It’s time to talk about the humiliation of Jake Gardiner

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 24: Jake Gardiner #51 of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks on against the Boston Bruins during the first period at the Air Canada Centre on February 24, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 24: Jake Gardiner #51 of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks on against the Boston Bruins during the first period at the Air Canada Centre on February 24, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Now that the 2018 playoffs are a thing of the (not-so-distant) past, it’s time to have a serious dialogue about the humiliation of Jake Gardiner.

April 25, 2018. A rather dark moment in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ recent history.

Heading into the third period of Game 7 of the Buds’ first-round series against the Boston Bruins, the odds looked to be leaning in Toronto’s favor. A redemption story for the ages was within the club’s grasp — one that potentially entailed a victory over the team’s most apparent rival within recent years.

Nevertheless, the jaws of defeat were as wide as could be. The Bruins — battered, outworked and exhausted though they may have been — went on to score four unanswered goals. It was an embarrassing twenty minutes, of which the conclusion resulted in the Maple Leafs’ elimination by a score of 7-4 from contention for Lord Stanley’s trophy.

Even more embarrassing, however, was the way in which certain fans opted to humiliate defender Jake Gardiner.

Make no mistake: Gardiner’s performance — or lack thereof — was, without question, the worst of his career. As Sportsnet’s Luke Fox recounted in a post-game review: “Gardiner was a dash-five. He had two giveaways. He fumbled the puck frequently and compounded his poor decisions. His passes refused to stretch, and when they did, it was for icings. When Babcock tapped No. 51 on the shoulder, 61 per cent of the shot attempts were being blasted at the visitors’ end.”

Indeed, few would trouble the notion that Gardiner was one of the primary driving forces behind the Maple Leafs’ heartbreaking elimination. The court of public opinion was quick to criticize the high-risk, high-reward defender, and — to an extent — rightfully so. Gardiner knew this, as he braved the storm of media-configured questions almost immediately after the game’s conclusion. Fighting back tears, the then-27-year-old married responsibility with sheer honesty: “Personally, I got to be better. A lot of this game is on me … It’s just not good enough, especially in a game like this. It’s the most important game of the season, and I didn’t show up.”

But as Maple Leafs’ superfan, blogger and notable podcast host Steve Dangle wrote just days after that notorious night, “Jake Gardiner is a lot of things, among them a defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs who drives me nuts sometimes. He’s also a human being.”

Of course, Dangle was speaking to the enormous flood of hate that occupied the talk circuit of social media following the matchup’s ending. The minutes turned into hours and the hours turned into days, as Gardiner’s Instagram and Twitter accounts became enveloped by messages of the revolting variety — ranging from dog-whistled criticisms to full-fledged calls for the defender’s head, the specifics of which are not worth repeating.

Maybe it’s a testament to the ease with which online hate has become normalized in the digital age, or a broader reflection of the eerie sense of amiability that underlines discussions regarding heavy matters that are problematically rendered unimportant — both in substance and in nature. Yet to refer to the constant flow of hate that overwhelmed the veteran defender’s social media footprint in the days that followed the game as simply “part of the job” is to commit an egregious fallacy.

Once again, let’s be clear: this is not an attempt to undermine some of the very real criticisms of Gardiner that have become a staple of Maple Leafs-related discourse — nor is it an effort to impose limitations upon the wide-ranging opinions of the club’s fans. It’s merely a call for Leafs Nation to be better, for the game’s viewers to stay respectful and, above all, for fans to conduct themselves with a reasonable degree of decency as we approach the outset of the 2018-19 campaign.

Back in 2010, fans of the Montreal Canadiens embarked upon a similar course of action, booing superstar goaltender Carey Price during a preseason matchup against the aforementioned Bruins. “Relax, chill out,” Price remarked. “We’ve got lots of time. We’re not winning the Stanley Cup in the first exhibition game.” And while the Habs were in the midst of their worst ten-game start since 1941 in the early stages of this past season, a select few of the Bell Centre’s attendees issued a “Bronx cheer,” mocking the netminder after he made a relatively easy save during a 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings.

For some, the mimicking of Price and the humiliation of Gardiner may seem like an “apples to oranges” comparison. The former has all but carried his team for seasons on end, while the latter is among the more polarizing figures in the eyes of his club’s fans. Better yet, the actions of a select few should not dictate the more general perception of an organization’s broader fanbase. So what’s the point?

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Some have argued that fans should tread carefully when ushering forth a Patrick Roy treatment of a given player. But as the Gardiner moment has taught us, perhaps it’s time to rethink this particular approach to public critique altogether. Now that the 2018 playoffs are a thing of the seemingly distant past, a season of promise is on the not-so-distant horizon and the spirit of community is particularly strong, self-reflection is more important than ever before.

So please, Leafs Nation, let this be a watershed moment. Have your opinion on Gardiner, yes — but remind yourself that he, too, is human. The responsible criticism that he received may have been warranted, but the vitriol that assumed control of certain individuals was nothing short of abhorrent.