To love hockey is quite simply what it is to be Canadian. This may seem like a naive generalization to some, but the reality is that in this country, hockey is King and its main court of affairs is Toronto, Ontario. While I admit that this will no doubt be highly contentious for fans in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montreal, very few outside of those climes would argue that the Leafs aren’t the team most people outside of this country think of when they think of a Canadian hockey team.
For decades the Blue and White were among the NHL’s elite franchises; second only to the Montreal Canadiens for most Stanley Cup victories in league history, boasting a legendary roster of Hall of Fame superstars and enjoying the most loyal and supportive fans on the continent. I’m old enough to remember the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1967, and like everyone in this city, I never thought it would be forty plus years before the opportunity to do so might emerge again.
After endless miserable seasons that saw long suffering fans tolerate some of the most woeful team rosters in memory, the optimism that usually precedes each new Leaf season is steadily shrinking. Typically, the 2013-14 season began with a myriad of expectations that this year might be different, this year the Leafs could actually play up to their potential and earn a playoff spot, at which point all bets would be off. Yet in another seemingly magical display of finding some means of losing, the Leafs have managed to go from playoff contenders to early tee-time holders in less than 2 weeks, and are in serious jeopardy of missing the final wild card spot in their division.
So what exactly is the problem? Why is this storied franchise apparently incapable of doing what so many other successful teams manage year in and year out? What is it about the Toronto Maple Leafs that has this team perennially finishing on the outside looking in? Having been witness to the roller coaster ride that has been the Leafs fortunes (or lack thereof) for decades, I believe I have some answers. These are by no means any kind of definitive formulas for success, but are elements of the team which I think have to be addressed in order for this team to break their cycle of inadequacy.
The Leafs, like many NHL teams, have a well established farm club in the Toronto Marlboroughs. Unlike many other teams however, the Leafs don’t seem capable of taking a prospect from their farm club and honing their skills to the point that if and when they get the call to play for the big team, they are prepared to handle the pressure and enormous demands that playing professional hockey in this market requires. In other words, the Leafs don’t appear to be an NHL team that knows what to do with its young talent.
Many teams will need to bring up players from the minors for a variety of reasons throughout a season, but very few will subject them to the kind of yo-yo call up/send down action that has seen the likes of players like Nazem Kadri dance on a string for the first two years the Leaf management brought him up to the NHL. No matter that like any young player Kadri had a great deal to learn, he was skilled and he produced points for the club every time he was brought along. How did the Leafs reward that effort? By making it clear that they weren’t impressed after sending him back to the minors more than once. It’s exactly this kind of short-sightedness and inability to motivate players with consistent, confidence-building recognition of their performances that has literally ruined scores of young talent on this squad, and is one of the most fundamental problems plaguing the franchise. The bottom line is that until the Leafs figure out how to bring their young players along from the farm team, only so much can be expected of them, especially if they continue to be the focus of desperation.
Virtually any team in the NHL would kill to be in the position of the Toronto Maple Leafs; with a dedicated core of millions of die hard fans, located in the epicenter of hockey and a with a license to print money, they need only do one thing; win. One of the most fundamentally lacking elements of the team however, has been the inability of its management to put a legitimate contender on the ice from year to year.
For any Leaf fan growing up in former owner Harold Ballard’s era, this was a foregone conclusion. Ballard famously decried spending money to improve the team when it was clear that he would have a packed house for every home game, no matter what quality or lack thereof wound up in a Blue and White sweater. This ‘strategy’ of supplying the bare minimum of talent and success while raking in tens of millions annually pretty much summed up the entire 1970s through 1990s in this town; the only person in the entire city that was content with the Leafs’ woeful performances in that span of time was Ballard himself, because apart from two meagre playoff drives, there was literally nothing to show for that miserly mentality.
