Q and A with Lance Hornby: the Mike Babcock Era, his new book, and the best and worst of covering hockey

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to read Lance Hornby’s new book, ‘If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the Toronto Maple Leafs Ice, Locker Room, and Press Box’ and do a Q and A with the author about the book, his career, and all the things he’s seen throughout. The book is loaded with interesting anecdotes from a writer who has had a front-row seat in Hockey’s Mecca for over 30 years.

Here’s a quick profile of the book and a link to where it can be purchased…

The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the most storied teams in the NHL, with stars like Dave Keon, Doug Gilmour and Auston Matthews, who have all left their mark on hockey history. Author Lance Hornby, as a longtime beat writer for the Toronto Sun, has witnessed more than his fair share of that history up close and personal. Through singular anecdotes only Hornby can tell as well as conversations with current and past players, this book provides fans with a one-of-a-kind, insider’s look into the great moments, the lowlights, and everything in between. Leafs fans will not want to miss this book.

And here’s our Q and A…

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Q: Obviously you don’t want to spoil anything from the book, but if you could give readers a teaser of one of your favourite stories you wrote, what would it be?

I’d say anything involving the years when reporters had far more access to the players, sometimes travelling with them in commercial or charter flights.

Before that, Harold Ballard created a treasure trove of stories about himself and not only do I include some in the book, but the organized chaos that ensued from his reign trickled down to the general managers, the coaches, the players and the arena staff.

The Gardens was such a famous address and people have such fond memories of it from the Leafs, Marlies, concerts, wrestling or other events, both live and on TV, that any tale involving it usually strikes a chord with people.

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But anything involving ‘The Pats’, Quinn and Burns, was a treat. They were larger than life characters and both coached at a time when the Leafs were Cup contenders and unquestionably, the best story in town.

Overall, this team is more than a century old and like the Chicago Cubs, there is a huge diaspora of fans and alumni that will identify with any story from any era.

Q: You get to cover the biggest team in hockey for a living. Many fans dream of having such an opportunity. To you, what’s the best thing about following the NHL for a living? Also, what would you say is the worst thing about the job fans might not realize?

I’d say the best thing as that people care about what you write, whether it’s how you interpreted the way a goal was scored, who is in a trade rumour, what number a new player is going to wear, what the name of Morgan Rielly’s dog is. That’s cool.

You always get teased by colleagues on the road that ‘Canada’s Team’ must be in town. But they also know it’s a big deal, they report on all the Toronto sweaters in the crowds, even in American cities, further proof that the Leafs still ‘matter’, win or lose.

In a way, it’s like you’re covering a public trust company that’s 100 years old, not a team of young millionaires that’s owned by billionaires.

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The downside is the social media era and the internet have been a curse as much of a technological blessing. When Leaf news breaks, people expect instant articles, headlines with visuals which isn’t always possible. We’re often required to do quick web hits on breaking stories or late-night stories about a trade or firing at a time when copy editors are scarce, so mistakes do happen – and we hear certainly here about it.

We also have much more competition from bloggers, web sites and the like, some of which I use and credit, others who are clueless and create screwball rumours that make life harder on everyone.

Twitter has brought out a different brand of the reader. Most are harmless, many complimentary, but some are just mean or insane. You’re obligated to pay some attention to them, but that particular medium is now a fact of life.

Q: Thinking back through your entire career covering the team, which story that you wrote are you most proud of? 

I’d say the series of stories from when the Leaf Alumni and other NHLers went to Afghanistan in 2008 on a morale-boosting mission. I’ve spoken of Leaf fans in other cities, but these were kids halfway around the world in a battle zone wearing Darryl Sittler sweaters, shorts and flip flops with an M-4 carbine over their shoulder on the base. Or they’d come in from a night of dangerous recognizance at 6 a.m. and watch the Leafs and Senators on Hockey Night, live with the time change. Hockey and the Leafs were such a needed distraction for them.

That tied into 9/11, when I was on my way to Leaf camp in St. John’s. Our plane came down in Moncton, New Brunswick for security reasons and I did a story on the displaced international passengers at the rink before going on to Nfld., to write about how the Leafs and Baby Leafs were feeding and housing the passengers there.

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That was my personal Come From Away Moment. I wish I had a Leaf Stanley Cup story to tell you.

Q: After being around so many teams, players, coaches, and everything throughout the years, what changed have you noticed covering the team from when you started? Is there anything that’s remained the same throughout the years? What’s one thing that you think fans get wrong or don’t understand about the NHL as someone who has more knowledge about the ins and outs of the league and players?

