I know a lot of words get tossed around when discussing sports teams, especially when they win something: you know, we attribute terms like character, determination, a "never-say-day" attitude, etc. to successful teams. We also often talk in terms of a particular group of players being an “offensive team”, “defensively responsible”, a “come-from-behind team”, or a “group that never quits”.
I guess what I’m getting at is, most good teams have, or at least over time develop what we call an identity. It’s perhaps a bit of an over-used term, but I believe it has some meaning. I accept that even some championship teams did not necessarily have a particular “identity”. But for me, there is something to the idea that a good “team”, as a collective unit, has or at least over time builds something special together—a spirit, a togetherness that manifests itself not only in that sense of strong camaraderie, but also in the way they play. Teams who feel—and believe—that they have a unique identity, something particular to them as a group, tend to fight hard to play to that identity because they have earned the designation in the minds of the media, their fans- and maybe in their own minds, as well.
Again, it shows itself by the traits or characteristics that we, as fans and observers, can’t help but notice. It is demonstrated in comments such as “you don’t want to go up against that team right now, they are playing with so much heart…” or “I hope we don’t face those guys in the playoffs, because they’re so hard to play against”. That’s usually code (in fact, it’s more than code, it’s pretty direct) for: those guys are good, and there is something a bit different about them. They are either tough, physical, aggressive, determined—pick a word. But at the end of the day, they (those good teams with an identity) generally hate to lose and more often than not, find a way to win. You could see that in those great Montreal teams in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. When I was a young hockey fan in that era and observing their success very closely, I sometimes felt as though they hated losing even more than they liked winning. Individuals like Rocket Richard, Doug Harvey, Dickie Moore, "Boom Boom" Geoffrion (Geoffrion is shown in late 1950s action against Don Simmons and the Bruins, above left), Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard and then Serge Savard, Guy Lafleur, Jacque Lemaire, Larry Robinson and Ken Dryden were intensely proud of their team's success- and they were surrounded by teammates who cared as deeply as the "superstars" did.
Of course, talent wins, too, but we see year after year in the playoffs that talent alone doesn’t do it. Otherwise, the Canucks would have won by now, or maybe the Sharks, too.
This all leads me to our own situation with the Leafs. Years into Burke’s make-over, we are indisputably better than we were four years ago, at least in my mind. (We are not as far along as I think we should be, but that's a debate for another day...) Our system is certainly stocked with, in overall terms, better players—at least more players who have a shot at playing (and playing well) some day in the NHL. But though Burke used a lot of words in his early years with the organization (truculence and all that), just what are the Maple Leafs right now? Do they have an identity? If so, how would you define or describe that identity?
I realize that I ask this question at the very time that a new coach is taking over for his first full season behind the bench, and at a time when some new, younger faces may be in the line-up come early next season. They are clearly a work in progress. But I think it’s fair to ask the question. And if we do not, for example, have a firmly entrenched identity right now, what is it shaping up to be? What does Carlyle want it to be? And given our roster reality (and yes, recognizing some additions/deletions are of course entirely likely by the time the season starts), what are we right now?
And here’s my last question for the day: for those of you who have been following this franchise for years, and have bled blue and white for some time, can you think back to a time when the Leafs had a certain quality that was worth being defined within the context of having a particular “identity”?
I lied. One more question: if you could describe it in a few words, what, to be really successful in the next few years, do you think the current Leaf team has to become, in terms of their on-ice identity?
Let me know your thoughts….