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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock speaks to reporters during a news conference at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Friday, April 27, 2018.COLE BURSTON/The Canadian Press

Because the Toronto Maple Leafs have been so bad for so long, they have only one serious rival left – the media.

Up years, down years, you could always depend on three or four amusing flare-ups to keep things interesting. Someone heard something from somebody that so-and-so did such-and-such. A great deal of it was unprovable, but had the ring of truth. Some of it was even true.

The conflict has gone on so long that it’s embedded in the psyche of the city. Despite the fact that a sizable swath of the Maple Leafs beat now shares an employer with the players, it’s become an article of faith – Toronto media hate the Toronto Maple Leafs.

After the arrival of Mike Babcock and Auston Matthews, a détente was established. The team would be allowed the freedom to be bad for a while longer, and sports reporters would cheerlead them while they did it.

This also roughly coincided with Rogers acquiring the league’s TV rights at huge cost. That deal does not work if viewers are actively discouraged from caring about the most popular hockey team in the world.

As long as the Leafs hit a minimum standard, everyone could be kind while still maintaining his or her professional dignity.

The beauty of the unspoken agreement was that it was sensible – Babcock was a great hire, Matthews is a generational player and good things take time.

For three years, the two sides came out of their trenches and celebrated the rebuilding process together in no-man’s land. That’s over now. It’s war again.

Like all conflicts, this one has many causes. The Leafs have just collapsed; their best player was AWOL; the opacity of the organization encourages guessing games.

But mostly, it happened because it was time. “Under peaceful conditions the warlike man …” and so forth.

It started at a radio station. In the midst of a typical daytime on-air ramble, Rogers Sportsnet analyst Nick Kypreos dropped this thermonuclear suggestion.

“Towards the end, Babcock lost Matthews. I don’t know what happened. But he lost him and there was no trust any more.”

Those are some juicy words in there – “lost” and “trust.” It’s not so far from ‘hates him violently’ and ‘sticks pins into a doll at night’.

Kypreos says right in there that he doesn’t know what happened. But don’t let that stop you. People ran with it. That’s the job of sports commentators – to run with things.

How the team handles them determines whether the controversy – that was too grand a word on Thursday, but had become applicable by the next day – will flower.

Based on Friday’s locker clearout, it’s blossoming.

Matthews seemed surprised to be asked about it, pretending at first he hadn’t heard anything.

“Good,” Matthews said to a general question about his relationship with the coach. “He’s been good. I don’t know why I’m getting all these questions.”

This is a little like those times you pretend you didn’t get that text from someone you don’t like all that much. You got the text. He knows you got the text and he knows you know he knows you got the text. So don’t bother.

When the specific issue was put to him, Matthews didn’t help himself.

“Our relationship’s fine. You guys can speculate all you want, but it’s pointless,” he said. “I don’t think it’s true at all, but that’s what happens with the media.”

He doesn’t “think” it’s true?

You can see, for the very first time, the blue-and-white persecution complex beginning to infect Matthews here. People are making things up (even if there’s a hint of truth in there). Tread (far too) carefully.

Babcock struck a more convincing tone: “I think Auston and I have a good relationship. I asked him that exactly today.” But a close reading opened more avenues of attack. You “think” that, too? You had to ask him?

Then Babcock – who has avoided such talk in Toronto because there has been no need for it – retreated into us-v-them-ism.

“What’s interesting in Toronto is you guys do such a good job. You’re everywhere. You’re under the bench. You’re in the car. You’re in the parking lot. You’re everywhere. So any time anybody does anything, there’s a big story. And sometimes – I don’t know, maybe 12 per cent of the time – it’s true.”

You may have chuckled as you read that. It’s a great line. But I don’t think it accomplishes what Babcock hoped.

General manager Lou Lamoriello used one of his exceedingly rare public appearances to deepen the impression of defensiveness. Ironically, it was an off-the-cuff thing at the end as he was thanking the media for covering the team.

“You create a lot of excitement,” Lamoriello said. “You create a lot of things that I never even knew were happening.”

It’s good to hear that no one in the Leafs organization is worried about this. They’re so unworried, they can’t shut up about it.

Are Matthews and Babcock at odds? Probably not or, at least, no more so than any two people who’ve just spent months together in an adventure that ended in frustration should be.

If they’d tried explaining it like that, or laughed it off, most people would’ve bought it. But this ‘you’re telling lies about us’ way? That dog won’t hunt.

From Babcock’s perspective, the timing is terrible. If the Leafs were playing again on Monday, this small tempest would blow off quickly.

But with the season finished, there’s nothing else to talk about for several months. The ‘Matthews hates Babcock’ narrative will take root on sports radio like a weed.

On the one hand, this signals that the team has reached the next stage. It’s no longer a civic weakling inspiring pity. It’s established enough to take a good kicking.

But on the other, this is a pattern all Toronto hockey fans recognize. For 50 years, every Leafs team has gone feral before it goes sideways. The media are the usual scapegoat.

You know who doesn’t complain about the media? Hockey teams that win things. The Leafs now have to decide which sort of team they are.

Most of this will fall on Babcock, the Leafs’ only effective spokesperson. The Leafs have work to do this off-season improving his team from a roster standpoint. Those are issues.

But this? This sudden injection of paranoia? That’s a problem.

The Boston Bruins eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs from the playoffs Wednesday, in Game 7 of the first-round series. Leafs forward Nazem Kadri says his team has “made strides.”

The Canadian Press

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