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Seeing Kaberle at the Olympics brings back fond (and frustrating!) memories

Despite a roster with quite a bit of elite talent, the Czech Republic has struggled at the Olympic games. Some are former NHLers but many are still performing in the National Hockey League and are instantly recognizable even to fairly casual hockey fans. Regardless, we all know names like Smid, Jagr, Krejci, Hemsky, Erat, Zidlicky, Plekanec, Michalek and, like Jagr, another old-time name— Peter Nedved, who began his NHL career almost twenty five years ago.

But the player on the roster who, for obvious Leaf-related reasons, really caught my eye was none other than Tomas Kaberle.

Kaberle was a Leaf I grew to like quite a bit during his tenure with the blue and white.  I appreciated his “back story”- being drafted a gazzilionth overall in 1996 (OK, it was the 8th round and he was something like 200th overall…) and seemingly coming out of nowhere to make the Leafs as an unheralded rookie not long after.

Before you knew it, Kaberle was a 20 year-old playing for then new Maple Leaf coach Pat Quinn, on his/their way to a stunning turnaround from the season before, when the Leafs under Mike Murphy were not even good enough to make the playoffs.  In that 1998-’99 season the Leafs not only improved enough to make the playoffs but they advanced to the “final four” before eventually bowing to the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference finals.

As most of you well know, Kaberle went on to play 11 full seasons with the Leafs. He was arguably our best and most consistent defenseman during that era. He was a big part of those teams that challenged in the playoffs every year, part of all those playoff wins over the Senators, and part of the Leaf club that should have made it past Carolina and into the Stanley Cup finals in the spring of 2002. (I still don’t know how that didn't happen…)

He was, if not quite an ironman, certainly a durable defenseman in his time here.  We all remember his ability to skate the puck out of trouble or hit a flying forward with a great outlet pass—some of the traits we like in current Leaf youngsters like Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly.

I admit that Kaberle infuriated me in some ways because, despite his size (over 200 pounds), he was not exactly a physical defenseman.  It’s not that he did not care or that he didn’t work hard.  He was simply a finesse player.  It was not unlike watching Borje Salming (right) during the great Swede’s 1970s Leaf prime.  Salming was a unique and marvelous defenseman with Gumbi-like skills on skates. He would unflinchingly block shots but in front of his own goal he would sometimes be flailing away on the ice while big Bruin, Flyer or Hab forwards were whacking away at rebounds. For me, that was Salming’s fatal flaw, though he was undisputably a remarkable Leaf.

Similarly, Kaberle was not hard enough on forwards in front of his own goal, and at playoff time, I would become particularly perturbed when he watched Flyer forwards park themselves endlessly on Curtis Joseph’s doorstep, for example.  He also had (how could we forget) an infuriating reluctance to just shoot the puck at times when that was what was called for, as in: get the puck to the net and good things might happen. (That said I think he still scored more than 80 goals in his Leaf career, not so bad for a defenseman, eh?)

But that occasional frustration was balanced by the above-mentioned attributes I noted, along with his ability to find longtime partner Bryan McCabe with some pretty sweet passes on the old Leaf power play.

Those were good times for the most part to be sure, but they started coming to an end when Ron Wilson came to town.  Kaberle never seemed to be Wilson’s kind of player though he certainly put up some ‘numbers’ in Wilson’s first two seasons behind the Leaf bench.  But the team often struggled under Wilson and Brian Burke’s arrival seemed to create an even greater disconnect between Kabby and the Leaf brass. Do you remember Kaberle’s father publicly questioning what the Leafs were doing? Tomas wouldn’t talk about it, but he clearly felt his role with the Leafs was dwindling.

In any event, by his last season here, 2010-’11, I felt Kaberle was a shadow of his former self.  His confidence seemed shot. The little things he had done so well earlier in his career were no longer on automatic pilot.  Maybe he was a second slower, I don’t know. But confidence and no longer being an important part of the team mix was part of it. He loved being a Leaf and that was slipping away from him.

When he was dealt to the Bruins I kind of pulled for him because I thought he got a raw deal at the end from Wilson and Burke in Toronto.  But his game never revived in Beantown, though he was a sort of fifth/sixth defenseman playing very limited minutes by the time the Bruins went on to win the Stanley Cup in 7 games against the Vancouver Canucks.

