Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: Leafs AbomiNation by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange

The Toronto Maple Leafs have more fans than any other single NHL hockey team. They also have more "followers" than any other team.  A follower is someone who enjoys the soap-opera quality of the team and all the related drama but does not necessarily want the team to win.

Followers are perplexing to true fans and are often labeled as "haters" (to which any good follower will simply respond with "If I'm a hater, then you're a fellater." Or to the equally ridiculous "Haters gonna hate"—one of the many clich├ęs of the mindless discussion board simpletons who are flummoxed by nuance—"Fellaters gonna fellate.")

Like any good ongoing social experiment played out for the whole world to see, the Maple Leafs and their fans provide never-ending intrigue and insights into the human condition.

Both fans and followers of the Toronto Maple Leafs will enjoy Leafs AbomiNation by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange. Despite the title of the book, the picture on the front (a Leafs fan with a paper bag over his head), and quotes that appeared from the book when it was released in 2009, this is not a book true fans should shy away from. While it will make for tough reading at times because of the realization of how good the Leafs could have been over the years, it is not the book-length screed that many fear.

It is simply a fascinating look at the Leafs and some of the reasons that have contributed to their ineptitude over the past 40-plus years.

Arrogance and Incompetence


The theme that emerges as Feshchuk and Grange look at numerous factors is that of mind-numbing arrogance and hubris. A long line of blundering, smug, self-satisfied individuals who have held the reins of the Leafs has resulted in long stretches of horrible play and no Stanley Cup since 1967.

One of the ways that this arrogance manifests itself is in the passing over of some of the greatest players ever to play the game.  It's as if the almighty egos that have soiled the Leafs team ownership and management over the years were affronted that anyone dare to suggest that a great player should be given the chance to play for such a club.

Imagine the player considered the greatest to ever play the game, who grew up worshiping the Leafs and would have given anything to play for them. Yet the moronic Leaf owners were so full of themselves that they let Bobby Orr slip away. This is Orr on why he never had the chance to play for the Leafs:
"Like all kids growing up in Ontario, I watched the Leafs play each Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada and listened to Foster Hewitt on the radio," Orr would tell Howard Berger years later. "They were my favourite team because I saw them every week. I hardly knew anything about the Bruins. So I'm sure my parents wouldn't have been too disappointed if Toronto had shown the same amount of interest in me that Boston did."

How did the Leafs miss?

"My people," Stafford Smythe would later fume, "were too goddamn stupid."

In today's salary cap world, the popular claim is that while the Leafs are by far the wealthiest team in the league, their spending power no longer results in any advantage (not that they were able to use this wealth to give them any leg-up when there was no cap).

But the ability to buy out players and invest in what should be the most comprehensive and far-reaching scouting system in the NHL puts the lie to that sorry excuse. What is even sorrier, however, is that the Leafs are not known to have any sort of advantage over their rivals when it comes to scouting.

Feshchuk and Grange write about this subject and raise it with Richard Peddie, President and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment:
For most teams it's not a huge expense. When scouts travel they aren't staying on Central Park South in New York—more like the Four Points by Sheraton in Kamloops. Logic suggests that the highest-revenue team in hockey, playing in a city that's mad for a Cup, would blow the rest of the league away when it came to spending on finding talent. The salary cap dictates that the Leafs can no longer out-spend their rivals on player salaries, but they can spend all they like on scouts and coaches. If you want to improve, according to the Peddie mantra, you measure. But suddenly the numbers escape him. "I can't remember where we're at," he says. "But I look at it."

Do the Leafs spend more than any other hockey team?

"No," he admits. "We haven't to date."

They go on to rip Peddie for the meddling that resulted in, among other things, the hiring of John Ferguson Junior as general manager of the Leafs. The authors make a pretty good case that Ferguson was hired because he was relatively inexperienced and therefore was more receptive to being manipulated by the likes of Peddie.

Dough Boy and the Cement Head


Players are not spared here either, as the celebrity culture that surrounds the Leafs is explored and some of the worst offenders over the years are skewered. Feschuck and Grange seem to have a special loathing for Tie Domi, and highlight him as an attention-seeking buffoon who was more concerned about promoting himself than the interests of the team. (And if there is any such thing as hockey karma, surely the pre-game celebration that the Leafs put on for Domi's 1000th NHL game will result in another 70 or 80 years of Cup-less seasons.)

