Saturday, June 10, 2023

Winnipeg Jets Ready to Explode

Winnipeg Jets logo
The fuse was lit in the Winnipeg Jets organization before the start of the 2022-23 season when head coach Rick Bowness stripped Blake Wheeler of the team’s captaincy. Wheeler’s post-castration reaction made it clear, if not in words then in tone and the barely concealed contempt that came off him in waves: this would not soon be forgotten. But the words, too, were important. Parse them and you find some odd contradictions.

The  Jets had an up and down season, culminating in a late-season collapse that has become a tradition for the team. They snuck into the playoffs, had one good game in their series against the Vegas Golden Knights, and then promptly curled into the fetal position and begged to be kicked into submission. Vegas obliged.

When Bowness ripped into the team after they were eliminated by the Knights, Wheeler had his opening. At the Jets’ end-of-year media availability, Wheeler’s smugness was palpable. He lectured Bowness on etiquette and gave fans and reporters a lesson in the gleeful serving of cold dishes. In years gone by, it would have been called insubordination. Some of Wheeler’s millionaire team-mates suggested that their tender sensibilities had also been offended by Bowness’s blunt comments about their lack of effort in their first-round series against the Knights. And maybe they truly did believe what they were saying.

But after years of rumours and odd incidents, it’s more likely that one or more individuals in the locker room are pushing buttons and setting the tone. And in any situation in which a core group of manipulators operates, someone can always be identified as the leader. It’s clear that other Jets players understand the importance of the lead ape’s words and actions, demonstrated by the fact they lined up and pointed to the supposed grievance that Bowness dared to share his feelings after the Jets were eliminated. And it was notable that the most recent player to arrive on the Jets’ roster chose not to ape the lead ape.

The sudden departure of Dustin Byfuglien in 2019, the resignation of Paul Maurice in December, 2021, and Pierre-Luc Dubois’s recent request to be traded by the Jets can all be explained away by other factors. But the behind-the-scenes weirdness probably comes under the ‘it makes it easier to leave’ category. And a player has to feel remarkably comfortable in his hold over the team to be able to tell a group of reporters to ‘fuck off,’ as Wheeler did at the conclusion of the Jets’ 2018-19 season.

And so we come to that topic which always accompanies any discussion of the Jets, especially when signings and trades are the focus. Yes, we get it. Winnipeg may not be the most glamorous city on the NHL circuit. Vicious winters, mosquitoes in the summer, and nothing for hundreds of miles in any direction are part of the reality. (And I grew up in Winnipeg, so I’ve got immunity to rip the place while sprinkling in the requisite bits of whimsical nostalgia.) But I have the sense that those unpleasant aspects of life in Winnipeg have been weaponized by some current players. As if to say, ‘We’ve deigned to come and play here, therefore we have granted ourselves a licence to manipulate, sulk, run people out of town and pitch a gutless effort or two whenever the mood strikes. And you better not call us on it!’

Enough of this garbage. Connor Hellebuyck clearly wants out. Get the biggest haul you can for him, knowing full well any trade partner has the leverage. Wheeler will be more difficult to unload. He’ll be 37 before the start of next season and carries a sizeable cap hit. Get creative and do whatever it takes. Clear out the rest of the petulant dead weight and get on with it. This doesn’t have to be, and almost certainly won’t be, the beginning of a rebuild. But big changes are coming.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are creating a template for small-market teams. Bring in people who want to play, regardless of their baggage or even because of it. Another ingredient the Jets might want to add to the mix: get some vicious players who are willing to leave everything on the ice and brutalize opponents. Get angry about the sneering contempt from other fan-bases and the legion of players who would never play in Winnipeg. Bowness seems like the right coach, at least in the short term, to lead such a team into battle. He rightfully doesn’t give a damn about coddling overpaid millionaires. The perennial disappointment in Winnipeg has to end. Start the garbage removal, hoist the black flag, and give Jets fans something to cheer about.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Return of Mike Babcock

Mike Babcock is set to be hired as the new head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 1, 2023. His four years in well-paid exile marks one of the most unique episodes in recent NHL history.

When the Leafs under President Brendan Shanahan and GM Lou Lamoriello hired Babcock in May, 2015, they hailed their new coach as one of the greatest ever in the NHL. And they certainly paid him like they meant it. He’s still the league’s highest paid coach ever at an AAV of $8 million per season. His contract runs out on June 30, 2023, the day before the Blue Jackets will likely announce his hiring as their new bench boss.

When the Leafs handed Kyle Dubas the GM’s reins in 2018, it was only a matter of time before Babcock was fired. In November 2019, with the Leafs struggling in the first half of the season, the axe came down. And then a mass pile-on began, the likes of which has never been seen in the NHL. As I discussed in an earlier post, Mitch Marner and his ‘entourage’ wanted to damage Babcock as much as possible as he was on his way out the door. Marner had to have sought permission from Dubas before going public, and no doubt the license was granted.

Babcock did not deny the alleged wrong-doing, though he quibbled with the details. He read the room, and the zeitgeist, very well. Societal sentiments at the time regarding all sorts of bad behaviour and wronged individuals were at a fever pitch. If you ransacked the pasts of numerous NHL coaches, you would likely find similar conduct or worse. But everything would have to line up perfectly as it did with Babcock for a similar spectacle to ever happen again.

The Toronto hockey media herd is like no other: larger, more desperate for access, and more willing to exchange positive coverage for leaks and other special treatment. The Leafs really need to do nothing to keep the herd in check. The herd monitors itself, engages in self-censorship and gleefully attacks the rare herd member who doesn't follow the unwritten rules. When the herd was granted the license to go after Babcock for his alleged sins, they dutifully swarmed into action. They did Marner and Dubas’s bidding and all but tarred and feathered Babcock on his way out of town.

So the moment in time was perfect, the media was on board, and a handful of grudge-holders from Babcock’s past stepped up to play their parts. I have no doubt former players coached by Babcock feel their gripes are legitimate. But Babcock has no chance of ever receiving a fair hearing regarding their claims. At least one of the aggrieved individuals bemoans the fact that he simply has no choice but to embrace the recognition on offer every time Babcock is in the headlines. The point is, all these factors helped create a situation ripe for the zero-nuance, mob mentality social-media spectacle that played out after Babcock was fired by the Leafs.

Argue about the horror of ‘the list’ all you want. But it’s hard to deny that Babcock could have played his post-Toronto hand any better than he did. He did some analysis on TV, volunteered with the University of Saskatchewan’s men’s hockey program, and mostly enjoyed life. And for the most part he kept his mouth shut. The $20 million-dollar plus salary the Leafs paid him for not coaching for the last 4 years of his contract likely helped. He’ll be paid every last penny of the contract, which finishes on June 30 of this year.

The Dubas media sycophants have mostly stuck to their guns about Babcock. Maybe some nuance has been introduced with the passage of time and because the Leafs’ core four (John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander) have achieved nothing in the post-season since Babcock’s departure. Gutless, overpaid and coddled into emotionless, dead-eyed, post-elimination delusion, the core four’s annual disappearing act is the main reason for the Leafs’ playoff failures since Babcock was fired. But did you see the effort by Marner and Nylander in the Leafs’ final game of the 2022-23 season as they tried to achieve those personal milestones they always claim are so meaningless? Incredible!

Dubas’s cack-handed public machinations in trying to squeeze more money and power out of MLSE may have caused some people to reconsider the entire Babcock saga. Perhaps Dubas’s bizarre final media availability as the Leafs’ GM forced Shanahan to rethink how the Babcock firing was handled and confirmed some suspicions he had about Dubas. Who knows? Maybe it was even front of mind when he gave Dubas the Luca Brasi treatment.

Regardless, it’s not hard to believe Babcock was right all along in his handling of the Leafs’ young stars. But one thing is for certain, the Blue Jackets will be a bigger draw in the coming NHL season, especially when they play Toronto or Pittsburgh. Many fans and hacks will want to cast Babcock as a villain. He’ll joust with reporters, answer questions about Marner and Dubas, and pontificate on whether he’s changed as a coach. And I have no doubt he’ll enjoy every minute of it.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Tale of Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs: Power, Pity and the Proverbial Ton of Bricks

When Kyle Dubas arrived to speak at the Maple Leafs’ year-end media availability on May 15th, 2023, his attire was the first indicator that things weren’t going to go well. A pullover sweater in May is not a good look. It was reminiscent of the Sally Ann sports jacket Craig MacTavish wore at one of his last press conferences as the Oilers’ GM a few years ago. Whether contrived or simply representative of how he felt, the sweater was a bad omen. The slumped shoulders, the down-beat tone and talk of his family only confirmed the worst. We were watching either a defeated man or a shameless manipulator. If you go with ‘manipulator,’ then you have to acknowledge that Dubas has a crater-sized lack of self-awareness in his personal make-up.

Whatever the truth is, after five years as the Maple Leafs’ GM and nine years in total with the organization, Dubas is out. It’s hard to believe he was given the chance in the first place. With zero NHL experience, Dubas was hired as the Leafs’ assistant GM at the age of 28. Four years later, he was promoted to GM. On-the-job training as an NHL general manager with one of the league’s most valuable franchises, and the one which undoubtedly receives more media scrutiny than any other. It’s hard to fathom. But then, the person instrumental in hiring him, Brendan Shanahan, is also a rookie in his role as team president.

