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Hockey Is Trash... and So Am I: The John Tavares Free Agency Saga

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The circus around the Tavares signing was a perfect example of how ridiculous and how wonderful hockey is.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I like to watch anime — stick with me here, I’m saying this for a reason — and I like to follow the commentary of a YouTuber called Gigguk. He loves to comment on anime, both in terms of specific shows and episodes, but also in terms of the culture and business around anime as a whole. One of his refrains that I absolutely loved was “anime is trash... and so am I”.

He is referring to the fact that despite the fact that anime and the people who like it (such as himself) can be absolutely weird, stupid, obnoxious, absurd and downright creepy, it can also be beautiful, profound, funny, and positively affect people at a deep and personal level. So while anime can be trash, he affectionately refers to himself as trash for loving it in spite of all the bad parts.

Why do I bring this up?

Hockey and the NHL is utterly fascinating to me, and I don’t just mean the actual sport played on the ice. In the same way that Gigguk says anime can be extremely polarizing, the culture of hockey in North America is the same way to me. I both absolutely love and utterly loathe different aspects about the play on the ice, the way games are called by the refs, the way the league creates and enforces rules, the culture of hockey, the nature of fandom, the community of hockey, and so on.

Which brings me to the John Tavares sweepstakes, which was at the same time one of the stupidest and most annoying hockey ‘events’ (for lack of a better word) I’ve ever witnessed, but also one that equally as wonderful and something that affected me at a personal level very strongly.

The coverage and commentary of the week leading up to Tavares signing with the Leafs was just absurd on so many levels — from the media, to bloggers like us, and to regular fans and commenters on websites and on social media. It was equal parts obsessive, desperate, and flippant. It was all the bad parts of hockey coverage and fandom condensed into one week and centered around one man’s decision for his and his family’s future.

Media Scoops Full of Poop

Let’s start at the top, with the media and their coverage of the Tavares sweepstakes. The business of sports media and how financially important it is for an outlet like Sportsnet, TSN, The Athletic, Yahoo Sports, ESPN, etc to have people focused on THEM and THEIR coverage has been covered far better by many other people.

I probably don’t need to point out that there has been a build up over time to an absurd degree of how far the media will go to cover BIG EVENTS and BIG DRAMA, like July 1st free agency. I also probably don’t need to tell you about how weird the arms race between the major outlets to cover these BIG EVENTS are when they’re usually pretty boring by the time it gets to the BIG DAY with their BIG SPECIAL COVERAGE. In my opinion, and I’m sure in many people’s opinions, this desire for ratings and being the FIRST to break big news has led them into some weird ass territory.

With Tavares, and the week between him first meeting with his list of 6 NHL teams he was considering signing with as a free agent, the general absurdity was ramped up. He was an NHL star in his prime, when virtually no player of his caliber ever makes it to July 1st as a UFA, let alone signs with a different team. Maybe this July 1st won’t be so boring after all, and we need to have the best and the first coverage of it!... said some media executive, probably.

That’s why we saw journalists from hockey media outlets being sent out to Los Angeles during Tavares’ meetings with representatives of those six teams. Not only sent out there, but standing outside the very building and waiting for SOMETHING to happen so they could be on the scene to break the news! Or maybe they’d get an exclusive scoop by one of the team representatives as they went into or out of the building! Except in the end, all they did was look like a bunch of paparazzi, getting ignored or brushed off by everyone involved and settling for just taking photos of people walking into and out of the building. Like we didn’t know who was going to be there?

And that was just a taste of what was to come.

I highly recommend you read Dan Saraceni’s article over at Light House Hockey: Tavares Encyclopedia Epilogue: What I Learned From Two Years in Limbo. Disclaimer: I don’t share this for people to jump over to give him shit, I think it was an excellent piece of work from an Isles fan that got the short end of the stick. I share it because a good part of what makes me say “hockey is trash” about this saga, specifically media coverage, was expressed rather brilliantly by him in my mind. Especially this part:

I’m talking about professional writers and reporters who know what weight their words hold and who still made fantastic leaps in logic based on some reasoned speculation because they needed to have answers when some talking head asked them, “What do you see happening with Tavares?”

I’m talking about guys like Craig Custance, an excellent writer for years and the foundation for The Athletic’s American hockey expansion, who had Tavares ready to be traded last summer based only on the last 20 games of the Islanders season. I’m talking about guys like Pierre LeBrun, one of the most trusted hockey insiders, throwing around for a solid week on a few separate outlets the idea of a sign-and-trade deal between the Islanders and a potential suitor that was never going to happen and was probably planted on him by agent Pat Brisson or maybe one of those very suitors.

