Custom Search

Pride in the Maple Leaf jersey: what does that mean in today’s NHL?

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.

Yes, the players of the ‘olden days’ had egos, no question.  They cared about themselves. And they were often mistreated by management in those days.  But they also played with an immense passion—including for the city and jersey they represented. Names like Tom Horton, Allan Stanley, Red Kelly, Bob Pulford, Bob Baun—they all evoke a sense of pride in being a Leaf.  Same with Dickie Duff, Dave Keon, George Armstrong, Gerry Ehman, Billy Harris, Ron Ellis (left) and many others.

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?


  1. Maybe that 'pride' is just around the corner if we start to see more of our own drafted/internally-developed players making the lineup. I'm not questioning the traded/UFA players' commitment, rather, anticipating that little something extra (like we find in Komarov, who is our own draft pick, even if a 'little' late on the scene). You know, kinda' like the guy someone 'inherited' may have continued to be if he had treated with more respect (even though he may still have that 'in him', despite the last 2 games, if they don't look his way to 'make a showing in the media' by trading him forthwith).

    I like a lot of the guys obtained by trade/UFA (and some are keepers), yet I wonder if others are 'merely' standing in the gap while we hope for a higher mix of homegrown talent? I don't see a full team that is ready to bleed blue and white, so I do wonder whenever we watch so much apparent complacency. I know/hope that Nonis/Shanahan will not overreact to the last 2 games, but the results will probably factor into decisions that are already in the hopper awaiting the final ingredients. No 'sell low' scenarios, just a realization of what's already on the table (if the other team/s are ready to make previously-proposed changes as well).

    A lot of guys you mentioned were obtained by trade/UFA at varying points of their careers, yet they seemed to have a place in their heart for the sweater (whether Mats with the Salming connection; Dougie from Kingston; Cujo from Keswick; or others for their own reasons). I just hope we can get the mix right and find the kind of guys we know are giving their all for us, but it does seem that we're on the cusp of some changes from now through the off-season. Sure hope they 'get it right' this time!

    We need to build new memories for this generation of fans and players alike - in that aspect Leiweke was right - but it needs to be part of a greater historical whole in order to capture some of the aura that the Canadiens projected in our lifetimes. I think we have a few too many players not wholly invested in the Leaf legacy and, even moreso, I would like to see a 'culture change' in the Toronto media. That could go a long ways toward creating a better atmosphere...

    My message to the media:

    You're not really 'incisive, hard-hitting' journalists creating Pulitzer prize winning memories, too many of you have significantly devolved into ambulance-chasing tabloid hacks destroying the enjoyment of millions in the name of something you like to think is higher-minded, yet you 'create' a miry milieu that scares off those who would give their all on the ice (which is not enough for your parasitic profession). There are too many of you creating your own narratives and we are sick of your deleterious effect on our pastime.

    Here endeth the rant... just felt like the media's Kessel Chronicles may have contributed to a poor followup effort v. the Predators, so I felt like joining him and telling the media to 'get lost' (or at least learn their place instead of magnifying it beyond measure).

  2. Based on many of these players being in their early to mid 20s, my assumption is that they'd have parents in the 45-50yrs range, which sadly would have had them in diapers during Toronto's last great run. Without any tangible success since then (a couple of conference finals, I think?), those current players are relying on grandparents for stories of golden years, and being a habitual Cup threat.

    The way media and fans focus on the team also takes away from the power of the brand/logo, at least slightly. So many editorials and blogs are about ownership and management, which is odd, as most sports blogs are player-centric. Maybe it's the ghost of Ballard shining a dim light on the team, as it's been that way for as long as I can remember. Any logical thinking fan knows that ownership wants to win, as the cash windfall is even greater if the Leafs are making Cup runs on a regular basis. Of course there's also that argument to be made that the team can be consistently poor, and it doesn't exactly make a bunch of expensive suit collars get filled with sweat, as the profits are there anyways.

    It's not all dark though, and we can look at Chicago (those Cup guys), as an example. The Blackhawks were a broken franchise, until Rocky took over and pushed the team into a more positive place with fans. Admittedly, it wouldn't have happened without stud defencemen, Toews and Kane, but they got there. Fans are forgiving, as we all desperately want our team to thrive, and are willing to forgive past transgressions.

    As far as past/present Leafs that wore/wear the badge with honour, I would include Darcy Tucker, Leo Komarov, and Gary Roberts. Borje always tops my list, as what he went through was so unique to the NHL experience, and he just kept his mix of skill, toughness and class shining through.

