I'm seeing various reactions to the Leafs fan-snub incident, with some commenting that it's no big deal, that the salute is no great tradition, and that fans should respect their team and players if they expect the same in return. I get what they’re saying in the general sense. Specifically, this 'no big deal' approach breaks down for a number of reasons for me though.
1) The non-salute is not really the issue. The Canucks don’t salute after wins, they never took up the practice, and no one here feels slighted. It’s the specific decision by Leaf players to stop the practice, at that particular time, that caught everyone’s attention. It’s like Elaine Benes when she’s outraged that some acquaintance of hers has stopped greeting her with a nod. She barely knows the guy, didn’t really want to talk to him, but now that he ignores her in the halls, after their greetings lost their force and petered out, she notices it.
2) Phil Kessel not speaking to the media is another issue that is being defended. The thing is, all reports explain that Phil Kessel is given a lot of latitude by the Toronto media, they understand who he is, and don’t press the issue. It’s probably the same treatment Andrei Markov gets from the Montréal press corps, they only talk to him when the PR guy says it’s okay, occasionally. What the uproar is about is Mr. Kessel telling the reporter “Get away from me now”, with an aggressive, imperious, disrespectful tone, that crosses the line.
Phil Kessel is paid an obscene amount of money by the fans, and the media he faces only enhances the product he’s selling. They’re the conduit through which the fans can exchange with Phil, and he needs to understand that.
3) To treat all their fans as if they all tossed a jersey on the ice is beyond stupid and reprehensible. It is not justification for their boorish behaviour after the win against Tampa. The players don’t complain when a hat trick is saluted with a hail storm of ball caps. When they play well, they don’t mind the Leafs hats touching the ice. When they stink up the joint, they need to take it in stride that one or two fans throw a jersey on the ice.
Watch the video of the Leafs leaving the rink after the win, and you’ll see three youngsters behind the glass to the right of the players exit from our perspective. It only lasts a couple of seconds, but you can see they’re so excited/deflated at having stood so close to their heroes. They probably banged on the glass and waved, wanting some fleeting contact with their players, and based on their reaction, they’re dumbfounded, crestfallen, it doesn’t seem like they got the thrill of a lifetime their choice tickets promised to be. If I’m Brendan Shanahan, that’s the two seconds of video I’m showing my players.
4) About reporters asking the same dumb questions over and over, there was discussion recently on how that’s the reporters’ job, to ask the players a question point blank so as to get their response on the record.
“Are you playing to get your coach fired?”
Now that’s in the public domain, and you can compare that verbal answer to behaviour in the past or future. You’re giving the players a chance to express themselves on a question that the fans are probably asking themselves. It’s the same as asking a politician a ‘yes-no’ question on a subject, it provides them a chance to tell the voters where they stand, even if most times they’ll refuse to be pinned down, or at least leave themselves some wriggle room.
And, there are the 0.0001% of the time when a player will say something noteworthy, like when Joe Thornton interjected in a scrum involving Thomas Hertl, that if he’d scored the same type of goal that he’d be “stroking it”. Sometimes you hit the lottery.
It may all seem like a stilted dance, but it’s part of the process, and NHL’ers get paid very well to take part in it. As Michel Bergeron says, he used to steel himself before difficult press scrums by repeating to himself, much like he would before the dentist: “Ça va prendre dix minutes… Ça va prendre dix minutes…”
5) About jersey tossing, I’ve said this before, and I would be aghast if a fan threw a tricolore jersey on the New Forum ice, but it’s the ultimate, most democratic protest a fan can have. He or she has paid a lot of coin for that jersey, to wear it proudly and associate with the team and its players, and to attend the game. If they are performing in a shameful manner, if it’s embarrassing to wear that jersey, what a way to send a message.
There’s a risk it becomes overused, but I don’t think we’re there yet, not by a long shot. We’ve only seen it at Oilers and Leafs games if I’m not mistaken, and it can be argued that the fans have good reason to react in that manner there. If ever it got to the point that after routine losses fans of teams with average or respectable records were chucking jerseys, then I’d agree that it’s a meaningless, self-aggrandizing gesture by a few clueless fans. In Edmonton, and recently in Toronto, that’s entirely apt, however.