Though Shanahan had a long and successful NHL playing career, he’d never had any team-executive experience before signing on with the Leafs. In turn, Dubas as Leafs’ GM hired his buddy Sheldon Keefe, who also— that’s right—had zero NHL coaching experience at that time. It wouldn’t be hard to advance the theory that Shanahan hired a neophyte in Dubas in order to insulate himself against the aspirations of a more seasoned GM. Shanahan, had, indeed, hired Lou Lamoriello as the Leafs’ GM earlier and then replaced him with Dubas. Perhaps taking his cue from Shanahan, Dubas pulled the same stunt by hiring Keefe as head coach.

Regardless, that’s the situation that existed. Dubas was handed the dream job of a lifetime without any real experience. So what went wrong?

You have to first look at Dubas’s record of negotiating contracts as general manager. When Dubas took the general manager’s reins, the core of the team was already in place, including Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly. A few months after boy-wonder Dubas was handed the keys by Shanahan, Dubas signed John Tavares to a seven-year contract at an AAV of $11 million. Even at the time, many fans and pundits questioned the deal. Though Tavares produced for the first four years of the contract (even in the season just finished his totals were respectable, though 5 on 5 points for him are now rare), he’s now hitting the aging curve hard and will undoubtedly be shifted to the wing next season. More importantly, the massive over-payment will be a millstone around the franchise’s neck for the final two seasons of the deal.

The Tavares deal set the stage for Dubas to renegotiate new contracts with Nylander, Matthews and Marner. Dubas was taken to the woodshed on all of those deals, a sequence of failed contract negotiations (read: team-unfriendly) perhaps unmatched in recent NHL history. All the deals were bad at the time, and though Nylander’s deal now looks better than the others, they all combined to handcuff the team and limit the all-important depth pieces that could be added later. Marner’s contract negotiations were particularly unpleasant and cemented his reputation as a shameless money grubber whose lack of self-awareness is maybe only matched by Dubas. While Matthews has improved as a player over the past few seasons, and his contract’s AAV was acceptable based on his scoring ability, the term was the real killer. In addition, Matthews has now taken on the dreaded ‘chronic injury’ label and may never again match his 60-goal, Hart-trophy winning season.

So Dubas had his skull caved in with the so-called core four’s contract negotiations. Forty million dollars, nearly 50% of the cap, tied up in four players. Dubas paid them as if they’d already won a Cup or two. He tacitly announced he was doing things differently. More than a whiff of arrogance emanated from Dubas when he discussed the players he’d blessed with mammoth contracts.

Yes, the Leafs’ regular season record under Dubas’s guidance as general manager was impressive. But the core four, already in place when he took over, has failed repeatedly in the postseason and now will undoubtedly be broken up. Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander are oddly similar in the way they perform in the playoffs. Gutless, emotionless and rarely rising to the level of play that their contracts demand. At least Tavares seems to give an honest effort most of the time. But the other three regularly disappear for stretches in games and sometimes for full games in the postseason.

While Matthews has improved his back-checking and fore-checking and throws more hits than at any time in his career, his demeanor and actions when challenged are bizarre. There’s literally no fight there when an opposing player gets in his face. Marner plays scared in the playoffs and has recently adopted a rictus grin when he’s being rag-dolled by an opponent—the same kind of grin Matthews has sported for years when someone gets in his face during a game. And all of those four players deliver eerily similar, don’t-give-a-fuck responses when their gutless play results in another early postseason exit.

Dubas’s performance on other fronts is mixed. On trades, he’s made some horrible blunders, including shipping Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche for Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot, Mason Marchment to the Panthers for Denis Malgin, Matt Martin to the Islanders for Eamon McAdam, and a first-round pick to the Blue Jackets for Nick Foligno. Foligno played 11 games for the Leafs and accomplished nothing of note, unless you count a staged fight against Corey Perry in the 2021 playoffs. Dubas also puked up numerous other first-round picks for various trades, some of them rentals.

On the other hand, Dubas has made some decent trades as well. The Jake Muzzin trade in 2019 with Los Angeles worked out well until Muzzin’s body fell apart. Even the trade the following season, again with the Kings, that brought Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford to Toronto in exchange for Trevor Moore and a pair of third-round picks wasn’t too bad at the time. Dubas no doubt got the best of the Penguins when Toronto received Jared McCann in exchange for Filip Hallander. The problem was, Dubas promptly turned around and protected Justin Holl instead of McCann in advance of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft.

That brings us to one of Dubas’s fatal flaws. He often makes decisions based on emotion instead of cold, hard logic. Despite all the talk of Dubas’s reliance on analytics, it’s perplexing how often he goes with sentiment when making a decision. Mixed in with that emotion is a huge dollop of arrogance. His decisions as Leafs’ GM were precious to him. Things to be guarded, stroked, revisited and doubled down on. His invincibly rigid stance on any player he signed, traded for or otherwise considered ‘his’ is a story of a strange kind of neurosis. His commitment to the gutless four ensured that the same story played out postseason after postseason, with the same sullen, vaguely disinterested post-elimination interviews from players.

And then there’s his pathological obsession with former players from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the Ontario Hockey League team Dubas cut his teeth with on his road to becoming an NHL GM. He started out as a stick-boy with the ‘Soo’ because of family connections and ended up as the team’s general manager. And during his time as Leafs’ GM, Dubas was often single-minded in his pursuit of signing or trading for former Soo players. Before the start of the 2022-23 season, Dubas acquired Soo alumni Matt Murray in a trade with the Ottawa Senators. No one else in the league wanted Murray, despite the two Cups he won with the Penguins. In fact, in Murray’s last season with the Sens, they put the egg-shell fragile goalie on waivers and no one bit. But Dubas knew better. The rallying cry at the beginning of Dubas’s final season with the Leafs was ‘Matt Murray’s got a lot to prove.’ This line was repeated numerous times by Dubas, Keefe and even Shanahan. It was one of the worst trades Dubas made as the Leafs’ GM. His mulish stubbornness ensured his Murray obsession became the final word on his inability to ever fully sort out the goal-tending situation during his time with the Leafs.

Dubas’s drafting with the Leafs was also less than stellar. It’s hard to develop home-grown talent when you keep trading away picks. At least Leafs fans can probably look forward to Matthew Knies contributing in the coming seasons, though even that expectation is a bit premature.

Despite all Dubas’s shortcomings, he has many things going for him. Most importantly, he’s a good communicator and is obviously well liked by his players and peers. His ability to speak about both the game and the increasing importance of analytics, and his vision for how to build a winning team, undoubtedly cast a spell on Shanahan and led to Dubas being hired in the first place. While he doesn’t speak to the media in public more than any previous GM, when he does, he is eminently respectful and somewhat forthcoming. It’s hard to believe that it took Dubas to figure out the ‘speak nicely to people who buy ink by the barrel’ angle, at least when compared to some of the blowhard Leafs’ GMs and coaches of the past.

And maybe in this day and age, that ability to communicate directly with the media and fans is more important than ever. Coupled with Dubas’s instinct for understanding the zeitgeist and how professional sports teams now have to be conscious of so much more than in years gone by, it’s easy to believe that he will land another NHL GM job at some point in the future. Especially now that his training wheels are off and he will learn from his numerous mistakes with the Leafs. But there’s a very real chance Dubas has learned nothing at all.

Of course, there's more to interactions with the media than speaking in scrums or at press conferences. It’s clear that Dubas has cultivated some media members to do his bidding in their on-air hits and in the columns they write. I have no doubt that he leaks info to certain media dupes and engages in quid pro quos: access and information from Dubas in exchange for favourable coverage. But not everyone in the media plays along. In a recent 32 Thoughts podcast, Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek discussed a situation in which Dubas sent a profanity-laced text to them when they mentioned something on Hockey Night in Canada that didn’t sit right with him. And they suggested it was something that wasn’t uncommon from Dubas. Once again, arrogance and temper tantrums. And a personality far different than the one he tries to project in public.

But what about his relationship with the players? Yes, as mentioned, it’s obvious the players like him. But then, why wouldn’t they after the largesse he’s rewarded them with before they’ve won anything? By all reports, he’s hired dozens or perhaps even hundreds of people within the organization in an attempt to make life as enjoyable and stress-free as possible for his stable of millionaire players. And that may be part of the problem. Together with his penchant for sentiment over stepping on necks when the time is right, Dubas is loyal to a fault. It’s created a sense of security among the gutless four, and instilled the idea—confirmed year after year—that there are no consequences for lack of postseason success. Whether Dubas set out to cultivate loyal sycophants, or he simply came to the understanding of how taking care of people pays off, the reality is he likes the outcome. At times the whole set-up has a vaguely cultish feel to it.

And when Dubas’s arrogance and lack of self-awareness flare up, things get weird. Those public temper tantrums near the end of the just-finished season contrast oddly with the image Dubas tries to maintain. He passed off those incidents as displays of passion. I don’t buy it. It’s a lack of self control. People with anger problems like to grant themselves the license to be enraged. I think Dubas wasn’t pleased that he was left hanging throughout the season without a contract extension. The tantrums were the result. But Dubas’s end-of-season tantrums aren’t something new. Justin Bourne, sports-radio host and former video coach for the Toronto Marlies, says he witnessed Dubas explode on a regular basis when things didn’t go his way. Framed pictures shattered on the floor and other destroyed objects were often the result, according to Bourne.

