For obvious reasons, the media room in the basement of the Scotiabank Arena is kept piping hot. If the journalists who cover the Leafs can’t be nice, then they should at least be uncomfortable.
But this is also where they do important news conferences. So as Brad Treliving came in Thursday morning to be debuted as the new GM, his face was in full flush. While team president Brendan Shanahan introduced him, Treliving was sucking on a bottle of water like a man who’d just walked out of the desert.
When it was his turn to talk, Treliving began with, “A little warm in here.”
You have no idea, pal.
Treliving finds himself in a weird spot. Under normal circumstances, a new GM is hired to perform resuscitation on a corpse or to bury one. Treliving instead inherits what, on paper, is one of the best teams in the NHL. ‘On paper’ is doing a lot of work in that sentence. ‘On paper’ should be getting time-and-a-half.
Treliving’s job isn’t to fix the Leafs. It’s to convince the villagers of Toronto there is no need to come down to the arena en masse and burn it to ground. His job is to buy time.
So here was an entirely new-look Leafs presser.
In the past, buzz words and soft pets. Brendan Shanahan looking senatorial and Kyle Dubas looking smart. Serious people doing serious hockey business and thanks for coming, we’ll see you again in 12 months.
The days where the Leafs could act like they’re the Rand Corporation (what do they do in there? Nobody knows, but it’s important) are over.
This is the new, friendly Leafs. You got questions? Well, they’re going to try their very best to answer them. Let me take you over to my new colleague Brad. He loves talking to customers.
Treliving came to his first day at work with the whole Leafs GM Starter Kit – sober blue suit, light blue shirt minus tie, Apple Watch, charming family sitting in the front row. It’s the look that says serious, but fit and fun, and at least three people in the world like me.
The first thing that struck you – smoothness. It’s been a while since the Leafs seemed smooth. We’re speaking here of the sort of group that enjoys the back and forth, a little bit of banter.
Treliving played this just so. He started out by thanking Calgary, after its recent mutual (read: non-mutual) parting. Lot of great people there. Love them all.
But Toronto. What can you say?
“It’s the Leafs,” Treliving said. “It means something.”
A few of the guys in the audience swooned. The Leafs’ usually stentorian PR crew practically had hands clasped up at chins. They were all falling in love. Even Shanahan cracked a smirk. This is what a real media operator looks like. It’s been a while.
Within six minutes of introduction, Treliving had begun referring to the club as “our” and “we.” In case any of the grammatically challenged in the press corps (all of us) had missed that, he made pains to point it out.
So what are his plans? Treliving talked and talked on that score. The answers were a little fuzzy, but it sounded great.
Is he signing Auston Matthews before his no-trade clause kicks in in a month?
Is he firing Sheldon Keefe?
No. But also maybe.
Will he break up the Core Four?
“I’m not about coming in and making a statement,” Treliving said. “Just being different doesn’t automatically make you better.”
True. True. Also, what?
Eventually, someone was going to ask Treliving about the Matthew Tkachuk trade – the one that turned the Florida Panthers into Stanley Cup finalists and put Treliving and Calgary on a path to conscious uncoupling. Treliving was ready for that one.
First, he and Tkachuk are still great buddies. No hurt feelings. Also, he didn’t want to do it. So there you go.
This is not a satisfactory answer. You were in charge and did something that submarined your team. Whether you wanted to do it is beside the point. Your job is to win trades. I, too, can trade Matthew Tkachuk for a bucket of parts because he would like to leave Canada. Where’s my $3-million-dollar-a-year job?
But this is the sort of slick messaging the Leafs are going to need. One gets the impression they could be launching a few potential submarines in the coming months.
After just a little bit, Treliving was really getting into it. The body language relaxed. The answers got quippier.
Whenever he was hit with a question he didn’t like, he didn’t stiffen, as Leafs executives have in the past. He relaxed. Then he said something like, “It’s not a way of dodging the question, but …” Which is always, 100-per-cent-of-the-time a way of dodging the question.
If you think the Leafs are so great, why haven’t they won?
“Well, it’s not a way of dodging the question, but …”
In the hands of a less-talented performer, these sorts of answers enrage people. But Treliving has the gift. It’s an inflection and a gesture before you absolutely snow people over with bafflegab. You have to admire it. It might work, even in a gladiator pit like Toronto. For a while.
As it ended, Treliving stood and addressed the assemblage to offer a few thoughts on Toronto and its citizens, among whom he feels at home already.
“We’re so fortunate to have all you people here who care about the Leafs,” Treliving said.
‘You people’ meant the media. I couldn’t swear to it, but I thought a couple of the most grizzled hacks grunted approval. Even their shrivelled hearts were beginning to pump again.
As it turns out, maybe what the Leafs feel they need in the short term isn’t a big change or defensive depth. Maybe what they need right now is someone who gives really good news conferences.
Given the events of the past couple of weeks, as well as the fact that Dubas was announced as the new Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey ops a half-hour before Treliving talked, Thursday could have been a disaster. Instead, it was a minor triumph.
Whatever Treliving is being paid, he earned it in his debut. But unlike the last guy, Treliving doesn’t have the luxury of mooning about the brightness of the future.
He is the first Leafs executive in a good while who must live entirely in the present. Until he has a meaningful win on his Toronto résumé, he is always one news conference from catastrophe.
Toronto Maple Leafs' president Brendan Shanahan says he's known new general manager Brad Treliving for a while from afar, and he's excited to have join the team. Treliving says he knows there has been heartache and frustration over the team's playoff performance.
The Canadian Press