As a website that often critiques the decision making of others, I think it’s about time that a few pages get turned and the word cannon gets aimed right back at me, by me.
It’s a little nerve-wracking writing something like this, but frankly, it’s the right time. For one, my goal is for there to not be any time for it once hockey gets started again, and if reports across the continent hold firm, we’re less than four weeks away from puck drop – the NHL expects to be back for a 56-game season starting on January 13th.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, I’m in the right headspace to do this right now. It’s been a very trying year for a lot of us, especially as this pandemic forces the issue on a lot of our struggles – physical, mental, financial, and everything in between. It’s been similar for myself, but other independent factors have been a drag at times. Some of these were new issues, some were carried over from previous years. I spent a lot of the year feeling misery, hopelessness, frustration, and confusion, and had what I would consider my weakest creative output since I was in middle school. At the same time, it’s not been just a 2020 issue – this year just happened to be the tipping point.
As I’ve spoken to on social media, I’ve been doing a lot to confront my own struggles the past few months. I’ve been learning more about what issues impact me, which coping mechanisms in my life are productive and which ones are damaging, what mistakes I’ve made along the way and which bad habits I’ve subconsciously formed. I’ve spent a lot of time deconstructing and rebuilding and it’s been a very empowering experience – an incomplete one as I still have bridges to mend, momentum to reform, habits to keep curbing, and all sorts of other things to address, but we’re getting there.
In a sense, The Faceoff Circle has served to be a microcosm of my problems over the past several years. Simply put, since it’s launch, it hasn’t reached it’s potential for reasons that reflect my own struggles. It’s given me a home and a shelter, but I didn’t put in the necessary effort to properly build said home, or maintain it. I think it’s important that before I get started again, I confront these failures. So as I’ve said many times with regards to hockey, let’s break this down a little.
What Went Wrong
- Lack of preparation at launch: I launched in August 2017, and bluntly, I sold an image of preparation that wasn’t really there. The whole thing came together in just a couple of weeks, and a lot of the ideas where slapped together in a few days. I pitched an air of confidence, but I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do.
At that point, I was equal parts burnt out by the industry, and terrified of taking a truly extended break, in fear that I would lose any momentum built up from a hockey season that blew up my profile in a way that I didn’t quite expect. I started the year covering the World Cup of Hockey in person, and I finished it on the heels of a highly polarizing, but ultimately very successful “The Leafs Are Actually Good” campaign, as one of the only people in the somewhat-mainstream who thought Toronto would make the playoffs that year, and certainly the loudest about it.
I didn’t create my own platform to take advantage of that momentum, though. Rather, rushing it out was a way to attempt to maintain it. The reason for the pivot was a departure from the network I had been writing for over the previous five seasons, due to an unsustainable expectation of content production, and a budget cut that was going to severely slash my pay. I was correct in making the decision that burning myself out for someone else, while not getting fairly compensated for it, was the wrong idea. I was incorrect to try to rush back into it. In hindsight, I should’ve taken at least another month or so to plan and prepare. That alone would have likely taken a lot of momentum off the negative snowball that was starting to form, and I would’ve had a better-prepared overall product with more realistic ambitions, a properly thought out content schedule, and all the other things an a platform that aims to compete should have.
- No long-term vision or focus: Another issue from the start, and one that carried over into later years, is that I really had no idea where this site was going to go, how long to plan ahead for, or even what sort of content I’d like to lay out for everyone. There was a lot of winging it, a lot of “whatever happens, happens”, and a lot of feeling that this was a temporary fix while I figured out what my next thing was – but also a fear of saying that I had bigger ambitions. I was a mess, and as such, the vision was a mess.
Even the sort of content that came out was inconsistent – I kept yo-yoing between whether I wanted this to be a continuation of my primary focus as someone who covers the Maple Leafs organization, or if I wanted to branch out to be of a generalist, and if I was going to have the latter on the table, how much of the former could I write before people would be upset it was too much? That, of course, led to not publishing enough content, because every new post felt like a line in the sand that I wasn’t yet prepared to make. It was constant wavering influenced by anxieties and insecurities, but ultimately it can’t be placed solely on them – my previous success came from pushing through those, and this time I didn’t. Looking at it now, I can’t entirely beat myself up for it, but it would also be wrong to absolve my decision making entirely.
- Membership was a clusterf**k: Incredibly, despite all of this, a few hundred of you signed up for paid memberships to support the site and support me – from friends to followers to even NHL players and staffers. I would have to assume that support is the key value here, because I certainly didn’t deliver on constantly-changing benefits. The best value I likely gave was in 2018/19 when I provided most of a season of Toronto-focused AHL tracked data behind the paywall, but that’s a very niche product that was likely only used by a few of you.
