By now, it is a ritual as predictable as snow in January – or, more to the point, complaints about snow in January – and it happens about three nights a week. Moments after the Toronto Maple Leafs lose yet another game, a pair of local sports radio jocks open up a post-mortem show with chatter about unlucky bounces and lacklustre defence. And then they fire up the phone lines and listen approvingly as one after another fan screams about how the team desperately needs to trade the hot-and-cold sharpshooter Phil Kessel, or the morose captain, Dion Phaneuf, or some other slumping chump. Or maybe just get rid of the Leaf's president, Brendan Shanahan, who joined the team last April, because hey, what has he done for us lately?
Which is kind of funny, but mainly sad, because it was only three or four months ago that just about everyone in Toronto who cared about such things said that the Leafs needed to undergo a painful period of rebuilding. It could take years, we were told, and it wouldn't be pretty. But hey, we're grownups, right? We teach our children that nothing worthwhile comes without sacrifice and perseverance. And so we agreed to be patient.
So much for that.
This is basically how it goes every year for the Leafs, who last won the Stanley Cup in 1967. We pledge patience, then immediately start hollering from the sidelines. We're worse than the worst soccer dads; we're helicopter parents who won't even let our kids fall down, run the wrong way down the field, and make the other mistakes they need to make if they're going to learn how to do things right. We're smothering them with our love, or at least some twisted version of it.
And now you're wondering why this column is being published in the Arts section.
So stay with me here for a moment. Because maybe the Leafs and their glorious history and dysfunctions have something sad in common with the CBC and its own glorious history and dysfunctions. Both, after all, were born in an era of scarcity: The Leafs were once the best of the bunch (back, ahem, when the NHL had only six teams); once upon a time, everybody watched and listened to CBC (back, ahem, when Canada had only a handful of TV and radio networks). Each is treated by their respective fan bases as a public trust. And – most pathologically – both are ceaselessly bombarded with free advice on radio, TV, in newspapers and in swirling, toxic Twittersphere. If you work for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment or the CBC, you can't go a day without being buttonholed and told in no uncertain terms exactly how to fix your problem, usually by those who work in neither professional sports nor media.
For CBC, that means hearing from ardent fans of the radio networks who insist the broadcaster should get out of the business of English-language TV dramas or comedies; it means reading columnists who think a public broadcaster should ignore the public and produce arid and high-minded drama or live performances; and it means listening to those who insist the broadcaster is both innovating too quickly and too slowly. (It also, of course, means hearing from a significant and noisy contingent braying that the entirety of CBC/Radio-Canada should be scrapped, or "privatized," whatever that means for a public broadcaster given its mandate by an Act of Parliament.)
Once upon a time, armchair quarterbacks could only yell themselves hoarse by screaming at the TV. Nowadays, they hop on Twitter or newspaper comment boards or TV and radio phone-in shows and let 'er rip. And Leafs and CBC executives, being human, listen and read and die a little bit inside every time. Most fatally, they stop trusting their instincts.
These days, those advising the CBC also include a Canadian Senate committee, which has been charged with "examining the challenges faced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in relation to the changing environment of broadcasting and communications." In a series of hearings that kicked off in late-2013, and is still going, a raft of senators has poked and prodded the CBC to figure out what it does well and what it might do differently. But sometimes the senators seem, shall we say, less than fully qualified for the task: During one hearing last October, Don Plett (Conservative, Manitoba) told the hearing: "My administrative assistant tells me that she doesn't subscribe to any television. She has her computer and she streams or whatever it is." Then he added: "I tried doing it. It hasn't worked for me yet. Nevertheless, she watches everything on her computer, plugs it into her television."
During another hearing, Plett had to be chastised by the hearing chair after he repeatedly pressed CBC bosses on how many of its staff flew to the Sochi Olympics in business class. The Manitoba senator was asking, he said, because the CBC had reported on his own travel expenses – he flies frequently between Winnipeg and Ottawa – so it seemed a fair question. (A CBC News investigation showed that, during an 11-week period in late-2013, when the Senate was mulling whether to suspend Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau, Plett had spent more than $22,000 on airfare for 14 flights, including seven with his wife. The reports left him fuming. Of CBC News, he snapped at the hearing: "They believe they're the Official Opposition.")
I'm not for a moment suggesting we let both the Leafs and the CBC off the hook: It is our right, both as taxpaying citizens and long-suffering sports fans, to criticize them and to offer our useless, unsolicited advice. But if you love something, sometimes it helps if you just leave it alone for a while. It surely couldn't hurt. Because if things don't get better, we may have only ourselves to blame.