That arrogance was no doubt simmering under the surface when Dubas took the podium for his year-end media availability. But what really did him in was his lack of self-awareness and terrible mis-reading of the situation. Perhaps a touch of greed also spurred him on during that odd display. After being given the chance of a lifetime by Shanahan, and—have I mentioned this yet?—having zero experience with an NHL team before the Leafs hired him, Dubas went with the pity-play and mused that  perhaps he did not even want to return as GM. While Dubas may have discussed this with Shanahan prior to speaking publicly about it, Shanahan was no doubt stunned to hear Dubas openly expressing doubts about whether he wanted to sign an extension. After hearing everything that Shanahan said on Friday, May 19th, it’s hard not to believe that Dubas was trying to wrong-foot Shanahan and MLSE with this comments earlier in the week. Dubas has not responded specifically to the timeline laid out by Shanahan. Which tells me that it's probably accurate for the most part, though Dubas will undoubtedly one day add his own spin to those events.

But let’s get this straight: Dubas mewled and whimpered about his family and talked about how hard the whole enterprise was while likely making $2 million or more per year? This as the world is coming out of a pandemic that cost almost seven million people their lives? The resulting economic convulsions have resulted in housing and affordability crises in Canada that have crushed thousands and thousands of people. And this little whiner offers up this horse-shit? He painted himself as invincibly arrogant, insulated and monstrously self-absorbed. And now we find out that Dubas’s agent sent Shanahan a new ‘financial package’ on Thursday followed up by an evening email from Dubas that he was now onboard with returning? Word is that Shanahan and Dubas were earlier working on an extension that would have given Dubas $4 million-plus a year over five years. And that wasn’t enough for him? Speculation floating around online, thought unconfirmed, is that the new ‘financial package’ was close to $7 million per year. The $4 million per-year offer was probably double his five-year, on-the-job training contract. And he was looking to almost double again the offer he’d been discussing with Shanahan?

Something is fundamentally wrong with Dubas if all this information is correct. And of course, the caveat, especially regarding the contract details, is that we don’t know for sure. But again, Dubas has not disputed the series of events that played out as detailed by Shanahan after Dubas’s cringe-worthy public display  on Monday. And so the whole talk of family starts to look like a ploy. A rather shameless and myopic ploy. Or maybe both things are true. Perhaps Dubas was genuine when he spoke about his family. And it just happened to come before he jacked up his salary request. All that loot would no doubt help ease the stress experienced by his wife and children. But the quick turn-around and last-minute request for a huge increase in salary is very slithery. I don’t see how Shanahan had any choice but to turf Dubas at that point. If Dubas is willing to play public games to extort salary increases (and isn’t it rich for Dubas to suggest in his vague statement released on Twitter that he won’t talk about private discussions?), what other stunts would he pull in the future?

Perhaps this whole talk of family is a generational thing. Everyone cares about their family. But to talk about it in such a way that can be so easily seen as disingenuous is very risky. Psychologists say that pity is the trump card of sociopaths and hard-core narcissists. That’s not to say that framing yourself as hard done by makes you a sociopath or narcissist, and I’m not saying that about Dubas. But by God, suck it up and be grateful for the privilege of having such a rewarding, high-profile job that would be the envy of many. His salary probably puts him in the top half percent of all earners in Canada. I guess attention seeking via airing in public your every weakness, doubt, grievance and instance of not getting your own way is considered ‘authentic’ nowadays.

But back to the blow-by-blow details which Shanahan provided regarding the breakdown in talks and eventual firing of Dubas. Some people suggest it was egregious to disclose exactly what happened. Perhaps in normal situations. But Dubas is the one who got the ball rolling with his performance at the media availability. Shanahan advised him not to do it. Dubas did it anyway. Shanahan is his superior and could have told him not to speak in no uncertain terms. Perhaps at that point, Shanahan still trusted him somewhat. Following the emoting session by Dubas, Shanahan still trusted him, but unfortunately for Dubas, it was only as far as Shanahan could swing a bull by its balls. Shanahan had to get in front of things and advance a narrative. It’s called ‘prolepsis’ (look it up).

Again, the Dubas arrogance and lack of self-awareness. After working alongside each other for nine years, without question Shanahan had seen other warning signs regarding Dubas. And oh yes, there was another very public incident that played out under Shanahan’s watch while Dubas was GM. One that is unique in the history of the NHL. It received almost unanimous praise at the time from Dubas’s sycophants in the media. He’d already built up good relations with the media at that point. And remember, many of the Toronto hockey hacks indirectly work for MLSE. Bell and Rogers own MLSE. And Rogers also owns Sportsnet, which employs numerous fawning, desperate-for-access hockey journalists. I use the word ‘journalist’ lightly because perhaps no other sports media outlet employs so many flat-out terrible writers. But that’s the subject for another article.

So what event am I talking about? The sacking of former Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. When Babcock was hired by the Leafs in 2015, there was a lot of fanfare. Babcock was hailed as one of the greatest NHL coaches ever. And he was paid more than any other NHL coach before or since. His $8 million per-year contract with the Leafs skewed head-coach salaries sharply upwards in the NHL. Brendan Shanahan was instrumental in convincing Babcock to come to Toronto. Babcock had coached Shanahan for a time in Detroit, and Shanahan couldn’t say enough good things about his former coach. The Leafs improved under Babcock but still couldn’t break through in the playoffs. But perhaps more importantly, Babcock didn’t coddle the gutless four. And so, the time was right when the Leafs got off to a slow start in the 2019-20 season, and Dubas fired Babcock. Shanahan had to have been on board with the firing. But what about everything that came after?

As Babcock was on the way out the door, Marner shared his opinions of Babcock with the Toronto hockey media herd. And what he had to say wasn’t very complimentary. It seems Babcock has a vicious streak and convinced Marner to write out a list of who he, Marner, believed were the laziest players on the team. And then, according to Marner, (and yes, later confirmed by Babcock) Babcock by accident/on purpose, let some other players know who Marner had ranked on that now-famous list. The horror! A list! Sure, a bit manipulative if we take Mitchie boy's word for how it went down. But anyone who knows anything about hockey and the history of the NHL knows how utterly tame that incident really was, regardless of the details. Yes, things in the league have changed for the better in past decade and nastiness isn’t going to build trust with players in the long run. But I bet Marner was thrilled at first to think he was being brought into the inner circle and asked for his opinion.

Regardless, for that knee-capping of Babcock to take place, a couple of things had to happen. First, Marner and his ‘entourage’ would have gone to Dubas and told him what they wanted to do. And Dubas would have said ‘Yeah, sure, let’s get it done!’ That’s remarkable. After the Leafs had praised Babcock as one of the greatest coaches who’d ever lived, they now thought it was a grand idea to try to ensure that he would never again coach in the NHL. Was Shanahan fully on board with the career assassination of his former coach? He had to have been to some degree. But perhaps it was floated to him in one way and then it played out in a harsher manner than he’d anticipated. Perhaps Dubas already had numerous staff and management types on his side and made a real push to show everyone to what lengths he would go to protect one of the gutless four.

I imagine that whole sordid affair was in the back of Shanahan’s mind as he laid out the timeline of poor little hard done by Dubas’s final days with the Leafs. One interesting footnote to the Babcock affair: Babcock and Dubas’s contracts expire on the same day: June 30, 2023. Except Babcock got paid a lot more not to coach the Leafs than Dubas did to perpetrate his failed on-the-job training experiment on the team. Regarding that huge amount of money that Babcock was paid for four years after being fired: even for an empire like MLSE, $20 million for not coaching is a lot of money. That must have grated and was likely a black mark on Dubas’s record (and Shanahan’s) as far as MLSE was concerned.

It now appears that Dubas will take some kind of management job with the Pittsburgh Penguins only a week or so after he said it was Leafs or no one. And right on schedule, the media shills say that going against his word doesn’t really matter. It does matter. It shows him to be a shameless manipulator willing to say and do a lot to get what he wants. He thought he was rocking MLSE with Machiavellian masterstrokes, but he was really offering up cack-handed blunders that highlighted him as the lacking-in-real-world experience novice he actually is.

His most loyal media lackeys are currently in full cloak-and-dagger, palace-intrigue mode. A couple of The Athletic’s writers are doing their best to please Dubas with teary-eyed pieces about the emotional destruction suffered by the servile troops left behind to soldier on without their fearless leader. These are some real hyper-sensitive Leafs staff members who need immediate triage for the horror they’ve experienced. What trauma did they go through? They had to watch the person who handed them their cushy jobs find out what consequences are all about.

Another access-seeker who likely fancies himself a real operator in the world of ‘NHL insiders’ says that Dubas’s words about not going elsewhere no longer matter because of a ‘paradigm shift.’ Mind you, he’s the same person who claimed that Auston Matthews’s vicious cross-check into the side of Rasmus Dahlin’s head at the 2022 Heritage Classic in Hamilton wasn’t what it seemed. Trying to defy reality but failing miserably, the journalist in question said that Matthews didn’t drive the cross-check into Dahlin’s head at all. In fact, the fabulist claimed, Matthews drove the vicious blow into Dahlin’s shoulder, and pesky fantasy-world physics did the rest. No one bought it, least of all the NHL, who assessed Matthews a two-game suspension for the gutless assault. Nothing warmed Dubas’s heart during his time as Leafs’ GM more than a loyal media boot-licker going to bat for one of the gutless four, regardless of how unhinged or divorced from reality the claims may have been.

