Friday, October 5, 2007

The Maple Leafs and the Media

Leafs logoI had been ready to write a post about how rising player salaries and long-term contracts have resulted in performance based decisions regarding NHL rosters sometimes taking a back seat to monetary and perception concerns. Management and coaches have to demonstrate their confidence in an investment by allowing a longer period of sub-par or mediocre play before deciding to make line-up changes, trades or demotions.

Then the Toronto Maple Leafs went and started Andrew Raycroft in goal in their first game of the season against the Ottawa Senators. I was surprised and actually a bit heartened to see them buck the wisdom that you have to go with a newly signed but unproven player because of the hype surrounding the trade and the big contract. It would have looked a lot shrewder if Raycroft had been anything more than his usual uninspiring self.

At least they kept the media hounds guessing with the "clever" refusal to confirm who would get the start. Though the snickering Raycroft and the sullen Toskala obviously weren't clued in on the plan to dupe the legion of Leafs hacks.

But you've got to wonder just how much energy is expended and focus lost with the constant dysfunctional tango that is the relationship between the Toronto sports media and the Leafs. By basing their strategy on the belief that they have no friends amongst the ink-stained wretches, that their words will be twisted regardless of what they say and that there's a kind of us versus them mentality that can inspire the team, the Leafs have got to be alienating at least some of their huge fan base at the same time.

Just in the past few months alone there have been a handful of examples that demonstrate that duplicity, half-truths and shameless manipulation are at the core of the Toronto Maple Leafs management and coaching subculture when it comes to dealings with the media.

The recovery time following surgery on defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo's knee does not appear to jibe with the indications the Leafs provided about the severity of the injury. The usual escape hatch would see them claiming justifiable deception because of the need to keep personnel info from other teams. Journalists who have been had don't see it that way and are more likely to use such an example to highlight the bloated salaries John Ferguson Jr. gave to other defensemen and the lack of maneuverability such moves have presented in dealing with the Colaiacovo situation. The casual attempts to mislead seem to occur within the organization as well, with the media used as nothing more than useful idiots.

John Ferguson Jr. was promised a contract extension before the end of the summer and this was repeated to various journalists on numerous occasions. The lie was put to that claim with the beginning of a months-long farce that involved a search for a mentor for Ferguson. Could they possibly humiliate him more if they demanded he show up on game days wearing a school boy uniform and a beanie with a propeller? Next, the discussions with Scotty Bowman regarding his potential hiring as a mentor to Ferguson were denied (though no doubt that was partly at the urging of Bowman himself.) Perhaps the guarantees of a contract extension weren't lies at all but an amusing experiment conducted by the head asylum masters in an attempt to show their underlings how the nasty little propaganda game works.

And then the seemingly spur of the moment, almost petulant decision to keep the goaltender choice a supposed "secret" until shortly before each game. This doesn't seem like it was well thought out but resulted more from the building frustration Paul Maurice must be feeling after more than a year on the job.

When nailed with proof that honest answers and truthful information are not part of the Leafs media strategy, the usual excuses are offered. The fact that they seem to screw each other over as evidenced by the ongoing treatment of their own GM renders the "us against them" sentiment a bit meaningless. For a team that enjoys fans who are some of the most loyal and willing to part with their cash in support of a perennially losing cause, such a lack of credibility in dealing openly with the media (and hence with the public) must come across as arrogant.

The blundering nature of the goalie spin and the apparent frustration of Maurice and Ferguson only days into the new season should be worrisome for Leafs fans. The pressure of dealing with the media and the obvious decision that there is a clear need for constant spinning and dodging could be affecting actual hockey related decisions. The "absurdity defense" would no doubt flow if they were faced with such an accusation.

"A multi-billion dollar enterprise that features some of the best conditioned athletes in the world, headed by highly skilled and experienced (cough) individuals used to dealing with the kind of pressure that makes these media chumps look like lambs in comparison and we're basing our decisions on how it will play with them?? Ha...ha...HAAAAAA!!!"

Pettiness and vindictiveness can drive people to strange and inexplicable actions and are often in response to perceived unfairness and nastiness. In this case, the abrasive and relentless sledgehammer of media scrutiny. The deception games are actually a tacit admission that the constant criticism hurts. To deny that having your actions, game plans and long-term goals for the team constantly ridiculed is anything less than extremely uncomfortable just doesn't wash. It's like denying that being threatened doesn't have a tangible effect on a person. Which is why the creeps who employ such tactics do it. They know it works to a degree.

Similarly, that is why good journalists engage in harsh criticism. Because it results in real pressure and moves their punditry towards a place where it can actually mean something, i.e. the kind of rolling narrative that gains steam and ends up influencing the actions of a team's management.

The constant vagueness, spinning and semantics games to provide an out at some point in the future when something that was communicated (or at least insinuated) doesn't come to pass, is tiresome and needs to end. The loose and convivial raconteur persona that was Paul Maurice in his first season behind the bench is fading fast. The Leafs need a comprehensive, organization-wide media strategy that alleviates the burden and energy required for making it up on the fly. Preferably one that is heavy on openness, honour and lack of hubris. It's fair to the fans, will remove a distraction for the coaches and players and well may create a more positive team atmosphere at the same time.

In the process, Paul Maurice will have more time and mental energy to devote to the most important task at hand. Winning hockey games.

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