Jake & I

I have loved the Toronto Maple Leafs for about a quarter century. When I was studying journalism at Ryerson University, our student hangout slowly transformed into a shrine to the hockey team – completely understandable since Toronto was in the thrall of the Doug Gilmour/ Wendel Clark/ Felix Potvin era. During my time at Ryerson – located a hop, skip and jump away from Maple Leaf Gardens, where the team played at the time – the Leafs advanced to the conference finals two seasons in a row, and they did it with grit, determination and defence. I will always hold those early nineties Leaf teams as an example of true teamwork. Gilmour, Clark, Potvin and super-defenceman Sylvain Lefebvre gave me no choice but to be a Leaf fan for the rest of my life.

My love since then has been tested in various ways. I refused to watch the team at all the single season Eric Lindros was in the line-up. There have been other players that would wear the blue and white who would stir my ire; recent examples like David Clarkson and Jonathan Bernier come to mind. Of our current roster, there is just one player who repeatedly triggered my tendency to combine various four-letter profanities – number 51, defenceman Jake Gardiner.

If you’re a sports fan in Toronto, this may feel like I’m going to gleefully pile on the abuse Jake is currently experiencing. Hell, if you know me personally, you have even more cause to think that’s all this blogpost is going to be, but I assure you, that’s not what this is. For some reason, this time, I don’t want to pile on. I’m still don’t like the way he plays, but what’s going on now just doesn’t feel right.

The Colorado Avalanche visited Toronto this Monday to play the Leafs. Hopes were high for Leaf fans going into the game. Our number one goaltender, Frederik Andersen, was returning from injury, and it was only the fifth game of the season in which the team was injury and suspension-free. Colorado had only managed a single victory in their last ten games. This should have been easy two points. What followed defied expectations.

In my estimation, Andersen was the only player who didn’t play badly. I think Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares are among the finest players of the game on the entire planet, but even they suffered truly boneheaded moments. Marner, in particular, was culpable on a misplay that ended up in the back of the Leaf net. 

In the second period, with the score tied, the Leafs were on the power play. They had managed to organize themselves in the Avalanche’s zone and were exerting pressure. The puck came up to the blue line, and Mitch failed to corral it. He lost it in his skates and it skittered past him. Worse, Colorado’s Carl Soderberg burst out in full flight after it. Only one leaf was in a position to keep the puck away from him: Jake Gardiner.

As Soderberg reached the errant puck, Jake lunged at him with his shoulder, but Soderberg skilfully evaded the check. Jake struggled to stay with him, trying to knock the puck away from his stick. All the while, Soderberg drew nearer to our goal. He waited for Freddie to drop down and cut off the angle, and then flipped the puck past him and into the net. To Soderberg, Jake proved about as irritating as a housefly.

As a Leaf fan, it was horrifying to watch such ineptitude be so harshly punished with an opposing goal. Honestly, I was more upset with Mitch’s failure to keep the puck in the zone. Over the past three seasons I have come to expect a high standard of play from him, and he has always delivered. It was shocking to suddenly see him look so foolish.

Little did I know the rage that was boiling over in the stands at The Post Office. (That’s what I call the arena where the Leafs currently play since it changed its corporate naming sponsor. The building started its life as a depot for Canada Post, so I’ll call it that rather than deal with name changes as contracts expire.) I was not there to hear Jake get booed every time he touched the puck in the third period. I was not aware at how much he was being torched on Twitter. I only became aware of the flack Jake was catching when I watched Steve Dangle’s Leaf fan reaction video, and then saw Tim and Sid talk about it the next day. I saw Mitch address the media, tangibly overcome with emotion. “I mean, that guy does everything for this team,” he said. “People don’t give him enough credit, ever.” Jake seemed to be shouldering the weight of the city on his shoulders as he said, “Uh, yeah, not playing well, need to be better.” Looking at him, Jake seems to feel genuinely awful about his game, and I feel genuinely confused. I mean, the way this 28-year-old guy from Minneapolis plays hockey on the team I love has driven me up the wall for five years. All the while I’ve been praying for him to be traded away. Why, this week, do I not feel as comfortable booing as many other Leaf fans he has driven up the wall?