So the fallout from the media availability, Dubas’s sacking and Shanahan’s public account of how it all went down has included numerous questionable articles in the media. Though it may seem like ex-post-facto reasoning, the flood of nonsense from Dubas’s media shills lends support to the logic behind Shanahan’s sharing of details at that press conference. Even if he hadn’t done that, the innuendo and gossip about a supposed power struggle would likely have shown up anyway. Shanahan had learned enough about Dubas to understand what he was dealing with. So he protected himself.

This is not to suggest that Shanahan looks good after all the melodrama. He doesn’t. But getting his side of the story out first makes more sense than ever after the articles and leaks which have followed. And it's important to note that not all hockey writers are going along with the Dubas-friendly narratives being peddled. Push-back has appeared and more is coming. As mentioned, Friedman and Marek are offering up less than flattering accounts of blunder boy’s time as Leafs’ GM. Friedman is one of the most reliable NHL insiders. He covers the entire league instead of one team and strives for accuracy and fairness. He apologizes when he screws up. And based on everything else we know about Dubas, Friedman and Marek’s anecdotes have the air of truth about them.

And what exactly does Fenway Sports Group see in Dubas? I’m not exactly sure. They’re on record as saying that no one they currently employ really knows anything about hockey. But for whatever reason, they like the cut of Dubas’s jib. His communication skills (when he’s not in tantrum mode) have got to appeal. And his ability to develop mutually beneficial relationships with the media also have to be a selling point. Similarly, years of postseason failure with the sword hanging over his head but never falling, has got to impress his potential new bosses. And Fenway have made it clear, through the forced actions of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke in their final season with the Penguins, that Fenway, like Dubas, understands the importance of coddling and hanging onto to marquee players, no matter their age or ability to deliver when it matters most.

Or maybe, more simply, they just speak the same language as Dubas. They come from the same privileged backgrounds and can speak off the cuff, crafting clever new platitudes on the fly while using all the right words to appeal to the emotions of the fan base. Perhaps that dubious display of emotions in Dubas’s final press conference with the Leafs actually impressed them. In the modern era of North America’s bloated, 30-plus-team professional sports leagues, winning may come along but once or twice in a generation. Or not at all. Maybe hiring a GM who can spin narratives, feign emotions when necessary, and be someone younger fans can identify with, is now more important than having a winning record.

But if they don’t know much about hockey, what are they going to ask Dubas when they sit down to interview him for some kind of management role with the Penguins? Maybe they’ll go with the free association, get-to-know-you-over-several-days-and-different-interactions type of examination. Stand to the side and see how Dubas performs when interacting with Penguins players for the first time. Get him yapping about his vision for the team and see how well he distills esoteric information into something the layman can understand. Invite him for a nice dinner at a restaurant with some important people, get a few drinks in him and see if his table manners hold up. And then when he’s feeling relaxed and thinking it’s his job to lose, hit him with one of those classic questions and gauge his response. “So, Kyle, can you tell us what really happened?” 

Dubas is one of those hipsters of a certain age who thinks he’s got the world figured out, but as his actions have demonstrated, he’s still got a lot to learn. In short, he’s a punk. He’s been involved in hockey his entire working life and obviously has some gaps in knowledge about the ways of the world. Here’s a hint, Dubas: if they ask you that question, offer a bland, diplomatic, anodyne dodge and that’s it. If you give them the real dirt, then they immediately wonder what you’ll say about them when they’re not around. Got it?

Almost certainly, Fenway will want to probe Dubas about that now-famous media availability. Though they probably won’t phrase it so directly, what they really want to know is: “Could you one day do the same thing to us as you pulled with MLSE (negotiating through the media, using the pity card etc.)?” As mentioned, there well may have been aspects of Dubas’s performance that appealed to Fenway. Shamelessly manipulating the fan base and doing whatever necessary to save your own skin is one thing. But when it was apparent Dubas was playing games with the people who paid his salary and tolerated the team’s lack of success under his watch, then Fenway’s ears likely pricked up. It’ll be a tough one, but they’re likely looking for a ‘What have you learned?’ type of response.

It would have been fascinating to sit in on that final meeting with Shanahan and Dubas. When Shanahan stood, swung the metaphorical ball-peen hammer and landed the blow directly between Dubas’s eyes with the news that Dubas would not be returning as Leafs’ GM, how did Dubas react? Did he cry out? Slump into his chair, defeated? Stare, uncomprehending? If his past actions are any guide, my guess is he lashed out with a temper tantrum for the ages.

Whatever happened, it’s almost certain that waves of life-altering regret are currently washing over Dubas. He’s a bit too young now. But in ten years or so, depending of course on what comes next in his career, when the mortal bell is tolling not as far off in the distance as it once was, the true horror of what Dubas did to himself, and yes, his family, too, will come down on him like the proverbial ton of bricks. But at the moment, perhaps he's so monstrously arrogant that he's now driven on by rage that he couldn’t finagle things to a situation he felt he deserved. 

One thing is certain, employers and employees never get exactly what they expect. Dubas may find that, if he’s hired by Fenway in some management capacity with the Penguins, he might walk into a situation where he has less autonomy than he had with the Leafs. And Fenway may soon realize that Dubas isn’t the genius they thought he was.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Leaf-Hounds

Everyone develops algorithms and heuristics for decision-making, whether they are conscious of the fact or not. Kyle Dubas, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs has a very simple approach when it comes to signing or trading for a player: if said player previously played for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, preferably when Dubas was part of the organization, the player rises to new heights of desirability. He must become a member of the Leafs at all costs regardless of recent play and injury history.

Dubas's love affair with former Soo players was vaguely endearing to Leafs fans over the past few seasons. But now his obsession has risen to the level of neurosis. Sure, Dubas has had some success with signing players from the OHL organization where he got his uber-privileged start as a stickboy on the same team his grandpappy used to coach. 

As the walls close in and the Leafs playoff-round winless streak with Dubas as GM stands at 4 seasons (18 in total), Dubas now seems to rely on nothing else but the Soo connection when adding players to the roster. How else can you explain his decision to take Matt Murray in a cap-dump trade from the Ottawa Senators? With only 25% of salary retained and some late-round picks from Ottawa thrown in (and the Leafs still owing the Sens future considerations), Dubas has effectively made Murray the Leafs' starting goaltender next season at a salary a shade less than what Jack Campbell was seeking.

Toronto Leaf-Hounds

But Campbell wants more term, the invincibly gullible Dubas acolytes say. That's no rational argument about a Leafs team stripped of first-round picks over multiple seasons by Dubas as he continually tries to band-aid over his blunders. Besides, Dubas will be long gone by the time Campbell's next contract, now likely with the Oilers, reaches its twilight stage. 

Over the past few seasons, Campbell has undoubtedly been a better and healthier goaltender than Murray. Murray's save percentage was lower than Campbell's during that stretch, he's started far fewer games and has been absolutely hammered by injuries. When Murray has been bad with the Sens, he's been waived-and-no-other-team-gave-him-a-second-look bad.

Does Campbell have issues as well? Of course. He hasn't been immune to injuries. And his borderline weepiness after tough losses and self-admitted mental weakness aren't selling points. But he's played lights-out during stretches and at a level that should at least give the Leafs a chance to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. But the core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John 'Legs-Turning-to-Cement-in-Real-Time' Tavares have hardly shown their worth in the playoffs when it counts the most. 

The irony is, Campbell is also a former Soo Greyhound, traded for by Dubas when he was GM of  that team and made the starter over, you guessed it, Matt Murray. And that in a nutshell is Dubas's fatal flaw, the basis of his Soo obsession: he's a sentimentalist. For all the talk of advanced stats and whiz-kid analytics, Dubas is no more forward thinking than other NHL GMs born two or three decades (or sometimes four) before him.

The Toronto sports-journalism herd had always had its share of braying mules in Dubas's corner. Dubas is forever respectful of  those around him (though it's been said that Dubas throws some classic tantrums behind closed doors), especially the hacks, who can turn nasty when the time is right. So it's not surprising that some are giving him a free pass on the latest head-scratcher. The argument in this article is basically, 'well, what else is he supposed to do?' Which nicely avoids the fact that Dubas's over-payment to his top four playoff under-performers has handcuffed the team for the duration of their contracts.

Dubas is in bunker mode now, oblivious to the waves of criticism and ridicule crashing down around him. He and his Soo alumni (Head Coach Sheldon Keefe, Head of Goalie Development (?) Jon Elkin, among others) have their narrative and they're sticking with it. Dubas recently made a slew of hires that only an organization like the Leafs could justify: assistants to assistants to assistants. All well qualified, accomplished people who will go on to have long careers in the hockey world and can return the favour long after Dubas's tenure with the Leafs ends.

Could the wild, flailing, low probability Matt Murray trade work out for the Leafs?  Of course it could. But betting on sentiment alone is a risky move for a GM whose time remaining with the Leafs is now measured in months instead of years.

Monday, November 8, 2021

All or Nothing Toronto Maple Leafs: An Embarrassment of Riches

When the most intriguing scene of the teaser for All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs doesn't appear in the actual series, you know you're in for a monumental disappointment.