As I say, I miss the old days in a way. Four Norris games a season in Detroit, old Chicago Stadium and St. Louis Arena helped build great rivalries (even if Air Canada didn’t go to many places direct in those days).

When we flew with the team or commercial and interacted, it didn’t mean we were uncritical of them (hard to do so when the Leafs could be so bad for so long where playoffs were concerned), but there was an understanding what was on the record or off, what stories or quotes were ok to relate, which weren’t. If there was any grey area you always asked before printing it.

These exchanges often happened quite randomly, in the dressing room, waiting at an airport or in the lobby of a hotel and if nothing else, helped get a better understanding of the background or the direction to a larger story and made you a more accurate scribe. Lots of guesswork now.

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Today, access is much more restricted and the sheer numbers of reporters in Toronto makes it hard to get 1-on-1’s. The club’s media and public relations teams are also larger and more controlling (though not affecting our editorial bent). I do still enjoy road trips because the players and staff are much more relaxed, especially the farther away from Toronto you get. What’s stayed the same? Most players are humble, great guys, just like Don Cherry says.

What do people misinterpret about the NHL and our jobs? It’s often a long run from the press box to the dressing room, especially after an overtime game or one that reverses course with a late series of goals. There can be an unfamiliar building you’re lost in or has a slow media elevator. The dressing room can be a mob scene or the most important interview of the game is hurt, won’t talk or is not made available. And there can be so much waiting around before or after team meetings or practices, often for nothing.

There are constant battles going on throughout the NHL involving the Professional Hockey Writers Association to improve access so readers are better served.

Q: It’s been an interesting season in Toronto thus far. If there was anything you could add to the book you’ve seen or heard this season, what would it be?

All the Mike Babcock stuff of course. Though I didn’t hinge the book on a lot of Babcock as I could have, he and his relationships with the players became a big story.

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Q: It’s frequently said that it’s difficult to play for the Leafs because the players are at the centre of hockey mecca. Do you think there’s merit to the opinion that being in a difficult media market makes it more difficult to play for the Leafs than other NHL teams? 

This ‘centre of the universe’ issue comes and goes.

Right now, it’s the place to be, because the Leafs have great resources and talent, though Babcock’s departure, the recent struggles of Matthews and the salary cap crunch will dictate attractive it stays. It’s great for minor leaguers, particularly those on the NHL’s so-called 32nd team, the Marlies.

Personally, I think it’s over-rated as a difficult media town. The number of people covering the team is large of course, but keep in mind part of that is the Leafs own TV network, social media and game presentation people mixed in and asking for players’ time. Newspaper beat writers have been cut back, there’s hardly any radio stations who attend practice and the big news network stations only come out for training camp, opening night, trade deadline and locket clean-out. Some players with Twitter and Instagram create their own stories.

Most Leafs can walk the streets without being bothered, but then again, we live in a world where everyone posts pictures of sports’ celebs, even in Columbus or Carolina.

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Which team or players have you enjoyed covering the most during your career? Is there a season or moment that stands out as a highlight? 

Wade Belak, Todd Gill, Mats Sundin, Zach Hyman, Mark Osborne, Peter Zezel, Steve Thomas, Bryan McCabe, Felix Potvin, Bill Berg, Al Iafrate. Doug Gilmour in his first years. Everyone spoke to you and you could call them at home or hang out at the hotel if you missed them.

You could fly from LA to Toronto with Gill, Sundin or the late Igor Korolev and talk about everything except hockey, such as life in general.

I loved covering the ‘92-93 team, 84 games and then 21 playoff games, every second night from April to nearly June 1, with the whole city on fire.

Q: A part of the book that stood out to me referenced Mick Babcock making friendly wagers (like having to wear NCAA apparel due to a lost bet with JVR) with players he’s coached. There’s been plenty of attention as of late in regards to players having animosity to Babcock, but anecdotes like this seem to indicate a friendly relationship. Does the controversy around Babcock and his relationship with players surprise you? Does it seem overstated? 

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Players rarely criticize their coaches in public and the Leafs are no different.  You could tell by the lack of superlatives the players gave Babcock through the years that he wasn’t their pal, but like the Wings, the Leafs were ready to put up him if the end goal was a Cup. When Dubas became GM, it was imperative that positive results happen a lot sooner, which they didn’t and you knew Keefe was eventually coming.

I have covered every coach going back to Mike Nykoluk and thought Babcock would be the one to at least get them back to Burns/Quinn territory. But this team and this market has proved too much for a lot of qualified coaches to handle.