How Kessel treats the media shouldn’t impact coverage of his play, but it should shape how we view his media criticism

Unlike the team he plays for, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel is worth the price of admission.

The high-scoring winger is a bona fide elite offensive talent. The skill level, the deceptive wrist shot and the speed is breathtaking. Over the past few seasons, playing on a flawed team without a true first-line centre, Kessel has arguably been the NHL’s single most dynamic game breaker.

If you’re looking to find fault with anyone for the Maple Leafs’ continued struggles, Kessel is probably the last person anyone should be pointing their finger at. Yet here we are, and Kessel is in the middle of another media controversy. 

The latest dust up between the Toronto media and Kessel stems from an incident on Tuesday in which Kessel ripped the Toronto media generally for their coverage of Dion Phaneuf.

“Is it his fault we’re losing. Did he build this team? No,” Kessel said following a Maple Leafs practice on Tuesday.

“The stuff he takes, the crap he takes, the stuff people say,” Kessel continued. “I’m just tired of it here, he’s owed some apologies by some people. It’s disgusting the way people treat him.

“I’m just tired of it, I’ve just had it. I think this city is a great hockey city and I love playing here, but some of the things that happen, and Dion getting abused the way he does and things that are said about him, he’s our best defenceman. You watch him play and he plays hard for us every game.”

You can watch the full video of Kessel standing up for his teammate here:

There are a couple of things to unpack here. The first is that, in the wake of TSN airing a distasteful and defamatory tweet about Phaneuf’s personal life during their Trade Deadline coverage, I think it’s safe to say that there are a good deal of Toronto media folks who are embarrassed about the way of Phaneuf has been covered – especially in regards to that incident. 

The Maple Leafs’ captain was owed some apologies by some people, and he received a major one on Tuesday evening.

The other thing worth touching on is how Kessel’s comments have kicked up a controversy about sports media in general, media bias, and how likability filters into coverage of athletes. 

The Globe and Mail’s Cathal Kelly framed the incident as one that’s revealing of an empathy deficit that often characterizes the relationship between sports media and the players they cover, but is particularly pronounced when it comes to Kessel’s relationship with the media:

The relationship between the media and the athletes they cover is often framed in war metaphors. That’s apt. Though the two camps spend a lot of time in each other’s company, they are foreign to one another as people. “Dehumanized” isn’t too strong a word. The players are cartoon characters; the media, a faceless mob. We treat each other accordingly.

I thought about this as I watched Phil Kessel going j’accuse on the press before Tuesday’s game in Florida. He was surrounded by people he sees every day. However, he wasn’t talking to any of them. He was talking at them.

The presentation rendered the whole thing contrary to its motive: making his critics understand that he and his teammates are people and deserve to be treated as such. In essence: I don’t see you, but I demand that you see me. That he’s right is beside the point.

My personal take is that Kelly’s piece is thoughtful and interesting, but as a piece of unsolicited advice it misses the mark somewhat. This tweet pretty much nails it, in my view:

I want to get into this a bit further because, from my perspective, I think there’s a point that’s being missed in the on-line chatter about this issue. 

Let me start by saying that I’m not on the Maple Leafs beat with regularity, but I’ve been in the room somewhere between 10 and 15 times over the past few years and I can tell you that in my experience Kessel is particularly unhelpful. 

When you’re in the room it’s tough to get anything interesting during a scrum. Your best bet is to wait for the pack to dissipate and try to get in a few additional questions, in a more conversational tone .

In my experience most NHL players are willing to accommodate you to a point, so long as your question is different enough, but Kessel has never been. Not once. 

If your reaction to this is ‘whatever’ then that’s understandable, because I share that reaction. It is what it is – not a huge deal, really – and it’ll never shape or even colour how I cover Kessel’s on-ice performance. It won’t even remotely impact what I think of him as a person either, I’m well aware that how he treats me in that context has less than zero bearing on what type of person he is. By all accounts he’s a good teammate and a nice guy.

Arguably he even demonstrated a particular type of likability on Tuesday. Taking heat off of a teammate and going out of his way to stand up for them is a standup thing to do, in my view.

