Riffing On A Rift (which may or may not exist)


Ah, sports media coverage in Toronto. Don’t ever change.

According to Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun, Tomas Kaberle is unhappy with Leafs head coach Ron Wilson. Naturally, this has sparked a flurry of speculation, debate, and blame-placing where – if the player is to be believed – there may be none necessary to begin with.

Leafs‘ reporter Jonas Siegel reported on am640 that during today’s media scrum in Toronto, Kaberle (who by all accounts is the most laid-back guy you will ever meet) was quite agitated at having to deal with a throng of reporters all wishing to know if Simmons’ claim of a rift between player and coach was true.  Kaberle, true to form, denied there is any problem whatsoever, and suggested that he would be polling his friends to try to figure out (a) who gave Simmons the quote, and (b) why they would have done it.

As Kaberle so succinctly put it, if he didn’t like playing for Wilson, why not leave when he had the opportunity to do so at the trade deadline?

The subject of the rift brings about a number of issues for speculation; namely:

Has Wilson been the reason for the decline in Kaberle’s play, and is public criticism by a coach justified?

Is Kaberle telling the media the truth, or just trying to avoid a public controversy?

And to what point does agenda play a role in all of this?

Public Criticism

It has been theorized by some that Wilson’s particular brand of openness with the media quickly grows tiring for many of his players.  On the one hand, nobody appreciates being criticized publicly.  On the other hand, these players are high-profile athletes playing in the public eye.  One radio commenter suggested that behind closed doors, criticism is a part of the coach’s job and the players understand that, but public criticism is another matter entirely.

The problem I have with that is, not too long ago that same station had a segment where Wilson was discussed, and it was revealed that he does talk to his players behind closed doors – several times – but if the message doesn’t get through he eventually will resort mentioning it in the media.  In other words, it’s not as though his comments have ever caught any of his players off-guard.

But beyond that, these guys are professionals.  You don’t like what your coach has to say to the media – and by extension the fans who want to know these things – about your play? Suck it up and work harder. You can’t expect to be paid millions to play a game without some level of accountability.

Speaking of which, here’s the thing that really irks me in all of this.  The Toronto media just spent the ENTIRE Ferguson/Maurice era complaining about a “culture of entitlement” and a “lack of accountability” on this Leafs team.  And yet, now that the Leafs have a coach who does hold his players accountable – privately and publicly – this is somehow a problem.  What in the hell do people want?

For the record, GM Brian Burke remains fully supportive of his coach, who according to The Sun‘s Lance Hornsby will be back next season.

Back to Kaberle.  Sure, his numbers have dipped significantly since the Olympics.  But it’s not as though Wilson has changed his approach or his methods in that time. If Kaberle really did have a problem with the coach, one which was affecting his performance on the ice as Simmons has (and others today have) alluded, how come the numbers didn’t suffer earlier?

What did happen, however, was the trade for Dion Phaneuf.  Track it back through the game logs to see for yourself – Kaberle’s decline coincides with that transaction.  Is the decline due to Kaberle’s no longer being the go-to guy?  The adjustment to a slightly lesser role on the second pairing?  Is it because he sees Phaneuf as a replacement, and senses his days may be numbered? (But in that case, again, why not agree to a move at the deadline?)

Or is it just a case that he – like many of the defenders on this club – has fallen into a dreadful slump, the sort that when you step beyond the Leafs‘ bubble and look at that stat sheets you realize EVERY player goes through once in a while?

In short, public criticism has nothing to do with any of this.  As our old friend Gerard stated in a comment left on Simmons’ blog, Pros accept & learn from criticism whereas Joes whine about it.  Some good insight there.  And Kaberle has been nothing but a pro in his eleven years in the blue and white.

Avoidance of Controversy

The next question, then, is whether Kaberle is telling the media the truth of the situation (not that he’s obligated to by any means) or whether he is simply trying to quell a controversy before it becomes a distraction to the team.

To his credit, Kaberle answered all the questions as best he could, asserting that if he had a problem playing for Wilson he’d have asked for a trade, and hinting that the criticism levelled by the coach at he and Francois Beauchemin was fair and somewhat deserved.

“We talk about how solid our defense is and how well we’ve been playing and we still got some guys who are minus-16 or whatever they are. They’re supposed to be the guys who get the job done defensively and they haven’t improved their plus/minus over the last month when just about everybody else has.” — Ron Wilson

That quote came after Tuesday’s game against Atlanta, where both Francois Beauchemin (-15) and Tomas Kaberle (-16) made ill-timed offensive forays leading to two Atlanta goals and effectively costing the team the game.

Here’s where things get interesting:

Yesterday, Francois Beauchemin was asked about Wilson’s criticism, and in a very classy manner he admitted he has not been good enough defensively this year and that in such a circumstance, criticism is to be expected.  In other words, Beauchemin was stating that Wilson’s remarks did not bother him on a personal level, as the coach was justified in his words.