I launched at a very weird time for crowd-funded hockey content and fell into a weird in-between that I didn’t know what to do with. I had aimed for something more like today’s Patreon and Substack-built blogs and platforms, but was a little early for that wave – not to mention, Patreon integration into WordPress (the blogging software I use) in 2017 was… not the best. I ended up using a custom plugin, which meant I had fewer fees to pay and more control over the technicals, but this created a new problem in that I then felt the need to pitch the full platform as a service. Given the first two points, this was a big problem, as I wasn’t committed enough to deliver a valuable product. Given The Athletic’s explosive growth at the same time, this was an even bigger problem, as I gave the appearance of being a competitor and had even more trouble with my pitch – it’s hard to get people to put up a subscription to one inconsistent writer when the mega-store down the street is offering significantly more value for not much more of a price tag. A lot of people did see it as a me vs. them situation and instead of committing to a plan, I instead tried to justify myself on a case by case basis, which meant an utter lack of delivery.
This is all on me. I didn’t prepare the service properly. I didn’t even know what services I wanted to provide. I missed the mark on more holistic, community-support driven subscription models, and I put myself into an area where I wasn’t going to succeed. That as many people signed up as they did is a bloody miracle, and that those people didn’t show a sense of feeling cheated is an even bigger one.
A retroactive step I’ve taken here, one that I announced on Twitter a few weeks ago, is shutting down the legacy system. People who already have legacy accounts can still use them, but no one else can sign up. Because legacy users supported me in a time where I, frankly, did not deserve it, legacy accounts will work for life, regardless of whether or not you keep your subscriptions up-to-date. You can either go into your account settings or your Paypal account and cancel your membership, and I will immediately re-enable them indefinitely as grandfathered accounts.
- Poor communication: Last, most brief, but definitely not least, I never really conveyed the above in certain terms. Honestly, the biggest driver there was a fear of confrontation – not with all of you, but with myself. I was a wreck for a long time, in a way that served mostly as an annoyance or irritant to others but was utterly self-destructive to myself. Because I wasn’t willing to accept my own shortcomings in the mirror, it was pretty much impossible to convey them through a megaphone. There would be spurts where I’d almost get it, but generally, I left people in the dark because it was easier to hide myself from myself that way.
With recognition of failure must come actionable steps to move forward, of course. Here is what I’m looking at for the road ahead:
- The Faceoff Circle is my primary focus for the 2020/21 season. I’ve moved on from all other private, part-time commitments in the past few months. While I’m very grateful for the opportunities I was given, I want to get back to fundamentals – not to mention, the surplus of uncertainty that the pandemic still holds for us. With this post being the last real barrier left in the “transition”, I expect to be back on a regular writing routine no later than the start of training camp. I am still available for shorter-term freelance work, and I’m happy to collaborate with others on things such as radio appearances and podcasts – more so than ever, in fact. I’ll still be part of the conversation on social media to an extent, but plan on dialling that back and moving more of my content from drive-by discourse to actual, fleshed out, planned out content. The only thing that would derail this plan this year would be a quality full-time opportunity being presented, but for now, I’m expecting this year to be more about re-proving myself and my viability.
- I’ll be returning to my roots and The Faceoff Circle will have an emphasis on the Maple Leafs organization at large. It’s hard to deny that my strengths lie in the centre of the universe, and its difficult to pick which topics to write about and which ones to skip when your focus is on 31+ different organizations, which leads to the “if you can’t do everything, do nothing” attitude that crept in previously. I’ll likely touch on other topics when they’re of interest to me, particularly from a historical sense, but from a staying-on-beat sense, Toronto has my eyes. As mentioned above, its been a few years since I’ve truly tackled the team in a daily sense, and the market’s coverage has changed in that time, but I’m looking forward to trying to re-imagine some things and give my unique perspective.
- Membership has been simplified. As mentioned in the previous points, the legacy system has been retired and its hundreds of members have been given the right to lifetime access regardless of whether they continue their payments. For new members, you can sign up on The Faceoff Circle’s Patreon page – this will give you a simple login method, with plans in the $2, $5, $10, and $20 tiers. The Basic tier will give you an account, commenting ability, and an ad-free experience. The Standard add an unlock of professional data, and the Ultra and Ultimate tiers add an unlock of scouting reports including minor/junior observations once we’re out of the COVID-19 woods. Standard and above tiers will also maintain access to all content – currently, I plan on moving all but the most essential posts into the archives from the month prior at the start of every new month.
- Most importantly, I’m all in on this thing. I believe in the opportunity that this platform affords me. I believe in the support that many of you have shown me with your words, with your memberships, with your eyeballs. Perhaps most needed right now, I believe in myself again. This most likely isn’t the last stop on the ladder for me, but I’m going to give everything I’ve got to making this a successful stop, and one where you all benefit from the best insight I can give you – be it through a lesson, an explanation, a scoop, a quick laugh, a trip down memory lane, or whatever else the moment affords. While I’ve yet to be bluntly told that this site’s beginnings have been a let down, I know that they have been, and they have especially been so to myself. As of now, I’m here to change that. I’m not going to let anyone down.
Besides all of this, I wish all of you a fantastic holiday season, and all the best in life and health in these trying times. I’m excited to make 2021 my best year in several, and I hope that spills over to all of you. Now, let’s go chase some dreams.