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Pucks and PR

Because hockey is more than just a game

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NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANADIAN PRESS

For over a year I’ve been on a hockey writing hiatus. The NHL strike, although rich with PR fodder, was a deterrent. I had little desire to write about a league and players’ union that conducted themselves worse than most schoolyard children. When the hockey returned, the passion to write was gone. And the passion to write about public relations and business aspects was especially gone.

What I didn’t expect was that I’d rekindle my passion to write through an uncontrollable need to apologize to Toronto Maple Leafs fans. Life truly does bring many surprises.

Any good PR practitioner knows the value of a heartfelt apology. Organizations can help their bottom line, avoid publicity nightmares and maintain legitimacy with apologies. My opinion is that those are all the wrong reasons to apologize. People and organizations should apologize for one simple reason – it’s the right thing to do when you were wrong or made a mistake. When that is the motivation, the apology is genuine and heartfelt.

With that as a preface, I’m so, so sorry Leafs fans. I can’t say it enough. I completely undervalued James Reimer and was proud of every chance I had to shoot down any sense of pride or hope you had in him as a goalie. That said, many of you were on board with me. But you need to come to your own conclusions. For me, I accept that I was wrong and ask that you give me a second chance.

Since Reimer burst onto the NHL scene, I’ve contented that he was going to make one of the best backup goalies in the league. The perfect guy to play 20 or 30 games and keep a team competitive while the true starting goalie stayed rested for playoffs.

I always pointed to his glove hand, his awkward style, his injury history and his inability to “look the part” of an elite starting goalie. I always fell back on the intangibles.

“Yeah, his numbers are good, but he just doesn’t look like a starter”, I’d say. What was I talking about? On that logic, Dominic Hasek and Curtis Joseph would have never been true starting goalies in my mind. So yes, my logic was flawed on that front.

But Reimer always seemed to have that moment. The rebound he didn’t cover, the easy shot he fumbled, or the out-of-position goal that cost the team a win. Those were more valid reasons I thought, but were also overplayed and misguided for a goalie not even 25 years old at the time. Even the very best goalies have those moments. They’re human. That happens.

Now, I’m converted. I’ve watched Reimer play enough and made myself actually watch him play. Mute the TV, don’t read the postgame analysis and leave the radio off for a couple days after games.

And that’s when I saw it. This guy is good.

Reimer is a starting goalie in the NHL. His 120 game resume is a large enough sample size for me to make that statement. He’s played behind a defense that, to be honest, is hardly elite level. There are games where I could probably get shots through that defensive group to Reimer, and I’m not even good at the beer league level.

On a Leafs team that is under constant public scrutiny, he’s posted a 61-37-15 record. His career save percentage is .917 and goals against average is 2.71. Would I want that on my team? In a heartbeat, yes.

I love hockey intangibles because for an amateur writer like me, we don’t have to back it up. But with Reimer his intangibles are actually obvious – verging on being measurable.

Reimer has perfected the mental aspect of goaltending. The old cliché is that goaltending is 90% mental. Talk to any goalie and you’ll see that’s quite true. And Reimer is grounded. Very grounded. Sometimes you’d think he’s just sitting back having a beer with reporters, not in a postgame scrum – that is if he drank, which I don’t think he does.

From day one, he has seemed honoured to be in the NHL and to pull on a Leafs jersey. From the outside looking in, he seems to be a picture perfect example of a NHL player staying humble.

Through injuries and team collapses, he seems to maintain a strangely consistent perspective on the situation. He hardly every looks rattled in the net. Frustrated, but not rattled. Those are two completely different things.

But more than anything, his constant development as a goalie shows a desire to always be better. Reimer’s style continues to change and adapt.

Although still very athletic and not always positionally sound, Reimer has gotten away from the Francois Allaire style of blocking shots rather than controlling rebounds. Reimer has minimized the number of times he gets caught out of position. He’s controlling shots, following the play better and minimizing the second chances for shooters. Attribute it to the goalie coach all you want, but without commitment from Reimer to change his play, it doesn’t happen. A goalie that sees weaknesses in their play, addresses them and continually reassesses is one that will only get better with time. And Reimer is already pretty damn good.

I was wrong. James Reimer is a very good goalie. He’s a starting goalie. And he could lead a team to a lot of success.

But you were wrong too. You, as a fan base, have maintained that same doubt even as you bought your Optimus Reim t-shirts. It has always been a “Reimer is good, but…” situation for Leafs fans.

That doubt, which we must all admit is misguided, has brought you Jonathan Bernier. An admittedly potential star goalie in the making.

The only problem? You already have one of those. And you’re going to lose him.

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