Despite the fact that Ballard is long gone, his legacy of penny pinching disinterest in creating a viable contender seems to have remained behind, as the current Leaf management has shown little to no interest in abandoning the vestiges of his attitudes that kept the team from maturing beyond the league’s laughingstock. The one exception to that would be new GM Dave Nonis signing Dion Phaneuf to a ridiculous 7-year, $49 million contract extension. Again, laughingstock.
This is obviously the most fragile component of any team, and the most easily shattered, but is still among the most important elements that can lead to success. The Leafs have shown all season long that they can compete and beat some of the better teams in the league, but they cannot seem to do so with any sustained consistency. It’s almost as though despite winning against teams they weren’t expected to do well against, it makes no impact on their sense of confidence, as they can turn around and drop three in a row to teams with no postseason hopes whatsoever.
For whatever reason, the Leafs haven’t been considered a highly confident team for many years, and rightfully so; their record simply hasn’t reflected that. Confidence and winning go hand in hand, just like self doubt and losing, but the Leafs only seem to recognize the latter and not the former. While it’s true that this team has to face an unprecedented level of scrutiny on a daily basis that most teams will never endure, it comes with the territory of playing hockey in an obsessive market. Other top teams seem to find a way to overcome adversity and win, while the Leafs have often seemed content to discover new ways to lose. However you slice it, the fact remains that the Leafs have to find some way of building and sustaining the necessary confidence to earn the respect that comes with success and vice versa.
This is what separates quality teams from the ne’er do wells, the reliance on finding and cultivating talented players. While the Leafs have enjoyed some spectacular talent over the years, they have done so far too little and with far less success than many other teams, and their win/loss record over the past 3 decades can attest to that.
It’s not rocket science however; the best teams are those with the best players, period. With all of the negotiating room the Leafs enjoy, their vast coffers and an enormous fan base desperate for success, you would think that acquiring and/or developing talent would be a huge concern for this club, though you might be hard pressed to prove it. There have been very few players in a Blue and White jersey since the 1970s that can be realistically considered a superstar in this league. While other teams are busy trading, bringing along their juniors or throwing big money contracts at free agents, the Leafs have been content to simply make do with the players they have. This has got to change, this team simply cannot continue to believe that inaction and resilience can turn the fortunes of this club around; at some point, serious changes have to be made, and this is as good a place to start as any.
6. Free Agency
The issue of free agency among players (literally their ability to market their services to teams throughout the league) has long been a contentious one among owners and players. Many owners feel that free agency artificially raises the salaries of star players, thereby affecting the team’s ability to deal equitably with the remainder of their roster. Players on the other hand, point to the flexibility of free agency to contend with shifting team loyalties and salary expectations.
The reality is that for the majority of teams in the NHL, free agency has meant that small market teams can attract big money talent and parlay their skills into success. Like many elements of the team, the Toronto Maple Leafs have not employed free agency to their benefit in nearly the same capacity as many of their rivals. Once again, this is a state of affairs that cannot continue in this city, unless Leaf management is content to exist in the nether regions of league credibility, well outside the viability necessary to win in this league. One way or another, the Leafs have to find a way to utilize free agency to the same advantage that many of their opponents have consistently done, and it’s difficult to imagine the team performing better than this season if they don’t.
Talk of introducing new NHL teams into the league occurs every off season, with many teams both for and against the idea. One of those most vocal in opposing the concept are the Toronto Maple Leafs. In spite of enjoying one of the most rabid fan bases in all of sport, the Leafs have repeatedly nixed any idea of additional teams in Southern Ontario, for fear of losing 100% support in the region.
Unfortunately the team has offered very little in the way of realistic examples of how disastrous that would be for the Leaf market. Many analysts and commentators have suggested that some form of direct regional competition would give the Leafs a modicum of ambition to shoot for on an annual basis, something which has been significantly lacking over the years. Whether the league pushes for this kind of expansion and whether the Leafs’ management will grudgingly or otherwise accept it, one thing is for certain; at some point the league will expand into new markets, and teams better be ready to deal with it, especially those like the Leafs who seem perpetually paranoid about the idea.