These are smart, well-informed writers throwing noodles against a wall and hoping they stick. And I totally get it. You can’t keep saying, “I don’t know” when you’re on Leafs Lunch or Insider Trading because the audience needs to hear something. And even if they did say, “I don’t know,” either they or a host would launch into Tavares rosterbation anyway, totally negating their original statement.

It was exhausting and demoralizing. It made me feel like the entire world was against the Islanders, which wouldn’t be a surprise because everyone basically hates them anyway. I didn’t need to write and/or edit 96,000 words to tell me that. The Islanders get no benefit of any doubt because they have not earned any in quite some time. With one single action, John Tavares, the face of the franchise, validated every single criticism of the organization he once represented and defended so forcefully.

You know what? I’m a Leafs fan, so my team wound up benefiting from this Tavares sweepstakes. But I don’t think anyone benefited from the over the top and completely ridiculous coverage from PROFESSIONAL hockey media people. How many times did we get “reports” from Dregger, LeBrun, Shannon, Staples, and others who insisted that Tavares was leaning towards this or that team, that he would for sure start eliminating some teams from his list this day, only to wind up being wrong, wrong, and then wrong some more.

I wouldn’t say it was demoralizing to me, even at the time when I was sure he would stay with the Islanders, but it was EXHAUSTING. It made me dread going on Twitter, to the point I was actually and seriously considering muting any mention of Tavares. To paraphrase my colleague, Arvind, what’s the point in media outlets paying these “insiders” to report absolutely nothing of any substance? If they don’t have anything to report, why were so many of them jumping at any opportunity to pass off rumours, hearsay, and their own guesses and assumptions as “insider reporting”?

Side note: shout out to guys like McKenzie who didn’t really report anything and join in on the bullshit rumour mongering train, because they didn’t have anything to report. Thank you for actually being professional.

Who Are You and Why Are You Talking to Me?

That brings me to the next part of the Tavares coverage that was less exhausting and more annoying. The amount of shit-slinging coming from all corners of the internet even before Toronto was rumoured to be a favourite team to get him was astonishing. I’m a Leafs fan, I’m born and raised in the GTA. People having some weird, obsessive hatred for everything Toronto and the people who live there is something I guess I’m used to, even if I’ve never understood it.

There was a shocking amount of people who gleefully or spitefully (or let’s face it, probably a bit of both) opining that if/when the Leafs sign Tavares, they’ll HAVE to trade away Nylander, or Matthews MUST be so pissed off that he’ll leave the team when he can, or it’s so OBVIOUS that the Leafs are still a bad team because defense and goalies and 1967, blah blah blah. This is apparently an important part of hockey twitter... that fine line between good-natured trash talking and a malicious need to cut someone else’s happiness out from under them to make yourself feel better.

From fans of other teams, I can at least understand it. I’d be pretty damn mad and grasping at spiteful straws if Tavares had signed with Boston for example (seriously, fuck the Bruins). But while I hate the Bruins and the stereotypical Bruins fan, I actually love the city of Boston (been there multiple times!) and a lot of the people there. But when the same vitriol is openly tweeted out by, and I can’t stress this next word enough, PROFESSIONAL hockey media from other cities I just can’t wrap my head around it. So when I see these:

I have a better appreciation for Jose Bautista’s infamous tweet to Steve Simmons going at him.

Seriously, who the hell are all of you people and why are you so obsessively angry at my team, my city, and myself/my fellow Leaf fans? You have Connor McDavid, you have the most Stanley Cups in NHL history for a single team, why aren’t you happier in your life and your job?

In the same category, but of a different flavour, are all of the people who fancy themselves comedians. You know these chuckleheads, the ones who would tweet “WOAH!” or “OMG!” with no context without realizing they’re about the 18th person to make the same “joke” that DAY. Or the ones retweeting press releases from years ago of Tavares signing with the Islanders to... honestly I don’t even know what their ultimate goal is doing that. Or the ones who make up fake accounts to look like legit insiders to outright lie. I’m assuming these are the same people who think pranks are funny, and not mean spirited attempts to have fun at someone else’s expense.

We put up with this for a week. A solid week of ALL this bullshit. It was utter trash and it was maddening.

