With the 2015-16 season about to begin, the Leafs are planning a barn birth: hay bales stacked to blot out the light; doors bolted with a two-by-four; and windows shuttered in case anyone rises to look inside. They've done this partly on their own—general manager Lou Lamoriello has wedged an even greater distance between the city's travelling media by insisting on players-only charters from city to city—and partly with the help of the Blue Jays' national colossus throwing every other sporting thing in shadows as they march into the postseason for the first time in 22 years.
What this, potentially, steals from a collection of narratives in hockey markets that would be front and centre in other years—Connor McDavid this, Max Pacioretty that—may help feed the Leafs. As long as the Jays continue winning, the hockey team can be pleasantly terrible while awkwardly working through how it got this way, like the bad kid in the corner who, unnoticed and without an audience, becomes a little less bad.
If springtime in Toronto has always carried with it a portend of ballpark hope, autumn usually means digging around in an old drawer for gloves, mittens, boot soles and other vestments meant to blunt the howling misery of the forthcoming Leafs season. But with the Jays set to begin their division series Thursday, and despite the fact that temperatures around here have sunken into the mid-teens, the joy of winning helps one forget seasonal realities and the early darkening skies.
Summer will be summer until the last pitch is thrown, and investing in the Leafs' early trials only works against this; allowing winter through the door when there's still flip flops on the shoe mat and sunscreen in the cabinet. For now, I'll pretend that the NHL doesn't exist, and because it doesn't exist, the Leafs don't either, and if they don't, then they can't lose, and if they can't lose, then we all win. Life is beautiful and the Jays are headed to the playoffs.
Coach Mike Babcock is a man who works in private, and more private can't be a worse thing. No one has to fear for the coach's insecurities or a need to twist the spotlight away from what will be happening three blocks to the west. There will be no Burkian—or Ballardian, for anyone over 40—attempt at outrage to steal from the day's sporting headlines. With the Jays doing what they do, the Leafs can be hermetic in their approach to reworking "systems" and "conditioning" and "team preparedness," phrases that, compared to Blue Jay words like "Clinchmass" and "Dickey" and "postseason rotation," read like a calculus textbook flayed open beside a Japanese graphic novel. While the Jays have three of the game's greatest power hitters, the Leafs have Roman Polak. It's Chris Collabello versus Matt Arcobello. It's not even close, and that's OK.
Because Lamoriello et al—et al here is probably Brendan Shanahan—has tightened access to his players, the Toronto sports media will have to suffer through a period of adjustment, and considering the dysfunctional and often scurrilous relationship between the team and the people who cover it, a bit of time apart couldn't be the worst thing to happen to either of them.
Less Leaf leakage (first alliteration of the season) means, potentially, a different kind of story, and maybe even a different kind of reporting and writing. Perhaps a media tree that doesn't feed audiences its lowest hanging fruit will have to write about, you know, the look, feel, sound and character of the sport, as opposed to a "What's Wrong with the Leafs?" default setting. I've often advocated for more poetry in contemporary hockey writing. Maybe, with the Leafs climbing a hill and building a wall, the writer will have to sit under a tree for awhile and think about stuff. It will be an inward journey for everyone and we'll all be healthier for it.
For the first time in memory, the Jays are the overwhelmingly dominant sporting force in Toronto, and maybe in Canada (in 1992/1993, the Leafs had competitive and good teams alongside the Jays World Series collectives). If this is the best thing in years to happen to the baseballers, it's also the best thing to happen to the hockeyists. Not having to pretend to be kings will go a long way toward rehabilitating the Leafs' broken psychology.
This year, fans are planning a parade route. For once this is not the punchline of a joke, but, simply, a matter of logistics.