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Does it matter where Maple Leaf players come from? Well, yes…and no

The Leafs have been competing hard for Carlyle, and that was certainly the case again on Saturday night at home against the visiting Flyers.

I was among those not exactly enthralled with the proceedings (from an entertainment point of view) but it would appear that, for now, we won't be able to have the best of both worlds.  We can watch dull, efficient hockey and hope for some narrow victories.  No longer will Grabovski and Kessel fly around, it seems.  We'll have to settle for 2-1 wins.

I'm sensing that would be just fine for most Leaf fans, though that wasn't the approach in the much more exciting Quinn years, or more recently under Wilson.  But it it's effective, then winning trumps all, I guess.

Gustavsson certainly played well.  Too bad the other guy did, too.  That may be, partly, a function of the "new" defensive system Carlyle is insisting upon.  Goalies will get a clearer look at most shots.

That shoot-out move by Giroux was the kind of thing we'd try (not that neat, but sort of...) on the river when we were playing outdoors on the local ice ponds as kids.  But it was a lot more impressive watching him do it.  Wow.

I’m not interested in re-hashing the Coach’s Corner debate from last week about whether the Leafs have/need/should have Ontario-born players.  But it does raise a matter that I’ve touched on only a bit here over the years—and one that I tried to delicately address a while back when it comes to the Montreal Canadiens (click to read more…) and their history.

What I tried to say about the Habs is that, as a long-time hockey guy whose family and cultural roots go back to French-Canada, I still wish the Canadiens actually had more French-Canadians on their roster.  No, not to the exclusion of athletes from anywhere else.  Simply that I like the idea that a team based in Quebec, with a rich legacy of great players- and many wonderful French-Canadian players - would see that continued somewhat in its modern-day roster make-up.

I’m sure not everyone agrees.  I’m guessing not even everyone in Montreal agrees, or that all Quebecers would adopt my perspective.  I get it.  It’s just that, for me, there should always be the modern-day equivalent on the Habs of a Bouchard, a Richard (see the great old picture of the "Rocket", Maurice Richard, at right), a Beliveau, a Savard, a Lafleur—a player of significance who also happens to bring that extra dimension as well as, I suppose, a touch of...let's call it cultural nostalgia.

When it comes to the Leafs, I often hear it said that Leaf fans don’t care where our players are from.  In fact, people will say, “I don’t care if they’re all from (insert location), as long as we win…” and I get that, too.

I guess for me the feeling is a bit different than that.  It’s maybe not so much an Ontario thing, or a Greater Toronto Area (GTA) thing.  But it is a Canadian thing- for me.

Listen, I have loved a lot of Leafs who weren’t “Canadian” over the years.  I’m sure you all have too.  Once they wear the blue and white, they’re Maple Leafs and we’re justifiably proud of them.  I don’t have to go through the entire list, whether they have originally been from Sweden, the former Czechoslovakia, the United States—wherever.

But I’d be a bit surprised if people honestly wouldn’t care if, say, the entire Maple Leaf roster was made up of Americans.  Or Russians.  Or Germans.

Is it simply narrow-mindedness on my part to suggest that I like the idea of having some Canadian guys playing for the Leafs?

When I was a kid (and I did not grow up in Toronto, though I was raised in Southern Ontario), the Leafs drew guys from across Canada, though rarely from Quebec and very seldom from Eastern Canada.  The Quebec reality was more the fact that most of those players were owned by junior Clubs affiliated with the Montreal Canadiens.  (I should mention for the record, though, that my favorite Maple Leaf of all time, Dave Keon- shown in early 1960s action at left - was born and raised in Noranda, Quebec…)  As far as Eastern Canada, there simply weren’t as many guys who played enough through their formative years at high levels in Maritimes (someone correct me if I’m off base here) to get a shot very often at playing in the NHL.  That’s just the way it was.

Most of the guys who played in the NHL were from Ontario, Quebec, or Western Canada and as a result, most of the Leafs were Canadians from those regions.  Of course, in those days (the 1950s and 1960s) there were precious few Europeans in the NHL  (one that I remember, in the mid-‘60s, was the Swede, Ulf Sterner, who I have written about here a bit before…) and one American—Boston Bruin forward Tommy Williams.  That certainly changed big-time in the 1970s, as more and more Americans were playing and making it through to the NHL, and more Europeans like Maple Leaf stars Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom (and some WHA guys who courageously defected from their former Eastern block countries) made their way, as well.

