Toronto Media Needs More Hockey, Less Soap Opera – Please!

 

Today there was big news in Toronto.

Did the Leafs acquire a number-one Centre? Did they land a defenseman to support the unfairly maligned captain? Maybe they made a lesser acquisition, or there was a surprise addition to training camp?

No to all of the above.

What happened was that the rookie assistant coach, Steve Spott, spoke at a coaching clinic and was open and candid when he talked about his experiences transitioning from the AHL to the NHL. This should be a good thing, as far too often, in these days of ultra-mass media, people clam up and give vague, harmless, uninteresting answers because they know that if they don’t, the context of their words will be altered by someone looking to put the worst possible spin on things to get more hits, views, or re-Tweets. This happens more often as choices for the consumer of media grow exponentially by the year and it’s gotten to the point where  nearly every single time someone gives their honest opinion, or lets their guard down in any way, there are people standing by, ready to pounce, who twist their words and put a negative slant on them that they don’t deserve.

The Media vs. Phil Kessel

If you read this article by the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk, you might be forgiven for thinking Steve Spott is an incredibly unprofessional, naïve person who should probably know better than to slag his teams best player before he has ever coached a game in the NHL, or for thinking that Phil Kessel was an out-of-shape, selfish coach-killer.

 

Phil Kessel Maple Leafs
(Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

But if you did read it, I hope you took the time to think it through before jumping to the conclusions the article so clearly wants you to. The article is written with a vicious slant which can only be described as TMZ-esque. The intention of the article – as far as I can tell – is to cause a scandal. I am aware that the author didn’t write the headline or the text that goes under it, but that text says: “Maple Leaf’s assistant coach tells coaches clinic about ‘Phil’s Show,’ Randy Carlyle’s reaction, more Leaf ideas.”

If that’s not meant for the sole purpose of being inflammatory and for appealing to the lowest common denominator and attempting to sell papers and ignite a scandal on the first day of training camp, then I am mistaken and you can disregard everything I say from here on out. I guess it’s subjective and I can only speak of my experience, but the connotations I have when I read “Phil’s Show,” just under the banner headline, as well as everything that follows  it, are 100% negative. I have a problem with this.

Far be it for me to criticize another writer. Dave Feschuk is a writer far more successful than I am likely to ever be and I am sure he’s a decent enough guy, although we have never met.  He can write whatever he wants, whenever he wants to. 99% of his job is to give his opinion, and even if I don’t always agree with him, I respect him. His job is to cause a stir and he is very, very good at it. And, for all I know, his bosses instruct him to write with a scandalous slant. I have no idea.  However: he put this article out, it’s public, I disagree with its content and I have a form to write about it, so I’m going to. The article became the story itself today, so that is my justification for writing this, should one be needed. It’s nothing personal. Certainly, he says a lot with tone and innuendo – both signs of a great writer. To be able to imply things without actually saying them and to have those things understood is the hallmark of a talented wordsmith and Feschuk is most certainly that. I just don’t approve of this article.  It’s not an opinion that I am disagreeing with – I find it offensive on an ethical level.

Why? Because there is nothing wrong with what Steve Spott said. There is something, however, wrong with people who were lucky enough to attend such a cool event running to the  media and anonymously taking the guy completely out of context, and there is something wrong – at least it’s my opinion that there is – with slanting the story to make the two principles, Kessel and Spott, seem like jerks, when what really happened is no more controversial than two guys arguing over who pays for dinner.

The first quote in the article is from an anonymous coach who was apparently at this clinic and heard Spottt speak. It’s almost post-modern in its eloquence: the anonymous source is telling Feschuk, who is telling us, what Spott said Kessel said to him (Spott) when he (Spott) told Kessel about his idea for a break-out play.

