Various members of the Toronto media have been in a frenzy since Saturday, when Jonas Gustavsson, the goaltender the coach indicated would start the game against Boston, sat. Instead, James Reimer made his return from injury.
Did Ron Wilson lie to the Toronto media? If he did lie, is it something that matters?
The offending video clip is above – Wilson from his press availability on Friday. Here’s the key quote:
“I’m not being definitive on anything, but we’ve told Gustavsson that he’s going to be playing tomorrow.”
That quote, by itself, is not particularly damning. Wilson explicitly stated that he wasn’t being definitive, and avoided answering the actual question – instead substituting something he claimed to have told backup Jonas Gustavsson. Hardly a smoking gun.
Except, of course, for what Wilson said the night of the game:
Asked when he made the decision to start Reimer over Gustavsson, Wilson answered shortly. “About three days ago,” he says in the clip above.
Asked a little later into the clip whether the decision not to inform the media of the decision to start Reimer was an effort to surprise the Bruins, or to spare Reimer media focus, Wilson offered the following:
“I’m not talking about that any more. This is ad nauseum after a while.”
The combination of statements above is damning. At the very least, Wilson intentionally misled the media – he knew Reimer was starting, and definitely left the impression that Gustavsson would go instead. He may not technically have been lying – for instance, it’s possible that he’d told Gustavsson before the decision was made that he’d be getting the start against Boston – but there’s no question he knew what he was doing when he offered the media his statement at the top of this piece.
Still, Leafs general manager Brian Burke took to Twitter to defend his head coach:
Our Coach told the media the starter. He told me as well. James says he feels good and our Coach makes the switch… …Making a goalie switch is not just our Coach’s prerogative, it is his duty. And of course, the media grand jury weighs in. I love the quote about the liars in sports. Many gainfully employed in the media.
Regardless of Burke’s comments, it’s difficult not to look at Wilson’s actual words and not agree with the media consensus that he was dishonest in his public statements. If, as he stated, he knew that Reimer would start prior to the scrum where he gave the Toronto media the distinct impression that Gustavsson would start, it’s very difficult to see it as anything other than dishonest.
Unfortunately for the media, whether they’re actually correct or not – particularly in a case like this, where Wilson’s initial comment had some measure of ambiguity – doesn’t really matter. The simple fact is that the Maple Leafs organization – as personified in the head coach, and even more so in the general manager – has far more credibility and goodwill than the people who cover the team. This is especially true if there’s room for rationalization, as there is here (i.e. Wilson was messing with the Bruins, Wilson didn’t explicitly state Reimer would not start – and he wasn’t unequivocal, despite Star assertions to the contrary , it’s a tiny lie that doesn’t really matter, etc.). If Damien Cox feels a certain way – he went on at length in his Twitter feed – he might influence some, but ultimately fans are going to have more sympathy for the team than the man covering it. This simply isn’t a battle that newspapers or other media can win; their authority flows as much from their access to the team as it does from their personal credibility – something which, as a group, has been in decline for at least a decade as fans increasingly get information directly from the team, or from other sources such as blogs.
Ultimately, though, it’s hard to see how this does the Leafs’ organization much good. They may not be happy with the media coverage they’ve received of late, but the media still has some pull, and even people just watching the two clips are bound to notice the contradictions. Despite the fact that the Leafs are generally viewed as more credible than the media covering them, they aren’t blessed with unlimited credibility – it’s like political capital, in that a leader can spend it on an unpopular issue that matters but eventually he’s going to run out. Engaging in this sort of trivial exercise only makes the Leafs seem a little less trustworthy, and a little more petty. Given that Wilson could easily have ducked the issue – by saying something along the lines of ‘we’d hoped to start Reimer for several days, but ultimately we didn’t make the final decision until game time,’ I’m not entirely sure what the point was, except perhaps to make the media look silly.
Does the misdirection Wilson indulged in matter? In the grand scheme of things, probably not. A winner is pardoned for many sins and a loser for none, so ultimately the Leafs will be judged more for on-ice performance than for a snub of a small group of insiders. Still, it’s the sort of thing that makes both sides look rather small – the media because of the Leafs’ obvious contempt for them, and the Leafs for their willingness to engage in such pettiness in the first place.
P.S. Although it should be noted that Ron Wilson in the role of internet troll doesn’t seem to have hurt his popularity.