Leafs All or Nothing
At least All or Nothing didn't disappoint in the disappointment category. That scene you might have noticed in the promotional lead-up to the release of the Amazon series? The scene where Kyle Dubas says his patience is wearing thin? Nowhere to be seen in any of the five episodes. 

The makers of All or Nothing were granted behind-the-scenes access to the Toronto Maple Leafs for the entire 2021/21 NHL season and the playoffs. Hundreds of hours of footage, they said. And this is what they came up with?

For the most part, we get maudlin set-pieces featuring a half dozen or so players. And many viewers may go for that kind of thing. Interviews with the families of Auston Matthews and Jason Spezza. Nick Foligno saying goodbye to his family as he departs for Toronto after being traded to the Leafs. Zach Bogosian with a nice story about his grandmother. And a couple other similar bits involving players and coaches.

What about the everyday goings-on at the rink? Some players clearly like the camera more than others. Joe Thornton seems at ease and rather likable though he veers into buffoon territory a few times. Matthews makes numerous bland, post-game comments. Others, including Morgan Rielly, are rarely seen or heard.

Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the Leafs, is probably on camera more than any other single member of the organization. At practice, in meetings, talking with Kyle Dubas, Leafs GM, and behind the bench during games, Keefe is generally heard yelling and cursing. Other interviews with Keefe were obviously spliced in after the season to make him seem more prescient and less of a loud-mouth.

And the oft-criticized Mitch Marner? He seems to shrink in behind-the-scenes footage. He's oddly silent in locker-room intermissions. Or perhaps he and his entourage demanded his utterances be sliced out of the final cut. Judging by his cringe-worthy commercials, it was probably a good idea.

Speaking of endorsements, Marner sure likes wearing hats featuring a sponsor's name and logo. Throughout the series, does he show up outside of the rink more often in Leafs gear or sponsors gear? Not sure. Maybe worth another look.

Marner Height Weight
And here's one for the conspiracy theorists. In a few scenes in Kyle Dubas's office, we see shots of magnets with all players names and info on a whiteboard. But only Marner's magnet is absent height and weight information. Why might that be? Probably nothing more than a simple oversight. Or perhaps his stats changed recently and hadn't been updated (though certainly he's finished growing height-wise).

But that won't stop people from speculating. Marner has developed a reputation as being obsessed with managing his image. And his entourage has a reputation for meddling. So a demand to keep his official height and weight secret wouldn't be surprising.  

The narration is on par with everything else in the series. The narrator, Will Arnett, has a good voice. But the script is lacking. Using 'we' 'our' and 'us' just doesn't work. Sure, plenty of fans have the habit of speaking of their team in that way. But here, it comes off as contrived. Be sympathetic and biased in the team's favour? Sure. But with some separation and a more impersonal tone, the tension could have been increased, the suspense ratcheted up, the official party line challenged to some degree. But here you get a sycophant for a narrator. It's overwrought attempts at inspiration, simplistic observations, an occasional cringe-worthy try at humour and a few instances in which he inserts himself into the narrative with personal anecdotes.

Even game footage in the show disappoints and often fails to capture the essence of what transpired. Remember Game 6 against Montreal? And that disastrous sequence that included William Nylander's goalie interference penalty, Keefe’s ill-advised challenge on the Habs resulting power-play goal and then Marner's puck over glass penalty to put the Leafs down two men? Never appears in the game action. Not even a mention.

To be fair, aside from the games, there is some drama. After a regular season loss, Auston Matthews says in a post-game interview that the Leafs played "too safe." This sparks a discussion between Keefe and Dubas. Later, Keefe addresses the comments in an off-ice meeting with the team. If that off-hand comment resulted in real concern and urgency, then you know the best stuff never made the final cut.

A handful of players—Jimmy Vesey, Frederik Andersen and Ilya Mikheyev—receive some criticism in face-to-face discussions with Keefe and are the subject of some conversations when they're not around. Andersen and Vesey were no longer with the team when the series was released, and Mikheyev is not part of the team's core. That's basically all you need to know about whose egos have to be managed with the greatest care and who can be called out in public.

I can't really blame the players and the team for the content of the series. They want to protect their reputations. So they no doubt demanded the right to have final say on what scenes were left on the cutting-room floor. That’s too bad. Because with a subtle hand, the results could have been iconic and memorable.

People being interviewed tend to respond with clichés. Professional athletes even more so. And so you push back. Ask the same question. Re-phrase it and ask again. Seize on hesitation, doubt, the merest hint of an original thought. Gain the trust of the interviewee and slowly you draw something worthwhile out of him.

Most documentary film-makers will tell you they start out with an idea and begin filming. But reality inevitably takes things in a different direction. And so they go with it. But this documentary has the feel of setting out to, above all, soothe egos and avoid embarrassment. No unscripted insight from the stars of the team. Nothing that might make them seem more human. No indications of fears, worries or doubts. Mostly stock answers given in press conferences after games or carefully worded Hallmark card sentiments in the fluff pieces.

Surely there were some compelling storylines that emerged. Some tensions that came to the surface. Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. When rich young athletes get together, one thing is certain. Arrogance, entitlement, jealousy, resentment and self-doubt are in abundance.

Game 7 Loss to Montréal
Ultimately, the mediocre final result falls on the film makers. Sure, they may have been limited by what the organization was willing to share. But they were also too desperate not to offend or sorely lacking in creative instincts, or both. Nothing authentic emerges here. A better title would have been An Embarrassment of Riches, for the overpaid star players who consistently under-perform when it matters the most and the film-makers, who had a glorious opportunity to make something memorable but failed. 

The final clichéd scene shows Matthews and Marner alone in the dressing room after the Game 7 loss to Montréal, towels over heads. They either knew what was expected of them or it was completely staged. Either way, together with the closing voice-over—one last cringey attempt at earnest, moving commentary that falls flat—it perfectly sums up the series. Just not in the way the film-makers hoped it would, 

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Montreal Canadiens: Shameful and Destructive 2021 Draft Pick

The first-round selection of Logan Mailloux by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2021 NHL draft is so shameless, short-sighted and harmful to the organization, that you have to wonder if something is seriously wrong with Canadiens’ general manager Marc Bergevin. 

Is he on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Is he harbouring deep resentments about a real or perceived slight from the NHL, other GMS, or even someone within the Canadiens’ organization? Has he become immersed in a bizarre corner of the online world like so many other people these days? A warped alternate reality of grievances and rage that have roid-charged his world-view and led to an irrational thought process? Is he consciously or otherwise trying to self-destruct?

Whatever the reasons, he has done severe damage to his and the team’s reputation, alienated many fans, and likely increased the suffering of a young woman in Sweden. He will undoubtedly reap real consequences for this ill-advised selection. And scrutiny on his past and future actions will surely increase. 

Why did  Bergevin and the Canadiens slither out from under a rock to make such an unwise choice?


First, some background. On loan to Swedish hockey club SK Lejon last season, Mailloux committed  a sex-related crime. He took a non-consensual photo while engaged in an intimate act with an 18 year-old woman, then distributed the photo online, without her consent, in a group chat with team-mates. He also attached one of her social media profiles to the photo in the chat, revealing her personal details. The woman learned of the incident and contacted the police. Mailloux, seventeen at the time, admitted his crime, was found guilty, received a summary conviction and was fined. The unnamed victim has stated she does not feel Mailloux is remorseful. 

But some of the facts still seem a bit murky. For example, the status of the posted photo is unknown. Any of the individuals in the group chat could have disseminated the photo more widely or saved it to distribute at a later date. Regardless, the psychological effects will be immense and long-lasting for the young female victim. Her reputation has undoubtedly been damaged. 

The news was known by many, or perhaps all, thirty-two NHL teams shortly thereafter. He was interviewed by some of those teams, ignored by others and put on no-draft lists by at least eleven teams. The news didn’t break publicly until a few weeks ago. Mailloux made a public announcement only days before the 2021 NHL draft claiming that he didn’t want to be selected. It was all scripted PR boilerplate, of course. An expedient, self-serving decision no doubt, but the effect of losing a year would have at least been something. Especially considering the long-term effects the crime will have on his victim. 

And then, inexplicably, Marc Bergevin selected Mailloux in the first round, thirty-first overall. Since that moment, it has been a surreal psychodrama starring the po-faced Mailloux and the shameless Bergevin. 

This pick was wrong on so many levels.

The biggest problem is the crime was committed less than a year ago. If you commit a crime like this and suffer no consequences aside from the fine and negative publicity, it sends a very bad message. If you are rewarded so soon after the crime, it sends an even worse message to fans, other young hockey players and anyone who has been victimized in a similar way. But the complete lack of sound judgement didn't end after the selection.  

The actions of the Montreal Canadiens since the controversial pick have been cringe-worthy at best. Shortly after Bergevin announced the pick, an emotionless Mailloux starred in a freakish press conference, during which he read from a head-up-the-ass, cack-handed script, surely prepared by one of the most incompetent PR hacks in history. An intoxicated ape with a Ouija board could have produced something with more empathy. Instead, the focus was on Mailloux and his 'journey.' He didn’t utter the word ‘crime’ once, and repeatedly referred only to a ‘mistake.’ I imagine those close to the victim, and perhaps the woman herself, would like to perform some ‘mistakes’ on a few people’s skulls with blunt objects. 