Apparently Kessel did not like Spott’s idea. But so what? If there is a star player in the NHL who would not add his own two-cents about a play shown to him over the summer, I’ll eat my hat. The article is framed in such a way as to make Kessel look like a spoiled brat who wouldn’t deign to listen to the ideas of a lowly rookie assistant coach. But, if you have even the least amount of ability to deconstruct a text, this is ridiculous. Why would a coach take a play to a player in the summer, if not to get his input? How could Spott be so successful at his job (coaching) that he gets hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs (take a second and think about what a rare and specialized skill it is to be an NHL assistant coach) and yet some of the first things he does after achieving his goal are to a) refuse to consult with, but rather just dictate something to his star player b) not  want to consult with a readily available expert (Kessel) in his field, and c) get angry having to collaborate with said expert and finally, d) go and publicly complain about how spoiled that player is.

It is just beyond the realm of comprehension that Steve Spott has the ability to become an NHL coach but then is simultaneously dumb enough to do any of those things like the article, at least to me, seemed to imply he did. And for that reason I conclude that the article is negatively slanted for no other reason than to cause a scandal.  Regardless of the motivations for doing so, the article is grossly unfair to Steve Spott. He has never coached a game and is now apparently an overt gossip and in a feud with his team’s best player.

 

Deconstruction:

 

“Spotter said that when he went to Phil (with the breakout play), Phil said, I’m not doing it,” said one of the attendees, a former professional player.

Said another: “Spott was saying (that) these are the things I’ve got to deal with now that I’ve never had to deal with. In the AHL (where Spott coached last season with the Toronto Marlies), when you’re the coach what you say goes. Whereas now that I’m here (in the NHL), I’ve got a guy telling me: No. I’m not going to do that.”

The 46-year-old Spott told the group that he made Carlyle aware of the pushback he’d received from Kessel, 26, who signed an eight-year contract extension worth about $64 million last season.

 

If you consider the quote from the article above, it further shows how negatively the story is framed. The first quote makes it seem like Kessel was rude and a bit of a jerk when Spott approached him. The use of the nickname “Spotter” makes the speaker seem familiar with the subjects, and thus, if you don’t think about it, which you aren’t supposed to, it lends an unearned credibility to the speaker. Though he’s anonymous, he’s a “former professional player,” which is just the same trick used twice. Then at the end, it says Spott reported it back to Carlyle – which, if you heard Spott tell it, probably came off differently but here it looks like he was rushing to inform on Kessel like a tattle-tale. Finally, there is the allusion to Kessel’s salary to further enforce the notion that he is a spoiled baby.

Again, If I am talking the tone of this story the wrong way, I am sorry.

But I don’t think I am. I think it’s intentionally misleading and is an example of why people say it’s hard to play in Toronto. How can the media be so vicious to its teams best player? If he plays bad, rake him over the coals for his play. But don’t rag on the guy because he doesn’t conform to your expectations of how a star player should act. I am sure Kessel can come of as taciturn, uncaring or disinterested, but as has been widely reported, he’s not comfortable with the spotlight. Despite people’s offense at this quirk of Kessel’s personality, it’s not something he can help. You can’t just become an extrovert to make Rosie, Dave and Steve’s jobs easier. Being a media personality and an elite athlete are not things that automatically go together. Since he has been in Toronto, the media has accused Phil Kessel of being lazy, one-dimensional, selfish, dismissive and he has also even had his “character” questioned, whatever that is supposed to mean.

This is a guy who overcame cancer, who has been one of the top ten scorers in the NHL for three straight years, who is, by the accounts of everyone who speaks about him and actually knows him, a good guy, a great friend, a charitable person and a good teammate. He has – in this environment of constant negativity – gone from being a skilled forward with great potential but questions about his dedication, attitude, fragility etc., into one of the league’s most consistent goal scorers, an under-rated all-round player who is offensively elite and demonstratively one of the best players in the NHL. Just how many of us know that we are empirically among the best of the best at what we do?

And what we give him in return is an article about how he hates coaches and is fat?

Come on.

(Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)
(Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)

Completely Unfair

This is unfair to both Kessel and Spott. For the simple reason that he got a job as a coach in the NHL we know that Steve Spott is way smarter than this article portrays him as being, and that shows that it’s slanted and intentionally misrepresenting the context of what happened. Instead of portraying Kessel as a spoiled child, one has to assume Spott’s comments were humorous or at least meant to be, and in fact, Feshcuck does mention someone as saying the coach’s comments were “tongue in cheek,” however, this is ruined by being juxtaposed directly with another person saying he “couldn’t believe the candor,” thus making the tone vague and impossible to judge, while leaving the article open to a scandalous interpretation.

If you think about it, a rookie coach being surprised by the way professionals act with their coaches is an interesting anecdote – but it’s not scandalous unless you make it so. It would be news to me if coaches didn’t consult with their best players on plays or if those players never contributed their own ideas.  They are, after all, the one’s who have to execute them. Likely, Spott’s story was just to illustrate some of the challenges of transitioning to a league where the  players are your inferiors to one where they are  your superiors.

Anyone who thinks about it for two seconds has to agree that the NHL is one of the few workplaces on earth where the employee is better paid and more talented than the boss. Obviously, when you get to the NHL as a coach, it’s the first time you’re coaching guys who are not necessarily your subordinates and who don’t blindly acquiesce to your every whim. I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would think they could be successful coaching in the NHL if they were not planning to consult with the best hockey players in the world about strategies for playing hockey. Therefore, I find it inconceivable that Spott would approach Kessel about a breakout play for any other reason than to get his opinion. I would also find it impossible to believe that anyone would be surprised to learn that players paid millions of dollars and thus unquestionably ‘experts’ would not blindly follow orders like automatons. Even if we accept the article’s representation of what happened as accurate, which I do not, why should it be scandalous that a player who is among the best in the world would refuse to go along with something he doesn’t think is a good idea?

Despite my suspicions that the article is drastically misrepresenting the context of what Spott said, I bet his talk was a fascinating look into the day-to-day of a coach and player. I would love to hear anyone from the NHL speak in an unfiltered manner about their experience, which is what is so bad about this kind of article, which I submit is representative of the general gossipy, negative tone of the mainstream Toronto media as it pertains to the Leafs: it’s existence only further reduces the chances of such a person being candid in the future. The main reason the negative, gossipy slant of the article by Feschuk bothers me so much is that if we don’t call this kind of stuff out, if we just consume it uncritically, then eventually, no one will say anything interesting, no one will talk without a filter and we won’t hear anything but stock answers and clichés. I think “gotcha” culture may have unfortunately already reached that point – but I hope not.

I’ve gone this far and I haven’t even talked about how the article casually mentions that Kessel is “15 pounds overweight” or that “He (Phil) hates Randy,” But really, there’s no need. Kessel can report to camp in whatever shape he wants and just maybe we ought to celebrate the fact that he hasn’t missed a game or the 30 goal mark in going on five years.  I just hope that no one goes around thinking Kessel is a jerk who doesn’t have time for his coaches or that Spott is an idiot who should probably be more discreet in the future. People should realize this is an unfair slant on what could be a really interesting window into the Leafs organization. Feschuk talks about the club’s “historic bent towards secrecy,” and after this, it’s no wonder they have one.

What I hope is that people will realize that things don’t have to have a gossipy tone or to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order for them to find an audience. People are smart. They will read about complicated things. The trend towards advanced stats shows this. You can write an article about x’s and o’s and people will care and will read it. Check this one by the Score’s Justin Bourne who talks about the Leafs defensive strategy from last year. It’s detailed, informative and it’s about something that, if you profess to care about hockey, you should know about.  No one’s talking about it on the radio non-stop today, but maybe they should be.

We ought to take a stand that we are above gossip. Personally, I despise undue negativity and I just thought it was worth saying that, I for one, would rather read about x’s and o’s than try to turn sports into something they are not: a soap opera.