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Bruce Dowbiggin

Why Do The Same Few Always Get The Best Sports Scoops?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs made the “what colour is that green light?” decision to fire their head coach Sheldon Keefe last week. The removal of Keefe after five years followed a dispiriting first-round playoff series loss to a very ordinary Boston Bruins team. Coaching may or may not have been the root cause of that loss. (Keefe himself admitted “teams are waiting for the Leafs to beat themselves”.)

The real reason for the firing is 1967, and we don’t think we need add more than that.

In essence, the management of MLSE— the owner of the Maple Leafs and a lot of other sports stuff in Toronto— needed to throw a body to the baying hounds of disappointment. Also known as Leafs Nation. Newly minted CEO Keith Pelley, fresh from the PGA Tour/ LIV psychodrama, was certainly not going to pay the price.

Nor was GM Brad Treliving who has only been on the job for two seasons. The key decisions on Toronto’s lopsided salary cap were decided long before Treliving occupied his desk. That left two people in vulnerable positions. 1) Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who has been drawing an MLSE cheque for a decade. 2) Keefe.

When was the last time you saw a coach fire a team president? Precisely. Keefe joins the list of (briefly) unemployed coaches who circulate in the NHL like McKinsey consultants. Shanahan gets a lukewarm mulligan from Pelley. But after the failure of the Kyle Dubas experiment— “who needs experience?”— and now just a single playoff series win in a decade Shanny’s best-before date has arrived.

Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan attends a news conference in Toronto on April 14, 2014. Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said Peter Horachek will remain the team’s interim head coach until the end of the season. Shanahan met the media Friday for the first time since coach Randy Carlyle was fired on Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Depending on who he and Treliving enlist to coach— remember, Mike Babcock was too tough and Keefe was probably too player friendly— it had better produce instant results. Because Shanny, the pride of Mimico, is out of chances. The coach choice will also be affected by whichever player or players that management decides are superfluous to ending the Leafs’ ridiculous run of misery.

The Leafs brass’ press conference last Thursday did little to shed light on what happens after Keefe’s expulsion. Just a lot of MBA determinism on a bed of baffle gab. A crabby Steve Simmons question/rant briefly threatened the harmony of the moment, but order was restored. And the media bitching switched from the press box to social media and podcasts.

Speaking of the fourth estate, the other unmentioned aspect of this story— indeed every story in the NHL these days— is just how it was revealed to the public. When people sipped their morning Tim’s or Starbucks the (almost) coincident bulletins came down the social media pike about Keefe’s dismissal.

Predictably, Chris Johnston of Sportsnet and Daren Dreger of TSN announced the breaking news within heart beats of each other. While there had been speculation on Keefe’s fate for days, the announcement coming from the networks duo confirmed the story in the minds of the industry. That allowed everyone else drawing a cheque as a hockey journalist to pile in and swarm the dead body.

In today’s sports journalism, where social media has replaced newspapers, scoops are governed by a protocol. There are the heralds— in the NHL it’s currently Johnston and Dreger— and then there are the disseminators. The days of a rabble of reporters all scrambling to get a story bigger than who-will-play-in-tonight’s-game are gone. Today, it’s a very narrow funnel for scoops.

It’s the same in the NFL where Ian Rappaport (NFL Network) and Adam Schefter (ESPN) monopolize the tasty scoops on behalf of their employers, who also happen to be NFL rights holders. In the NBA, Brian Windhorst (ESPN) has the inside rail when it comes to the LeBron James/ Steph Curry scoops. In MLB… it’s probably Ken Rosenthal  (The Athletic) but no one cares about baseball anymore, do they?

The leagues like it this way, doling out stories to guys they can trust. None of this is criticism of Johnston or Dreger, who have deftly maneuvered themselves into the coveted “from their lips to your ears” spots. From our own experience we can remember the exhilaration of having the best source or sources on the really big stories. Like Johnston/ Dreger, we worked hard for a long time to develop those sources and only very reluctantly let anyone else horn in on our stories.

It was also our observation that this order of things journalistic suited a lot of reporters who either couldn’t get good sources or didn’t want the stress of being first on stuff. It was enough that, like the Keefe story, they’d get the goods eventually and most fans would not care who was first. So long as you had a take. So be it.