Still, I think it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate how Kessel’s characteristic standoffishness with the media becomes relevant context when the story turns – as it has this week – to Kessel’s increasingly frequent criticism of the media.  

From calling a Toronto Star reporter “such an idiot” on the record earlier this year to describing media coverage of Phaneuf as “embarrassing” this week, it seems that Toronto’s superstar winger is beginning to chafe under the bottomless scrutiny and attention that comes with playing in the so-called centre of the hockey universe. 

It’s not a surprise that this has come about. What might be a bigger surprise is that it took so long to occur. 

All of which is to say that Kessel’s handling of the media has zero impact on his on-ice performance, and basic professionalism – by my standard of it – dictates that the working hockey media shouldn’t let their personal opinion of Kessel shape their coverage of his play. 

By calling out media members and the media in general though, Kessel has shined a spotlight on how he handles the media in the Toronto market. That his handling of the media is – in my personal opinion and experience – poor relative to other NHL superstars isn’t just true, it’s relevant. 

  • Sparadino

    Good article Thomas. To me the perfect question to Phil Kessel would be. Phil you have exemplary God Given talent. One of your fellow Americans. Max Pacioretty gave a state of the union address at the beginning of the season in which he explained the responsibility he felt as one of the older players now on the club. He mentioned that yes he was one of the best goal scorers in the league. But he had to improve his defensive game. He wanted to be the 200 foot player to set the Montreal Canadian style of hockey to the young players.

    Phil you addressed the media and simply stated you had a long leash that you didn’t need to play the 200 foot game as the long leash allowed you to tear down the ice on one of your electrifying rushes.

    Tell us Phil why you refuse to play the 200 foot game which would improve your game but more importantly set an example for the young leaf players.

    A simple question Phil. How about answering it.

    • Sparadino

      Do you really think that him “not playing the 200 foot game” is a personal choice of his? You think the coaches have had no input on that? At all?

      If so, what do you think coaches do?

      • Sparadino

        Well Derek to quote Phil the ex thrill directly. He gave the state of the union address before the season where he pointed out that Coach Carlyle had given him and him alone a long leash to float.

        Now I’m really, really glad you wrote your pontification as the new coach tried to reel in that leash and the pouting Kessel immediately refused to cooperate and has sulked his way into an abysmal scoring drought over the last third of the season.

        It just goes to show what a non team player he truly is. But sadly there are a few fan boys in here who can’t comprehend that fact.

        Ask yourself this question what would real leaders like Crosby, Toews, Tavares, Stamkos be saying to the one dimensional Kessel.

        • Sparadino

          What bugs me the most about these idiot fanboys is they think they are true fans as opposed to the idiots they really are. A true Leaf fan recognizes that Kessel at the end of it all will go down like a Dany Heatley and it is such a waste because he really is an unbelievably gifted goal scorer.

    • Sparadino

      Kessel has on numerous occasions taken personal responsibility for the teams failings. Probably the most candid interview he’s ever given was following last seasons collapse and how his play affected the teams success. This interview was done with a few reporters and was rather informal. I guess what I’m saying is his personality isn’t one to give a “state of the union” like Pacioretty. But if asked the question, he seems more than willing to take his share of the blame.

  • CMpuck

    Dehumanizing? So now is this a teen girl’s rad fem blog? And Morgan can’t use the word ‘girl’?

    The media… like bloggers don’t have uniform opinions and say/treat Bozak worse. Confirmation bias.

  • Sparadino

    I’m of the opinion that nobody in the City of Toronto has disrespected Dion, his teammates, his employers and the fans more than Phil Kessel by showing up to camp fat and out of shape. If he cared so much about Dion, his good friend, he would back check and work everyday as hard as possible to become a complete hockey player instead of needing the first 3 months of the season to get in shape and force his teammates and fans to watch him struggle at even making line changes with any sense of purpose or forcing us to watch him huff and puff on the bench after a shift because he looks like he smashed a Big Mac combo 90 minutes before puck drop. If Dion was such a good friend and Phil and cared so much he would stick up for him on the ice with his play. Say what you will about Dion, I’m among his harshest critics and feel he is at best a 4 d-man, but his fitness level is there and he tries, he isn’t nearly good enough to be playing the role the team has asked, but he tries regardless. Phil on the other hand could have gone down as an all time great winger if he cared just a little bit but instead he is going to go down as an all time great eater. Phil is the embarrassment, Phil disrespected Dion, Phil is the joke.

