My least favourite subject: Sheldon Keefe and opinions thereof. This is my take.

The Media

Oh the media! The media, the evil media who are talking about things you don’t want them to talk about, and you don’t want them to talk about it so much you will talk about how you don’t want them to talk about it until the cows refuse to come home because you’re boring them.

Nothing brings that syndrome out more than a “Coach on the hot seat” as the various types of hockey journalists and commentators will call it. The NHL is in the entertainment business and is not some pure sporting endeavour untouched by filthy lucre. Hey, by the way, if you want untainted sport, watch women’s hockey. You know it’s pure because it’s broke all the time. No? You’re still watching the NHL. Huh. If hockey is entertainment, then hockey journalism is not quite the pure and nobel calling to quest for just the facts that doesn’t exist in any case.

Which is to say, yes Sportsnet and TSN, as well as their various newspaper siblings, would really enjoy a big and dramatic story about the Toronto Maple Leafs coach just now. There aren’t any big and dramatic stories about the Toronto Maple Leafs on the ice, just sad and pathetic ones of group dysfunction and ennui, and ennui doesn’t sell.

Okay, not on the ice, it doesn’t. You can’t really succeed with a hockey team slogan of “Come Armageddon Come”, not even in Toronto.

When Keefe called out Mitch Marner on the bench, and then Marner smashed his stick up the tunnel — both pretty rational responses to an emotionally charged situation — you could hear the collective intake of breath from all sorts of media. Finally! A story that wasn’t, “Leafs, you suck.” It is inevitable that today everyone will be taking the temperature of Sheldon Keefe’s chair, and they’ll be crafting a narrative about him, the team, Kyle Dubas and what happens next.

I know the word narrative is seen as the greatest of pejoratives. Making a story up out of the incidents and accidents, hints and allegations around a hockey team! The horror! Why next people will be collecting those up into a bundle to make it easier for people to read them. Instead of just Tweeting the headlines so you can just imagine why you should be outraged it even exists.

The problem isn’t really the telling of stories, and narrative has been given a bad rap, it’s what you use to make the stories. Hints and allegations vs facts and figures. But the thing about the coach, the hot seat and the burning desire for drama, is that there really aren’t a lot of facts and figures about a coach. And the less objective truth there is, the more free rein subjective declarations get. Subjective declarations in that voice of authority so beloved of people who have been convinced to never show doubt, lest you look weak, well, they’re a lot easier to come up with than facts and figures.

But his Record, Though

Those are numbers, yup. Win percentage as a coach. You hear that a lot when the Jack Adams trophy is awarded — you know the thing that used to be the shadow Vezina? It’s got a little more sophisticated lately but it’s still just a scrap of the showbiz side of hockey and means nothing. And so, quite frankly, does win percentage. Hockey is a team sport, and the coach is... well, how much of the outcome comes from the coach?

Most people would agree with a general statement that goes something like: a good coach can make a weak team look better than they are, and a truly bad coach can sour even the best team, but an average coach rises and falls with what the players do as a group.

How do we know that? Mostly our own experience watching years of NHL hockey, because it’s really hard to measure. That’s really just a fancy way of saying this hockey truism that, yes, I’ve already seen this morning: hard work wins over skill when skill doesn’t work hard. The underlying idea being that the coach can induce hard work in some way that’s never really examined.

That makes me all cringey. It’s like a Cold Play song. I sort of like it, but it upsets me that I do. At its heart, that truism is built on a distrust of skill as effete, and we all know that effete means bad because there ain’t nothing worse than girly stuff, amirite? Although effete, a pejorative that isn’t, is coming back around on the guitar these days not just because it means tainted with the stain of femaleness, but also because it invokes a picture of intellectual elitism and anti-populism. The Romans were periodically worried about how the kids today are getting effete, so this is hardly new, but right now, what’s underlying this view of the Leafs is this:

Enough of that nonsense! Get out there and grind in the corners, you nasty skill guys!! Work a little harder at the rest of the game.

And hence my cringe, because there’s some truth in that, there is a total lack of apparent ability in the Leafs to play the un-activated defence, two forwards high, clog up the other team so they can’t come back from however many pretty, pretty goals down. And when we hit a patch where the execution of the skill stuff is not up to snuff, it’s natural to ask for some hard work to beat the other team.

So is that the players or the coach failing to deliver?

Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die

The answer to that question above is yes. It’s the players or the coach, and it doesn’t actually matter who is really at fault, just that it’s all going to hell. Or as this fellow put it:

That’s not fair criticism, but life ain’t fair. There is a point where the coach does embody the team in one person. There is a point where the GM does too, but I don’t think the Leafs are there. Yet. And as unfair as it is to hold Sheldon Keefe personally responsible for a simple fact of NHL hockey — you don’t bench a guy who is a key player on your team for more than one shift, you sit out Pierre Engvall instead — he is the guy who has to take the hit on this one. That’s his job.

I reject entirely what I call the “intentionality” model of hockey. That’s the silly business where the results are thought to be a direct consequence of intent of the players, and the players’ intent is formed by the coach. If you can picture in your mind — somehow — a hockey player as a marionette on strings, that’s the image the intentionality model employs. Keefe is clearly pulling the wrong strings in the wrong way these days.

And I might reject that view as grossly reductive, but that’s how it goes.

The coach beatings will continue until morale improves. One way or another.