    The one thing that scares me about the inevitable coaching/GM change (I can't see Nonis and Randy hanging around), is that it will once again reset the clock on expectations. Even now, we have Shanahan saying "I'm new, just evaluating the roster", and that will be a domino effect that echoes with whatever other new management parts get brought in. Most of us are getting frustrated with a new 5-year plan being carted out, ever 2-3 years as the old suits get asked to clean out their desk and new suits come in and fill their desk drawers.

    1. Well said, Russ. The Hawks are a very good example that fans will "forgive". They were, as you suggested, an organization that had completely lost its way until the younger Wirtz too over.

      Five year plans became frustrating when a new management team enters the pictures and gets to start all over again.

  3. Thanks, InTimeFor62. I hope the team that management ultimately settles on (though it is always changing, I realize), will have some appreciation for those that played before them- and for the jersey.

    I'll hold my thoughts on the media discussion this week for another post!

  4. Nothing much to add 'cept nice posting Michael. Russ and InTimeFor62 appreciate your thoughts too.

    My gen was Clarke, Gilmour, Zezel and the rest - Clark v McSorely, Gilmour versus... well everyone!!! those are my guys!

    I don't know but continuity or lack thereof may be a factor: that is, there seems to be a lot of rent a player going on, and whether or not you become one, there is that culture of "I may not be here next year" which likely has an effect on the guys.

    I doubt seriously however that many players have a willful desire to not perform at the highest level possible, but the psychological effect of so much of player movement may have subliminal impact on the pride of logo.

    Thanks again Michael.

    1. I also agree, Marc (Leafs Fan in Mexico!), that player movement is part of the modern-day challenge in terms of creating the kind of environment that existed within certain teams like Toronto and Montreal in the "olden days".

      I also believe that players want to play their best. But playing for the crest maybe doesn't mean what it once did.

  5. First of all I'd like to say that I'm not too worried about the team right now - blowouts happen to best teams in the NHL - a few bounces go the wrong way, something bad happens that affects the team adversely the day of the game, a captain or a coach or a star winger has a bad day etc. and things quickly go south.

    The Leafs have played some pretty awesome hockey this season and two bad losses are just two bad losses. Pittsburgh lost 5:0 to Rangers the game before they played the Leafs, the Leaf humiliated the Bruins less than 2 weeks ago - it doesn't mean they are bad teams -it's just one or two games out of 82. Leafs underestimated the Sabres and ran into super-hot Nashville team. It's not the end of the word.

    More to your point though I think that Don Cherry has a point when he repeatedly argues that 'good Ontariah boys' should be playing for the Leafs if only because that kind of 'culture' would attract the best players to Toronto.

    I wonder if winning a Cup in Toronto wouldn't be a little bittersweet for the likes of Kadri and Bernier who grew up admiring the Habs and if guys like Stamkos and Tavares or many others hailing from the GTA area wouldn't consider it the ultimate achievement to win the Cup in blue and white.

    Parhaps it's just a fan's fantasy but wouldn't it be worth making some statement trades (Kadri plus whatever for Stamkos or Bernier for some other GTA boy) and building a team around guys that love this team and this city?

    It's a well-known fact that Franson grew up cheering for the Leafs and we've watched the management year after year playing hardball with him and trying to trade him. The guy in net who took us to the post-season, became a fan favourite and clearly loved being here all of a sudden became 'the guy we inherited' when the new American executive came into town. Komarov had to go back to Russia even though he played his heart out and clearly bleeds blue and white. Grabovski loved Toronto and hated the Habs and he was bought out.

    As you can see, I'm not saying the team needs to be 100% Canadian or Ontario but if a player shows passion, love and commitment to the club they should be rewarded and appreciated.

    Perhaps Kessel and Towes should switch places? I wonder if a trade like that is what would spark this team to success. If there is one thing that Toronto has on other places it is the fact that the best players in the league are from this area and grew up cheering for the Leafs. It may be time to start thinking about capitalizing on that.

    I know this is not a popular argument - it's all about 'intangibles' and cannot be quantified and yes, money and a chance to win and not having to deal with paparazzi 24 hours a day are certainly factors that keep some players away from Toronto but I still think being a home-town here means something and in a world of fantasy and passion that is professional sports it may just count for something.

    1. Good to hear from you, leafdreamer. It's true, there are lots of players who grew up as "Leaf fans" who would no doubt love to play for the blue and white. And there have been cases recently where players who were proud to be a Maple Leaf were not rewarded.

      I know that things weren't perfect in the old days either, and some loyal players were not always treated well in Toronto and even in Montreal. It just seems like things are so different now. It may be impossible to re-capture what wearing the Leaf jersey used to mean.

