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The Story From Both Sides

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Lately, I have attended a whole mess of press conferences.

Chris Bosh, Phil Kessel, Hedo Turkoglu, Jonas Gustavsson, Brian Burke, Ron Wilson, Jay Triano and Bryan Colangelo have said their piece.

When the interviews were done, all the writers and columnists went back to their newsrooms or filed from the media centre. I went upstairs to my desk.

I worked at The National Post as a hockey writer and then as a general columnist for The Toronto Sun. I came here about three years ago. If you want to understand the dance between the media and sports teams I am a good place to start.

To begin, press conferences are a chance for everyone to clear the deck and they can be revelatory.  Colangelo revealed, deliberately or not, the need for a bridge between the Euro and the domestic contingent thus validating all earlier theories of such a schism. Clearly he will tinker with the guards and change personnel to boost the defensive quotient. Nor was it difficult to discern how thoroughly disappointed Ron Wilson was with the play of porous goalie Vesa Toskala. Turkoglu felt compelled to issue a full apology. It was pretty meaty stuff.

Press conferences are to general managers what Spanish stadiums are to bulls. A press conference is theatre, a battle of dueling agendas.

I understand the newspaper game. I understand the need to piece together a persona based on your body of work. Maybe you’re the tireless beat guy who considers a 12-hour day a good start. Maybe you’re the avuncular sober second thought guy or the nasty guy or the angry guy or the funny guy or some combination of the above.  Maybe you are male or female, gifted or pedestrian, brave or conventional, but you are a blend of types as surely as a shaken can of paint is a deliberate mix of concentrated pigments. They do the same thing inside large companies, but it is dryly called building your brand.

Reporters cover millionaires who can’t be bothered to remember their names. The stars charter. Journalists spend a month of every year in airport lines.

Sometimes the heroes in question seem to be sleeping through performances the beat writer busted his or her hump to get to.

Behind it all is a shiny, cool colossus that zealously mines profit. A look at the standings blares the truth: these guys cannot get it right. The public the writer so assiduously represents wants answers, maybe even a bit of blood.

Everywhere corporations run over the little person and it is in the arena of sports where, just once, the big shots are accountable to the unwashed who buy their tickets and Raptor dolls. The journo understands that responsibility even if he does consider the jerseyed, face-painted masses a trifle pathetic.

I get all that.

But here’s what I have seen.

Nobody loses on purpose. There is a lot more money in winning, jerseys, tickets, TV rights, concessions, than in losing. If I told Pat Quinn he was never interested in winning, he would want to punch me. Same with Mats Sundin and yes, same with Bryan Colangelo.

It’s beyond argument that the Maple Leafs haven’t won since 1967. But neither has half the league.

Five teams have won NBA championships in the 15 years the Raptors have been around.

Just because you consistently failed at getting something doesn’t mean you never wanted it. I learned that lesson in high school.

And here’s what I didn’t know until I came here. There are a whole lot of smart, dedicated, engaged people on this side of the wall.

At one of my first meetings here, someone asked how to sell more tickets.

“I’ve got it,” I said, all full of pithy wisdom. “How about you win some games?”

The guy looked me dead in the eye. “How do you think it would go for me if I gave that answer to my boss?” he said.

He had to find a way do his job and yes, feed his kids. I don’t find anything ignoble about that.

And I am sure my notepad-bearing friends would welcome working for a business that was profitable instead of reading about the impending death of their industry day after day.

There is by nature a spear-bottomed gap between those who make the sports news and those who report it. There is absolutely no way an outsider can know a fraction of what goes on inside a dressing room. The grudges, loyalties, personalities and theatrics, the injuries, injustices, pressures and insecurities; no one can walk in those moccasins. But by necessity, it’s the outsider who owns the pulpit, the outsider who must poke and yes humble.

No wonder Richard Burton once remarked that critics were like eunuchs at a libidinous party.  And no wonder someone once advised against arguing with people who buy ink by the barrel.

And that’s what happened over the last two weeks, two solitudes selling, prodding and playing each other.

It’s all a bit like the Roadrunner who just wants to do his thing but must instead fend off the menacing Coyote.

The identity of the Coyote depends on which side you ask.
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