In any event, I’m guess what I’m really doing today is simply posing the question: does it matter to you where Maple Leaf players come from?  I understand that we all will say we simply want the team to win, but I would be interested in an honest perspective from people.

I acknowledge that personally, I would not be thrilled with a team full of Russians, 23 guys who have no identification with Canadian hockey except that they play for the Leafs.  (And hey, some of the Leafs I’ve loved the most in relatively recent years have been guys like Yushkevich and Marekov, and now Kulemin and Grabovski…)

Send your thoughts along:  would a team full of Americans, for example, be just fine with you?


  1. I think people are being a bit silly when they say it doesn't matter if ANY of the home team's players are local. In some sports, with some teams, I can see that.... but in hockey? In the center of a region where the most hockey players in the WORLD grow up and play? Nonsense. The Leafs should have some locals.

    Same thing when people say there's no more or less effort being put in by players from different regions. Oh really? Anybody ever watched the Olympics or 1972 Series? National regions certainly matter. And so, for someone who grew up a Leafs fan, the degree of feeling I'd put into a game playing for Toronto would be much greater than for, say, Nashville.

    For me, the slippery slope can be seen in British football, where teams may effectively have NO local players, or even national players. The game became incredibly mercenary, with huge squad turnover, for starters. But then, when it became time to form a national team, the English now have fewer and fewer players who have gotten sufficient playing time in their own top league.

    Should it matter? Hell yeah. Not to the exclusion of everything else. But it should certainly be in the mix.

    - Not Norm

  2. Not Norm Ullman....Great post- well said. I appreciate your reference to '72 and the Olympics, and to European/world soccer as well. It certainly matters "where players are from" in those competitions....Thanks.

  3. First off, I loathed Don Cherry's rant on the "Ontario" thing the other week. It's an ugly retrograde point of view. If you change a couple of words, it becomes representative of the "pur laine" mindset that holds a far more disgraceful world view. It was further evidence for me that Don's due date has passed. I don't recall anyone complaining when the Blue Jays won the Word Series two decades ago with nary a Canadian in sight. That was one of the most joyous sports experiences I've had!
    Having said that, I have to admit that a team with no Canadian players would seem odd to me, mainly because that's all I've ever known. Even though the NHL has gone far beyond the old cultural underpinning it - and the country - used to have, and become a world league, it somehow feels right to have a mix that includes Canadians in it. This is probably because hockey prowess was presented as an integral part of our national identity when I grew up - it was the one sport we dominated. Now that that is increasingly not the case, I find I just enjoy a good hockey player no matter where they're from. And if fans identify with their team, that's all that matters (since sports is a tribal kind of thing). If a Leaf team of Americans and Europeans hoisted the Cup, I don't think most fans would care.

  4. Thanks for posting on this one, Gerund O.....

  5. I don't think we'd be discussing this if it weren't for Cherry's rant (which, really, was the product of nothing but his ego and his ongoing feud with Burke). That said, I'm like a lot of your readers, in that I'd like Canada well represented, regardless of region, on our team. Given the current status of things, I hardly think that's in any danger. Plus there's the fact that so many US, Russian, and European players come here to play in the CHL. Add to that, the fact that several young US stars have Canadian bloodlines due to being born in the states while their Canadian dads played there, entitling them to dual citizenship. That's perfectly fine and we can take pride in them as well. Canada will always be well represented in hockey!

    The funny thing is, Don Cherry (I suspect), belongs to a group that decries things like employment equity and affirmative action (the merits of which are debatable, but obviously not in this forum!)...yet with his "Ontario-born" rant is advocating just that--a form of affirmative action. What a load of BS, Don! It's almost like he (and encouraged by his clown sidekick MacLean) needs to make up stuff to fill that 7 minute how he tried to manipulate Crosby's answers yesterday to make it seem like Crosby was taking Cherry's advice. Lame.