It’s been almost eight years since Jake arrived in Toronto, along with Joffrey Lupul, in the trade that sent François Beauchemin to the Anaheim Ducks. He quickly endeared himself to Leafs coach Ron Wilson, and why wouldn’t he? He’s very skilled and very talented. I have no problem admitting that. He is a breathtaking skater. During the NHL lockout of 2012, Jake suited up for the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs’ minor league affiliate, and it was clear that his skating was on a completely different level than everyone else. His talent gave Leaf fans hope that the team would reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Once the lockout ended, Jake was called up to the Leafs, and, yes indeed, they qualified for the playoffs.

As many of us painfully remember, the Leafs surrendered a 4-1 lead in the seventh game to lose the series to the Boston Bruins in overtime. Very few people hang this loss on Jake, even though he blindly shot the puck onto Patrice Bergeron’s stick, allowing him to score the winning goal. The Leafs themselves seemed to blame goalie James Reimer, or at least General Manager Dave Nonis did, acquiring Jonathan Bernier to take over as number one goaltender. (What people who blame Reimer forget is that there wouldn’t have even been a seventh game had he not stolen the sixth game for the Leafs.)

As better an exit from the playoffs as the Leafs suffered, I thoroughly enjoyed having them back in the post-season. Walking around Toronto when the Leafs are in contention is a riot. People are decked out in blue and white. Strangers high-five each other shouting “Go Leafs Go!” The team makes the city feel cozier and warmer, so I was grateful that the 2012-13 Leafs had made it as far as they did. I was hoping we’d hang on to as many of those players as possible and build upon what had been proven to be a playoff-worthy team so it could become even better.

Instead the team disintegrated. Over the next few seasons, Leaf defenceman seemed to invite opposing forwards to treat the zone in front of our net as a second home. While it had been decades since the Leafs had a defensive corps that actually minimized shots on net, fans were now calling for blood.

As the team failed to make the 2014 playoffs, team captain Dion Phaneuf became Toronto’s whipping boy, and I found that perplexing. As a captain, Phaneuf seemed incapable of rallying the team to championship levels of play. On the other hand, was Phaneuf the defenseman making all the mistakes?

As the 2013-14 season went down the drain, I was trying to figure out why the Leafs were failing to improve on their previous season’s success. I started to notice one of Jake’s repeated plays. He would gather up the puck and skate behind the Leaf net, giving the tired skaters time to skate over to the bench, and fresh players to take their place. The game would calm down, and when everyone was ready, Jake would rifle the puck so hard that no other player had a chance of receiving it cleanly. It would invariably end up all the way at the other end of the rink, where the ref would blow his whistle, declare it icing and prepare a faceoff in our zone. Wouldn’t it be simpler to pass to someone closer so they could at least skate the puck out of our zone? I remember so many games that were lost because Jake needlessly caused a faceoff in our zone and the puck would end up in our net.

Around this time, the Toronto Maple Leafs established themselves as league leaders in giveaways. Unfortunately I’m not referring to free gifts to fans. No, I’m talking about pucks to opposing players. And, no word of a lie, the player I noticed coughing up the puck the most was Jake. He just didn’t seem to look before passing. While there was no shortage of Leaf players turning over the puck that season, Jake, to me, seemed to possess an unusual level of disinterest in where it ended up after he made his play. Of course, such gaffes ended up costing the team goals, and, consequently, points. The Detroit Red Wings ended up claiming the final playoff spot in the East that season, and the Leafs finished nine points behind them. I held Jake personally responsible for a few of those points.

Yet clearly I was in the minority. Based on the sorry state of the Leafs’ defensive corps, Jake was able to dazzle the coaching staff and management with his skating and his youth. He had proven himself a valuable component on the power play. The organization saw the future in him, so on July 29, 2014, they gave him a five-year $20.25 million contract extension. I dismissed it as yet another Toronto Maple Leafs business blunder, and hoped for the best.

In the ensuing years, I haven’t see any improvement in Jake’s play. He remains a skilled skater and shooter, and he can complete breathtaking passes when he aims them at a teammate at a velocity they can receive. But as he made his way through his contract extension, his game grew less physical. You never saw Jake throw a check. Other Leaf defenders did, but Jake didn’t. If there was a battle for the puck along the boards, Jake could commonly be seen on the outside of the scrum poking at it with his stick held in one hand. This didn’t match what I thought a defenceman’s role was.

