PHF Playoff Preview: Isobel Cup Final
Previewing the 2023 Isobel Cup Final between the Premier Hockey Federation's Minnesota Whitecaps & Toronto Six.
News broke on Tuesday that Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews has been charged with disorderly conduct following a spring altercation with a woman in Arizona, and the response from many hockey fans and media members has been predictable. While corners of the hockey world have pointed out why this incident should be taken seriously by fans and media alike, the collective response from the hockey world felt like an extended gag from Ace Ventura. Simply searching Matthews' name on twitter revealed scores of hockey fans making light and joking about the news. Many tweeted about performing "pants down" tributes to honor the star forward. But these tweets intentionally trivialize the incident described by the Scottsdale Police Department.
To be clear: a group of men trying to enter a woman's vehicle without her consent is a violent, predatory act designed to be forceful and intimidating. They might be young, but they know what they are doing. To do so in the middle of the night only makes the threat more acute. Dropping your pants and potentially exposing yourself makes your victim wonder about the limits of your retribution. Laughing it off as a joke is one of the most familiar comedy routines of cis men who have knowingly crossed a line and been admonished for it. If a man tries to enter a woman's space without her consent, what other boundaries is he willing to cross?
Late Wednesday night, Toronto reporter Kevin McGran provided more details about the incident, including additional reports that Matthews dropped his pants on multiple occasions at his Scottsdale condo. To read those specifics and laugh them off as nothing requires absolute empathy with the men trying to forcibly enter a woman's car, absolute empathy with the man mooning people, and an absolute erasure of the experience and perspective of women and victims of harassment and assault.
Unsurprisingly, some of hockey's most notable writers choose to empathize solely with Matthews and his friends. Greg Wyshynski tweeted that "Auston Matthews will never visit another bar after 8 p.m. again after reading the Toronto media takes on this." 
Here, Wyshynski suggests both that alcohol was the sole contributing factor and that Toronto's significant sports media scene would somehow come down hard on a star player facing allegations of misconduct. To believe both of these opinions to be true and worth tweeting in the minutes after such news broke requires a (deliberate) lack of understanding regarding misogyny generally and gender-based violence specifically.
For its part, the Toronto media has said little that would make Matthews or any other player worry about the consequences of their actions. Sportsnet ran a story about how the Scottsdale report blindsided the Leafs organization, distracting from the much more important task of selecting Dion Phaneuf's replacement as captain, a vacancy that's lasted almost 4 years.
Matthews has admitted that not informing the Maple Leafs about the police report was an "error in judgment." While it's certainly possible the team remained in the dark about a police report, there's no reason to take the team and network version at face value – the Maple Leafs organization, hockey culture in general, and sports media in general have a historically poor track record with these types of stories. McGran's update included comments from teammates supporting Matthews, providing character references, and portraying Matthews as the victim. Teammate and possible future Leafs captain Morgan Rielly was quoted as saying, "It can be tough…When I went through something, you try not to read about it." It is unclear which incident Rielly is referring to , but his failure to acknowledge that his personal controversies also involved others undermines his credibility as a reference for Matthews.
The organization seems content to downplay the significance of this incident and the networks which cover the team are complicit in that aim. Leafs coach Mike Babcock called it an "unfortunate situation” and veteran leader and captain-candidate John Tavares voiced support for his teammate: "We all know about the quality person and teammate Auston is." For members of the organization to claim to be surprised by the police report and in the same breath know the "quality" of the individual in question requires a certain type of intellectual gymnastics.
Regardless, these gaps weren't interrogated by most of the media members covering the Leafs. TSN team reporter Mark Masters simply retweeted his network's official story and sound bites from players and coaches, which presented a one-sided review of the events. One can make distinctions about the different roles of reporters, columnists, and analysts, but there's nothing in the collective media response that suggests men's hockey players, and Leafs players specifically, have to fear vilification from or being held responsible by the media, which should ease Wyshynski's concerns.