He was signed to an absurdly rich contract by the Hurricanes in the summer of 2011, a massive overpayment given his evidently declining skills.  Yet the ‘Canes were somehow able to move Kaberle’s contract to Montreal, where, again, he could not find lightning in a bottle.

Eventually, the Habs, if I’m not mistaken, bought him out, and Kaberle, soon to be 36, now plays in the top Czech league for a team that is struggling.

Nonetheless, seeing him with the Czech National team was a treat. No longer the effortless difference-maker he was once, he still evokes fond memories for me.  He did nothing during his time in Toronto that did anything but distinguish him, on or off the ice.

Like most ex-Leafs, I wish him well.  But I have a little extra sentiment for Kaberle, because he was a very good Leaf at a time when the team, under Quinn, was a joy to watch and a contender every season—until the post-lockout year when the team had been gutted.

Hats off to him.

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10 comments:

  1. Hi Michael.

    I remember watching Kaberle during an All-stars shot competition. He either won or came in second. What an amazing and accurate shot he had. Like Kulemin, he didn't use it often enough and we sure complained about it. I remember him saying he always felt his place was behind the blue-line. Nice to know he's still enjoying the game. C.N.

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  2. One of those individuals that is easy to root for, C.N.

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  3. My fondest Kaberle memory was when he scored the game winning goal in Game 5 of the 2001 series versus the New Jersey Devils. If my memory serves me correctly, Brodeur clearly had gotten interfered with yet the goal was not waived off.

    It was the closest we ever got to beating the Devils during that era (we lost game 6 at home and got smoked in game 7).

    Growing up in Montreal, Michael, I had constant debates in the early 2000s with my friends as to whom was the better defenceman: Kaberle or Markov. I never relented -- I campaigned for Kaberle. But Kaberle spending his underwhelming years in Montreal, while Markov was still a top-flight D-man in the NHL destroyed my argument a bit lol.

    Kudos, great post.
    Antoni Nerestant

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    1. I sometimes get those early 2000s playoff series confused, Antoni- we played the Devils, Flyers and Senators so much, it seemed. Wasn't that game 5 Kaberle winner the same series that Domi was tossed for his flagrant act at the end of Game 4? We were in a position to win that series...

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  4. www.leafsdiaries.comFebruary 17, 2014 at 3:16 AM

    Same here. I get confused as well with the Flyers and Devils series. The sens, on the other hand, I have a pretty clear memory of all four playoff series wins (Some of them, I could've believe we won - especially 2002).
    As for the Domi elbow on Niedermayer, I am not sure if it was in 2000 or that same series in 2001.

    .....
    I researched it while writing this post and you are right -- it was in the same series. Your memory is not failing you.

    Antoni Nerestant

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    1. Thanks Antoni. I hope your leafdiaries site is getting plenty of traffic. It's well worth the visit.

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  5. I remember well watching Salming as a kid, although at that age you simply don't have the same ability to analyze a player. I guess I was sold on the notion that he was the "world's finest defenseman", which was said often. Watching some old games replayed on TV, I have noticed that he was quite a bit like Kaberle. Both smooth skating and passing, although not at all physical in their own end. I was always okay with Kaberle that way, maybe because the combination with McCabe seemed to work so well.

    I also appreciated Kaberle's class on and off the ice, he was never controversial (I never bought into the "Muskoka Five" bit, that to me was a management problem and not the fault of players with contracts), he just showed up to play every night. It is great to see he is still playing the game he loves, and still at such a high level, even if his best hockey playing years are behind him.

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    1. I thought the "Muskoka Five" thing was largely a media invention, too. Like you, I appreciate athletes who earn their salary by simply coming to work every day and doing their job without creating a crisis on a regular basis or drawing attention to themselves. He wore the crest with distinction, in my view. Thanks for chiming in, Pete.

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  6. A bit late here, but I felt the same way seeing Kaberle. He's one of those Leafs I'll always think of fondly. His pairing with McCabe, particularly pre-obstruction penalties, was a pleasure to behold. Finesse and strength - the classic duo! And those perfect cross-ice passes setting up McCabe's blueline bombs were a thing of beauty.
    I felt Kaberle was never the same after the hit from behind that concussed him, joining an ever-increasing list of players in a similar situation. It was time to trade him when we did, and I was gald when he was able to participate, however minimally, in a Stanley Cup triumph. Definitely one of the Leaf "good guys" in my book.

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