    Anyway, didn't mean to make that a Cherry rant, but he's obviously what started this "Ontario" debate. These guys are all professionals who will go anywhere to ply their trades. Bottom line is I don't care whey they come from as long as we have the best players who give an honest effort. And along the way, I'll support Canadian talent in any sport, whether it's Paul Tracy, Larry Walker, Steve Nash, Owen Hargreaves, etc.


  6. Not Norm Ullman and Gerund O', you provided what I am looking for- an honest perspective. Thanks.

  7. Of course it matters, to a a fair degree, but not completely !

    I suspect those that do not care if the team has a high-content of Canadian-born players are also supporters of abolishing the Monarchy, Free-Trade, American domination of the economy, and annexation of Canada to the American republic !

    The reality is that many people do care - as I do. I prefer my Team to be composed mostly of Canadian players with a complement of Swedes and Finns where necessary. That is my opinion.

    I firmly contend that if you want a player to "play for the Team Colours" then you need him/her to have some form of affiliation to the Team itself. It's not hard to see that many Canadian players would play proudly for a Canadian Team if given the change - see Ryan Smyth for an example. Does Phil Kessel want to give his very being bringing the Cup to Toronto in the same way he would like to bring Gold to the USA in the Olympics ? I think not. Phil, of course, would love to win the Stanley Cup because it would complete his professional aspirations, but would he go through the boards to do in the same manner we would assume (and hope) that a Canadian player would? I think one could debate that.

    To conclude, the real dichotomy here is between those who see themselves as "Citizens" versus those who see themselves as "Consumers". I prefer to be a Citizen more than I prefer to be a consumer - so I stand against Free-Trade and cross-border shopping and high US content in both the media and in the 7 Canadian NHL Teams. Those who tend toward being Consumers (instead of Citizens) would, I guess, prefer to accept a roster of foreign mercenaries over a roster of home-grown Canadian boys.

  8. Well said, Shaftesbury- and an interesting perspective on a sometimes sensitive subject. Thanks.

  9. I don't want to excuse Cherry, or ignore what he said. But, I still think that Cherry and his bluster has obscured the origin of the thing... and that was Burke himself.

    Before the game, speaking with MacLean, Burke offered one of his 'excuses' again - that the Leafs must deal with opposition that has 3 or 4 Ontario kids who come in on a Saturday night, play big in front of friends and family. Of course, in his lawyerly way, he says "but it's not an excuse" - in other words "As long as I say I am not whining, then I can whine all I want about it."

    Now MacLean countered by saying something to the effect that "If Ontario kids 'get up' to play in Toronto, then why not have a few of them on your roster, since you have none now?" Burke responded by saying he doesn't look at birth certificates, he looks for the best players.

    Ok... then why did you broach the subject of birthplace Mr. Burke? Why talk about it at all? It's like when you get caught speeding and say "I was late for a meeting, I know that's not a good reason, but..." Correct, not a good reason, so shut up about it.

    Of course, Cherry blew it all out of proportion... because frankly, the line of thought it there:
    Brian Burke says birthplace is not important, he wants the best players.
    But, his NHL roster has no Ontario born players. Simple linear thought would say then that Brian Burke does not consider Ontario-born players to be among the best available. I am sure that's not true at all.

    It's shown though that Burke actually has a number of Ontario-born kids in his system: Kadri, Blacker, McKegg, Percy, Gysbers, Leivo. He's also quite heavy on kids from the prairies.

    Frankly, I blame both Burke and Cherry... they both could have said what they meant in a better way, instead they gotta have a little dust-up over it.

  10. Thanks Mark.

    Your reference to Burke and his "I'm not making excuses" routine is part of what I've been trying to get across here in some recent posts. For an organization that was supposedly ridding people of "entitlement" (which I never bought, personally), the whole management team sounds as though they feel they are above criticism- as though they are somehow "entitled" themselves! (Witness Burke's top assistant this week trying to convince mainstream media folks that things take time, they're on the right path, etc...It's all damage control...)

    And they keep saying "no complaints, no excuses", but when you do little but make excuses for poor performance, and then go to the CBC and try to silence a "critic", you sure are complaining, eh?

    To your broader point, it's also very well-said, as always, Mark. Of course the Leafs have Ontario guys in the system. It's just two bull-headed guys trying to prove who is "tougher" and most "right", if that makes any sense...Thanks.