Last Tuesday, a Globe and Mail sports writer published this article. Of course, being a Leafs fan, I clicked the link, initially thinking that it might be a humorous take on the recent Phil Kessel comments. It was pretty clear, after the first paragraph or two, that this definitely wasn’t the case and that Globe writer Cathal Kelly had obviously found an opportunity to voice something that had been bothering him for some time.
The article immediately got off to an unexpected start. Where I had been expecting a bit of humour and tongue-firmly-implanted-in-cheek ‘tips’, I got a weird fable-esque story about Frank Thomas coming to Toronto on an inflated salary at the tail end of his career (seems to be a theme for Toronto sports teams) to play for the Blue Jays. The point? Frank Thomas didn’t play very well in Toronto, but he was cordial and nice so he didn’t get torn apart by the media. Gee. Isn’t that nice.
Phil Kessel is an interesting case study in media relations. He certainly doesn’t covet attention like some might (see Jeremy Roenick or Chris Pronger). Kessel was quiet in Toronto as Kelly’s colleague, James Mirtle, wrote in 2011. At the time Kessel was taking a lot of flak for never talking to the media in a town where the media attention is constant and unrelenting. He just seemed to be a mix of shy and uninterested. For that, I can’t blame him. Hockey interviews, in general, tend to be boring and useless. It’s seldom that anything of substance is said.
Kelly’s article was obviously a condemnation of the way he feels that himself and his colleagues are treated by hockey players.
As media, we are locker-room background – as animate as grease boards and laundry hampers. You can’t remember what you haven’t really seen in the first place.
And this feeling has obviously been brewing for a while.
There are players I’ve covered for years, talked to many times about all sorts of things. I think I know them, at least a little. Then one day, we’ll walk past each other in the street, our eyes meet and they don’t recognize me. Not at all.
I can see why that’d be frustrating. That same event happens to people all the time. We met someone at a party and we see them on the street and they blow past us. Star athlete or not, it’s a reasonably common occurrence.
Kelly goes on to describe a scenario where the player and reporter have a positive moment/conversation/interaction and cross a ‘bridge’ (let’s call it the ‘friendship bridge’ – I envision it being brightly coloured with doves sitting on the rails). And then the dynamic changes ‘forever’.
Once that’s happened, you’ll never rip that guy in print. You’ll criticize, but the ripping days are over. He’s not just someone you cover any more. He’s someone you know.
So all Phil Kessel has to do is be nice to everyone, not speak his mind, learn some names, make eye contact, and then, he too, could cross the ‘friendship bridge’. And he’d never get ‘ripped’ again. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
To me, this article reeks of Kelly wanting to be one the cool kids, and just not being up to snuff. Maybe he got picked last on his intramural hockey team. Maybe he really likes Kessel but Kessel doesn’t want to hang out with him and play video games.
It’s also worth noting, that this ‘outburst’ by Kessel was in defense of a teammate. I am, in no way, a Dion Phaneuf fan, but as the Leafs’ captain and a highly paid player, he takes a lot abuse. When this abuse delved into his personal life, Kessel felt that it was his job to say something. I think, if anything, this is commendable. On a Leafs team that has looked fairly apathetic all year, this showed some courage and cohesion.
Whatever the reason for this article, be it some empty space to fill, or a deep-seeded bone to pick with professional athletes in general, it all feels like some sort of weird blackmail. The idea is clear: be nice to the media, or they’ll publicly tear you apart, whether you deserve it or not. The problem is, Phil Kessel wanted to mind his own business. He didn’t want to give media interviews, but he got chastised for that. Then when he did speak his mind (to stand up for a teammate!), he got torn apart. So it seems the media wants Kessel to talk, they just don’t want to hear what he says. Maybe it’d be better if he just gave the standard hockey interview where a lot of words come out but nothing gets said. Maybe then he could cross the ‘friendship bridge’ wouldn’t get ‘ripped’ ever again.
Thanks for reading. Please comment and I’ll do my best to reply.
Economist/epidemiologist interested in the intersection between sports analytics (advanced stats) and intuition.