TORONTO – Morgan Rielly probably won’t read this.
Already wise beyond his years at the age of 20, the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie defenceman learned during training camp that he can’t check Twitter as often as he used to.
That lesson has served him well during a season-ruining losing streak, but it’s still almost impossible to avoid the chatter in a hockey-mad city.
“When you’re out eating at Earl’s or something, it’s on a TV and there’s people talking about (us), whether it’s the skid we’re on, trade rumours or how we’ve been playing,” Rielly said Tuesday. “Playing here in Toronto there are people that aren’t afraid to have a chat with you if you’re at the mall or something. You’ve just got to learn to deal with that and can’t worry about it too much.”
Roommate Jake Gardiner tries to take his mind off things by seeing movies, like “Noah” on the team’s most recent off day. Coach Randy Carlyle doesn’t try to put on sunglasses and a hood to hide from the attention because “that’s not me.”
Even if the Leafs wanted to, there’s no real way to escape the pressure—something area natives and former players know all too well.
“It’s not fun for them right now, I know that,” said Calgary Flames forward Joe Colborne, who spent the past three years in Toronto with the Leafs and minor-league Marlies. “Obviously there’s a lot of attention, even out West, on the Leafs, so it’s well-documented, for sure. You definitely feel for those guys.”
Empathy was in short supply for Colborne with his Flames at Air Canada Centre seeking to extend Toronto’s season-worst skid. But even before his Detroit Red Wings sent the Leafs to an eighth loss in a row Saturday night, Mimico’s Brendan Smith expressed some sadness at how friends Gardiner and Dave Bolland have to deal with the extra criticism that he called “nonsense.”
“I think for everybody it’s difficult,” Smith said. “I feel bad for them with all that pressure. It’s tough. Every professional athlete’s going to feel pressure in some kind of way, but it’s definitely tough here.”
Red Wings goaltender Jonas Gustavsson looked at the Leafs and recalled a “similar scenario” he went through in Toronto. That was the infamous run in the winter of 2012 that then-general manager Brian Burke compared to “an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff.”
Gustavsson went 0-3-1 during that 1-9-1 stretch that cost coach Ron Wilson his job. But as a Swede, he managed to avoid a lot of the negativity surrounding the team because he read coverage from back home, not in Canada or the United States.
After experiencing that, he’s quick not to make any blanket statements about how playing in such a big market affects players.
“I think that’s very individual,” Gustavsson said. “I think some guys have no problem whatsoever with it because they don’t really care about media and TV, things like that. Maybe some guys follow it more than others and maybe have tougher times with it.”
Flames forward Matt Stajan, who played five full seasons and parts of two more with the Leafs, brushed off the emphasis on the extra attention that comes with being in what some consider the centre of the hockey universe.
“It’s not easy. In Calgary if we lose eight in a row it’s not easy,” Stajan said. “I think the pressure from the outside’s one thing, but in the dressing room you have expectations as a team and you feel that pressure anyways.
“People look too much at the pressure outside. I think you’re in the NHL. As a team you have pressure on yourselves to win games and be at your best every night, and when it doesn’t happen, you’re feeling it.”
There’s no doubt the Leafs are feeling it, even if it’s not something players would like to admit. Assistant general manager Claude Loiselle said Tuesday on Toronto radio station Sportsnet 590 The Fan that players have been squeezing their sticks during this skid.
In talking to reporters, players tend to shift the focus back to hockey and away from the white noise.
“It’s just a matter of keeping concentrated on just playing the game and not what everybody’s saying,” Rielly said. “You can’t be too concerned about what’s going on out there, you just got to worry about what you’re able to control.”
No one’s denying the talk is out there. Captain Dion Phaneuf conceded that in a results-oriented business, there’s bound to be some heavy “scrutiny” on the Leafs.
A losing streak like this in a place like this ratchets it up even more.
“You look on Twitter or TV, it’s pretty much what everyone’s talking about right now,” Gardiner said. “But we’re kind of used to that. … You just got to have fun with it and try to ignore what people are saying.”
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