Mailloux has not faced any real consequences for his crime. And the Montreal Canadiens endorsed that reality when they went against his published wishes not to be selected. When the doppelganger for a young Frankenstein’s monster (but lacking a similar level of emotional development) deflected questions about the Canadiens ignoring his request not to be drafted this year, he removed any doubts about the sincerity of that initial request. Then he was asked if he knew the pick was coming and dodged that question, too, instead offering a weasel-word response. 

The fallout from this decision will be greater than having been pressured to wait a year to be drafted. All it would have taken for that minor inconvenience to become a reality was for all thirty-two teams to honour that request. Now the rightful criticism will ramp up a thousand fold and the scrutiny on the person who did the crime and the people involved in the draft selection will increase. 

Just as important, the Canadiens and specifically Marc Bergevin, have aligned themselves with some invincibly ignorant people. The people supporting the first-round selection don’t have much to say aside from empty clichés. They don’t provide a shred of nuance or even reference the specific details of the crime. The irony is that the loudest, most shamelessly dismissive will do more harm  than good to their young hero. And yet Bergevin and the Canadiens have seemingly embraced this kind of idiocy. They spoke of a ‘plan’ for Mailloux, but when pressed they gave no details. They referred to ‘his journey’ as if all that matters is how Mailloux can turn this into a positive experience for himself. In choosing equivocating, dismissive words, they have elevated this colossal blunder to a whole other level. 

Let’s do away with all this nonsense about character, shall we? All sports teams pay tribute to past victories and legendary players. But everything is about degrees. The Canadiens really play up that angle. As the oldest NHL franchise, they do have a lot to be rightfully proud of. And they are very quick to reference their standards of character and conduct. But for the current iteration of this team, it’s no longer going to mean a whole helluva lot. Stop coasting on the reputation of the past and show that all this self-congratulatory nonsense is more than just words. 

The current owners and management seem to think having legions of loyal Canadiens fans means the team is immune from backlash. But you should never take that kind of loyalty for granted. The pick and accompanying behaviour adds up to a very repellent degree of arrogance. This may have more tangible consequences than Bergevin or any of his flunkies thought possible. And that’s what it’s really all about. When something doesn’t touch you directly, it’s easy to be dismissive. 

If the crime had hit closer to home, the Canadiens would not be so cavalier. A case occurred last year that may serve as a good analogy. A veteran reporter for the New Yorker magazine was caught ‘pleasuring himself’ on a Zoom call with colleagues. Apparently he’d been flashing back and forth to another screen where he was engaged in some kind of seedy interaction with a sex worker. He was promptly fired when the story leaked. His conduct wasn’t even criminal. So why this analogy? After all, he’s over 50 and should know better. Besides, the worlds of sports and journalism are far different.

Here’s the point: if a young NHL prospect did the same thing, he would rightfully be released outright by the team that had drafted him. Why? Because the fallout and shame would be immediate and in close proximity to the team. It’s easy to dismiss the seriousness of the crime committed by Mailloux because it occurred half-way around the world. But most importantly, it didn’t directly affect Bergevin and other Canadiens executives who signed off on the selection. When you don’t have the capacity to feel empathy, you’re a poor choice for GM of such a high profile team.

Look at it from a more self-serving angle: even if you’re a mule unable to empathize and show respect towards the victim and instead announce ‘proudly’ that her victimizer is worthy of joining your team eight months after the crime, how much damage are you going to cause the organization? How about the current roster of the Canadiens? How do players like Carey Price feel? This bizarre move by Bergevin stole the spotlight away from important comments Price made about residential schools just a few days before the draft. 

Everyone now knows about one of the most horrific episodes—which lasted longer than a century—in Canadian history: residential schools. The devastating treatment, including sexual abuse, suffered by generations of Indigenous children in those schools is made far worse by an unpleasant truth: very few, if any, individual people have ever been held to account for those crimes. Obviously more severe and horrible by many degrees of magnitude than what I’m discussing here. But it’s in the same sick wheelhouse of destruction and avoiding consequences.  

It's hard to fathom that the clowns who made this selection can't comprehend what all the fuss is about. Marc Bergevin has been derided for many years as one of the worst GMs in the NHL. That was before the Canadiens' amazing playoff performance that ended a few weeks ago. But the goodwill the team and Bergevin earned during the run to the Cup Final has been wiped out for many fans. 

Simply declaring that something is not a serious matter does not make it so. An interesting thing about pressure is that it can never be fully resisted. The selection of Logan Mailloux is a destructive move that will haunt Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens for many years to come.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Seattle Kraken: Own Goal Before First Game Played

Seattle Kraken
Seattle's NHL franchise has announced its new name: the Kraken. It's hard to imagine a worse choice.

First, it has no connection to the region in which the team is based. Sure, that's not always a necessity. Many team names do not have that connection. But the Seattle team is peddling the name as if there is, in fact, a connection. You see, the Kraken is a mythical sea monster and Seattle is near the ocean. Great. But the Kraken of Scandinavian myth dwells in the seas off the coasts of Norway and Greenland. Okay, fine. Most people aren't going to make an issue out of misappropriating a myth.

But there are other issues. The name doesn't roll off the tongue. Not only that, but there are probably three possible pronunciations. Check out the pronunciation sound file on for one pronunciation that I wouldn't have even considered.

The Kraken Wakes
Here's another problem. It's not really clear if this mythical monster is a one-off creature. Is there only one Kraken? Like, say the Loch Ness monster? If, on the other hand, there are many of these octopus-like creatures roaming the fantasy-world seas which they inhabit, why is the team name presented as if it's a single beast? No plural 's' on Kraken. It's almost treated as if it's an uncountable noun.

And that's a personal preference on my part. I've never liked team names that are uncountable nouns (The Wild, The Lightning), or ones that aren't usually uncountable, but treated as if they are (or considered as a single entity), like the Avalanche. The shortened forms, 'the Avs' and the related 'the Bolts' deal with that issue nicely. And those modified forms highlight the fact that people do like team names that are countable nouns.

Finally, it's good to consider the way other teams and other fanbases will mock your name. Krakheads? Krakhouse? Yes, those first-level insults will rain down on the team wherever they play and in online battles between fans. That's also not much of an issue, since often there's kind of a twisted pride taken by fans when their team's name is bastardized.

But the name is still ridiculous. And it's as if the team knows that, but the process somehow took over. It happens. A small group of people get caught up in their own biases and feel the time pressure. They convince themselves that the 'most popular' choice is the best one. No one has the guts to speak out. Yes-men (and women) and sycophants in the organization rule the day and suddenly the horrible choice becomes reality.

I've heard representatives of the team suggest that 'the Kraken' really was the most popular choice among fans. Perhaps it created the most curiosity and stood out the most because it's so odd. But that doesn't mean it's the best choice. Leadership often means disregarding the mob and current trends to make a decision that will stand the test of time.

And a strange thing happens in a lot of focus groups. The people asked to take part have a way of sensing what the preferred choice is of those in charge. Often the choices are presented in a way that reflects a less-than subtle bias. The focus group members feel flattered to have been asked. They don't want to offend. And so they go along with the expected answer.

The Day of the Triffids
The team is so proud of their new name, that the only indication of the mythical creature on the new jersey is a weak-ass tentacle worked into the large S for 'Seattle.'And the anchors? What do those suggest? That the Kraken slaughtered everyone aboard one or more ships and took the anchors as souvenirs? And the pigeon with the red wing? What's that all about? Likely missed by the graphic designers and team management who were so satisfied with what they'd come up with.

They won't change the name now. That would suggest a flawed process and lack of instincts for selecting a name that is evocative and potentially iconic down the road. (or even instantly iconic). Once any decision has been made, validation bias kicks in. As the din of mockery ramps up, the fans (some of them) and management will double down.

Of course, some people do seem to genuinely like the name. But I get the sense that they're putting on a brave face. Like the person who always wears the latest fashions. Even when they wear some ridiculous item that doesn't quite work, they battle against that niggling voice in their heads. You can sense a kind of visceral embarrassment lurking just beneath the surface. But they put on a false smile and blunder ahead because the power of the herd has convinced them this is what someone in their position must do.

Considerations When Choosing a Team Name

Does it offend anyone?
Yes, that must be considered in this day and age, and rightfully so.

Does the name have a connection to the local geography, history or climate?
Not always necessary, but it can help.

Pronunciation, euphony, evocativeness.
Does the name have a standard pronunciation? Does it roll off the tongue? Does it evoke images you want associated with the team?

And how can people speak about the team and players using the name?
Two Bruins and a Red Wing fighting for the puck in the corner. Or two Leafs players collide. But two Krakens?

Are there any false friends, secondary meanings, or ways the team name can be bastardized?
A 'false friend' in linguistics is a word that exists in two or more languages, but which may have a different meaning in one or more of those languages. In a world where teams are trying to appeal beyond the geographical location in which they are based, this is no small thing. And the ways the name 'Kraken' can be bastardized are numerous, as mentioned.

Is the potential name already being used by another sports team?
This doesn't always have to eliminate a possible choice. It depends how close the team is, geographically, to the team selecting the new name. RoughRiders?

What kind of imagery is associated with the name?
This is a huge consideration as it relates to merchandising and marketing the team.

Possible Names for Seattle's NHL Team

Below are some other potential names I came up with for the new Seattle hockey team. Others may well have suggested some or all of these names earlier.