4. The Curse
If you’ve spent any time in Toronto during the winter, you’ve probably heard more than one Leaf fan bemoan ‘The Curse’. This is the belief among many Leaf supporters that their team is laboring under a sustained and debilitating hex of some kind. Many point to the unfathomable attitude of former owner Harold Ballard, who famously didn’t care to put a talented contender on the ice, and basically condemned long suffering fans to a lifetime of mediocre hockey. Unlike many similar beliefs that have at least some basis in reality, there’s really no rhyme or reason behind a supposed Leaf curse apart from the disturbing realization that without any other valid explanation, a curse might just as well sum it up. There is no curse of course, there’s only the bewildered and ethereal justifications from disappointed fans that something has to explain the Leafs’ losing ways; it might as well be some supernatural kiss of death.
I turned 51 this January, and have been waiting patiently for the entirety of my life to see my beloved Leafs make a serious run for the Cup, but it hasn’t happened yet. Oh sure, there have been one or two seasons where the Leafs looked like they could pull out all the stops and somehow miraculously play for the big prize, but those seasons have been few and far between. Toronto is desperate for a hockey team that can play up to their potential and enjoy some post-season success, and the city isn’t going to wait forever. In fact, it doesn’t want to wait at all.
Leaf fans in this city have endured countless disappointments, innumerable failures and endless heartbreaks in decades of unsatisfactory performances, and for the most part have just swallowed their bitterness over the summer in preparation for a new season. Once this might have been seen as the Leafs’ saving grace; a fan base that wouldn’t abandon them no matter what, though this doesn’t seem as undeniable as it may have previously, as without any form of competitive success, the Leafs just can’t believe that their support can remain steadfast and unshakable forever. At some point, this team has to give its fans something to believe in, and it starts by recognizing there is no shortage of urgency in this city to put a winner on the ice.
This is where the Leafs outshine every other team in the league; they have more money than God. Part of this is due to the gigantic market that is hockey in Toronto and partly due to the impressive history of the Leafs and their storied success from days gone by. Regardless, the reality is that the Toronto Maple Leafs could make a great deal more out of their financial advantages than they have consistently done over the last 40 years. In sports, you get what you pay for, and the Leafs have been paying as little as possible for so long, many wonder if they even remember that they can afford to pay anyone virtually anything they want, and not have to contend with the kinds of salary restrictions many other viable teams effectively deal with. The bottom line is that this team has got to open the coffers and start spending money wisely for quality players and coaching staff that can make a difference for its success. All the best teams in the league understand this, yet the Leafs remain defiantly opposed to coughing up money when they need to; this is a situation that simply cannot continue if the Leafs want to break their tradition of finishing a season with enormously disappointing results. Oh, did we mention that ridiculous Phaneuf deal? Not an example of wise spending.
1. Shrinking fan base
Canada is a vast nation of immigrants from every corner of the globe. Over the past 30 years, a huge influx of immigrants from nations for which hockey is an unknown commodity have been pouring into Southern Ontario. Fewer and fewer of them are being enticed to become hockey fans however, as a pair of tickets to a Leaf game can run into several hundred dollars. And where once the children of new immigrants introduced their families to the game either by playing organized hockey themselves, or simply by becoming fans, financial constraints have taken their toll on this. There’s no getting around the fact that hockey is an extremely expensive sport, with some sticks alone costing hundreds of dollars. This makes the idea of playing hockey prohibitive for tens of thousands of new Canadians who simply cannot afford it, none of which bodes well for the Leafs in the future. Now while the Leafs themselves can’t alter the cost of playing this sport, they can at least realize that it’s in their interest to introduce the game to hordes of potential new fans who will become the backbone of the team’s support in the future.
I can only hope that some of these issues are addressed by the Leafs during this off season, because I don’t want to be in this same position next year of critiquing another losing season.