Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons drew a lot of attention to himself last week with a piece blasting Maple Leafs’ forward Phil Kessel on his way out of town (Kessel was traded to Pittsburgh), writing that the Leafs were “Sick of his act. Tired of his lack of responsibility,” and that Kessel “didn’t eat right, train right, play right.”

That piece is full of so many slams on Kessel that it’s been cited as calling him a cancer without using that word, and it earned Simmons a nomination as Keith Olbermann’s Worst Person In The World on Wednesday. However, beyond comments about Simmons’ opinions on Kessel or his reports of the Leafs’ opinions of Kessel, this piece is also taking fire on an unusual front; Chemmy from Pension Plan Puppets has written an interesting piece asking if Simmons made up the story he opened the column with, about Kessel buying a hot dog from the same vendor every day.

Here’s that part of Simmons’ story, which is still live on the Sun‘s website:

The hot dog vendor who parks daily at Front and John Sts. just lost his most reliable customer.

Almost every afternoon at 2:30 p.m., often wearing a toque, Phil Kessel would wander from his neighbourhood condominium to consume his daily snack.

And now he’s gone. Just like that. The Maple Leafs could no longer stomach having Kessel around, the first player to be both punished and rewarded for the saddest Leafs season in history.

And the key part of Chemmy’s rebuttal:

Let’s be frank: the problem with calling someone out using facts is that facts can be verified. On Thursday night a birdie whispered in my ear that he didn’t think Phil Kessel lived near Front and John. He thought Phil Kessel lived near Bay and College. …

Phil Kessel is literally in the phone book in Toronto:

Phone Book

The phone book seems like a reasonable way to verify a story, Toronto Sun.

What’s the big deal? The big deal is that Steve Simmons put a hit piece out on Phil Kessel, but it’s unlikely that the first anecdote in his story is true. Phil Kessel doesn’t live or work near Front and John, and it’s unlikely that if he wanted a hot dog every day he’d walk half way across a major city to a specific vendor at the busiest time of day to get one there.

At the very least, this calls this part of Simmons’ story into question. Kessel certainly didn’t have a “neighbourhood condominium” anywhere close to this supposed hot dog vendor, and as Chemmy goes on to describe, it seems highly unlikely Kessel would travel across town (and to an exceptionally busy part of Toronto) “almost every afternoon” just to get a hot dog when there would have been plenty of vendors much closer to him. If he really did that, perhaps as part of a regular run or something, that certainly takes away from the lazy reputation Simmons is trying to paint him with. If he didn’t, though, that’s problematic for both Simmons and the Sun. 

Yes, the world isn’t going to change its axial tilt based on whether Phil Kessel did or didn’t regularly consume hot dogs from a particular vendor. However, misreporting even seemingly-trivial facts is not a trivial offence. One of the most famous cases along these lines came from Mitch Albom, who in 2005 wrote a Detroit Free Press piece as if former Michigan State players Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson were at a Final Four game; they’d planned to attend, but didn’t, and the resulting blowback led to Albom being suspended. More recently, erroneous reporting of Joe Paterno’s death led to resignations and firings. Outside sports, the recent Brian Williams scandal at NBC is an order of magnitude greater, and the scandals involving Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair are greater still. This isn’t close to that level, as we’re talking about a single problematic fact in a single piece rather than an ongoing history of fabrication or stretching the truth. There’s also a line between errors of fact (such as in the Albom and Paterno cases) and fabrication (in the Glass and Blair cases). Still, stories reported in a media outlet as truth are expected to be true. When they aren’t, there should be a correction, and a clear explanation of what went wrong.

Perhaps this story is true, and perhaps Phil Kessel really did travel a significant distance across town “most afternoons” to buy a hot dog. If so, great. If not, there’s a substantial issue here. The most charitable interpretation to Simmons is that he received this story directly from the hot dog vendor in question after talking to him on the street (which would verify that this guy exists, owns a hot dog stand and regularly has it at that location) and ran with it without further checks, and even that is problematic considering the ease with which Simmons could have checked Kessel’s address and the possible gain for the vendor here (publicizing his cart as “Phil Kessel’s favourite hot dog stand” certainly could be good for him).  More troubling interpretations could involve Simmons receiving a phone or e-mail tip from the supposed vendor or someone else (this removes the verification of the vendor’s identity) and running with it. Obviously, the most problematic outcome here would be if Simmons created the story out of whole cloth.

At the moment, we don’t know if this story is actually the truth, a tip gone wrong, a full effort to deceive Simmons or something more serious. Simmons’ readers deserve an explanation, though. At the very least, his “neighbourhood condominum” line is inaccurate, and perhaps the whole story has problems. So far, he doesn’t appear to have addressed these criticisms of his story, either on Twitter or in the notes column he posted Saturday. He would be well-advised to do so. The readers’ trust is crucial for media members and media outlets. While the anecdote about a hot dog stand may seem trivial to most fans, it’s the base for Simmons launching his diatribe (much of which borders on becoming personal) against Kessel. And at the moment, it’s hard to trust in the truth of the story Simmons relayed and give credence to the rest of his story.

Update: Olbermann weighed in on Simmons again Monday, citing Chemmy’s distance map and questioning Simmons’ facts. “The Toronto Sun has yet to respond to our inquiry about the Simmons-Kessel weiner saga.”

It’s also notable that multiple inquiries of the vendors working that corner, from Ian Vandaelle and Steve “Dangle” Glynn, have turned up no support for Simmons’ story.

So, that adds to the case for a needed explanation from Simmons. We’ll see where this story goes next.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.

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