Back in the glory days of Gilmour, Clark and Potvin, defencemen like Sylvain Lefebvre and Todd Gill would make life hell for the other team in front of our goal. This not only reduced the number of shots Potvin had to face, but it exhausted the other team.

By contrast, when I would go to the Post Office, I would watch Jake flow freely up and down the ice with very little impact on anyone. He reminded me of a Roomba, gently bouncing off a baseboard, sucking up cat hair.

Nevertheless, Jake has gained a legion of defenders, much in the same way Nickelback and Adam Sandler have fans. They point to his numbers, and yes, Jake has scored 44 goals and 195 assists in his NHL career. I feel his stats are helped by being a power play specialist and not serving on the penalty kill, but you can’t achieve those numbers without being talented. And I have never denied that he’s talented. I just don’t see how those numbers or his talent benefit us if they’re paired with a poor work ethic, a lack of engagement, and hospitality for opposing players.

In recent years, the Leafs have been on an upswing, due mostly to some fantastic draft picks. In 2012 we acquired Morgan Rielly. In 2014, William Nylander. 2015, Mitch Marner. Then, in 2016, Auston Matthews. We are now a young team packed with talent and energy, making Jake a veteran presence by comparison.

In 2017 the Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since that Game 7 collapse in 2013. We qualified again in 2018 and once again we were facing the Boston Bruins. After the Leafs played like garbage and threw away the first two games of the series, they managed to collect themselves and draw even. Leaf fans took a deep breath and settled in to watch another Game 7 between the Leafs and the Bruins.

Things were looking great. At the start of the third period, the Leafs were up 4-3 after a gorgeous short-handed goal from Kasperi (the Friendly Ghost) Kapanen. The Bruins scored off a face-off to tie it up. There was still most of the period left, so there was no reason for Leaf fans to panic.

Five minutes and 25 seconds into the period, Jake de Brusk of the Bruins grabbed the puck and skated down the wing. Instead of checking him into the boards, our Jake actually turned away from him and gave him space. De Brusk skated over to Freddie, and our Jake waited until the last possible moment to even try to take the puck away. The Bruin forward effortlessly evaded Jake’s attempt at a check and scored to give his team the lead.

A couple of minutes later, the Leafs’ Nikita Zaitsev was battling behind the Leafs’ net for the puck. Jake was covering the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron. When the puck squirted free, Jake neither collected it or made sure Bergeron got it. He skated away to the side of the net. Bergeron grabbed hold of the puck and snapped a quick pass to David Pastrnak who scored. After that the game was out of reach, and another Leafs season was done.

I watched this game alone in a hotel room away from all my friends and family. I had an early morning the next day, and somehow I had to catch some sleep after witnessing all that. I was angry. I didn’t feel we had to lose that game. Jake didn’t need to give de Brusk space. Jake didn’t need to let Bergeron have the puck. We didn’t need to lose this game. Fuming, I grabbed my phone and wrote on Facebook, “I never want to see Jake Gardiner in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform ever again.”

The next morning, there were some on social media calling me out for cyber-bullying. I pointed out that I had been watching him make the same mistakes for years, and he wasn’t getting better. If pointing that out online was cyber-bullying, how else was I supposed to point that out? Of course, I wasn’t alone, and there were, of course, many Leaf fans worse than me. The memes started. I ended up sharing one. It was a picture of Jake. Above his head was written, “How did the Boston Bruins get to the second round?” Below his face was the punchline, “The Gardiner Expressway.”

Is this bullying? Yeah, probably. I can try to rationalize it by saying I was sick and tired as a fan of the team of watching him make the same mistakes year in and year out while feeling powerless to stop it, but he’s a human being with feelings. Yes, he’s making millions of dollars, and us fans pay through the nose to even get into The Post Office. We’re still having fun at his expense. I feel justified in criticizing his play. Making him an object of public ridicule is an area where I shouldn’t have gone.