Some resentful types took potshots at our work if it upset their pals in the dressing room or the management suite. On the Stephen Ames/ Tiger Woods story in 2001, we had the late Pat Marsden tell us on air that we’d done a great job on Ames’ criticisms of Tiger. Only to hear him lambaste us— again on FAN 590— only minutes later as we listened driving home from the studio. But we digress.

Many reporters are complacent in playing the game, so long as their bosses didn’t enquire why they are getting scooped all the time by the same few rivals. With the death of daily newspapers that doesn’t happen much any longer. (Many editors today may only see stories when publication brings a libel notice.) For them a salty take is good enough.

The scoop business is also affected by the multiple roles now demanded of sports media types. In addition to their “day job” on a beat they also have to supply digital content and talk-back hits to the Mother Ship. Most also are feeding a weekly podcast, dictating time on air rather than time working the phone. There are only so many hours in a day to chase a story.

Better to play the Breaking News waiting game.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Now for pre-order, new from the team of Evan & Bruce Dowbiggin . Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL & Changed Hockey. From Espo to Boston in 1967 to Gretz in L.A. in 1988 to Patrick Roy leaving Montreal in 1995, the stories behind the story. Launching in paperback and Kindle on #Amazon this week. Destined to be a hockey best seller. https://www.amazon.ca/Deal-Trades-Stunned-Changed-Hockey-ebook/dp/B0D236NB35/

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Bruce Dowbiggin

Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Recycling Coaches In The NHL

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“The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not know, the world will tell you.” Carl Jung

As long as you’re willing to re-locate frequently the job of NHL head coach has a fair degree of job security. Even when you get fired it seems there’s a ready appetite in some other town for a skill set you have just failed at.

Latest evidence that failure has an I and U in it: Having canned Sheldon Keefe after a lengthy (note: sarcasm) five years at the helm of the Toronto Maple Leafs, club management scoured the bushes to find former player Craig “Chief” Berube, who has previously hung his coaching shingle in Philadelphia and St. Louis, where he won a Stanley Cup as an interim coach.

Chief wasn’t the glamour name (we were praying for Bruce Boudreau.). If the idea is how do the Leafs motivate their four mega-millionaires, he’s more like Mike Babcock than Sheldon Keefe. He won’t look at players’ cell phones, but he will give them that old-time religion. Knowing Chief from his Calgary days we’d say he can probably take the Toronto fishbowl.

(For those with long Leafs’ memories Berube was part of a famous trade in 1992 to which we devote an entire chapter in our new book Deal With It. He went west to Calgary while Doug Gilmour headed east to Toronto in the massive 10-man trade. While the Leafs “won” the trade, only the maligned Gary Leeman and journeyman Jamie Macoun won Cups– for teams other than Calgary and Toronto.)

But we digress. Sometimes it seems that NHL teams would rather lose with a known commodity than win with someone bold and unconventional behind the bench. While almost 30 percent of NHL players are European there have only been two European heads coaches, none in the past 20 years. Why? NHL owners are risk averse. And the league is a fraternity of forgiveness for guys you played junior with.

A brief ramble through the 2023-24 coaching roster shows several peripatetic bench bosses, led by the inimitable John Tortarella, who wore out his welcome in Vancouver, Tampa Bay, NY Rangers and Columbus before Philly curiously decided he had something left to offer. Let’s also not forget Lindy Ruff, who was pink slipped in Buffalo, Dallas, New Jersey and the NY Rangers— and now has been resurrected in Buffalo as a “fresh voice”.

Some retreads are getting results. Peter Laviolette has the Rangers into the third-round of the 2024 postseason, after gigs in Carolina, Philadelphia, Nashville, Washington (pause for breath) and the NY Islanders. Paul Maurice, currently guiding Florida in the playoffs, has had two stints with Carolina, plus Toronto and Winnipeg. Peter DeBoer, whose Dallas Stars are odd-on faves to with the 2024 Cup, has also coached Florida, San Jose, New Jersey and Vegas.

You want more? Rick Tocchet was head coach in Arizona and Tampa Bay before getting the perch in Vancouver. Travis Green, newly hired in Ottawa, has previously been found wanting in Vancouver and New Jersey. We could go on.