The Seattle Coastliners
The Liners for short. Cocaine jokes? Bring 'em on.

The Seattle Norwesters

The Seattle Seals
'Seals' has, of course, been used before.

The Seattle Captains
Sure, there's already one team name shortened to 'the Caps', but so what? Who's going to captain the Captains?

The Seattle Timber Wolves

The Seattle Timber Cats
What's a timber cat? Who knows? Create your own mythology. A cat with a chainsaw? Why not?

The Seattle Steamers

The Seattle Reapers
No doubt it's been done before, but not at the national level as far as I know. Sure, it would offend some. But the potential imagery would almost be unlimited. 'It's Reapin' Time!'

The Seattle Serials
Based on the strange number of serial killers who seem to have operated in that region. Okay, no, it wouldn't fly.

Who knows? Maybe the Kraken will sound iconic in a few years. And they could have done worse. They could have chosen a team name from another John Wyndham science-fiction novel. They could have been the Seattle Triffids.

Wait, that would have been better...

Friday, March 2, 2012

Ron Wilson Fired as Head Coach of Toronto Maple Leafs

Maple Leafs logo
With fewer than 20 games to go in the 2011/12 regular season and with the Toronto Maple Leafs shrieking head-first towards earth without a parachute, the likelihood of missing the playoffs for the 7th consecutive year hammering towards them like a semi-trailer truck traveling at 100 miles an hour with the driver dead of a heart attack slumped at the wheel, Brian Burke has finally fired Ron Wilson.

Proof once again that pressure can never fully by resisted, even by the biggest blowhard of a GM in the NHL.

Cringe-worthy Behaviour

Wilson contract extension tweet
Most sane people cringed when Burke, in a  bizarre move, handed Wilson the right to announce his own contract extension. Wilson chose Christmas day 2011 to make his smug  announcement on Twitter. Strange decision by Burke and disrespectful to fans.

But every criticism directed against the Leafs this year has been brushed aside by both Burke and Wilson. They seemed consumed with their hatred of the Toronto hockey media and used this to justify just about everything.

The fans wanted to see Wilson fired? According to Burke, that is because the media has presented Wilson in a negative light. It's got nothing to do with the horrid special teams, the inability to motivate players, or the abysmal slide the Leafs are on that sees them with the worst record in the NHL in the past ten games.

So what finally pushed Burke to pull the trigger on Wilson? Perhaps the realization that his own job may be at risk as his fourth season as Leafs GM draws to a close. With little success to point to and numerous failed signings and questionable moves, the self-preservation impulse likely kicked in.

Or maybe Wilson provided all the justification Burke needed when Wilson dared to offer up a borderline criticism of Burke:

“Everybody is frustrated right now. We did not do anything at the trade deadline and we came out tentative, to say the least, and got behind early.”

This after the Leafs lost 4-2 to the Washington Capitals after the trade deadline had passed without any significant moves by Burke.

In Burke's arrogant, self-serving world, he establishes the goal posts and moves them at will. He offers up deflections, excuses and insults to journalists who aren't appropriately deferential.

When Burke said the negative pressure was now off and insinuated that the Leafs were ready to start winning, the subsequent losses coupled with Wilson's subtle jab were likely enough to provoke Burke to take action.

Wilson has got his 1400th game as an NHL coach and a nice fat contract extension/severance package to ease the pain of being sacked.

But have the Leafs got enough time and the necessary tools to claw their way back into a playoff position?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Arron Asham Knocks Out Jay Beagle: NHL Hockey Fights

And fighting comes one step closer to being eliminated altogether in NHL hockey with another vicious result in a game between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday, October 13th, 2011.

The fight was between Arron Asham (Pens) and Jay Beagle (Caps).

Brutal knockout of Beagle by Asham.

And what are fans outraged about? The fact that, in the heat of the moment, Asham made some theatrical hand gestures after Beagle was knocked out and lying on the ice.

Which goes to prove that in hockey, as in everything, being humiliated by someone after the fact often causes more outrage than the initial instance of conflict.

Drive your fist into someone's face, knocking him out, possibly shattering  his jaw and likely concussing him? No problem. You see, that is ritualized and has a long and storied tradition in the NHL. Celebrate the total destruction of someone after the fight? Now that really has a way of focusing people's sense of what is right and wrong.

And I am not trying to be ironic here. That's just the way things are. Not least because of the fact that in most NHL fights (as in this one), the two combatants willingly engage in battle. But there is something repellent about mocking your opponent as he lies injured on the ice.

On the other hand, some fans claim that Asham absolved himself of the post-knockout taunts by tapping his stick against the boards in the penalty box when Beagle got up off the ice.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Don Cherry Calls Former Players Pukes and Hypocrites

On the first day of the 2011/12 NHL season, Don Cherry vomited forth a load of bile on his Coach's Corner segment in the first intermission of the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens on Hockey Night in Canada on CBC.

This time around, he referred to a few former players—Chris Nilan, Stu Grimson, and Jim Thomson—as "pukes" and "hypocrites" for daring to hold a view contrary to his illogical, incoherent opinion on fighting in the NHL.

The castrated wonder Ron MacLean sat there like a well-trained little eunuch and didn't dare to question his meal ticket. And the gutless snivelers at the CBC have once again equivocated and bowed down to Cherry, under the delusion that he is somehow an untouchable who is responsible for the millions who tune into Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday during the hockey season.

Sad that the buffoons in charge of CBC Sports don't realize that with one of the most captive TV audiences left in existence, and with an abundance of entertaining and knowledgeable hockey commentators working in Canada, that they could create a truly memorable and quality show to take the place of the embarrassment that is Cherry's weekly rant.

But aside from the fact that Cherry has successfully pushed things to a place where he can get away with slander and ad hominem attacks without so much as a mewling, symbolic tut tutting from his dutiful little fart-catcher MacLean (at 800, 000 a year for his cringe-worthy weekly performance that is the equivalent of picking up one of Cherry's turds, grinning at it with that simpering, moronic look on his face, gulping it down and then further mugging for the camera, apparently he would do anything to keep his snout up to the trough)...

you do have to question those who think Cherry's attacks are all well and fine, and who perpetuate the BS that he is "just an entertainer" and that his irrational verbal attacks are "his schtick," until such time as...

they are the ones getting shat upon.

Chris Nilan's response to Cherry's blindside on HNIC on Oct.6, 2011 was justified and accurate. Nilan makes some great points and correctly highlights Cherry as ignorant and misinformed. Cherry misrepresented what Nilan said in the past, and yes, Cherry is one of the biggest hypocrites of them all. He constantly shrieks about loyalty and friendship and then shoves the knife into Nilan's back.

But if you don't say anything when a self-serving hypocrite like Cherry is ripping people for years on end, then you can hardly be surprised when he turns his sights on you. For Cherry is a shameless self-promoter who sees various individuals for the benefits they can provide him, whether by classifying them as friends or enemies.

Stand up and condemn this fool for his attacks and the cowards at the CBC for allowing him to continue on, or don't be shocked when it is your turn.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

NHL Player Killed in Fight During Game

NHL Fights RIP
The title of this post is a future headline that will one day appear in newspapers across the country.

As players get stronger, fights in NHL games become more vicious, and the league continues to condone aggravated, bare-knuckle assaults, it's only a matter of time.

When the inevitable happens, NHL owners and the players' union will quickly convene a meeting, and shortly thereafter, fighting in the NHL will cease altogether.

Or at the very least, fighting from that point onward will be dealt with in a serious enough way that teams will stop paying otherwise talentless players to provide entertainment to the blood-lust set under the guise that it somehow benefits the game.

The Official Response

The NHL will be swift in delivering a slyly worded, equivocating bit of nonsense regarding the tragedy. The ultimate goal will be to avoid liability and offer up some clever, nostalgic tripe about the passing into history of condoned fights in which players were allowed to drive their fists into each other's faces with little or no possibility of defending themselves, and with no worry of being penalized in a meaningful way.

The official response from the NHL will be quick for a simple reason: it is already prepared and ready to go for when the inevitable comes to pass. All large organizations prepare for crises, and the death of a player during an on-ice fight is something that the NHL has undoubtedly expected for some time now.

But until a death does occur in the inane and indefensible NHL sideshow known as hockey fights, the baboons in charge will continue deluding themselves into thinking that there is no good reason to take preventative action.

As the Bettman experiment of expanding the league into southern US states starts to collapse, the head clown and his band of little sycophants no doubt believe that pulling the plug on mutually agreed upon aggravated assaults would further galvanize his time in power as one of the strangest and most tin-eared that any professional sports league anywhere has ever experienced.


As the corpses of NHL enforcers past and present continue to pile up in this most depressing of off-seasons, surely it must be dawning on the wackos in charge that there is something inherently warped in allowing the most amateurish, cack-handed aspect of the game to continue on unabated.

However, I'm guessing that the broken enforcer who is hanging by a thread in his personal life is a narrative that is far more familiar in the relatively closed world of the NHL than it is to the general public. Those at the top have known for a long time the all too predictable storyline that follows the enforcer.

"But the fans love it!" the mules shriek. Sure, people everywhere love unhinged displays of violence. If the NFL were to allow players to engage in fights during games in which they swung their helmets wildly at each other's faces, and then paid a senile old fuck a couple of million dollars a year to pander to ignoramuses while talking up the helmet-swinging sessions as being absolutely necessary for the integrity of the game, then it would likely be somewhat popular as well.