After that game, Jake appeared visibly shaken. As he spoke to the media, he said, “A lot of this game is on me. And it’s just not good enough, especially in a game like this. It’s the most important game of the season, and I didn’t show up. There’s not much I can say, really.” Still, by now, I felt that much of the city was now seeing what I had seen for years – that he wasn’t what we needed. Perhaps he would be sent elsewhere, and we would proceed without him, for better or worse. As various Corleones would say, “Nothing personal. Just business.”

Yet, as this past autumn drew near, Leafs management barely tinkered with the team’s defensive corps. Jake again suited up, however he played somewhat differently. He threw some checks. They weren’t great checks, but they were checks. He completed shorter passes. He was less reckless. I thought that perhaps after the Game 7 disaster, maybe Jake re-evaluated the way he was playing. What elements of his game didn’t work? What was he really good at? Clearly he wanted to be a more responsible player. So for the next few months I was appreciative of the new, less reckless Jake, but cautiously so.

I, along with my friends, went to The Post Office to watch the Leafs play the New York Rangers on my birthday last month, and we all felt that we witnessed the re-emergence of the old Jake. After two months of responsible hockey, midway through the third Jake had the puck on the wing and blindly passed it on to the stick of a Ranger who headed right over to Freddie. He made the save, but still, there was no reason for that shot to happen. It served as a reminder of what we could honestly expect of Jake as a player. A few weeks later, and here we are in the aftermath of a truly awful performance against the Colorado Avalanche.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling foolhardy, I will engage in discussions on social media about the Leafs. During one of my many screeds about Jake’s level of play, one of his defenders said to go easy on him because he has a “learning disorder.” Honestly, that’s not something I had ever considered before. I don’t know a lot about learning disorders. I don’t know if it’s true that he has one, and if he does, I don’t know what the nature of his disorder would be. I was just taken aback at the assertion he had one. It made me think – could this be why, until this fall, his game had remained the same, and even stagnated, over so many seasons? Could this be why such a physically talented and skilled player couldn’t learn how to be more responsible in his own end? It would explain so much. Is it possible he’s trying, but this disorder is making it near impossible for him to improve?

So this week, when I saw Jake on television mumbling, “Uh, yeah, not playing well, need to be better,” it was confusing for me in a way it wasn’t before. First, as I said, I don’t think he alone is responsible for Monday’s loss – not by a longshot. I don’t get why fans singled him out. But secondly, he may not be capable of better, and if that’s true, it may be somewhat sadistic to attack someone en masse for not performing at a level above which he’s capable.

If it’s true that Jake has a learning disorder, then perhaps it was a mistake for Leafs management to give him that $20.25 million contract, and perhaps Jake and his agent were acting in bad faith negotiating it. Nevertheless, he is nearly done fulfilling that contract, and I don’t think the team should give him another extension. Few people think they will.

Another reason why I found watching Jake this week confusing was because I could suddenly identify with him. For much of my childhood and my teenage years I was relentlessly bullied. It’s hard for me to remember why. Some of it, if I recall correctly, was because I enjoyed classical music. Some of it seemed to be because I got good marks. I suppose I was in some ways socially awkward, but what kid isn’t? I have to be honest, I think that I still feel the effects of that bullying all these decades later. I think a lot of that bullying shaped the middle-aged man I am today, and much of that was to my detriment. For much of my life I have had to struggle to be less-inhibited. In social situations my default setting is “introvert.” It’s as if I have internalized my bullies, who always remind me of what a loser I am whenever I even think of striving for something better. I know how debilitating that can be.

So, I can’t help but feel for what Jake experienced this week. I look at his face and I don’t think he is able to deal with the wrath he has incurred. I don’t think I have to explain to anyone how destructive it is to tap out on your phone “i hate u” to another human being. There is nothing of use to take from that, and if you take pleasure from doing it, you should ask yourself why.

As I finish up writing this, the Leafs are preparing to hit the ice in Florida against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team who currently hold the best record in the NHL. Should Jake have another bad game tonight, will I be disappointed? Of course. Should I be allowed to say so? I think so, but I think we should place standards on how we express ourselves. If someone’s work isn’t at the level you need it to be, you should be free to say why, but you aren’t helping the situation if you aren’t explaining what’s wrong with the work, what the level is at which you need them to perform, and how they can improve.

So I’ll continue to grumble about Jake. I promise that I will be more thoughtful about it, and I apologize for the times I failed to be.