The king of the coach-for-life carousel is the just-retired Rick Bowness who finally called it a day in Winnipeg after the Jets were eliminated this spring. How long has Bones been knocking around? He was the coach of the expansion Ottawa Senators in 1992, one the worst five teams ever by NHL standards. Wonderful man who also spent stints as an assistant in cities in 30-plus years around the continent.

There are more. Sitting in the green room, polishing their pregame speeches are the well- travelled Boudreau, Dallas Eakins, Gerard Gallant, Todd McLellan, Claude Julien and Mike Yeo. Heaven forbid someone might still ask one of the Sutters to saddle up again. Brian (St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, Calgary), Darryl (Calgary, L.A., Anaheim, San Jose and Calgary again) and Brent (Calgary, New Jersey) have been perennial NHL coaching prospects for decades.

So take, heart, Sheldon Keefe. Joining Keefe in looking for a rebound job are Scott Arniel, Jeff Blashill, Jeremy Colliton, Kevin Dineen, Phil Housley, Kirk Muller, Davis Payne, Todd Reirden, Joe Sacco, Brad Shaw, Geoff Ward and Trent Yawney. Good company.

Don’t cry too hard for these coaching candidates. Unless they have years left on contract (Keefe has two) most wait out the time between head-coaching stints by accepting assistant-coach positions. The ranks of assistants contain a second tier of talent, also ready to go at a moment’s notice.

There are a scant few who’ve hung on in one town. Jon Cooper has been in Tampa since 2013, a Methuselah stint in today’s terms. Rod Brind’Amour has managed to avoid the chop in Carolina since 2018. But the reality is that, since the start off the 2023-24 season alone, there have been 13 head-coaching changes in the NHL. Go back to January of 2023, and 19 of the league’s 32 teams have changed coaches.

Which brings us back to the original idea: “Is there no one in international hockey who knows anything?” We won’t profess to be coaching talent scouts, but the idea that no one working outside North America can meet the job description better than some— if not most—of the coaches mentioned above beggars the imagination.

One final note: If you’re looking for an explanation of the coaching carousel and its recent frequency, look no further than Gary Bettman and his salary cap obsession. By forcing a hard cap on teams he’s concentrated the money— and the power— on a few players per team. When a coach is pitted against his stars it’s a no-win proposition.

The Leafs stars used their power to get Babcock fired. And it’s been repeated on other teams. While Keefe didn’t lose his Core Four he also couldn’t get them to win in the postseason. For that he got the chop— and a premium place in the next coaching carousel.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Now for pre-order, new from the team of Evan & Bruce Dowbiggin— Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL & Changed Hockey. From Espo to Boston in 1967 to Gretz in L.A. in 1988 to Patrick Roy leaving Montreal in 1995, the stories behind the story. Launching in paperback and Kindle on #Amazon this week. Destined to be a hockey best seller. https://www.amazon.ca/Deal-Trades-Stunned-Changed-Hockey-ebook/dp/B0D236NB35/

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Bruce Dowbiggin

Jerry Came to See The Babies. And They Walked Out On Him

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Cometh the hour, cometh the comedian. Or, you can learn a lot about a demographic by what makes them laugh.

The legacy/ lunacy media schvitzed itself over a few furious sociology majors and look-at-me drama queens walking out on Jerry Seinfeld’s commencement address at Duke University last weekend. But the significance of his admission that he was 70 was probably far more newsworthy to those now in retirement, binge-watching his eponymous TV series on one of those down-the-dial channels.

If we had a dollar for every Boomer who said, “Seinfeld is 70?” while watching the address we’d be Warren-Buffett-rich this morning. He doesn’t look like any 70 year olds we know. Fifty? Maybe. But listening to his familiar delivery, the mocking on his honorary degree costume, it was easy to believe that we, too, are much younger than our blood-thinner prescriptions say.

It also pointed out the evolution of Boomers’ comedic tastes. When they came of age in the late 1960s/ early 1970s Woody Allen best profiled as his generation’s comedic muse. With a dozen classic movies ranging from What’s New Pussycat (1965) through Play It Again Sam (1972) to Annie Hall (1977) Allen’s self-deprecating nebbish captured the romantic/ridiculous self-image of Boomers with “Some drink deeply from the river of knowledge. Others only gargle”.

