About 90 per cent of Kyle Dubas’s job is overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club.
The other 10 per cent is being Canada’s highest-paid human pinata.
On Tuesday, for the first time in a while, Dubas got pushed out of the Leafs’ executive bunker to get his whacks.
The previous time he’d tried this with people paying close attention – after the team lost to Columbus in the postseason play-in round in August – it didn’t go so well.
Instead of sitting there and taking his shots, Dubas took a couple of shots back. You don’t do that in Toronto. Everybody here understands you will not, despite all your best/worst efforts, win a hockey championship. That’s a given.
The deal is that you get paid too much money, and the rest of us get to scream at you for as long as we want.
If the “midseason” break had happened in early March, this would have been a triumphal march. Dubas’s toughest assignment would have been reminding himself not to spread out his arms and start shouting, “I’m king of the world!”
But then the Leafs went and stepped in a bucket, and began dragging it around the North Division for two weeks.
Small picture – they’ve lost five of their past six. Big picture – they’ve lost five of their past six. It doesn’t matter that the team is second in the NHL on points. The only picture that ever matters when it comes to this team is whatever happened 10 seconds ago.
This changes Dubas’s rhetorical calculation. Now his job is to absorb punishment for a half-hour while being as a vague as a palm reader: “I see … I see … I see a lot of improvement, gradual improvement, very, very gradual. You will be rich … and you will have a fantastic success at some indeterminate future point, which may come while I’m still in charge, after I’m fired or once the Earth has been consumed by an exploding sun. One of those three.”
Something no general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs wants to do is say something interesting. The worst-case scenario is providing a quote that works as a punchy headline, or possibly a news alert.
Do not, for the love of God, mention trucks or cliffs or trucks going off cliffs or any other sort of gas-powered vehicle in reference to its spatial relation with a vertical geographic feature.
Dubas used to be good at this. That was back when everyone was still basking in the glow of a successful, years-long tank. He was able to make losing sound like a good thing.
Now that the expectation is that the team should win, and right quick, Dubas is having to adjust his own game.
The new rules of body language: Nod a lot. Smile gently, but not too much teeth. It’s aggressive. Remember – you are in constant emotional turmoil because you have not yet tasted the sweet liquor of ultimate victory. Don’t dress too well. Easy with the sharp suits. They make you look like a swell. Toronto can go either way on swells. Never relax.
The new rules of spoken language: Say the word “growth” a lot. Lean even harder into clichés. They sound good and don’t mean anything, which is perfect for you. If there is blame to be taken, take it. You’re not here for your brain, big though it may be. You are here to get between the media and Frederik Andersen once the shooting starts, and it has.
The same old rule of promises: avoid them. Excise the word “promise” from your vocabulary. Visit a hypnotist if you have to. You are only here to work hard and who knows how that will turn out. Sure, this kind of thinking – “I’ll try, but gee mister, I can’t promise anything” – would get you fired from most jobs in the world, but weird as it seems, that’s how this one goes.
This sounds easy. It isn’t. It’s incredibly hard, which is why they only let one person try it at a time.
What did Dubas say on Tuesday, exactly? What does it matter? This is Toronto. He has to win. Recent history strongly suggests that is verging on impossible. The two things do not go together. Kyle Dubas has to make them sound as though they do.
The result is a pseudo-Churchillian blather like, “Great teams find a way to stop the bleeding.” As battlefield rallying calls go, I think that’s a particular favourite of every losing army in history. But if you think you’d do any better, you wouldn’t.
Dubas managed to avoid most of the obvious landmines. He recommitted to his shaky goaltending, waved away the recent skid, assured everyone that whatever’s wrong is his fault, right down to the vending machine in Concourse B that keeps eating toonies.
Most important, he refused to promise anything, including winning a single playoff series. The news here is that there’s no news. That’s a red-letter day, Leafs GM-wise.
It was only at the end – the 14th or 15th question, when a fighter gets tired – that Dubas wobbled a bit.
This season, the Leafs are participating in a behind-the-scenes docuseries for Amazon. This one’s called All or Nothing. Is that how he sees it – all or nothing?
Here is part of Dubas’s 93-second, largely period-free response: “It’s so hard in any sport to say that it’s X or bust. I know there’s a lot of talk about winning a playoff round or bust, or winning a Stanley Cup or bust, but I don’t, uh, I think those can be very day-to-day-type endeavours and I think especially in this role it has to be more long term and can’t get caught up in how the short-run results impact that, and it’s about trying to build a program that can be a team that has a high level or performance every single year and …”
I think what Dubas wanted to say here was, “No.”
But of all the things you can and can’t do in Toronto, giving people the impression there is some urgency to this job is the thing you’re going to want to avoid most of all.