Everybody has their our own rituals or routines when it comes to how we absorb our hockey, what we put emphasis on. As fans, there’s specific aspects of the game coverage more intriguing to each of us, the viewers. My “never miss” habit? Not uncommon, I love listening to the coach’s pressers.
After practice, pre-game, post game, whenever the Leafs coach has something to say, more often than not I’ll find a way to hear it. LeafsTV, Mapleleafs.com, whoever has the broadcast, let’s hear the answers to Henny and others crafted questions. Players, player interviews are what they are, usually pretty standard. By standard I mean semi-robotic. By semi-robotic, I mean just move your lips, take your HNIC towel, we’ll dub in audio of Mats or somebody claiming a need for “big 2 points”.
A bit harsh, there is a few conversationalists in the NHL with a proficiency and comfort on camera. Still, they’ve been programmed to be discreet, very little useful insight to speak of coming. (Unless of course it’s for a LeafsHub.com story, in those cases generic player quotes are very interesting because we tilt them like this.) So it’s no mystery, if you’re searching for the pulse of the team, trying to get a read, look and listen to whoever’s behind the bench. Over the years, even as a boy, I found myself zeroing in on the words and mannerisms of the Leafs’ coaches. Early in his tenure and yet I’ve already made it official,. No Toronto coach has drawn me in as intently, or grabs my attention more, than Michael Babcock.
I go straight into bobblehead mode when Babcock addresses the media, nodding in agreement like a nutbar. Jude could nestle in and let “Babs” pours cliches and rhetoric into his cup until daybreak, sucking back the words like mother’s milk. He speaks with conviction and logic, thereby his words carry meaning. Are there coaches more colourful, more open with their thoughts? More entertaining? I would suppose so, sure. Oh but none, yes none, display the poignant belief in what they have to say quite like Mike Babcock.
Committed to his recurring message of living right, “good people” first and foremost, Babcock expects a reflection of these principles in the ice beneath his players skates. Details will be followed and a regiment will be dictated. (Hi, Lou. I’m kidding Mr. Lamoriello, please don’t kill my horse.)
A byproduct of soaking in said logic and conviction, his short speeches and anecdotes often motivate or inspire not only the players under him, but the fan at home. Firm statements or quips of his from this past season, maybe some we keep with us as reminders of the people we want to be. Babcock preaches little things that apply to our every day and extend beyond the sport we adore. He’s Tony Robbins, only cool.
I had to laugh last week while I was in the midst of writing this intro revolving around his beauty lines, that the coach goes and drops an “Ode to a left handed defenseman”. Pull up your Babsocks, Mike’s talking. Vintage Babs, and every now and again, when lucky, he’ll showcase his unwavering faith-of-self along with his razor wit in swagger filled remarks like “I’m going to coach here for 8 years and then I’m coming back for two more because we are going to be that good.” A personal favourite and I’m guessing one of yours. A man who knows the road he’s on where it’s heading.
Of the clever, straight to the point with punctuation quotes from Toronto’s high profile bench boss last year (this during a post practice presser) one resonated with me. Why it took hold enough so that here I am, many months later, talking to you about a metaphorical comment made almost in passing, I’m not even sure. Maybe meant as nothing more than just a simple answer to a simple question, I saw it as more.,As an understanding of the broader picture, an awareness of where we are, how far we have still to go, and in a way signalling a willingness to let the past go, unburdening ourselves from the shackles of @Leafshistory. Recommencing anew on a track with an eventual ending, a destination. In 2015/16 the Maple Leafs reboot this franchise. When Mike Babcock was asked how far along his team was towards being a perennially contender, and yes, a Stanley Cup champion, it was just the way he said it….”We are on Mile 20.”
50 years on this path of futility, traveling a long, long time, never reaching the silver cupped goal. The ‘70’s I can’t much speak of, I really only know the names and results. Saturday nights with a house full of family during the ‘80’s helped hoist me up onto the bandwagon, exciting and terrible times all wrapped in Blue & White, and I never got off. Pat Burns had us within sight of the finish, and we love him for it today. Then the big Irishman head-manned a solid squad we thought could blast through the champions ribbon with arms raised in euphoric joy. Not through lack of effort, desire, or ability, it just wasn’t our fate.
In the aftermath of the NHL work stoppage during Quinn’s era, a sobering realization needed to be made. The strength of our currency was no longer recognized and we were out of general supplies. Time to go back to the beginning and regroup. But that’s not what happened is it. Instead, we stayed on the road and got terrifyingly lost. On mile Lord knows what.
It was clear the Leafs were not equipped with the youth, energy, or vision, paramount to be successful during coming out of the lockout. In looser terms, we kind of sucked. Training, retooling, revamping, whatever you want to label it, was woefully called for. Instead, the Toronto Maple Leafs kept trucking on, almost aimlessly.
Alas, double alas, this was the dreary trail of hockey poverty we stayed on. The Maple Leafs grew somewhat immediately weary and our perception became increasingly altered as impatience, understandably, clouded the decision making process.
JFJ and Paul Maurice were the first navigators to lead us into the middle of the dark woods. I don’t hold any ill will to those men, Maurice I like a lot. Charismatic, bright, he’s carved out a nice career. Believe it or not, John Ferguson ain’t so bad either. They had their mandate given to them, which was to smear as much lipstick on the pig that was the “cap era – cupboard empty” Maple Leafs as they possibly could. Rumours of a rejected rebuild surfaced, so all they could do was jump on the back of that greased up pig and go barreling headstrong into the wilderness. Where the pig died and was eventually eaten. Graphic, I know. These were troubled times and there was no choice. The last of our livestock was sold for charms like Vesa Toskala and “let me please wipe that moustache of your face” Andrew Raycroft.
