Phil Kessel started the summer by bringing the Stanley Cup to Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto. He ended it with a biting tweet on being left off the USA team, which lost all of their games at the World Cup of Hockey. Coach Tortorella – and some players – took offense. They said that Kessel shouldn’t express an opinion, no matter how relevant, because it had an edge. They have a problem with Kessel simply because he’s his own person, because he says what he thinks. Which says a lot more about them.
Needless to say, I have returned and been disappointed in virtually every corner: The Leafs traded Kessel, The Grateful Dead devolved into something called The Dead and Company and The Bachelor concluded with a Nazi-like denigration of homosexuality. And I’m blogging about it again!
Phil Kessel is to be admired for more than his stick work and scoring touch. He’s also good at saying it like it is, even in the face of harsh criticism. “I’m embarrassed for you (sports writers). It’s disgusting the way people treat (Dion Phaneuf).” The sports writers surrounded him, and he stared them down. “I’ve had it. I think this city is a great city. I love Toronto. I love playing here. but I’m just tired of it. I’m sick of it. I don’t think it should go on any more. I think it needs to stop.” The likelihood of Kessel’s advice being heeded is as good as as seeing snakes fly.
Or maybe it’s less likely than that.
Steve Buffrey of The Toronto Sun did his best to spin Kessel’s words: Dumping on the media makes for great copy and sound bites on sports radio. And don’t kid yourself, media types love it when players dump on the media.
The truth is, no matter how Buffrey and his cohorts try to smirk it off, these rumor-mongers are none too pleased. Cathal Kelly, of The Globe & Mail, tried to take the challenge head on: “Once (a player treats reporters with respect), you’ll never rip that guy in print. You’ll criticize, but the ripping days are over. He’s not just someone you cover any more. He’s someone you know.”
The irony here is that Kelly admits to ripping people, which is Kessel’s exact point. The job of a reporter is not to rip, but to report. (Stunning as that may be.) And the idea of Kessel of becoming invested in the personal lives of those looking to attack him just to make them write good stories about him is foul indeed.
Indeed this hubris of the sportswriter is pathetic because they have nothing to have hubris about. They lack skill, ability, insight, empathy, in fact any of the characteristics that make one human. All they seem to know how to do is stand in a clump and rip people – and maybe eat a donut at the same time. They give nothing back. Whereas, Mr. Kessel does give something back with his skill, talent and straight-forward demeanor. Phil Kessel is right. Sports writers are embarrassing. They should all be put on waivers just so they can see what they are actually worth for themselves: nothing at all.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have sunk into a terrible morass from which there seems to be little escape. The players are adrift, the coach at a loss, while the media metes out blame and the fans cry in dismay. Rather than plunge into some sort of Robespierre frenzy, I suggest the following:
Problem #5: Vitriolic Toronto Sports Media. The Toronto sports media, as eager to deify as they are to condemn, is comprised of knee-jerk simpletons who make as many bad judgements as they do unintelligible puns. These clown are stupid enough to seriously suggest that Kessel be traded – Are they nuts?!? Solution: Change the channel and watch highlights of the 1993 Playoffs instead.
4. Ineffective Coaching. Ron Wilson (2008-12) and Randy Carlyle (2012-15) provided no direction for the players, beyond yelling and making snide remarks. While Horachek struggles to implement a system, it appears that his time will also be limited behind the bench. Solution: Mike Babcock needs to be hired, and Brendan Shanahan is the man to do that.
3. Infantile Fan Base. Sports fans are not known for a generosity of spirit nor intelligent analysis. For a market like the Leafs, where hockey is religion, it is all the worse. The symbolic throwing of team jerseys is emblematic of these childish reactions. Solution: Encourage your neighbor to give his jersey to a kid and maybe yell at the Flyers/Canadiens/Bruins/Rangers instead.
2. Lack of Team Leadership. Being captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a heavy burden to bear. It is not as much a matter of talent as it is of a confident, under-stated personality such as Dave Keon, Wendel Clark and Mats Sundin all had. Dion Phaneuf is not like these men. As skilled as he might be, he talks too much, often out of turn. Solution: Trade Dion Phaneuf and appoint a new captain in the off-season. James Van Reimsdyk is a good option to consider.
1. Team Management in Disarray. The ownership is weighed down by a bureaucratic board of governors, focused on making too much money, burdened by a history of poor management practice. This problem is the trickiest of the lot. Hopefully these suits can be swayed by Brian Burke’s wisdom: “They’ll name a street after whoever brings the Stanley Cup to Toronto.” Solution: Remind the board that they hired Brendan Shanahan to be president, and to let him do just that.
Dave Feshuck, Toronto Star sportswriter, made news for himself yesterday by attacking Phil Kessel: “You’re the best player on the team, and the coach is fired…are you difficult to coach?”
Kessel turned to the others. “This guy’s such an idiot; he’s always been like this.”