Similarly, Kaberle admitted today that his +/- needs to improve, and that defensively his game has not been up to par. In other words, he re-iterated the criticism delivered by Wilson. An interesting approach for a guy who supposedly doesn’t like his coach.

But perhaps he is just trying to avoid controversy.  Perhaps, as some have suggested, Kaberle simply does not want the attention to be on him, and would prefer the situation – whatever it may be – remain between himself and the coach.  Fair enough.  But again, if he is so unhappy, why is he still here?

And if it is indeed the case that Kaberle is unhappy with Wilson’s brand of openness and directness with the media — the result of which is what can be gleaned as the occasional public criticism of players — and he is allowing it to affect the level of his play, then I will be happy to re-iterate my initial reaction to the article from a comment on an earlier post about the reason a culture change was deemed necessary to begin with, and my sincere hopes that the door doesn’t hit him on the way out.

However, the more I read, hear, and think about this story, the more I am beginning to think that may be unnecessary.


The more I think about this story, the more I am a beginning to wonder if the whole thing is just smoke and mirrors.  Kaberle had a chance to leave (on multiple occasions), and yet has done nothing but profess his love of the city and desire to remain a member of the Maple Leafs. His slump coincides with the trade for Phaneuf, not with any monumental change on the part of Wilson, whose approach (publicly, at least) has remained the same throughout his very successful tenure as a coach in the National Hockey League.

And yet, some unnamed ‘friend’ says Kaberle can’t stand playing for Wilson.  According to Simmons’ Twitter, that same ‘friend’ apparently said half the team can’t stand playing for him either.

Now that’s interesting.  Sure would be nice to know who gave Simmons that quote.  But like any reporter worth his salt, he will protect the source — as he should.  And speculation will continue to abound — as it naturally does in these situations.

This is not to suggest that Simmons did anything he shouldn’t have – a reporter got an interesting quote and ran with it. That, in and of itself, is not at all a problem — nor should it be.  Rather; why would someone give a reporter such a loaded quote in the first place?  What was the intent?

(Don’t kid yourselves about that, either; quotes this loaded are rarely given accidentally or without intent).

Even if what was said was true, it accomplishes very little at this stage – the season is pretty much done – other than make the coach look like the fall guy for his player’s sharp decline in performance.

Hmm. The ex-teammate theory that made the noon-hour radio rounds is starting to make a lot of sense, especially considering Simmons’ tweet regarding “half the players who play for [Wilson].”  Looking at the Leafs’ play of late, I wonder if the source of the quote actually meant to say “half the players who used to play for [Wilson]”.

Do players get frustrated with their coaches?  Sure, all the time.  When was the last time everything was all sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops between you and your boss?  If there is some truth to the quote, that is probably where it lies.  Sure, Wilson’s techniques will grate on his players.  But they were the same back in November when Kaberle was lighting up the scoresheet as they are now.  So to suggest Kaberle’s decline has anything to do with Wilson seems a reach at best.

And if it does somehow come out that his play has slipped because of the coach – well, good riddance Tomas, it’s been a fun eleven years and best of luck finding a new country club to join.

But something tells me that is likely not the case, and that the quote recorded by Simmons probably had a heck of a lot more to do with someone having an axe to grind with Ron Wilson than it had to do with Tomas Kaberle.

A Final Note

Jonas Siegel of am640 notes that this isn’t the first time Wilson has held Kaberle accountable for a poor performance.

Look to his comments on Kaberle prior to a game against the Nashville Predators in mid-January for proof.

“He’s a minus ten or eleven [this season],” Wilson said of Kaberle at the time. “That’s to me, not acceptable. Points don’t matter if the other team’s scoring all the time when you’re on the ice. He’s got to get the job done in our own end a little bit better and he’ll play more minutes.”

Last season against Phoenix, Wilson nailed Kaberle to the bench for the entire first period of a game against the Coyotes.

Asked if he was sending a message, Wilson replied,“Yeah and he apparently was sending a message back by being minus four.”

To which Kaberle responded,“Obviously I wasn’t playing my best lately. [I’m] going to keep working hard, be hard on myself and try to contribute.”

Look, I don’t know who the source was. Only Steve Simmons knows that. And in all honesty, that’s not even the issue. What I’m interested in is why the quote was given – and published – in the first place.  It would seem that someone has an axe to grind with Wilson, as the inference is that Kaberle’s play has been dismal because of the status of his relationship with his coach.  And yet, looking at the first half of the season, that wasn’t the case — and nothing has changed on Wilson’s end, in terms of how he conducts himself in the media or how he treats his players, since.  So what other endgame could there be, beyond a writer looking to stir things up to get pageviews and sell more copy (if so, well played sir), or — and this is where I come out on it — an individual using a reporter by providing a quote he/she knew would get printed, with an eye toward casting the coach in a particular light?

Simmons article is here

Hornsby article is here

Siegel article is here

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,