Unlike the team he plays for, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel is worth the price of admission.
The high-scoring winger is a bona fide elite offensive talent. The skill level, the deceptive wrist shot and the speed is breathtaking. Over the past few seasons, playing on a flawed team without a true first-line centre, Kessel has arguably been the NHL’s single most dynamic game breaker.
If you’re looking to find fault with anyone for the Maple Leafs’ continued struggles, Kessel is probably the last person anyone should be pointing their finger at. Yet here we are, and Kessel is in the middle of another media controversy.
The latest dust up between the Toronto media and Kessel stems from an incident on Tuesday in which Kessel ripped the Toronto media generally for their coverage of Dion Phaneuf.
“Is it his fault we’re losing. Did he build this team? No,” Kessel said following a Maple Leafs practice on Tuesday.
“The stuff he takes, the crap he takes, the stuff people say,” Kessel continued. “I’m just tired of it here, he’s owed some apologies by some people. It’s disgusting the way people treat him.
“I’m just tired of it, I’ve just had it. I think this city is a great hockey city and I love playing here, but some of the things that happen, and Dion getting abused the way he does and things that are said about him, he’s our best defenceman. You watch him play and he plays hard for us every game.”
You can watch the full video of Kessel standing up for his teammate here:
There are a couple of things to unpack here. The first is that, in the wake of TSN airing a distasteful and defamatory tweet about Phaneuf’s personal life during their Trade Deadline coverage, I think it’s safe to say that there are a good deal of Toronto media folks who are embarrassed about the way of Phaneuf has been covered – especially in regards to that incident.
The Maple Leafs’ captain was owed some apologies by some people, and he received a major one on Tuesday evening.
The other thing worth touching on is how Kessel’s comments have kicked up a controversy about sports media in general, media bias, and how likability filters into coverage of athletes.
The Globe and Mail’s Cathal Kelly framed the incident as one that’s revealing of an empathy deficit that often characterizes the relationship between sports media and the players they cover, but is particularly pronounced when it comes to Kessel’s relationship with the media:
The relationship between the media and the athletes they cover is often framed in war metaphors. That’s apt. Though the two camps spend a lot of time in each other’s company, they are foreign to one another as people. “Dehumanized” isn’t too strong a word. The players are cartoon characters; the media, a faceless mob. We treat each other accordingly.
I thought about this as I watched Phil Kessel going j’accuse on the press before Tuesday’s game in Florida. He was surrounded by people he sees every day. However, he wasn’t talking to any of them. He was talking at them.
The presentation rendered the whole thing contrary to its motive: making his critics understand that he and his teammates are people and deserve to be treated as such. In essence: I don’t see you, but I demand that you see me. That he’s right is beside the point.
My personal take is that Kelly’s piece is thoughtful and interesting, but as a piece of unsolicited advice it misses the mark somewhat. This tweet pretty much nails it, in my view:
If @cathalkelly had written his column as an expose that media use personal bias, it’d be commendable. Instead, he framed it as a lesson.
— Sports Masochist (@CarcelMousineau) March 4, 2015
I want to get into this a bit further because, from my perspective, I think there’s a point that’s being missed in the on-line chatter about this issue.
Let me start by saying that I’m not on the Maple Leafs beat with regularity, but I’ve been in the room somewhere between 10 and 15 times over the past few years and I can tell you that in my experience Kessel is particularly unhelpful.
When you’re in the room it’s tough to get anything interesting during a scrum. Your best bet is to wait for the pack to dissipate and try to get in a few additional questions, in a more conversational tone .
In my experience most NHL players are willing to accommodate you to a point, so long as your question is different enough, but Kessel has never been. Not once.
If your reaction to this is ‘whatever’ then that’s understandable, because I share that reaction. It is what it is – not a huge deal, really – and it’ll never shape or even colour how I cover Kessel’s on-ice performance. It won’t even remotely impact what I think of him as a person either, I’m well aware that how he treats me in that context has less than zero bearing on what type of person he is. By all accounts he’s a good teammate and a nice guy.
Arguably he even demonstrated a particular type of likability on Tuesday. Taking heat off of a teammate and going out of his way to stand up for them is a standup thing to do, in my view.
Still, I think it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate how Kessel’s characteristic standoffishness with the media becomes relevant context when the story turns – as it has this week – to Kessel’s increasingly frequent criticism of the media.
From calling a Toronto Star reporter “such an idiot” on the record earlier this year to describing media coverage of Phaneuf as “embarrassing” this week, it seems that Toronto’s superstar winger is beginning to chafe under the bottomless scrutiny and attention that comes with playing in the so-called centre of the hockey universe.
It’s not a surprise that this has come about. What might be a bigger surprise is that it took so long to occur.
All of which is to say that Kessel’s handling of the media has zero impact on his on-ice performance, and basic professionalism – by my standard of it – dictates that the working hockey media shouldn’t let their personal opinion of Kessel shape their coverage of his play.
By calling out media members and the media in general though, Kessel has shined a spotlight on how he handles the media in the Toronto market. That his handling of the media is – in my personal opinion and experience – poor relative to other NHL superstars isn’t just true, it’s relevant.