Maple Leafs and the Media: Trying to Control the Narrative

All season long, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ young stars – Auston Matthews (23-years-old) and Mitch Marner (24-years-old) – led their team in scoring. They also placed well across the entire NHL. Matthews was the Rocket Richard Trophy winner with 41 goals scored and tied for fifth in NHL scoring. Marner was fourth in NHL scoring. Recently, Matthews was nominated for the Ted Lindsay Award as the NHL’s best player.

In headline should read something like “Matthews and Marner Have Magnificant Seasons.” And that would have been the narrative had the team put together any kind of playoff success. But, the Maple Leafs as a team went down yet again, falling out of Stanley Cup contention by being dumped during the first round by the Montreal Canadiens.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It also didn’t help that neither Matthews nor Marner were able to keep up their regular-season prowess. Both first-line partners scored a little – basically one or two games, but they couldn’t sustain the pace they had built during the regular season.

Related: Maple Leafs News: Grading Playoff Production, Whose Play Didn’t Cut It?

The Maple Leafs First Line Has a Strong Chemistry and Partnership

The way their first line is built, Matthews and Marner are a partnership. They feed off each other. They have great chemistry. When one doesn’t score it’s also likely the other’s offense also dries up. In contrast, when one line-mate flourishes the other usually does as well.

This time it worked the other way. Marner kept feeding Matthews pucks, and Carey Price kept shutting the door. The fact that Marner doesn’t have the best shot didn’t help. By the end of Game 7, Marner hadn’t scored in 18th consecutive playoff games. 

The lack of production from the two young talented Maple Leafs’ forwards all but made it inevitable that the Maple Leafs’ long-standing jinx would continue past the 2020-21 season. Once again, the Maple Leafs could not advance to the second round of the playoffs.

Flash Forward to Maple Leafs’ Post-Season Interviews

On June 2, Matthews was interviewed about a number of topics including his own and Marner’s lack of playoff production. I can’t imagine that these are kind of interviews that any NHL player engages happily. You’ve just failed to win; in fact, you blew a 3-1 game series lead. What you’ve worked for all season is now toast. You feel bad anyway, now you have to in and get to speak about it on a video that everyone can see.

The context of those interviews hurts if you’re a player. You just got dumped; and, now you have to suffer public scolding from people who personally feel that you’ve let them down. Can’t be fun for these players. I know I’d dread that and it makes me glad I was a professor.

During that interview, Matthews answered appropriately and said appropriate things. He never once fell into returning fire. He kept his calm – well, mostly. During the short video clip of the interview, you can see his responses.

What Did Matthews Say, and How Might He Feel?

Matthews was asked to comment about the redundant suggestions “some people” are making that “the big four on offence may need to be split up.” Then the media questioner named Matthews’ first-line partner Marner in two potential ways. First, might Marner be involved in a possible trade? Second, should he be moved away from Matthews so that the team’s top six might achieve a “better balance based on what happened again this year?”

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Matthews’ answer was revealing.

First, he quickly dismissed the validity of the entire idea by suggesting, “I don’t make much of that to be honest.” 

Second, he used the opportunity to stick up for his first-line partner by saying “Mitch is an unbelievable player and an unbelievable teammate.”

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Third, he clearly demarcated who the questioner was and who he was talking with. In doing so, Matthews constructed the narrative of an “in” and an “out.” That is, he positioned the questioner (and others) as “outside.” And, he positioned Matthews, Marner, his teammates, and the organization as “inside.”

Matthews did it all thoughtfully, carefully, graciously, and without any sense of obvious irritability. But to me, his answer was immediately revealing. In it, Matthews shared a great deal of information about how the team was proceeding to delineate where they (re)sided in response to what’s by reputation known to be a difficult and critical fanbase and media.

Matthews’ said, “That’s just – you know – something I don’t think anybody really thinks about here or focuses on.” (my highlight of here)

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Matthews then added, “I know in this room – you know – everybody loves Mitch and everybody loves everybody in this room.” He went on to add that “We really have a tight bond.” (again, my highlight of in this room)

Then, Matthews put the writer “in his place” – and I don’t mean in any way rudely, but also matter-of-factly. Matthews added, “So, I think all the stuff on the outsidenoise coming from the outside – it’s you guys.” (again, my highlights of noise, which is defined as “sound that makes no recognizable sense,” and outside and you guys.)

Finally, and perhaps the most telling was Matthews’ last response to the questioner “Have fun with that.” Could it be that Matthews and his teammates believe that outsiders are actually having fun as a result of his team’s disappointment? He clearly said that these are men he loves. That’s tough stuff!

The So What? Factor

To me, this short video at least suggests there’s a present and perhaps growing narrative among the Maple Leafs’ players that they are not supported by the fans or the media. In fact, are they alone?

T.J. Brodie Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Bench (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

Might there also a narrative being constructed that this 2020-21 disappointment has become a situation where the players feel that those on the “outside” might actually be enjoying – as Matthews said “having fun with” – the players’ disappointment and lack of success? Are outsiders abusing the people they love (love is Matthews’ word, not mine)?

To me, a discourse analysis of this one short video suggests that Matthews – the Maple Leafs’ brightest young star – is feeling there’s an inside/outside split between the team (inside) and the media and the fans (outside). If that’s true, where do the players, the team, the media, and the fans go from here?

Related: Maple Leafs’ Jack Campbell Is a Teammate You Want on the Roster

Furthermore, thinking well down the road, if this narrative takes hold and grows a life of its own, how might these little encounters and the narrative created by them impact the players’ desire to remain in Toronto?

But this is temporary – right? They’ll get over it – right? Well, if you’ve ever had relationships with other people, as Matthews’ says – “Have fun with that.”