I’m Trash Too, Because I Couldn’t Look Away

Here’s the thing. I’m going to admit that close to 100% of my annoyance at all of this was in part because of how shit my personal life was during this same week. The usual sources of stress was piling up: work, money, and my god damned air conditioner in my apartment going wonky right as my city had a god damned heat wave. But the biggest source of stress was the health of my cat, Mouse.

Stick with me here, I promise there is a point to this too.

Mustache Cat!

Mouse and I also have a strong connection to PPP. When he got sick a few years ago, he was still only around 3 years old. He needed an expensive surgery that, at the time, my girlfriend and I could not afford. Some helpful PPPers recommended I start a GoFundMe and helped raise around $1500 towards the surgery. I still can’t believe how generous people here were, and I can never fully convey how grateful I am for it.

So when we took him to the vet this past week because of an issue he had, and they start throwing the c-word around along with a rough idea of how expensive it might be to treat, it’s heartbreaking. We’re potentially in the situation that all pet owners usually find themselves in, where we have to decide if we want to spend the money to save his life or let him die. He’s not that young of a cat anymore, and due to other circumstances we always knew he was going to wind up with more health problems than other cats. We just didn’t know it would get this serious, this soon.

So I’m going to admit that I was already in a foul mood while all this ridiculousness around the Tavares free agency happened. However, even if my bad mood made me react to it all worse than I would have normally, these are all thoughts I already had. They are major parts of hockey and hockey culture I consider to be pretty trashy.

But that didn’t stop me from being glued to my phone all weekend, refreshing my twitter feed every 5 seconds just like everyone else. I might recognize it as trash, but that didn’t stop me from eating a plateful and asking for seconds. And my little tangent about my cat touches on why I think I’ll always be coming back for more.

We’re All In This Trash Together

Look, hockey has its warts. Pretty much everything that we humans touch winds up littered with warts. But hockey was created, refined, and grown in popularity over the last century and more for a good reason... because it is still wonderful. Again, I don’t just mean the game played on the ice itself, but everything about it. The community, the fans and friends, the stories and the people, and sometimes... sometimes even the media coverage.

If the bad side of media coverage is the obsessive competition to be FIRST and present for all MAJOR EVENTS AND DRAMA, the good side is what came to Leaf fans after Tavares signed.

The outpouring of happiness and joy not just from fans, but from Tavares’ new teammates. It came out that Matthews was “ecstatic about the Tavares news; [he] reach out to Tavares during the process encouraging him to join the Leafs”. Kadri tweeted out a picture of himself and Tavares sitting next to each other as London Knights, joking that he saved Tavares’ #91 for him this time. Tavares himself tweeted out an adorable picture of him as a kid, sleeping in a bed made of Toronto Maple Leafs bedsheets, blankets, and pillows (and hilariously a Star Wars prequel trilogy toy).

You had all the touching and fascinating quotes and articles about the whole process, what Tavares put into it from his end, the diligence and work that Dubas and the Leafs poured into their pitch, the financial details of his contract that the Leafs creatively and meticulously crafted to make it more attractive to Tavares to sign, despite being less money than he was offered elsewhere. The excitement among everyone involved on the Leafs end, not least from a local boy who is a star player coming home. All of it was a great story to see unfold, even for some people who are not Leaf fans.

And then you have the personal parts of it.

My week had been shit. I am still facing down the choice between the financial burden of trying to save my cat knowing it might not do much in the long run, or letting him die now to save him future suffering. But this same cat led me to a deep and profound closeness to this site and its people, the masthead and the commenters. I have made friendships online and, to a lesser extent, in person with people here. I have met PPPers in Florida, I met PPPers from Philly/Boston who came to Toronto meet some of us. I’ve gone to Marlies games and hung out at a pub with others.

Hockey has given me this support system, and the John Tavares sweepstakes in all its maddening, trashy glory gave me the distraction I needed to help cope with a hard time in my life. I’ll bet you that in the euphoria and joy Leaf fans expressed as a result of the news, there were new friendships and support systems being built that we haven’t even realized yet. New commenters to PPP and new followers on social media today will wind up being someone’s friends and maybe even spouses in the future.

So when it was confirmed that Tavares signed with Toronto? I will admit I actually, legitimately cried in happiness for a bit. It is amazing news that makes me happy at a time that I was the complete opposite of happy. Me obsessively refreshing twitter helped me avoid obsessively worrying about my sick cat.

So while hockey might be utter trash at times... well, I still deeply love it, so I guess I’m trash too.