Rennie: 1,000 Words – Kessel not a media man… So what?

I bet sometimes being a columnist and a beat writer is kind of boring. I say this not because any job can be boring sometimes, but because the job of covering a dismal hockey team can probably become pretty routine.

And in the case of the Toronto Maple Leafs, how many times can you write or pontificate about how the goaltending stinks, the lack of a minutes-eating defensemen or the absence of a solid two-way checking line. And the sweet relief —any drama — a trade deadline or a coach firing, comes but once a year.

So I guess its sort of running out the clock — but from a reader’s standpoint, it’s starting to look like throwing things at the wall. Because there’s no way I believe that any serious members of the mainstream media think that the Leafs should actually trade Phil Kessel.

Phil Kessel (BridgetDS/Flickr)

The Toronto Star’s Damien Cox first floated this idea on March 14, arguing that it would be wise for Leafs GM Brian Burke to press reset on the franchises rebuild.

Better writers than me have eviscerated this idea since then — but I’ll reduce their arguments to this: Kessel is 24-years-old, without a lengthy contract or large cap hit, and he’ll set a new career goal-scoring high before this season is out.

Of course, the Leafs are bad, but you don’t have to look at his point-share calculations (it’s at nearly 10 though) to know that without him, they’d be worse.

You just don’t see the same things being said about the Oilers rebuild…

But where this whole episode veers into the absurd is how the treatment of Kessel the player is devolving into treatment of Kessel the person.

And it’s on one hand, intellectually bankrupt, and on the other, disgusting tabloidism.

After the Leafs played pretty awful against the Islanders on March 21 — and by the way, do New York’s scribes blast John Tavares for his personality flaws —the normally reasonable Jeff Blair of the Globe and Mail had this to say about Phil Kessel.

(He) is a milquetoast, Tom Thumb guy who shrinks even further in front of the cameras …

So, kind of mean. But it was Bruce Dowbiggin of the same paper who took the analysis to the next level. Writing about the fictional dilemma of trading Kessel or not:

The Kessel debate in the press and social media comes down to how much he owes the fans and the media besides his prolific scoring and haphazard defence. Many feel he’s paid to score, not to be media cozy. Some suggest that the voracious demand of Toronto media harassment has negatively impacted Kessel this season.

The latter may be true. There is no question that Brian Burke’s scouting of Kessel seems to have missed that he is pathologically shy, a considerable oversight in the bedlam that is Toronto media. Likewise, Kessel’s personality precludes him from being part of what is risibly called the team’s leadership group. That’s on Burke.

But Kessel made the choice to stay in Toronto at a healthy $5.4-million (U.S.) a year. He could have forced for an early out if the market didn’t suit him. Yet he chose to stay in a city where his every move is scrutinized and his presence demanded. This is on him. As they say, if you don’t like the job, don’t cash the cheques.

Let’s ignore the fact that pathological shyness is not an acceptable character trait to criticize a hockey player ­— or a person — over. And let’s just not even imagine what Toronto writers would say if Kessel forced a move out of town. Let’s look at the bigger picture; Kessel is being lampooned for his unwillingness to talk to reporters.

I suppose that is a problem — if you are a reporter. For the future of the hockey club, it’s really not. But what we’re reading is why Kessel can be blamed for a problem by the same people that invented the problem in the first place.

Newspapers and television can boast the most access to teams — but that doesn’t mean they should control and shape the narrative of a team’s success and failings. The fact that Phil Kessel might be a shy and assuming dude from Wisconsin who is a wallflower off the ice, but a threat to score on every shift is an interesting story, not a reason to mock him. And if the Leafs were a winning squad this year, you’d see that story written.

If reporters or columnists have sources about whether or not Kessel, or any of the club’s leadership are positive elements in the dressing room, then that’s an interesting story. But if criticisms on those players are based on how they go stone-faced when the notebooks and cameras come out? Not a story — just a made-up problem to fill space and time as the season winds down.

Working in Moose Jaw and watching how the media covers the ‘Dub’— I’ve seen a refreshing difference. Of course, there are off-the-record conversations about what WHL players and coaches are like off the ice — but on paper, it’s about on-ice product. No soapbox psychiatry. No attacks. Weird how that is.

-Scott Rennie, Managing Editor


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