The neurotic, insecure Allen then decided to become Ingmar Bergman, and Boomers— now assembling jobs, children and first spouses— moved on. But for that 12-year span the bedraggled standup comedian was the go-to with lines like “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” and  “The only love that lasts is unrequited love.”

Woody’s pointed contemporary political references in those years were few (conflating “D’you” for “Jew” with Tony Roberts in Manhattan) and self-deflating (see Annie Hall). His most prominent political jabs were framed in absurdist material like Love And Death and Bananas. Culturally he was merciless but affectionate about his Brooklyn upbringing. In short his were perfect date movies for Boomers seeking love to advertise their pretensions.

Flash forward from Woody to Seinfeld (created with Larry David) which was anti-romantic in the extreme. The characters were sociopaths. The situations often cringeworthy. The 24-minute formula harkened back to Lucy and the Honeymooners. And while schlock like Friends trod the same ground it was Seinfeld that somehow captured the Boomer  zeitgeist. 

Why? Boomers going through middle age were too disillusioned with how life was turning out to romanticize anymore. The self-obsessed characters were people they knew from work, school and dealing with government. Smirking Bill Clinton was the face of an era. “When we did my show in the 90s, it was so easy to make fun of things. It was so easy,” Seinfeld told Amy Schumer.

Significantly, Seinfeld the Show was cultural. Or quasi-cultural. It was never about politics per se. It was about the people who thwart you in life. Whose vanity ruins your plans from school days. Who go 50 mph in the left lane. “When is Jerry going to see the baby?” It rarely challenged its fans on an emotional level. It was mostly about navigating madness.

And often about the most mundane elements of life. The address on the weekend contained The Seinfeld Doctrine of Lowered Expectations. “It’s easy to fall in love with people. I suggest falling in love with anything and everything, every chance you get. Fall in love with your coffee, your sneakers, your blue zone parking space. I’ve had a lot of fun in life falling in love with stupid, meaningless physical objects. 

“The object I love the most is the clear-barrel Bic pen — $1.29 for a box of 10. I can fall in love with a car turn signal switch that has a nice feel to it, a pizza crust that collapses with just the right amount of pressure. I have truly spent my life focusing on the smallest things imaginable, completely oblivious to all the big issues of living.”

Reaching across the generations Seinfeld delivered Dad jokes and bromides to kids who education probably cost $100 K a year. “I think it is also wonderful that you care so much about not hurting other people’s feelings in the million and one ways we all do that,” he said. Then he explained why that might be a fruitless pursuit. Not in Curb Your Enthusiasm darkness. But sobering.

That’s why it was in character for him to let the furious demonstrators depart at Duke without comment. So was appearing at Duke, the Ivy League of Tobacco Road, founded by the people who made jillions selling nicotine. And why he let them garb him like Thomas Cromwell in the absurd 16th century cape and hat so he could score few laughs.

Because laughter is his means of dealing with jerks like the outbound Hamas crowd. “What I need to tell you as a comedian: Do not lose your sense of humour. You can have no idea at this point in your life how much you are going to need it to get through. Not enough of life makes sense for you to be able to survive it without humour.”

Yes, He has been vocal lately about the effect of political correctness ruining TV comedy. Drawing flak from former friends and fans who are in the Biden re-education camps at the moment. But his annoyance at ruining an art form far outweighed any complaints about Covid and Ukraine.

As opposed to the nihilism of his former partner David, his insouciance and comic patter represent an antidote for where most of his original fans are at the moment. Woody Allen, their former idol, is now seen as a pedo and a failed nouveau vage auteur. Disillusioned with virus lies, electoral shenanigans and soaring prices, Boomers on a pension are unanchored, floating through what used to be North American society (when only women had babies).

In fact, Boomer spectators watching Seinfeld’s 17-minute speech maybe summed it up for themselves by recalling the Seinfeld mantra, “It was a show about nothing.” And they’d be right. Jerry is the man for those times.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Now for pre-order, new from the team of Evan & Bruce Dowbiggin . Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL & Changed Hockey. From Espo to Boston in 1967 to Gretz in L.A. in 1988 to Patrick Roy leaving Montreal in 1995, the stories behind the story. Launching in paperback and Kindle on #Amazon this week. Destined to be a hockey best seller. https://www.amazon.ca/Deal-Trades-Stunned-Changed-Hockey-ebook/dp/B0D236NB35/

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