North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Swoon City: Toronto, Sports and the Media in 2015

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It’s early on Wednesday morning and I’m driving around, listening to 1050 TSN when I hear the latest Hot Take: the Raptors are bad because the Leafs are bad because Toronto likes bad teams.


I used to call this The Toronto Malaise, a general feeling of depression that hangs over the city and it’s sports teams. When I wrote that, the Jays and Leafs were doormats and the Raptors the best of a bad division, fading with nothing to show for it.


But that was then and this is now: both the Leafs and Raptors have been in the playoffs in recent years and the Jays might too, if they can stay healthy and shore up their pitching. There are several great athletes in this city and most of them are pretty young. They’re even happy to be here! So things should be looking better, right?


But if you read the papers and listen to the hosts, you’d think I’m speaking of a different city. The Leafs are a bloated wreck who drove a good coach out of town, while the Raptors are a team who peaked early in the year and have run their star guard’s health into the ground. And the Jays? Those takes are still warming in the proofer, I assume.


Part of the reason I don’t write much about Toronto sports anymore is that I’m fed up by the general smarmy attitude of the media around here. There are good reporters and writers at every outlet, but the ones who generally make the most waves are the ones who shout the loudest that the house is burning down.


It’s why takes like the one I heard on the radio are so galling to me: people won’t just look for a convenient storyline for their shows, but they’re willing to drag all the misery and hyperbole for as long as they can. And that benchmark is the Leafs 2013 playoff run. So let’s start there.


That season, the Leafs squeaked into the playoffs with a 26-17-5 record. Their season had been up and down, but generally trended down as the year went on. I distinctly remember watching a game against the Devils where James Reimer stood on his head, making 32 saves, while Martin Brodeur faced just 12 shots (I think I even wrote about it!).


So maybe losing in the first round shouldn’t have been a shocker, but the way the series went down – with the Leafs leading late in game seven – certainly was. I had friends texting me the next day to ask why I even bother watching a team like that. After all, they stink right? And why bother cheering a team that’s no good?


Which itself feeds into the curious media cycle about the Leafs and Toronto. Yes, this was a team constructed on a shabby foundation, two huge gambles on Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, but those two are hardly to blame. There have been problems on offense, where the Leafs have trouble keeping possession of the puck. There have been problems in their own end, where the Leafs are soundly outshot on a regular basis. There were problems with coaching and management, especially from someone who seemed like the game had passed them by. Indeed, by the end of Carlyle’s run, it seemed like his own team had passed him by.


But the media blame centers on three players: Reimer, Kessel and Phaneuf. They say Reimer isn’t good enough to start in this league, that Phaneuf is a bad leader and Kessel hates coaches. Or something. And the media comes out swinging, throwing accusatory questions at athletes until they snap back – like Kessel did after a particularly pointed question by the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk.


That whole interaction more or less sums up the scene right now. As the Toronto media grows smaller, columnists and reporters are trying hard to stand out and show their relevance. Sometimes it takes the form of a particularly glib question, other times with a bold accusation (“Just asking the question,” as Damien Cox once put it).


I think my favourite angle is the one relative newcomer Dean Blundell takes in a set of ads (no, not the ones where his mouth is taped shut). In these, Blundell says the Leafs are good because they offer hope: hope for the future, hope for next year. One assumes they’ll offer hope there’s something after death but regrettably, Blundell never quite gets that far.


And yes, I guess the Leafs offer hope. But they also offer something else entirely: entertainment. The Leafs are popular because hockey is fun to watch, even when the Leafs might not be. And while Blundell’s ad makes for nice-sounding copy, it also seems a tad high-handed, like A Bartlett Giamati’s pompous line about baseball being a journey.


The sad thing is how little there seems to be between the two extremes: until you get to the blogs and online writers, there are precious few people who seem to realize things aren’t great but they aren’t bad, either. The Raptors might be fading fast this season, but they have some good talent who enjoys being here. The Leafs aren’t good, but they’re starting a rebuild which fans seem generally okay with. And the Jays? Like the takes, they’re just getting warmed up.

Written by M.

March 26, 2015 at 10:47 am

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