One supposes the timing could have been even better.
Instead of announcing new president Kyle Dubas a half-hour before the Maple Leafs brought out their replacement general manager, the Pittsburgh Penguins could have timed it to coincide with Brad Treliving’s opening remarks in Toronto.
Then you could have had one of those White House briefing room movie moments where a pack of journalists all reach for their phones at once. Or the Penguins could have hired a truck with a megaphone to drive around Scotiabank Arena crying the news.
So, sure, it could have been even more of a thumb in the eye. Not much. But some.
When asked about the timing on Thursday, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan waved it off.
“I don’t think it was intentional timing,” he said. “They need to get to work as well.”
Doing what? Planning Sidney Crosby’s retirement party?
They couldn’t do it an hour later? Dubas had to run immediately to his new office to sign off on some urgent scouting budgets?
Shanahan doesn’t believe that because no one with any sense could. He just doesn’t want this fight to get even more petty. Too late. If Shanahan doesn’t want it catty, he shouldn’t have pulled out his claws first.
He did half the work painting Dubas as a flake and/or a conniver on the way out the door in Toronto. How else could you interpret Shanahan’s JFK-esque blow by blow of his failed contract negotiations with Dubas? You wanted to embarrass the guy as he left. He helped you do it.
“I definitely don’t have it in me to go anywhere else,” Dubas said in his final public statement as Leafs GM. “It’ll either be [Toronto] or it’ll be taking time to recalibrate, reflect on the seasons here. You won’t see me next week pop up elsewhere.”
In fairness, he waited two weeks.
In hindsight, that must have been a bargaining tactic gone wrong. I love you so, so much. Do you love me, too? Enough to give me way more money and full control of hockey operations?
The real question is why a smart guy – people around hockey are always telling us how smart Dubas is – would fence himself in so definitively? He must have known there was a real chance he would come out of it looking foolish.
Or maybe that was the point. Maybe Dubas was burning his boats before his agent sent Shanahan a final list of demands via e-mail. E-mail! They don’t have phones wherever he lives? Or planes? You don’t think this might’ve found a more receptive audience if you’d explained it face to face?
For a business predicated on negotiating, it sounds like there’s a dearth of skilled negotiators in hockey. Just a lot of demanders.
Whatever the case, Dubas has done the Leafs a service. It’s been a while since the local hockey team had a proper enemy. And no, the Battle of Ontario – a name that makes you think of musketry and nodding off in Grade 7 history – does not count. This new grudge has real possibilities.
When people talk about the Leafs’ ‘culture,’ it’s one word covering a variety of sins.
It’s the fact that rookie Matthew Knies gets judo-flipped into the end boards during the playoffs and everyone on the Leafs bench goes, ‘I guess that’s fine.’
It’s the way the Leafs talk after big losses – as though they have no clue what went wrong or how they should feel about it.
It’s their tendency to sulk and whine.
It’s the way they were at locker-clearout day – relieved. Smiles all around. A bunch of pals knocking off work early.
Good teams talk like they know what they’re doing. The Leafs talk like they’re hoping you’ll tell them.
Toronto keeps trying to inject culture into the team like a vaccine. Maybe Mark Giordano carries the culture gene. Or Ryan O’Reilly. Or Luke Schenn. More often than not, newcomers don’t infect the Leafs. The Leafs infect them.
As Treliving said on Thursday, the Leafs mean something. They mean ‘Everybody hates us already so why should we care?’ The Leafs don’t feel too much. It often seems as though they don’t feel at all. It’s unnatural.
Thinking about them, I wandered to a profile of the American artist Alex Katz. Katz is the Maple Leafs of painting. He did some incredible work 50 years ago and makes an awful lot of money.
Katz is 95 now and still slugging. He has a handwritten note pinned up in his studio.
It reads: “Last year in Spain a journalist asked me if I consider myself a over the hill minor talent. I said I don’t but a lot of people do. I dedicate this show to all the people who did not take me seriously. You provided the fuel for my rage.”
What’s the fuel for the Leafs’ rage? Do they have any of that resource? Because if they do, nobody’s ever seen it. The Leafs are always fine. Win? That feels fine. Lose? That feels fine, too. Lose calamitously? Can’t wait to hit the beach.
Everybody understands this is the way it is and that it will never change. Until Shanahan and Dubas went off script. This was supposed to be neat and tidy. It is instead messy and dramatic.
Shanahan hit first. Dubas just hit back. So what are the Leafs going to do now?
Nothing, apparently. Which is tedious. Rarely in sports history has a big club been so poor at putting on a show.
When you consider the famous motivational knife fighters in sport – your Michael Jordans, Bill Belichicks or José Mourinhos – you think they would’ve said, ‘Oh yeah no, I’m sure that’s nothing’?
Absolutely not. They would take great offence. They’d make this the centrepiece of their coming dirty-tricks campaign. They would set out not only to beat Dubas, but to publicly humiliate him.
This is the stuff that makes pro sports really fun. The Leafs? No fun.
But there’s still time. Maybe Pittsburgh will continue on in this trollish vein. Maybe Dubas will not be able to help himself. Maybe he’ll keep grinding Toronto. Maybe Toronto will finally rouse itself to grind back.
Here’s hoping. Dubas was a good leader for the Leafs when he worked there. But now that he’s gone, he could be a great one.