Perhaps the most scathing rebuke of Matthews came from the Toronto Star's Bruce Arthur. I do not wish to repeat the ableist language he used in his article and his tweets about Matthews' behavior, but his use of such terms is telling. Throughout his piece he uses language that undermines his brief attempts to treat the Scottsdale Police Department report as serious. That Arthur cannot see the incongruities that undermine a point he thinks he has made clearly and compellingly is a problem: "If true, it's the kind of… entitled, thoughtless thing that young men are prone to do, especially if they have power and money. Scaring a woman at two in the morning with a group of drunken men is menacing if you think of it from her point of view. Matthews doesn’t seem to have done so."
And Arthur seems to have considered her point of view for only a split second more. It cannot be "menacing" while being merely silly, "entitled, thoughtless," and something "young men are prone to do." A writer who thinks he's making a point about the realities women (and gender nonconforming, trans, non-binary, agender, and intersex folks) face doesn't write a paragraph urging readers to "read the police report" and follow that plea with this sentence: "Of course there are far worse things in sports and in politics and in life, but because Auston Matthews is who he is, this is A Thing" Writers who operate conscientiously in a sport as white and sexist as hockey shouldn't write the following: "This wasn't Antonio Brown, but it wasn't nothing, and an apology to guard is warranted, at the very least. It was the kind of… thing that boys do all the time. A lot of boys have trouble imagining how their fun might feel to others, and women in particular." There are numerous examples of NHLers who have committed gender-based violence, but Arthur curiously chose not to emphasize that related narrative.
Arthur subtly absolves Matthews of guilt by implying that there's no way he could know better; Matthews is like other young men at the start of this piece, not aware of the impact of his actions. Later in the piece (the section quoted above) he uses the tired and toxic "boys will be boys" justification. Matthews the man is framed as youthful and then described as a boy. It functions as a loud plea for his innocence and follows the same script written about many cis men athletes.
Arthur seems to lament that because Matthews is a star hockey player, who plays in Toronto, where hockey media is particularly rabid, the focus will be on whether Matthews is still a candidate for the Leafs' captaincy. Unfortunately, a good portion of the piece earnestly wades into the captaincy debate, despite the author's supposed reluctance. He writes, "But other beloved captains in team history had less appealing pasts than this."  He brings up Bobby Hull's record as a perpetrator of spousal abuse and defender of Hitler to minimize the impact of the Matthews incident. He writes, "Matthews didn’t do any of that. He allegedly did the kind of thing that young men do when they haven't learned empathy yet. You'd hope it was a blip in his life." If a mainstream sports journalist wants to discuss issues of leadership when writing about gender-based violence, a productive place to start would be to highlight the work of numerous women on the subject.
The piece concludes with an appeal to the Teachable Moment: "And if it's true, Auston Matthews should apologize. He may do some community service, if convicted. His hockey career won't stop growing because of this. You just hope he grows from it, too."
Except when we consider and foreground the perspectives of those of us who are not cis men, we cannot accept another teaching moment for athletes or sports writers. The pain and violence experienced by marginalized folks isn't fodder for the personal and professional development of those who have committed the violence. It's not a resource to help privileged athletes and writers grow as individuals. Briefly lamenting toxic masculinity – hockey's disease – before perpetuating some of its worst myths is not disruptive. If cis men who work in sports truly wanted to consider and to foreground the experiences of marginalized folks, it would have happened by now.
If this is to be a teachable moment, Matthews' reaction suggests the lesson has already been lost. He stated that he regretted being a distraction to his team as it prepares for the start of the 2019-20 season next week, before quickly indicating he couldn't discuss the matter more. If we're to take him at his word, it would seem he doesn’t even know what he should be sorry about, despite being presented with a moment to learn from. If this is the case, the apology Arthur hopes for would be utterly meaningless.
 He has since sort of apologized and admitted it was a flippant remark, though believes it has been misconstrued by some.
 In 2015, he made sexist comments by comparing the team's effort to that of girls. In 2019 audio emerged in which a player, believed to be Rielly, shouted a homophobic slur at a referee during a Leafs game. He was cleared of any wrongdoing by the league, but given the league's history of not taking homophobia seriously, his previous sexism (homophobia and sexism work in tandem in hockey), and the lack of credible explanation of the audio clip, I'm not inclined to give him, GM Kyle Dubas, the organization, or the league, the benefit of the doubt.
 Doug Gilmour, for instance.