Influences From a Far

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The final decision made concerning any hockey related matter belongs to the GM. Board approval is usually sought when the payroll is significantly changed. Previously we have established that many influences can alter a GM’s decision. This include the owner, fans, the GM, the players and lets not forget about the media

Punch Imlach coach and GM of the Leafs had a very successful career throughout the 1960’s. With the players territorially tied to the team in those days, it can safely be said he had a pretty good choice of talent available (they still managed to let Bobby Orr get away). A run of 4 Stanley Cups between 1962-67 was certainly success enough. However, he still made a point to take the local media out for lunch weekly.

The Leafs were the only game in town (no Blue Jays or Raptors). The coverage then consisted of 3 dailies and limited radio and TV coverage. Who could write or say anything bad? Today the Leafs media scrums fill a pressroom. The “Toronto Sun” has a half dozen hockey writers and 4 designated to the Leafs alone.

A GM in Toronto has to use the media as a friend. No longer can the media be bullied by the likes of Harold Ballard. Once during an interview with CBC journalist Barbara Frum, he said that it was “a joke” to have women on the radio, then adding “you know where they’re at there best don’t ya….I let them up once in a while”. He also banned women from the dressing room. He then followed that up by banning all journalists. Furthermore, if anyone said anything negative about the Leafs they would be banished from the Gardens. Ok we have dozens of “Pal Hal” (nickname given to him by legendary journalist Jim Hunt) stories. He single handedly destroyed the Leafs and set the team/organization back decades. Bad example? Or did Pal Hal have it right with the media and his controlling ways?

Today the media can pretty much say or write anything they want and get away with it. Randy Carlyle after a bad loss late in the season, made a half comment about the play of his goalkeeper. (who played poorly). It went National. That comment hangs over Carlyle’s head today. If he does lose his job (which seems likely) that comment, cut in half and out of context by an eager TV journalist, might be looked at as the turning point of “losing the team”.

The media on friendly terms are fed rumours constantly. Rumours are nuggets of information that serve a few purposes. Number one is that it keeps the journalist up to date and informed. Number two is that it serves as a buffer for fan reaction to a possible move, which is usually a trade. The Eric Lindros original trade to the Leafs was so leaked that the fans already had every detail. The only thing not factored in, was Bobby Clarke (surprise) reneging on the deal at the last minute.
Public pressure has to weigh on a GM’s mind. The fans after all are the end winners or losers when the dust finally settles.
Brian Burke who is a polarizing figure in the hockey world, has a love/hate relationship with the media. He gives great quotes and commands a presence when he enters a room. No one wants to miss a chance to hear him speak. He will sacrifice himself to protect his players. Isn’t that what a good GM should do? You rarely hear a player speak out against him. But the press? He tried to take them on and came out 2nd best. The media attacked him and some admittedly brought on by himself. The team first, is the attitude, but when it becomes personal, then, when is enough, enough? At a recent event we held at “The Ultimate Leaf Fan”, against bullying in schools across Canada, Brian was the guest host. He flew in from Calgary to attend. He was charming, hilarious and generous to a fault. The 100 guests loved him and he made a point of thanking them all personally for their support. And then what happens? The following Sunday a local journalist takes a cheap personal shot at Burke about his support against bullying, in his column.

A classless comment like that is what creates the friction between GM’s and the media. But that journalist will be the first guy at the next press conference Burke has, waiting to pounce on the slightest slip he may make. GM’s have a tough role as it’s more than just finding and signing players. The pressures away from the obvious side of the job are what overwhelm a GM in a city like Toronto. Maybe that’s why Brian is a good number 1 in the role. He will take the heat and is not afraid to make a move.

John Ferguson Jr. is well respected as a hockey man around the NHL. However, he got thrown to the wolves in Toronto. Maybe his role as a number 2 would have served him better. Look if the team doesn’t win, how can that be good for anyone? You think the fans want to continuously read and listen to how bad the Leafs are? The media, really is it their fault the team isn’t winning? Don’t you think every journalist in the city would like to be covering the Leafs on a deep playoff run with Maple Leaf Square full?

In fairness to the media, today’s social media world is mindboggling. Twitter alone can tweet events as they happen. Journalist send tweets now about what colour jersey a certain player is wearing for practice so he may have an insight to whom that player may now be playing with. A goalie leaves practice first and the twitter world is instantly flooded with tweets about who will be starting the next game.

Media crazed cities such as Toronto just add pressure to be first with a fresh story. Knowing all this has to factor into how a GM makes certain decisions. Most GM’s will say it doesn’t, but don’t believe them. They don’t want to lose their jobs anymore than anyone of us do

Ron Wilson good coach? Bad coach? It really doesn’t matter when things go wrong. He had a terrible relationship with the media. The media made him accountable for his actions as a coach and edgy personality. The cruelty of the sport came through loud and clear for Ron Wilson. Home fans chanting for his firing, became so bad that his GM (Burke) relieved him of his coaching duties as an act of mercy. So who’s to blame here? Is it the GM, for sticking with him too long? The media, for relentlessly blaming Wilson for the mess the team was in? Or is it fans targeting the coach and making him the reason for failure and frustration?

Since Wilson’s dismissal, the Leafs have new owners, a new head of MLSE, a new President of Hockey operations, GM, coach, coach’s assistants and an about to be 2nd change in coaching for the Marlies. The team made a brief appearance in the playoffs 2 years ago in the strike-shortened season. It was followed by another late season collapse and missing the playoffs again last year. We can spin this story anyway we like but at the end of the day? A team is only as good as its last game!