We'd been nagging them again, and the Toronto Maple Leafs weren't happy.
After Wednesday morning's practice, they were banging around the locker room a little too loudly, like someone slamming drawers in the kitchen the morning after a fight.
Who knows who started it? (They did.)
Or who was to blame? (They were.)
Or who ought to get taken out for a very expensive make-up dinner? (Just me, alone. And I'd prefer cash.)
The media said some mean things. The Leafs said some mean things back. We wrote more mean things, and they pretended they hadn't read them.
But now, after some reflection, we were all going to make up.
Uncoachable, the media said.
"I think this team is very coachable," said Morgan Rielly with such innocent guilelessness that I nearly burst into tears.
Not accountable, the media said.
"I haven't played well enough and I will be better," said Dion Phaneuf. He said it like he was at a meeting of Unaccountables Anonymous.
No resolve, none of the media said.
"Resolve … resolve … resolve … resolve," said new interim head coach Peter Horachek, like he's paid in gift cards every time he uses the word.
A little bit scary, the media said.
And then Phil Kessel stood there and talked for five solid minutes without looking like he was going to punch someone. He didn't say anything in particular, but this was definite progress.
The Leafs don't do much particularly well, but few teams anywhere manage this cycle of small-scale provocation and redemption more fascinatingly.
It's the reason they're so much fun to cover. It may also be why they're such a predictably ordinary hockey team.
The day-to-day work of sports journalism thrives in two environments: crisis and its resolution.
"Team in wild brawl
loses mind on camera;
arrested at strip club" or
"Team wins revenge match,
cup, strip-club brawl lawsuit."
These events aren't one part of the allure of big-time professional sports. They are the core attraction. What happens out on the ice or field or court would have no widespread appeal if it were broadcast in isolation.
If you think otherwise and love hockey, imagine yourself spending the next few months watching Swedish broadcasts of Modo games. I'm sure it's a pretty good product, attractively staged. It's got all the hockey things – two professional teams, skating, goals.
You won't know who anybody is, or anything about them, or what they're saying, or why the guy on Team A is making choking motions at the guy on Team B. It's still hockey. But without non-hockey context, it's unwatchable.
There are no good guys or bad guys or grudges to be settled or personal tragedies to be got past (that you know of, at least). There's no narrative to follow. Taken in isolation, the game – any game – is meaningless.
This is why the sports media is the most resilient branch of the mainstream press.
News or politics or arts or business reporters inform your meaningful life choices. We, on the other hand, are de facto advertisers for the last outpost of the monoculture.
Sports reporters are boiler-room workers, stoking the narrative fires. In every other sphere of interest, journalists are tolerated by the powerful. In sports, we are (occasionally uncomfortable) partners.
Most of the players suspect, fear and/or despise us. That's a given. We don't feel as strongly about them, but we understand. It's a healthy tension.
Management will either flirt or fume – often both in the same interaction. That relationship is more balanced. They need us as much as we need them.
Leagues could easily limit our access or cut us out altogether. Despite our collective whining, we still get a lot of it. Too much, really.
They could co-opt us (by giving special access to certain outlets in return for promises to play nice). Occasionally they try, but it rarely works out for either party. It's difficult to make watchable propaganda. Better to be outside lobbing rocks than inside blowing bubbles.
What people want is crisis, followed by its resolution. Crisis plus resolution equals interest, which in turn equals money. This is the E = mc2 of sports business.
The team manufactures its own conflict, but doesn't have a retail arm to sell it. They wouldn't if they did. They can't be seen undermining the players, no matter how subtly.
We do that ugly work for them, and unsubtly.
It's a self-sustaining system – conflict creates more conflict, which spins out to inevitable resolution (i.e., firing the coach or trading the player or, sporadically, getting things right and winning).
Winning is important, but less important than it seems.
For 15 years starting in 1991, the Atlanta Braves were the most consistently excellent baseball team in modern history. By the end of that run, people had stopped coming to the games. In Atlanta, relentless success became a ghastly bore.
The Yankees had a similar run at roughly the same time, and interest kept peaking.
The difference? The New York vs. Atlanta media. New York sportswriters manufacture conflict the way beavers build dams – by instinct.
Winning a championship is the great release valve. Since I'm a sportswriter from Toronto, I'm not sure exactly how that works. But I can appreciate the idea abstractly.
The Leafs have been stuck in the conflict/conflict/ugly resolution stage for a while now. Though they'd never admit it, they've done surprisingly well by it.
They have the worst sort of team to sell from a media perspective: a mediocre one. In order, the most fun teams to cover: great ones, terrible ones. That's the end of the list.
The Leafs' genius is in the non-manufacture of consent, and constantly. No one agrees on anything. They are always at odds. Every player on the team is one loud noise away from nervous collapse. From a selfish professional perspective, the work environment could only be more ideal if the locker room had a bar.
Great for them. Good for me. Bad for you.
"May you live in interesting times" – that's a curse often mistakenly attributed to a Chinese proverb. It's fitting for a Toronto hockey fan.
Things are always interesting in Leafland, and always will be.
And as long as things are interesting, no one needs to win anything in order to make money.