship since 1967… and, no predictor has a Leafs player winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as Stanley Cup MVP.
REMEMBERING THE KING: HAPPY FIRST HEAVENLY BIRTHDAY TO MAPLE LEAFS LEGEND BORJE SALMING, WHO TOOK STEPS, LAST NOVEMBER, TO END HIS LIFE BEFORE ENCOUNTERING THE FULL RAVAGES OF AMYOTROPHIC LATERAL SCLEORISIS (ALS, or LOU GHERIG’S DISEASE). BORJE WOULD HAVE TURNED 72 TODAY. TWO WEEKS PRIOR TO HIS DEATH, AS SO MANY WILL RECALL, SALMING MADE A FINAL TRIP TO TORONTO AND ENGAGED IN A PAIR OF HEART–RENDING CEREMONIES AT SCOTIABANK ARENA. HE AND FORMER LEAFS TEAMMATE DARRYL SITTLER OPENLY CRIED (PHOTOS BELOW) DURING THE FIRST–SUCH COMMEMORATION, PUT ON BY THE HOCKEY HALL–OF–FAME.
THE FOLLOW–UP BLOG I WROTE WITH SITTLER AND EX–LEAF DAVE (TIGER) WILLIAMS BECAME, FAR AND AWAY, THE MOST WIDELY READ IN THE NEARLY 12–YEAR HISTORY OF THIS WEBSITE (LINK HERE: https://bit.ly/3EpJ5S2).