    • Sparadino

      You can’t be serious with this comment. I refuse to believe that anybody with any intelligence would believe what you just wrote. The FACT is your whole criticism of Phil Kessel is based on his “fitness level”, which is ridiculous. You don’t know how fit Kessel is, you’re basing this on nothing but rumours you’ve read on the internet and the fact that Phil has a slightly Chubby face, I guess?
      There has been several comments on Phil Kessel being fit and remaining in shape, by people who actually know what they’re talking about, such as people who share a locker room with the guy. If Kessel had a face like David Clarkson and played the exact same game, you would have no argument. Even if he is out of shape (which, like I said, you don’t know if he is), who cares if he can still speed past the opposing D and snipe one past their netminder? No one seems to be talking about Byfuglien being out of shape in Winnipeg after his play this year, and I doubt he’s anymore “in shape” than he was in previous years, when he received criticism.

      • Sparadino

        I’m very serious and accurate. You don’t have to be an insider or speak to the team trainer to get a grasp of how fit Phil Kessel or any professional athlete is in. Phil did not come to camp in shape and both he and the team suffered for it. There is no disputing that. All you have to do is watch him on the ice this year. If you are such a homer that you can’t connect his dip this year to his fitness level and more importantly, the trajectory that his skill set will follow if he doesn’t correct his lack of commitment to fitness immediately then you are either kidding yourself or just don’t have a clue about what it takes to be the absolute best at your craft. What’s most frustrating about it is that he is as talented a scorer as anyone in the NHL currently but if you think his offseason conditioning is half of what players like Tavares, Stamkos, Crosby and Toews put themselves thru to ensure they are ready for themselves, their teammates and fans then you are really just being willfully stupid. The fact that you use Byfuglien, a 6’5 265 lbs defenceman as a comparable to an elite scoring winger puts you in the grade A donkey category regardless. Further to my point, I watched Jaromir Jagr last night at 43 yrs old out skate Kessel shift after shift. If you don’t think that is a clear reflection on Phil, a 26 year old, then there really is nothing that can be said to someone like you.

  • CMpuck

    I am of the opinion that Phil Kessel turned a story about Phaneuf’s level of play into a story about Phil.

    I am of the opinion that Phil Kessel turned a story about the Leafs’ absolutely abysmal road record in 2015 into a story about Phil.

    I am of the opinion that Phil Kessel turned every Lupul v Phaneuf/Tank Nation/Who Should Be Traded vultures-circling-the-campfire narrative into a story about Phil.

    I am of the opinion that Phil schooled the entire hockey media.

    I am of the opinion that every player in the locker room knows what Phil did. And every coach & GM in the league does, too.

    I am of the opinion that Phil has never been closer to captain material than he is right now.

  • I couldn’t possibly disagree more with this article.

    If Kessel is right, he’s right.

    If he’s wrong, he’s wrong.

    If Kessel disdains the Toronto media, it is quite consistent with his comments about the way the media treated Phaneuf. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong in what he believes or says about the Toronto media.

  • Sparadino

    I see no reason for Kessel to respect the media. They’ve never given him any even a very quiet 21 year old. He’s been blamed for the Leafs being a poor team right from the start.

    Where were the articles about Carlyle? Who has written about the absolute mess Nonis and Loiselle created, or the 30 million to fix just one of the mistakes? These are the guys who should be taking some heat from the media and it’s long overdue. A good percentage of the media are cowards.

    Kelly’s article basically states–Suck up to the media like Carlyle and we’ll be nice, otherwise we’ll write personal garbage about you. The truth is Phil has tried and it doesn’t matter what he says, the media will purposely misunderstand it.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Judge Kessel for his play. I could care less what he thinks about reporters and we should care less about what he thinks about reporters.

    I would curb reporters’ access to the locker room. It does no one — reporters and players alike — any good. No news comes of it; it’s only bound to create an adversarial relationship. The reporters want to sell their stories, the more salacious the better (and that question from the unmentionable Star reporter was a story about a non-story); the players just want to shower and go home.