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A loss takes us into the break: Is the culture really better now in Leafland? If so, better than when?


When I was a young Leaf fan back in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and Toronto went on the road to play a team (Boston, for example) my buddies and I figured they had no shot against, we’d joke about them simply “mailing” the other team the two points, as in:  they shouldn’t even  bother to show up.

Well, to the Leafs’ credit, even though they knew their nemesis, Roloson, was in net for the vastly improved Lightning Tuesday night, they showed up anyway.  Despite an uneven start, they came on to play hard and they certainly didn’t mail it in.

Reimer did his job—clearly (for now) the guy Leaf fans (and maybe players) are most comfortable with when they see him in the net.

Still, it was yet another night when the puck just didn’t want to go in.  Kessel alone had six shots on goal, but took several other attempts.  It was part Roloson, part, well, the puck just not going in.

You can’t play much more than Phaneuf played (more than 30 minutes) with Beauchemin not far behind.

The Leafs have 43 points in 49 games.  We head to the break.

**

When Ron Wilson became coach of the Leafs the summer prior to the 2008-’09 season, and after Brian Burke came aboard as GM a few months later, there was much talk of ridding the team of the supposed ‘blue and white disease’ and the sense of ‘entitlement’ that players had.

It sounded as though rot had set in going back several generations.

To be honest, as frustrating as being a Leaf fans has been for good chunks of the past 40+ years (and I've lived through those years), I’m not sure there was any ‘disease’ that needed being rid of.  A culture of ‘entitlement’?  Well, unfortunately, that sense of entitlement exists in many sports from very young ages, when athletes are first streamed into “rep” and “all-star” teams.  These young players hear how great they are, and that is exacerbated when we later pay them millions of dollars a year to do something they used to do for fun.

So whether being a Toronto Maple Leaf is somehow unique in that regard, I don’t really know.

The thing that I’ve never fully understood is what was so wrong with the organization (Peddie aside) in the first place?  When, for example, the team was within a whisker of going to the Cup finals in 2002, or before that in 1998, 1994 and 1993, was there a problem?  Those teams played their guts out, were very well coached, and provided us with entertaining hockey.  Even in 2003 and 2004, the Leafs were involved in spirited playoff series.  They were tough, proud teams who, in the end, just didn’t have quite enough to advance.  We can argue that, with their pre-lockout payroll, they should have achieved more, and perhaps that’s fair.  (Then again, New York Ranger fans, who have been frustrated since 1994, could make a case that their team spent even more back then and was far less successful…)

I don't think many fans felt there was "rot" in the organization, or that the team needed a change in culture.

So when Wilson came aboard, was he being critical of his predecessors as coach? Of the players he inherited? What exactly were he and Burke getting rid of?  (Clearly they weren’t happy with what they had, and a review of Burke’s player moves demonstrates that he has created virtually an entirely new roster.  And Leaf fans largely applaud him for that, though they are still a team in progress.)

Now, if a fan wants to criticize the John Ferguson Jr. era, well, that’s fair game.  I am among those who believe that he was not equipped to be a GM at that point in his career, and that he did not lean on the knowledgeable people around him, possibly because he was insecure in his new, very powerful, role.

This is not to unfairly criticize Ferguson.  He worked to try and improve the team.  It simply didn’t work.  History shows the team went quickly backwards under his watch (it’s useful to go back and look at the player movements after the end of the 2003-’04 season, the last year they were a good team), beginning with the post-lockout 2005-’06 season, which was really the first year that it was “his” team, the squad he built.

So after Paul Maurice, like Pat Quinn before him, saw little success when handed the talent at his disposal, he was gone after two seasons and in came Wilson.  But it’s not as though the organization had been wandering around in the dark for 20 years.  Far from it.  As I mentioned above, on four separate occasions in the previous 15 years the team made it to the “final four”.  So any “rot” (if it’s even fair to go back to that term) existed at all in terms of player attitudes, it had set in only very recently.

But my question for fellow Leaf enthusiasts is this:  For all the changes in the front office and on the ice, is the culture really much better now under Burke and Wilson?  Is this team any prouder of being Maple Leafs than the good squads I noted earlier? 

It’s a different era and a different league now, I well realize, but after Cliff Fletcher took over and brought in Pat Burns shortly thereafter and when Dryden/Mike Smith brought in Quinn, they turned the team around in very short order.

If an “attitude shift” was required during both earlier regimes, it happened very quickly. The teams in those eras were tough, hard to play against most nights and generally well constructed and proud units.   Strong leadership was in place (Gilmour/Clark in the mid-‘90s, Sundin/Roberts etc. years later) on those teams.

I’d be interested to hear if you believe things are so different now.  Are the the Maple Leafs  “better” attitude-wise than they were back then, or just better than they were between 2005-2007? 