Mr. Kessel is, in fact, quite correct; Feshuck has always been like this. Even as an elementary school student, Feshuck enjoyed baiting others, once demanding of a Grade Four classmate: “You’re the best student here, the school burned down…are you difficult to teach?”
Feshuck gave international reporting a swing after college but had to be escorted back to Canada after he posed the following to Prince Charles, “You were supposed to be king, Princess Diana is dead…are you a difficult prince?” Feshuck had a brief reprieve under Mayor Rob Ford, because he seemed to like these questions. “You’re a heroine user, people laugh at you…are you a difficult mayor?”However Feshuck had to be escorted away again when he demanded of President Obama, “You’re a black guy, the police are killing black people…are you a difficult president?” It is believed that Obama muttered, “This guy is an idiot.”And so, Feshuck, being dumb, aggressive and lazy, found he was qualified only for one thing: reporting on sports.
Last Friday, Toronto lost to Buffalo, the worst team in the league, and Phil Kessel, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ star forward walked away from the media scrum, telling them, “Leave me alone.”
The jilted scum (sic) made a story out of that. As Mr. Kessel admits, his answers rarely offer them anything much. “I’m a guy that likes to go out and play hockey and have some fun.” Teammate Nazem Kadri, victim of as much negative press as anyone, gave his point of view: “When (Phil) doesn’t feel like he can trust anybody, he gets a little bit shy and a little bit timid in that regard. It’s really nothing personal.” Let me put it differently and not so nicely: sports reporters are lazy and judgemental. They do not pose insightful questions that develop understanding of the nature of the game nor the player, but instead pose trite statements with question marks at the end, searching for a quote that they can insert into their pre-written narrative.
The heathen fanbase of teams across the continent – be they in Montreal, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles or Chicago – simply do not understand. They think it is about winning, hugging and celebrating in a crass display, that this is the point of the game. And I feel sorry for them.They don’t understand that it isn’t this at all, but, as Camus wrote in The Plague, instead is a reminder of our “never-ending defeat.”The Toronto Maple Leafs are only for those who can take it, not the world as we dream, but as it truly is: empty and unrelenting.
Yes, the Leafs are only for pure existentialists. Their recent travails – an eight-game losing streak – has even brought The New York Times on the Being and Nothingness train, citing the “disturbing situation”, “devastating slump”, and Leaf coach Carlyle’s catch phrase, “Just breathe. Take it easy. Breathe.” But they don’t understand. They use these words devastating and disturbing like they’re a bad thing, like they aren’t needed, like they can be avoided. They don’t see the wall behind us, the epidemic that’s surrounds. No. All they see is putting the puck in the net. And it’s just so sad.
The Toronto Maple Leafs do not have a stellar record over the last number of years. They qualified for the playoffs for only the first time in eight years this past season and have not been to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1967. (Yes, the picture is in black and white.) That said, they are a young and intense team on the rise. They have a proven offensive leader in Phil Kessel – just signed to an eight-year contract – and a solid supporting group of forwards, including Lupul, van Riemsdyk and Kadri, as well as surprising – and youthful – depth at defense and goal. They should be a playoff team for some years to come. The funny thing is that few, if any, of the pundits see any of this. NBC declared that GM Dave Nonis (has) likely weakened the franchise that was on the cusp of a deep playoff run last year. CBS stated that the only way the Leafs are back in the postseason is if Reimer and Bernier can provide better than average play. And TSN offered this lukewarm analysis: They’re not a lock for the playoffs. They’re still a bubble team. My prediction is quite different. They will go to the playoffs. They will win in the playoffs. They just might get into the finals and win. We’ll see who’s right.
My obsession with the Toronto Maple Leafs started late, when I was maybe eight, a few years after they had won the Stanley Cup in 1967. I don’t know how it started. I don’t remember a specific moment. I just remember watching the games on Saturday night and listening to them on my pocket radio in bed; the games in California were like magic, crackling from a distant and late-night land. I clipped a lot of newspapers pictures and stories… collected memorabilia… and met half the team when I was in the hospital before one Christmas. I even sent a set of suggested uniform re-designs to the organization in 1978 to help get the team out of a slump. Leafs owner Harold Ballard replied with the most thoughtful rejection letter I have ever received. I have been to many games in many cities – Boston, Miami, Minneapolis, Montreal, Newark, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Uniondale, Vancouver and Toronto.The best might have been this past Saturday in Boston where I was privileged to be above the net and witness Phil Kessel score on a breakaway to open the third. A friend of my brother’s, not a sports fan, quipped that he didn’t know why anyone intelligent watched sports. “It’s just divisive, like nationalism or religion.” And while I understand his point, I think he’s missing something elemental. There might be no logic in obsessing over a collection of skaters wearing blue and white uniforms, but it isn’t just that. It’s the faith that they will win, enduring the wait and anticipating when the cup comes back….this year and the next. It’s a simple thing really, just three words: Go Leafs Go. Said a few times and again.