  6. Michael,

    From where I sit, not completely mind boggled, but getting there, some thoughts occurred to me. They are naturally about the Maple Leafs. I have precious little else to do, it's a sad quiet life, but more about my crosses to bear another time.

    The moves this team has made in the past six years, and more specifically since Nonis was left in charge of the ship, have been in a word interesting. They all seem to come back to one thing, character. Every move can be explained using just this one word. From Clarkson, Bolland, Winnick, Polak, Santorelli, Gorges, the pursuit of Engelland, all of them. Each and every one of these acquisitions, and attempted ones, can all be said to be addressing the teams character. The question I have is why? The team lacks high end talent, as well as low end talent. I could go on a rant about how Kadri is still the same player he was when he made his debut. That would be wrong, the fact that we needed a superstar with the 7th pick is the problem, it's not Kadri, or Kessel, or Phaneuf for that matter. It's the team, all of them.

    Other commenters have asked why Nonis doesn't just acquire Jonathan Toews, or John Tavares. Even though Garth Snow doesn't come across as all that competent, I'm sure if Nonis asked him about JT, that Nonis would hang up before the laughter on the other end of the phone died out. That's the thing, no one knows how valuable those guys, along with Kopitar, Crosby, Stamkos, and a few others, are more so than the guys currently paying them. The only way to get these players is to draft them, or or get lucky and nab them in free agency. It really shouldn't be a newsflash to say that if Nonis called Rutherford in Pittsburgh and asked what he wanted for Crosby, the answer would be he's not available. Not for all our roster players, not for all our draft picks, he's not available.

    Round about way but here I am back at my original point. I was reminded the other day about how smart the average person is, and that half of the people you meet are even dumber than that. Sobering thought, I'm sure also a tad disturbing depending on your point of view. Has it occurred to everyone that the people in charge of, and playing for, the Maple Leafs, just aren't that bright. At least when compared to others associated with the NHL. It may not be fair, but it is entirely possible that these guys are the Ralph Wiggums of the NHL class.

  7. Michael,

    You brought up a wonderful topic, one that I think deserves a hearty discussion. It has been a long time since there were only 6 NHL teams. The relative 'specialness' of the brand of each of these 6 teams has been diminished every time the NHL adds a team in another backwater location. All these places like Arizona, and the new cause celebre Vegas, are never going to be more than a location for television. They don't care about hockey, pretending they do, or are ever going to is dishonest.

    None of the current players on the Maple Leafs were alive to see them win a Stanley Cup. I think that excellence breeds this kind of fascination, not history. Each and every player in the NHL remembers Gretzky and Lemieux, Roy and Rob Blake, Chelios and Hasek. Sure every fan of the Leafs remembers Wendel, and loves him. This fondness is for the player he was, not for what he achieved in the NHL. The same can be said for just about every player since 1967, even if they were individually really good, or even great, they never achieved anything wearing the Maple Leaf.

    The Maple Leafs as an organization have diminished the brand, not the media, and certainly not the fans who have paid the highest prices in the NHL, for eternity. From management through the years, down to each and every player complacent in the mediocrity that this franchise has become. Just the other day I looked up how long it had been since Burke was hired to run this team. It was six years ago, 2008. Apparently we did have time and the patience for a five year rebuild. I just wish that he was humble enough, and bright enough to know that is what was required. It is also my hope that Shanahan is smart and humble enough to know that is what the team needs to this very day. In five or so more years, I honestly expect to be in the same position I am right now, waiting patiently for excellence to returm

    1. I appreciate your posts, Jim. We've talked here at VLM over the years about a range of topics- leadership, identity, the team's heritage and a whole lot more. It strikes me that there is no one answer as to why the Leafs have fallen short over the years- sometimes getting close, and other times being well off the mark.

      You mention a lot of important points. I think all the GM's and coaches in Toronto have always wanted to win. They cared. But developing the recipe for success isn't easy, even if you're a good hockey person, it seems.

      I think you speak for a lot of longtime Leaf supporters when you reference Shanahan and how he will approach building this entire organization- so that pride will be a word that comes to mind when we think about the Maple Leafs.

    2. You make a really good point Jim about GMs not being willing to trade superstars. It's crazy how crazy this team sometimes makes us (me). If all the suggestions that were made over the last week or so we're made we would have no GM, no coach, no Kessel, no Phaneuf, no Kadri, no Reimer and the list goes on...

      Reading again the post I wrote I find myself in one breath saying 'don't worry guys - it's just two games and then, right a away: 'trade everybody...'