If so, how?

I look forwarding to your comments.

           

3 comments:

  1. Long suffering Leaf fanJanuary 26, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    Enjoyed your piece on Rick Vaive. As for your question, do I think that the culture is better now than before? My answer is somewhat. Compared to period from 79-90 most certainly, but before then and the year following—not on your life, Mr. Burke! I can still hear the chilling words of Ron Wilson commenting to a reporter about Mats, “How many Stanley Cups did he win?” Moreover, on another occasion with an episode, he had with a fan in the super market, when this fan said to Mr. Wilson, “To bad you don’t have a Wendell Clark on your team,” and he shot back, “I rather have George Armstrong, at least he won Stanley Cups.” True Mr. Wilson, nobody can debate what George Armstrong did for the Leafs as captain throughout the sixties, but as I also recalled he had a stellar team to lead! I think you need to remember that you are not nor Mr. Burke is a Punch Imlach either. Mr. Imlach would not put up with the repeated costly mistake that the veterans on this team do, on a nightly base, and continue to get their ice time. At his press conference when he was name coach of the Leafs, Mr. Wilson said he would make this team better on the penalty kill, they will block shots, better defensively, and even though, they may not be the most talented team on the ice, they will play hard for “sixty minutes.” Well, after 3 years, there has been little result! The Leafs are still wheeling at the bottom of the league defensively and on the P.K, and they block very few shots. Mr. Wilson, as for your comments concerning what you said about the two former Leafs captains-at least they did lead their respective teams to two conference finals! How many times have you been there?
    As for Mr. Burke, sorry I am one of the few who has not been drinking your kool aid. The so-call entitlement that you adamantly said you would rid this team off, still lives on. Case in point, because he is a veteran, your goalie Giguere gets to pick which team he will plays against: the coddling that Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel receive is sickened. It is time that someone gives these two, (along with some others), an honest to goodness kick in the pants! Sorry, I forgot, only real fans of the Leafs know where you are going with this team. After being a Leaf fan for 43 years of my life, thanks for letting me know, I am not a fan! Well at least I know when the Leafs were building a real team. Everybody would agree that Mr. Gregory teams of the early 70’S were true Stanley Cup contenders. Moreover, his teams of the late 70’S, with a player or two could at least compete for a cup. As I recall, I think you were on those teams Mr. Wilson, right. Mr. McNamara as G.M had his faults, but it is safe to say, that his teams never been shut out 8 times in one season like your team has this year Mr. Burke. Must be a record? I do not remember a Leaf team ever shut out this often in the past. Well, Mike, now you truly know how I feel about Mr. Burke so call claims, better quit, before I get myself into more trouble. Keep up the good work, a true fan of your site.

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  2. Great post, Long suffering...Valid comments. I know that both you and I realize this is a different era in the NHL, and a different time to lead or play for the Maple Leaf organization. But I think people often place far too much empahsis on who won Stanley Cups. Was Sundin not an elite player because he could not "lead" the Maple Leafs to the Cup, against stanuch opposition? To me he was not perfect, but a wonderful player who helped bring the Leafs awfully close on a few occasions. With a slightly different supporting cast, would he have been a "winner"?

    I believe your comments on Burke and Kessel/Phaneuf strike home for many as well. You may remember that I've posted in the past, wondering where the Kessel/Wilson relationship will eventually end up once the required honeymoon period is over. It may well be the same with Phaneuf. Those are both major Burke moves, and Wilson obviously has to be supportive of what Burke is doing, especially with "big names".

    We both well remember the teams Gregory built- not quite enough raw talent but plenty of grit and character. No "rot" there.

    Thanks again for taking the time to visit and for your reflections.

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  3. The culture of the current Leafs' squad is certainly no better than that in the 1990s or early 2000s. Those teams not only achieved decent results in terms of making it to the final four (and perhaps a robbed Habs-Leafs showdown if not for Gretzky and Kerri Fraser in 1993), but had solid leadership that demanded a consistent effort on most nights. Gilmour/Clark and Sundin/Roberts impressed many with their work ethic both off and on the ice, and through leading by example, fielded teams that were difficult to play against both during the season and in the playoffs. Just ask the Ottawa Senators.

    However, the current Leafs' squad is certainly better than that of the JFJ era. By giving out no-trade clauses paired with hefty contracts like they were loot bags at a 5-year old's birthday party, he sucked the will to work out of the team. Players like Tucker, Kubina, and McCabe would consistently underperform, and never seemed to demonstrate the leadership and effort that Leaf fans expected of them.

    Could this team work harder on most nights? Absolutely, but they are far from the doldrums of effort we saw during Ferguson's tenure.

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