And let's be honest about the tragedies of Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak: they're good for business. Death sells. Tortured souls who died well before their time is an emotional narrative that will result in a deluge of "soul-searching" type articles just in time for the new season. And it will make many fans feel that they are part of something big and important that has real and tragic consequences. The bit of tripe vomited forth by Bettman and his boys in response to the deaths is as meaningless as all the other garbage they offer up when the heat is on.

The NHL policy of tacitly allowing on-ice assaults has helped to create these Frankensteins, most of whom likely suffer from brain damage and turn to booze and drugs as a way to escape the physical pain and/or to fulfill their anti-hero, hard-man roles.

No doubt their off-ice woes are also related to the effects of knowing they have to attack and defend night after night. The possibility of being humiliated, injured, or severely damaging another player has got to take its toll. Add into the toxic mix the fact that enforcers often have a tenuous hold on their jobs with NHL teams, and the pressure has got to be at times overwhelming.

Let the Shrieking Commence

And when the expected happens and a player is finally killed in an NHL fight, the shrieking from all sides will reach a fever pitch. Cherry will exploit it for his own gain and his legions of moronic followers will regurgitate his every incoherent utterance as they face the reality that one of their beloved outlets for their sociopathic tendencies is coming to an end.

The entire nation, except for family and friends of the dead player, for those are the only people ever truly affected by a death, will experience a collective exhilaration stoked on by unctuous journalists, politicians and other self-serving pukes.

The most apoplectic of the NHL fight crowd will scream with renewed fury that those who oppose fighting "just don't get it" while being utterly incapable of articulating the rationales that they claim they understand so well. But more than that, the fighting proponents will state outright that anyone who says fighting should be banned in the NHL is somehow less of a man.

For that is at the heart of the visceral passion that so many have for watching other people attack and assault each other: feeling like a hard-man by proxy. Like chicken-hawks who lust for war while those who have experienced its horrors are always more circumspect and cautious, I've always had the suspicion that those who love hockey fights the most have rarely, if ever, been involved (with many exceptions of course) in arranged or spontaneous fights.

Just as watching other people self-destruct is sublime and romantic, seeing other people assault each other and hearing of complete strangers dying is a strangely satisfying tonic for human beings. It reminds us that we are alive and that something horrible has not happened to us yet.

So the spectacle of NHL fights will continue. Bettman and his yes-men have apparently convinced themselves that the end of condoned fights on their watch is not a legacy they want. Presumably, the death of a player during an NHL fight is something they are more comfortable with.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Rick Rypien Dead at Age 27

Sad news: Rick Rypien has passed away at the age of 27.

Rypien had recently signed to play with the Winnipeg Jets for the 2011/12 season.

True North Sports & Entertainment (TNSE), which owns the Winnipeg Jets, has already released a statement. From the Winnipeg Jets website:
True North Sports & Entertainment and the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Club would like to issue the following statement in regards to the passing of Rick Rypien:

“We are deeply saddened to confirm Rick’s passing. As many people are aware, he had strong ties to True North Sports & Entertainment, the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Club, the former Manitoba Moose Hockey Club and the Vancouver Canucks. We would like to express our sincere sympathies to the Rypien family as well as Rick’s friends. We also appreciate all of the support that has come pouring in from Rick’s fans. Rick was a talented player with an extremely bright future. His hunger for the game made him a valued team member both on and off the ice. This loss has impacted us as more than just a hockey team.”

The organization will have no further comment at this time. We kindly ask the privacy of Rick’s family and friends be respected during this difficult period.
People will of course speculate about what happened before there is any official confirmation, and the Wikipedia page for Rypien is already fueling the discussion.

Whatever the reason, it is tragic and sad news. Rest in peace and condolences to his family and friends. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Locker Room Cancer: NHL Gossip

Heatley cartoon
In any workplace, a person's performance can be broken down into three general categories: competence, responsibilities, and emotions. This also applies in the hockey world.

Competence: does the player consistently perform his role and put in a strong effort?

Responsibilities: does he come to the rink, airport and team events on time? Does he follow the advice of his coaches and try to improve his skills?

Emotions: the big one. How does he interact with other players, the coaches, and even the fans? Does he speak in a professional and respectful way to the media? Can he keep things in check at crucial times during the game and not take stupid penalties? In short, does he play well in the sandbox?

And just like in most job situations, emotions are often the weak point of hockey players. It can be the main reason that a player is shipped to another team. Or at least the tipping point that exaggerates other shortcomings and makes a trade seem like the only way to deal with the problems.

Teams are unlikely to ever come out directly and state that a player had some kind of personality defect that made him an unwelcome presence in the locker room. They may speak in code and say that the player was "not a good fit," but no one is going to air the team's dirty laundry.

Yet the salacious, gossipy type rumours about internal team conflict turn into some of the most popular stories. These types of stories have gained more popularity recently and will receive even more coverage in the years to come. This is for a number of reasons.

First, the rise of the internet, and the increase in the number of sports networks and the resulting 24-hour coverage of all things hockey. No off-season exists for the media outlets that strive to supply a never-ending stream of content for hockey fans.

Also, a realization exists amongst the people responsible for creating content, that gossipy stories are some of the most popular amongst fans. These are the articles that appeal even to the casual fans. It is easier than ever to determine what content resonates with fans and to subsequently justify writing and "researching" more of the same. Click-throughs are easy to measure and so it is a simple matter to determine what "sells."

Though "serious" fans may deny any interest in such prurient topics, you can bet that many of those same individuals have read all the details about the latest melodrama and have formed an opinion.

Conflict sells and is at the heart of all drama, whether fiction or non-fiction. The best regular season and playoff games are themselves stories, with stars, plots and turning points. An easy-to-understand storyline that everyone can relate to, and one that everyone has played a part in, is that of the co-worker who can't get along with others.

What better way to ratchet up the prurient intrigue than for the story to include a highly paid professional athlete who may be on your favourite team, or, perhaps even better, a team that you loathe?

Finally, gossipy stories full of speculation and rumour require far less expertise and familiarity with the game to produce.

To be sure, there are different degrees of gossip, and the vilest insinuations lacking sources (even unnamed) or evidence of any kind will only show up in online locations where there is little or no accountability. But even more reputable outlets are starting to get in on the action.

Leave it to the online hacks or self-proclaimed gossip columnists to get the ball rolling, then everyone can join in the fun with the qualifier that the coverage itself is now a story, and hell, might as well venture forth a smug tut-tutting with some related commentary tucked in for good measure.

Prima Donnas, Punks and Pissants

Just as there are common stories that have been played out hundreds of times with varying details in popular films and books, so too there are some common themes that turn up time and again in NHL melodramas. One of the most common is the "locker room cancer."

The locker room cancer is a player who is a negative influence on those around him and can infect an entire team with an insidious outlook on life and the game. Also known as locker room poison.

What is a Locker Room Cancer?

What does it take for the locker room cancer tag to gain traction with a player?

They are often very good players. A scrub who is also a nasty piece of work in the locker room just doesn't resonate in the same way.

Obviously, the unpleasant personality and/or behaviour does have to exist to fuel the rumours that eventually surface. The behaviour itself could take many forms. From sullen and disinterested, to abrasive and abusive.

A poor stretch of play from the player in question and or the team on which he plays is often a prerequisite for the unpleasantness to come to the surface. Winning is easy. The real test for anyone is when the losses start piling up.

Usually the player has been traded at least once. This provides plausibility to the claims.

The first whispers often coincide with the trade. While the public pronouncements from the team from which the player was traded are always positive, the stories start to circulate. It's "never say anything bad about anyone, ever" for public consumption.

Even though teams pay lip service to that sentiment, too many people are involved with a team for the truth not to come out. The stories have to come from somewhere. For the most part, journalists in the mainstream media don't just make stuff up. Extrapolate, speculate and exaggerate? Of course...filling in the blanks when the full story is not known is what humans do best.

The final factor is that the claims must have an air of truth about them to resonate with fans. How does the player conduct himself on and off the ice? What about his mannerisms and body language?

Anecdotes gleaned from personal contact at autograph sessions, sightings and other non-game situations can play a part as well. It all adds up to a public image. And so, if the stories match up with the public presentation, the claims become believable.

New Beginnings

Luckily for most players tagged as difficult (the locker room cancer is only the extreme), there are going to be other teams willing to give them a chance.  Because it's all subjective. Maybe the other players are the ones who don't know how to interact.

Or maybe it is the coaches or more generally the overall team culture. And of course, even if there is some sense that a team is taking on an abrasive personality, there is always the hope that a person learns and changes over time.

In the end, despite public comments to the contrary, teams may take on a player knowing full well that he is a petulant, glory-seeking prima donna. But that talent is so irresistible that the rationalizing takes over and team management convince themselves that things will be different this time around.

The fans who claim they have no interest in such stories are the rarity or more likely, being disingenuous. Other people's lives intrigue and amaze. Especially when they are rich, talented, and play on the teams that fans love to cheer for. The insight gives a more interesting picture of the players fans love to watch. At the very least, it  provides a point against which fans can rank themselves. "Harummph! I'm too sophisticated to be interested in crap like that."

Amongst all the great games, performances, and playoff races, you can be sure that the coming season will also feature plenty of gossip, rumours and innuendo.