I was planning to write this piece before the Nashville debacle on Tuesday night at the ACC. But that game might have demonstrated that my hockey instincts haven’t been entirely lost with the advancing years.
We all understand that the hockey we see nowadays—not just the variety played by the Leafs, but across the board and around the hockey world—is vastly different from the sport I was raised on more than fifty years ago. It’s the same sport, but a very different game. The speed of the game, the equipment, the arenas, money, attitudes...everything is so different.
Yet the issue I wanted to raise today is one of the things about sport—and certainly about the Maple Leafs—that never changes. At least it shouldn’t.
What I’m talking about is pride in wearing the sweater—the historic Maple Leaf sweater. The pride an athlete feels playing for the blue and white.
Every individual who plays for, coaches or works with the organization is part of the Maple Leaf legacy that I’ve written about at VLM over the past many years. And a huge part of the legacy that the Leaf teams that many of us have admired over the years—even during the near five decade absence without a Stanley Cup—is simply this: we expect every guy who wears the Leafs jersey to do so with pride.
That means that, whether you are the “star” or the seventh defensemen, we expect your best effort. As fans, we understand that players are only human. They make mistakes. In fact, hockey is a game of mistakes. We have to expect that. And there are times when guys are playing hurt, are fatigued or sick and simply have nothing left to give. We recognize that, too.
We know that players, like the rest of us, have to deal with everything that goes in in their life. It can be immensely stressful as a professional hockey players, and maybe especially so in the Toronto market.
But all that said, with those caveats in mind, we, as fans, should by and large be able to expect a consistently strong work ethic from every player on the Leaf roster. That means that whether the team is struggling through a losing streak or behind in a game by a big margin, individual pride—and pride in the crest on the front of their jersey—will be the inspiration required to at least give their best possible effort.
So in raising this, while I acknowledge it’s a different game now -and money has indeed changed things a lot because every player is an independent business person now- there’s one matter that is troubling. And it is this: does everyone on this Leaf team really and truly wear the Leaf sweater with pride?
Oh, I know all these guys are good enough and dedicated enough to have reached the pinnacle of their profession. They’re in the NHL, after all. They are handsomely paid, even the guys playing three minutes a night on the fourth line. So we know they have determination and pride by the bucket full to get where they are.
But I’m talking here about the history of the Maple Leaf franchise. Does it mean enough to the players?
It meant precious little to outgoing (is he still here?) MLSE president Tim Leiweke. But I’m beginning to wonder if the Leaf crest means anywhere near what it did even a decade ago.
I well recognize the Leafs have not always been a good team since their last championship in 1967. In those golden days, character filled the dressing room. Fans had “heroes”, a now outdated concept.
Players seemed infused with pride. At least that’s how it felt to most of us as fans. Does anyone really question whether Johnny Bower (who had rough patches as a Leaf netminder; it wasn’t all championships and glory) was proud to be a Leaf? No, we didn’t. His doing the yesteryear version of “bag skates” as a 40 something goaltender at the end of practises under Punch Imlach was not necessary to prove to us that he cared, but he did it because he wanted to be at his best for the Leafs when it mattered.
So no, the Leafs haven’t won anything in 48 years. But in the ‘70s, did anyone doubt that Borje Salming cared? Did Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Tiger Williams take pride in representing Toronto? Of course they did. We could see it and feel it.
This doesn’t mean those Leaf teams didn’t get waxed some nights, just like the Leafs did against Nashville the other night. They did.
Heck, I think most fans could point to Leafs in relatively recent times who obviously cared about being a Maple Leaf. As a coach, Pat Burns sure did. I know Doug Gilmour did, though he started his career elsewhere. So did players like Wendel Clark, Todd Gill, Peter Zezel and so many more.
In more recent times, Pat Quinn cared deeply in his years behind the Maple Leaf bench. He had played for the Leafs and was thrilled to be able to coach them. His players cared, too. Mats Sundin. Curtis Joseph. Gary Roberts. Danny Makkov. Dmitry Yushkevich. They all had big hearts and played that way.
Fill in the blanks with other names that spring to mind, past and present.
I admit that, in hockey, no organization welcomed new players quite like the Montreal Canadiens in their hey-day. I can’t speak for the organization in the last fifteen years or so, but historically, there was something that happened to players when they pulled on the “bleu, blanc and rouge” of Les Habitants. Those who know a little about hockey history know all the great names that have played for the Canadiens over the years. Joliat, Morenz, Richard (above right), Beliveau and Plante are just a few from my own childhood. They have had a ton of true all-time greats sprinkled through their glorious history.
But I’m talking as well about the influence the organization’s values and reputation (and yes, legacy) had on rookies and on every player who joined the organization via trade. Individuals who became part of the Montreal hockey family seemed to play beyond their earlier levels, in order to meet the expectations of the organization and their teammates. They were proud to wear the Montreal sweater and it propelled them to play better. They were part of something bigger than themselves.
That’s one of the reasons Montreal was so good for so many years. Not only did they have a star-studded lineup in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but they had immensely committed third and fourth liners who provided grit and determination and played inspired hockey in a Montreal uniform. I still believe Frank Mahovlich, the great ex-Leaf, played some of his most stress free and inspired hockey in a Montreal uniform.
My question (two, really)?
Are we past the point where those new to the Leafs play better because of the pride they feel in being part of the Leaf legacy?
Does this team play with the kind of pride you expect from the Maple Leafs?
Oh, I know young players always sound excited when they first come here, but I’m talking about more than words.
We know it matters to us as fans. But does being a Maple Leaf still matter to the players?