He’s been a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs for less than two weeks, and has yet to take the ice, but already there’s controversy stirring around Tim Connolly.
Those in the game who know him well, however, say the knocks against the Leafs’ latest hope at centre are undeserved.
The latest criticism of Connolly, the NHL club’s only major free-agent signing this year, was published in the Toronto Sun this week, suggesting his reputation amongst “hockey people” consists of being “difficult,” a “loner,” a “spoiled brat” and “not a team player.”
The article drew the ire of several of Connolly’s former teammates with the Buffalo Sabres, including star netminder Ryan Miller, who painted a picture of a player who has been unfairly criticized throughout his career while battling through a series of devastating injuries.
“It’s unfortunate the media hasn’t even let him get on the ice before starting with this crap,” Miller said Thursday.
“I think some people in the media [in Buffalo] felt like he owed them explanations beyond what he cared to share, and it just became a little bit of a vendetta. From my perspective, the only thing Tim doesn’t care about is what the talking heads think about him. He cares about hockey fans, he cares about winning and he cares about his teammates.
“In my book, that’s all that matters.”
Being a target for criticism from media and fans is hardly new for Connolly. Picked fifth overall in the 1999 draft by the New York Islanders, he has had a hard time living up to the lofty expectations.
After making the Islanders as an 18-year-old, he lasted only two years before being dealt to Buffalo for popular Sabres captain Mike Peca, who was in the midst of a contract holdout.
Quiet and reserved, Connolly initially struggled in Buffalo, putting up only 25 points in his second season there and running into concussion issues that led to him missing the entire 2003-04 season.
He hasn’t played a full season since, missing 190 games over the six post-lockout seasons – including all but two games in 2006-07 with back and neck issues that may have been related to post-concussion syndrome.
When he’s been healthy, Connolly has been productive, with 250 points in 302 games since the lockout – the equivalent of a 68-point pace over a full season – which is why the Maple Leafs gave him a two-year, $9.5-million (U.S.) deal to be their top-line centre.
Miller said while Connolly’s critics derided him for being soft and injury prone, he saw a young player battle through injuries to become much more well-rounded, playing a key role on both the power play and penalty kill in recent years.
“Tim committed to recreating himself over the last few years to bring value to our team,” Miller said. “He hasn’t been perfect and no one is … but he has had major obstacles to contend with and has come out as a solid NHL player every time he has been knocked down. He never quit.”
Connolly’s agent, J.P. Barry, added the environment in Buffalo had gotten so poor it was time for him to leave the city after 10 years of being a lightning rod for critics.
“It just didn’t stop over the years,” Barry said of criticism Connolly faced from members of the Buffalo media, including one who branded him “Tiny Tim” early on – a nickname that caught on with fans.
“Unfortunately, there were a couple journalists in particular that took a rough approach to him and continued to do that. I can only assume they’re the source of these stories,” the agent said. “He’s played in the league since he was 18 years old and there’s a lot of guys in this league that like him a lot.
“He’s a quiet, respectful kid. … We know how other players feel about him, and it’s just completely the opposite of what’s being said in this article.”
Miller said he believes Connolly, 30, will excel with the Maple Leafs, a division rival the Sabres will face six times next season.
“He’ll do well with a fresh start,” the goalie said. “He’s misunderstood by the media and the fans.”
When the Toronto Maple Leafs acquired defenseman Cody Franson from the Nashville Predators it was hailed as a great move by Leafs GM Brian Burke and a solid addition to the Leafs lineup. After all, Franson is a younger player and a blue liner that plays with offensive skills. While the Leafs have physical defensemen in the lineup like captain Dion Phaneuf and Keith Aulie, Franson will be able to help them score goals.
Toronto AM 640 host Bill Watters in talking about the acquisition of Franson, however, had a different way of discussing Franson on the air and Leafs blog Pension Plan Puppets is doing their part to point out how crass it was. As for what Watters had to say on Franson, it may seem innocuous on first glance, but it’s possible there was a darker meaning to it all.
“Well, I’m at a loss. The only… you’ve got to look through his statistics, he’s got some offensive flair, he is not what you would call a rugged, truculent, testosteronic, guy… He’s more of a 3rd of July parade guy. He likes to enjoy the good life and I don’t, I just can’t put a reason behind why you’d give up on a 6’5 defenceman with offensive skill unless he’s just a bit too soft.”
If you’re wondering what parade went on in Toronto on July 3rd, that was the Gay Pride parade. The same parade that Leafs GM Brian Burke participated in in honor of his son Brendan. Now you see why this statement could be a lot more foolish.
At Pension Plan Puppets, they’d like answers and they’d like to know what Watters meant by what he said. Watters has not responded to them but the site is making their case very clear and Burke’s involvement in supporting gay rights is at the center of it.
If Watters intended this as an anti-gay slur, it is unacceptable. Leafs fans haven’t had a lot to be proud about over the last few years as far as on-ice matters are concerned, but off the ice, the Leafs organization has given us several reasons to cheer. The Leafs have been at the forefront of the developing movement to confront and eliminate homophobia in hockey.
Burke’s commitment to fighting homophobia and intolerance, particularly since the death of his son Brendan, has been truly inspiring. While we would like to think that the organization would reconsider their relationship with AM 640, “the home of the Leafs” because of something like this, we realize that will never happen. These contracts go to the highest bidder, and every penny counts (especially if we’re going to buy more Cody Fransons). Moreover, we don’t know if Watters reflects the views of the station’s ownership.
If Watters meant what it seems like he did with his phrasing, he’s flat out wrong for describing a player in such a way. It’s careless, pointless, and needlessly hateful to say things that way. Playground insults borne out of cruel beliefs have no place in the media. If Watters meant something else by what he said, he’d be better served to clear the air and explain himself.
Given how the Toronto media likes to act out, however, we’re not expecting anything to come of it. After all, when Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun went after and “deeply offended” Brian Burke for going to Afghanistan to visit Canadian troops on the day NHL free agency kicked off on July 1, nothing came of that other than Burke being especially cold towards Simmons in press conferences. It’s tough to make your mark in Toronto media and to do what it takes to get ratings or readers, but if Bill Watters opted to take a potshot at a new player in such a foul way… That’s unnecessary and wrong.