For the second time this week, word has come out about the Toronto Maple Leafs being punished or sanctioned by the National Hockey League for… to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how to describe this. Unfair training practices? Competitive advantages? Honestly, I’m a bit at a loss for the exact words at the moment.
The first incident came on Wednesday, when the Leafs were told that having officials at their training camp scrimmages was going too far:
The #leafs were told by the NHL they couldn't continue using officials during training camp, according to Sheldon Keefe.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) July 15, 2020
Now, depending on who you ask, the stories as to why this happened differ. According to CJ, this had to do with a noteworthy volume of the rest of the league feeling concerned about the COVID-19 risk of having extra people involved in practices, despite the fact that teams are allowed about 20 non-player officials in the rink that these officials would have almost assuredly counted under. Sheldon Keefe’s quote (via Kristen Shilton) implies that teams didn’t like that the Leafs had “such resources readily available”, as if no other NHL market has access to officials who could call a scrimmage.
Not NHL officials, which as far as it’s known these officials weren’t, but officials in general. Keep in mind here that this isn’t even a particularly new revalation; the Leafs organization has been hiring referees for training camp scrimmages for years, for both the Leafs and the Marlies. Other NHL teams do it. From my own personal experience on the operations side, even junior teams do it. The point of a scrimmage is to emulate a game situation, so having people enforce the rules is a pretty key component.
All the same, this wasn’t an individual hill worth dying on. Yes, such a complaint seems incredibly petty and silly and more reflective of teams upset that they didn’t think to use their extra staff limits on officials, but there are bigger fish to fry before the playoffs begin and hey, maybe there is something to the idea of keeping two more people off the ice for social distancing purposes. I suppose we can just pick up and move o-
Elliotte Friedman on SN590 says that with the new CBA: one thing that changed was that other teams saw how TOR kept their facilities open during past offseasons for players and prospects to train, but other teams didn't like it and felt it was unfair, so now they can't anymore.
— J (@Account4hockey) July 17, 2020
I’m sorry, what?
For context here, the Toronto Maple Leafs practice at the Ford Performance Centre in Etobicoke, formerly known as the Mastercard Centre for Hockey Excellence, or MCC for short. A decent drive away from Scotiabank Arena, the facility is owned by the City of Toronto and designed to primarily serve the local community, but the Maple Leafs pay a little under $600,000 a year in rent which allows them to have their own custom dressing rooms with amenities for the Maple Leafs in Rink 2, and Marlies in Rink 3. It also covers, presumably, the timeslots that they rent throughout the season, and the team takes care of a lot of the operation and upkeep of the rink as well.
This isn’t to say that the Leafs have exclusivity to these pads by any means, either. Rinks 2 and 3 are in constant public and private use when the Leafs aren’t using them – heck, the last game played on the Leafs’ pad before the rinks shut down for the COVID-19 lockdown featured my beer league team losing 3-0 to the “Too Drunken Monkeys”; our league puts us on the Leafs and Hockey Canada rinks at FPC two or three times per year.
According to ‘J’, Friedman continued: “Toronto was a team that, a lot of their prospects, or a number of them, would come to Toronto in the summer and they’d work out at the practice facility and they really improved as players. And teams were like, ‘we don’t like that’.”
So the gripe here seems to be that the Leafs have ensured that players and prospects who stick around town and don’t necessarily go to a specific training coach or school have a rink where they can go to and get some stuff done on their own time.
I have a very hard time considering this to be an unfair advantage. Most, if not all teams have their own practice facilites, and several teams (Anaheim, Winnipeg, Vegas, Buffalo, San Jose, Los Angeles, and possibly more) own their rinks outright, and I would assume the others have leases that would allow them to open the doors of their dressing rooms between June and September.
Given that these aren’t organized practices being hosted, and the fact that usage of the facility is in no way mandatory, and that every other team has some sort of practice arena arrangement with similar, if not more power over their facility, I don’t see any reason that other teams can’t do what the Leafs are doing. They might not want to spend that much money on amenities, sure. Their players might not want to stay in their cities during the summer, sure. But those aren’t Toronto’s problem.
This all sort of spins back to what I spoke about in my piece “The NHL and the pursuit of mediocrity” a few weeks back. With each passing year, passing month, passing day, this league becomes less about being the best and more about being good enough. Instead of hoarding it’s money, the richest club in the league is re-investing in itself and it’s community by tapping into it’s resources to make the product it sells better, in ways that don’t violate the rules or the “spirit” of the game, but actually encourage getting it right – making sure you’re playing by the rules in the case of the officials, and making sure that players have access to the tools they need to hone their craft in the case of the facility.
Yet, here we are. A bunch of teams have complained that this self-investment is unfair, and now the team can’t do it. At the end of the day, these two rulings individually aren’t things to lose sleep about – they won’t make or break the team’s success – but they do make you wonder what the point of going the extra mile is, if all it will lead to is the league siding with teams who feel slighted about being “shown up”. If this truly is the best hockey league in the world, then striving to be the best in ways that still keep everybody happy should be encouraged – “good enough” shouldn’t be considered good enough.