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Unrelenting circus following the Leafs is starting to get to the players

A day after the Toronto Maple Leafs were all over the news for Phil Kessel’s rant about “embarrassing” media coverage and two teammates threatening a lawsuit against TSN and an Internet commenter, Deadspin blared the headline “Joffrey Lupul Is Now Threatening To Fight People On Instagram.”

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

They made Deadspin. As an athlete, you never want to make Deadspin.

A day after the Toronto Maple Leafs were all over the news for Phil Kessel's rant about "embarrassing" media coverage and two teammates threatening a lawsuit against TSN and an Internet commenter, the gossip website blared the headline "Joffrey Lupul Is Now Threatening To Fight People On Instagram."

It was another sign that the Leafs' quick, painful descent down the NHL standings has also become a descent into madness.

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If you love the Leafs, it's all kind of sad.

If you don't, this is the sort of train wreck that everyone crowds around to watch.

Losing is one thing. It happens. In Buffalo, it was expected. In Edmonton, it's routine. In Arizona, it's met with a relative shrug.

In Toronto, off the ice, it has been a good thing, in the sense that management has been able to set a clear course (a rebuild) and will get a terrific draft pick in June (likely in the four to six range, barring a lottery win).

For the players, however, this has been torture – especially with cameras and reporters on hand to document the free fall.

Professional athletes hate losing, and the Leafs have done an awful lot of it in the most high-profile market in the league.

In the early morning hours on Wednesday, Lupul posted a picture of what appeared to be his hotel bar fridge on Instagram, with a funny quip.

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Because he had been in the news over a potential lawsuit related to a lewd tweet from a fan, the comments on the photo quickly turned into a cesspool, one that the veteran player regrettably waded into.

"How's your legal representation?" Lupul wrote to one anonymous taunter, before later adding, "Or you and I can just settle it."

"Only in Toronto does a picture about a fridge turn into this junk," said another fan who was watching it unfold.

It's tempting to expound on the futility of trying to fight the Internet; after all, there will always be another idiot with another crass comment, as Lupul – one of the NHL's most popular players on Twitter – well knows.

But the other athlete-fights-back story this week was that of retired pitcher Curt Schilling, who defended his daughter from attacks on Twitter by rooting out the identities of those involved and publishing them on his blog.

One college student was suspended. Another lost his job as a ticket seller for the New York Yankees.

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"In the real world, you get held accountable for the things you say," Schilling later wrote.

So there's hope – in theory – if players do want to continue a similar online crusade.

What Lupul's comments signify more than anything, though, is how deep and painful the past few months have been. The Leafs never expected to be here, even after last year's struggles, as the roster had ostensibly improved with their additions up front.

Instead, they're on pace for 11 fewer points and a spot in the basement.

One NHL coach said this week that he has a meeting with his team every season to talk specifically about Twitter, as there are so many potential issues that can come up.

A big part of his advice? Don't read what people are saying back to you.

The Leafs haven't taken that advice nearly enough this year, and it's only compounded their frustration.

Kessel may well have had a point on Tuesday in that some of the media coverage and comments they get are unfair. The players have felt since their 9-2 blowout loss to the Nashville Predators back in November that they've been under siege, which is what led to skipping the salute of the fans after a win, which led to the media furor that was Salute-gate.

It's been an almost unrelenting circus since then.

Their efforts to fight back, in other words, have backfired. The Leafs are under such scrutiny that they only increase the focus on them and generate even more headlines when they respond to it all, building it into an even greater spectacle.

There's no Schilling-like redemption story to be had here.

Playing in Toronto is not easy, but as the past 30-odd games have shown, it's especially difficult when you lose. The franchise really has only way out of all this, and that's to win – and forget about everything else.

Otherwise, you get this mess.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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