      Now we win a game and I'm finding myself thinking - this is a good team, don't touch anything.

      It seems some leadership did emerge in that last period against Buffalo. Kadri and Santorelli with scoring and Phaneuf and Clarkson fighting... May well have turned the tide.

  8. There is no way I would ever throw a Leaf jersey on the ice because I am and always will be a fan no matter how bad the Leafs are and I don't think they are as bad as they looked in that 9-2 loss to the Preds. I really believe they are a lot closer to the team that beat the Bruins 6-1. I have a few jerseys and I always wear them to Leaf Sens games and to hockey pools. I wouldn't call it pride now but I probably would have back in 1967 but they are still my team and every year I pull for them though thick and thin.

    As for the players I think for most of them it starts with a love for hockey and desire to win which becomes a secondary thing after a career and a way to make a living. That may not be the case with all players because there are players who really love their team and want to win for them and seem to be devastated when business takes over and they are traded. Other players take the home town discount. I think most players that want be successful and make money but really do want to win it all for the team they are on and that includes the Leafs players, maybe even more for the Southern Ontario boys. But in the end it is a business and if you can't get the job done you don't last very long.

    As for players like Kessel he gives it everything every night and he wants to win and he wants to score but maybe some nights nothing works. I think if the Leafs started to win and brought the Cup back to Toronto the players would be proud to be on a Leaf on a Cup winning team. And it is going to happen and there are a lot of players on the team now that want to be in Toronto when it happens so it is not all gloom and doom.

    The game against the Preds was pretty bad but it was just a bad game. Everything went the Preds way and the Leafs couldn't do anything. I thought it was pretty classless of the Preds to keep turning it on after the score was 5-0 so I was actually happy to see the Sens beat the Preds tonight and I am not a Sens fan but I have to say the Sens are a class operation. I was impressed with Bryan Murray making the little boy with the skin disease a scout for a day tonight (I was watching a few games tonight) which was pretty nice given what Murray is dealing with. But I thought the Preds were totally classless running up the score and embarrassing the Leafs.

    The Leafs showed some class a week ago when they were up 5-1 on the Bruins and had two power plays in the 3rd period and Carlyle used the 3rd and 4th lines because he didn't want to embarrass the Bruins. It makes sense to because they will play the Bruins again an there will be a payback. Leafs play the Preds on Feb 3 and guaranteed they will be ready.

    Everyone is talking about character and leadership as if the Leafs could somehow be better with character players. I'll bet if they had a Shea Weber, or a Pekke Renne or Crosby or a Stamkos they would have a lot more character but the reality is elite players win games.

    They may not be a Cup team yet but they coul be a lot closer than most people realize and that Nylander kid in Sweden might just be a big part of it according to Mats.

  9. Does it matter to the players? I think it does, of course some more than others, but I think there is still some pride in skating for an original team. Though it may be difficult to bring FA's to Toronto, most players seem to want to stay once they get there. Certainly it must mean something to a few players that grew up as Leaf fans, like Holland--who wouldn't let his mom redecorate his "Leaf" bedroom when he was drafted by the Ducks--Clarkson, Franson...I'm not sure who else but there are several on the Marlies.

    I would never toss a jersey on the ice for several reasons. I don't throw things when I'm frustrated--my parents would never have let me get away with that-- I have too much Scot in me to waste anything and my jersey is a Christmas gift from my son and therefore treasured, not just for the blue Maple Leaf on the front.

    Throwing anything on the ice, whether the play has stopped or not, is a safety hazard. There was a talented youngster many years ago in this area who stepped on a penny someone had thrown on the ice, fell awkwardly and severed his spinal cord. How would you live with yourself after something like that?

    There's too much potential for injury to players even during breaks in play to ever consider throwing anything. A fall would come unexpectedly, in razor-sharp skates, no less. We all understand the frustration but there are other ways to make a statement. I have no problem with the league coming down hard on fans who can't get it through their heads that hockey players are actually people.

    1. Thanks Colleen- I know there are indeed players who must be proud to be a Leaf and wear the sweater. I think the business side of the equation has just made it a lot more difficult to have the same sense of 'community' - players and fans - that perhaps existed in the olden days.

      I haven't touched on the jersey throwing here. There are certainly plenty of ways to 'protest', if that's the point, other than throwing things on the ice.

  10. I think it's more the management of the Maple Leafs over the years, the treatment of many former Leafs, that has changed how many fans and the NHL itself view the Leafs. Leiweke just made it worse. Shanahan has recognized the importance of Leaf history and alumni and has a completely different approach. I like what he is trying to do.