Q and A with James Mirtle: On the Leafs, Toronto sports media, and The Athletic

    As a kid, I was always a huge hockey fan. I loved playing (though I peaked around age 9) and loved following the NHL. My first jersey was a white Sergei Berezin jersey. My room was mostly used as a battleground for mini sticks, complete with one of these lighting the space:

    Then the NHL locked out the entire 2004-05 season. I was 12 years old, and at the peak of my fanhood. The Leafs had just made six consecutive trips to the playoffs, Pat Quinn was behind the bench, and Mats Sundin reigned supreme as a bonafide elite centre. A year without hockey was a long time, and the lockout managed to kill most of my interest in the NHL.

    I didn’t truly get back into the NHL until grade 12. I was the proud new owner of my dad’s old laptop, and a relatively new Twitter user. Fellow contributor David Venturi saw me on Twitter in class and pointed me towards @DownGoesBrown (Sean McIndoe), which led me down a rabbit hole of hilarious posts and deep into the rest of the Barilkosphere. As I started to get back into Leafs fandom, a few reporters began to emerge as staples in my feed, particularly James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail.

    Mirtle stood out to me as one of the first mainstream media writers to not only acknowledge the value advanced stats, but to actually incorporate them into his articles. I found that his writing did an excellent job of introducing analytics to casual fans and helped bring them into the mainstream. His seemed like one of the lone voices in the Toronto media with this view, as many prominent writers were staunchly opposed to the notion that something called “Corsi” could have any value.

    Man, what a tweet.

    Fast forward to 2017, and the tone surrounding analytics and advanced stats has changed immensely. Teams are hiring former bloggers and analytics folk, broadcasts are showing graphics with shot location charts and possession metrics, and all but the most stubborn/old school have started to come around on the value of analytics in hockey. Mirtle is now the editor-in-chief of The Athletic, a subscription-based sports website that recently launched in Toronto after a successful debut in Chicago sports. Their coverage of the Leafs includes great writers including the aforementioned Sean McIndoe, David Alter, and Dom Luszczyszyn, to name a few. It’s been really interesting to see a non-traditional platform with new school writers succeed in a major market.

    We get to hear about the NHL from a variety of different perspectives – the veteran GM in the press conference, the rookie after his first game, the former player on a TSN panel, etc. I’ve always been interested in hearing about the experience from the perspective of the actual members of the media. I reached out to James Mirtle a little while ago, and he was very gracious in answering few questions for me about his experience in Toronto sports media and his newest venture.

    When it comes to hockey, Toronto has an incredibly passionate and opinionated fanbase. What kind of challenges and opportunities has this created for you as a reporter?

    Mirtle: One thing you want as a writer is to be well read and have an impact.  One of the greatest things about covering the Leafs is they have an immense following, both of people who love them and people who hate them.  They are easily the most popular team in the Canadian English media, and they drive a huge amount of traffic.  It was a great opportunity for me in 2009 to be able to start on such a prominent beat as a younger reporter.

    The challenges are that you deal with a lot of emotions from the fan base. I’ve been called every name that exists on Twitter.  I’ve been called a homer and a hater for years, by the two sides.  You learn to ignore it.  

    As a reporter for the Leafs, how has the team been at accommodating and facilitating your work and other media members? Has this changed at all with the Leafs’ culture change over the two years?

    Brian Burke was great in the sense that he was always available to talk to and always quotable, but he was terrible in the sense that he would go ballistic if you wrote something he didn’t like. (Which I did often.)  While it’s much harder to get interesting information from the new regime, I prefer the professional style that Shanahan and Lamoriello deal with the media.  I have had no issues working with them.

    As an organization, the Leafs have made strides to be inclusive and promote equality; for example, through partnership with the You Can Play organization. Have you seen this mentality reflected in the dressing room, among the players, coaches and staff?

    I certainly haven’t noticed any problems along these lines.  The Leafs now have one of the friendlier and open-minded dressing rooms in all of the time I’ve covered the team.

    You’ve recently joined The Athletic as editor-in-chief for Toronto. So far, the site seems to have been incredibly well-received, with people especially taken by the high quality of content. It seems like every other day you announce that another well-loved writer has been added to the team. What approach has The Athletic taken that has allowed you to acquire so much writing talent?

    There are a lot of high quality people who aren’t being given a great opportunity to write about hockey and be paid for it.  We are trying to take the best of the best and give them the freedom to write what they want to write.  I believe a writer-driven approach is the best way to get the best out of people.  

    With the Raptors, TFC and the Jays having recently made strong playoff runs, and the Leafs playing their most exciting hockey in ages, Toronto is a great place to be a sports fan right now. Has the excitement around the local teams helped with the launch of the site?

    That is a big reason why The Athletic came to Toronto. They chose this city, in part, because of where the teams are at, just like they chose Chicago because of where the Cubs, Blackhawks etc. were at. It certainly helps in terms of fan interest in our coverage.

    Without being too broad, what is your vision for The Athletic in 2017? Are there any new sections/features we should be looking forward to?

    We are going to go big on baseball. And huge on Leafs and Raptors if/when they make their playoff push.  March through May for us will be a very exciting time — we’ll have so much content I don’t think people will be able to read it all.  And it’ll be quality content.