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Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson behind the bench during second period NHL action against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Florida November 10, 2010. HANS DERYK/FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL (HANS DERYK)
Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson behind the bench during second period NHL action against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Florida November 10, 2010. HANS DERYK/FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL (HANS DERYK)

Usual Suspects

Ron Wilson making his job harder Add to ...

Toronto coach Ron Wilson had one of his exasperations Monday. Asked his thoughts on his Maple Leafs being booed at home, Wilson hissed he was not going to grace the question with a reply and then stomped off. Lip readers could make out Wilson asking a poor PR flack who the offending questioner was. While Wilson's frustration is understandable, that doesn't make it acceptable.

An intelligent man, Wilson does not suffer fools gladly. Nor does he suffer clever people. Or the venal, vacuous or vexatious. In fact, Wilson finds it hard to abide just about anyone with a tape recorder or note pad. Of course, his is not a happy lot these days. Odd bits of interesting material make a fine quilt, but they make a horrible hockey team. And Wilson has been saddled by his friend Brian Burke with a rag-bag collection of disparate abilities that shows little sign of succeeding in, say, the next millennium.

The strain of losing is reflected in Wilson's face, in his body language behind the bench. Wilson's drop-dead replies to annoying questions define condescension. But is he making his job harder by his constant sniping with media folk - a pattern that dates back through his days in San Jose (his acid exchanges with TSN's Jermain Franklin were classics)?

Like many embedded sports people, Wilson sees the media as an amorphous blob of agitators and philistines. Often, his questioners fumble the questions, ramble and became incoherent. Closed-ended questions make it worse. To say nothing of the "What colour is that green light?" efforts. Still, while massive egos still stalk the fourth estate, scribes and talking heads are simply proxies for the fan who pays the freight. They ask the questions that are on the public's mind.

When a media person asks how fans booing his team affects Wilson, it's a valid question. Wilson's pay grade says he is subject to daily media grilling. A fishbowl market such as Toronto doesn't mitigate that responsibility. As such, if he doesn't like the incessant grind of matching wits with the hapless press, there is an easy solution for Wilson. Stop taking the pay cheque.

Sid Showcase: One 24/7 leap for the NHL and one game-show stumble for mankind. Where to start on the NHL's hapless foray into The Price Is Right on Monday? First, video-conferenced Alex Ovechkin appears to have forgotten to insert his teeth. Then there's Sidney Crosby doing his best Rick Moranis on SCTV's Pre-Teen World. ("Pack your bags, you're coming to the Steel City...") Finally, there's Jeremy Roenick fulfilling a lifelong dream of shouting, "You can crank up the heat in your BRAND NEW CAR!" Oh, and don't forget the Bridgestone tires, JR.

Host Drew Carey (where'd the gut go, Drew?) seems like an anthropologist discovering a remote primitive culture with the hockey tribe. Contestant Lauren has that "who's the weird guy wearing the Indian head?" look on her face as she tries to price out the cost of a tuque. And both contestants crashed out on their bids. When we figure out what the NHL's upside was from this episode we'll let you know.

Bob Is Buzzing: Bob Costas on how the Pittsburgh/ Buffalo sno-globe game in 2008 launched the NHL Winter Classics on NBC. "It more than got us off on the right foot, it sent us off flying," Costas told an NBC conference call Tuesday. "Even though we got a surprisingly high rating for a regular-season hockey game, the buzz was beyond the rating. People were talking about it for a long time afterward and that's hard to measure... Within one year, it wasn't building towards something that had standing as a yearly event, it became that in the space of one day."

Why does NBC suddenly love hockey on New Year's Day? As the money explodes for TV, wireless and other media platforms, it translates into ever-greater integration for sports with the communications industry. (Rogers buying MLSE?) Gate revenues become secondary to the billions that the IPhenomenon can generate via downloads and streaming. And what Big Boy TV wants is appointment viewing such as the Winter Classic, teams stacked with stars, and top-10 media markets like Chicago and Philadelphia battling in the Stanley Cup final.

Call it the ESLing of North American sport - leagues like the English Premiership with their mega stars concentrated on five teams at the top of the standings. Big Boy TV doesn't want 30-team leagues with 82-game inventories in Kansas City or Buffalo or Edmonton. It wants Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal. The effect can already be seen in James' Miami Beach party with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh or the primacy of MLB teams on the I95 corridor in America's northeast.

Which flies in the face of the face of the Parity Principal, the sacred notion that everybody's got a chance to win. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman shut down his league to prevent exactly what the TV executives he covets now want.

Because the NHL gets so little money from network TV in the U.S., it can resist Big Boy TV for now. But the encroachment of Winter Classics, the Season Kickoff Parties and such represent the thin edge of a wedge that will soon dictate that, to survive in the multi-channel universe, hockey become like thoroughbred racing: a sport with five or six marquee TV events that otherwise labours in obscurity to its devoted demographic.

Bret 'N Bron: Orlando Magic coach Stan van Gundy gets it (maybe because baby bro Jeff is a TV talking head). When the LeBron James return to Cleveland occupied every nanosecond of American media time, the rumpled Magic coach groused, "Isn't that all anybody cares about, the Heat? Was the chemistry good? Did they all get along?... ESPN only covers two stories: Brett Favre and the Miami Heat ... and you've got about five minutes for the rest of the sports world."

Now, with Favre likely finished, the conclusion of America's long national nightmare in Wrangler jeans will allow ESPN to go all-Lebron, all the time. Wait, Denver is starting Tim Tebow. Let the worship begin.

Finally: The New Zealand All Blacks performing the Haka before a rugby game is one sports spectacle that can make the hair stand up on your neck. But now a Maori tribe is trying to trademark certain phrases in the tribal war dance, threatening the All Blacks' famous performance just as the country hosts the 2011 World Cup. If the NgatiToa tribe win, it could mean Ka Mate Haka ('tis death) to the tradition. As they like to say at moments like these, talks are progressing.

 

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