Kyle Wellwood gets similarly ripped:
As a young kid it was a lot of fun, I definitely miss it. If Tie was bringing you out, you got a lot of attention, but it was nice. It was tough for the guys who were married or had a girlfriend.  .../That Wellwood could play three seasons in what is supposed to be one of the most demanding places for a hockey player to ply his trade, undergo three surgeries, miss the playoffs all three  years and wind up unceremoniously waived, and still say it was "funnest time of my life" makes a pretty strong case about the ancillary benefits of citizenship in Leafland.

A player with a conscience might feel differently.

Throughout the other chapters, readers are regaled with some great history and histrionics and numerous people are highlighted as the assholes they no doubt were/are. Consider Harold Ballard, a freakish anomaly who was one of the nastiest, most self-serving pieces of human garbage to ever own a sports team and proudly rode the Leafs into the ground during his reign. However, not sure if the amount of venom that Feschuk and Grange reserve for certain individuals is based on personal dislike or the degree of arrogance displayed by the person under the microscope.

For example, Larry Tanenbaum, the largest share holder of MLSE stock after the Ontario Teacher's pension plan, doesn't come across nearly as badly as you would expect for someone who stupidly predicted that within a few years of taking the position as chairman of MLSE in 2003 that the Leafs would win the Cup. Also, he seemed to be quite the enabler for that same Domi that Feshchuk and Grange despise so vehemently.

One Passionate Owner Could be the Key


But Tanenbaum has a quarter billion dollars of his own money invested in the Leafs, and for Feshchuk and Grange he represents the best current example in MLSE of an interesting theory that they discuss in the book. Perhaps the Leafs' failures over the years aren't only down to the arrogance and stupidity of ownership.

Or rather, perhaps that certain blend of smugness that produces such raw, unfettered crap on the ice is due to the fact that no true owner who is accountable and who lays it all on the line has been around since the days of Conn Smythe. After all, there are plenty of arrogant and successful team owners out there in hockey and other sports.

For the current Leafs, while the arrogance is present and leads to numerous horrific decisions, the final conclusion by Feschuk and Grange is that the nebulous structure of the current ownership is what likely brings about repeated dismal seasons.

The authors point out numerous other sports teams in recent years whose owners were motivated by a love of the game and not only profits. The theory fits with the Leafs as well. In the past 25 years, the most success that the Leafs have had has been under Steve Stavro, who truly was a fan, and did try with all his might to put together winning teams. The '93 and '94 squads with Doug Gilmour leading the team made it to the conference finals, and were it not for the failed call of a certain referee, would have been in the finals in '93.

But a single passionate owner isn't the case now, and it doesn't seem to be something that will become a reality anytime soon.

Burke the Blowhard


The unanswered question through all of this is, does the organization create arrogant self-serving individuals, or are the arrogant smug bastards somehow drawn to the whole insane freak show? Hard to say, though if the final hopeful chapter on Brian Burke is any indication, the answer is: it's probably some of both.

As the book was written before Burke had ridden the Leafs to 29th overall in the 2009–10 season, this quote from the blowhard that appears in the final chapter is very telling:
"The system that I have put together, the system we used successfully in Anaheim, we stole a whole bunch of that from the Colts. I didn't want learn how to handle  a cap when it came in. I spent the better part of three years studying how other teams did it. Rule number one is, you better draft well, because if you have star players, you need entry-level players that are playing, not just taking up a uniform, but contributing. If you've got star players on your team—guys making $5 and 7$ million—you'd better  have guys who are dent making $700, 000."

While the Phil Kessel deal doesn't make Burke a complete hypocrite in relation to this quote, it does at least show how the pressure of being the GM for the Leafs can change things very quickly.

Great, readable style in Leafs AbomiNation. None of the sycophantic drivel that plagues some hockey books. The observations are sharp, rightfully harsh in places and yet still provide some hope that one day things might change.

Another great year of Leafs hockey is in store for the legions of the team's followers. For fans, probably not so much.

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