Brian Burke eventually stumbled upon the Leafs, naked in the forest, nothing but skin and bones. No, no, Burkie. Don’t you dare take us to a hospital for care or to regain our strength. Nah, instead he sells two of our organs for the speedboat known as Phil Kessel, called his buddy Randy, and the Skipper & Gilligan attempted to cross the Atlantic. Burke had followed the treasure map to the end in Anaheim, so figured he’d take a wee shortcut. Maybe he thought he spotted the land of Lord Stanley off in the horizon, bringing us right straight into the demanding shitwinds of the NHL, culminating in a shipwrecked mediocrity.
A mutiny of sorts occurred after that, problem was nobody informed the man taking over it was happening. I’ll never forget the look of dumbfounded shock and awe on Dave Nonis face the morning it was announced he’d be at be at the helm of the ship after Burke walked the plank. Nonis took over as leader and soon found land, alright.
A barren desert was the backdrop for the Nonis Chronicles. David the Explorer made sure his camels were given the riches and security of kings. Nonis saw a mirage of the Stanley Cup overflowing with blue Kool-Aid (thanks to events like pushing the Big, Bad, Bruins to a seventh game) and made a run for it. Woefully misguided, as I was myself, the means of transportation Nonis had collected weren’t cut out to carry Toronto any considerable distance. Nor should they ever have been asked to. Far too much load for them, they could hardly move let alone make a run for Stanley.
I don’t fault these executives or the players underneath them. Truth be told I have a tremendous amount of respect for most of them. At least they had the stones to accept the challenge. What can ya do, what’s done is done, and somehow we survived it all. Perhaps if anything these men lacked the wherewithal to stop and assess the direction properly. It has to be tough with the pressure there’s been to win, building up as the years pile on. JFJ, Burke, Nonis, the MLSE board room, unfortunately and collectively, in the end, none had the good sense and humility to simply start over. Round and ‘round Toronto went, in the wind the Leafs blew, reminding me of a line from an old folk ballad “You can travel on 10,000 miles and still stay where you are.” The Maple Leafs were turning over the odometer, and going absolutely nowhere.
Justice would see the half century spent searching for glory count as time served, upping the odds a championship will come sooner as opposed to later. The harsh reality is those odysseys count for nothing. Our Maple Leafs memories, both good and bad, they count for something. Though the miles logged by past regimes shall provide no assistance in future success. Toronto won’t be credited for paid dues, if it worked that way they’d be champions ten times over. Nobody deserves it like our Leafs. The National Hockey League doesn’t give out trophies for owing you one (if you say Drew Doughty I’m punching something). It’s not about how long we’ve been traveling to where, or how far we’ve gone or haven’t gone. It’s about which way we go from here. And finally, finally, Toronto would start over.
When Brendan Shanahan was hired by Tim Leiweke in 2013, our Team President didn’t bluster through the MLSE doors in a T-shirt with an iron-on map with an arrow pointing “this way to the sugar”. Actually, he was well spoken, quiet, peering around, surveying the land, biding his time, carefully evaluating his roster of staff and players alike, all the while mapping out a course of his own. Affectionately this plan would come to be known as the “Shanaplan”, or as Tricky Lou calls it, the “Shanny Plan” (I don’t even know what to do with my life because that’s just too f’ing funny).
Once Shanahan had a reasonable idea where this club was situated on its trek, essentially, he told everyone to just “whoa horsie, whoa”. (I don’t believe he used those exact words because he’s cool like Babcock and I am clearly not). The Hall of Famer and former league exec decided the group would turn around slow, take a big deep breath, and make their way back to the beginning. Well, back to the start for some of you. Ok, two of you. The rest, no seriously, pack your shit. Best of luck, but carry on my wayward sons. Go east, west, I don’t much care. I’m bringing in men who can lead an expedition and get us where we want to go. But before we leave, I’m loading us up on all the stuff we are going to need further on in our journey, like draft picks, high end prospects, and a farm to provide sustenance.
Shanahan hit reset and plotted a new heading, as Toronto enters into its next century. Here we are, according to Babs, 20 miles deep. A new beginning with a new cast of characters. New direction, new initiatives, new slogans, and now even a new logo. New, new, new. It’s the centennial season and we’ve got a slight head start, one the Toronto Maple Leafs absolutely sprinted to.
Usain Bolt’ing it out of the gates of this rebuild, running backwards and smiling. I can say with a fair amount of certainty, the first portion of the trip will prove to be the least challenging. The short distance we traveled so far? Sunshine and lollipops. No obstacles, Toronto finished dead last and everyone rejoiced. Leafs PR deserved the congressional Medal of Honor, the brand had never been stronger even after as we sank in the standings. Initially everything had gone as smooth as silk, considering the required losing. Not much easier to accomplish than losing. Still, credit the Leafs as they made serious headway through some hard work and simply keeping the puck out of their zone for a change, recapturing a little pride. With the promise of tomorrow in mind, the first leg of the voyage has been wind aided by fans and writers alike. But “Easy Breezy, Lemon Squeezy”, we won’t always be travelling so light. Brace yourselves, the weight of expectation and second guessing will join us on our travels. It’s conditions like these that have driven Toronto of course in the past.
Soon, already, the direction Brendan Shanahan has chosen will be questioned from within the confines of the fanbase, media, and blogosphere. Merely a murmur now, with our long history of travelling down, and staying on, the wrong path, it will prove difficult not to be leery about where you’re being led.
Lou Lamoriello told us right away there will be decisions made that we aren’t going to agree with or understand. I guess he wasn’t kidding. What he’d asked is that you believe the choices made are in the best long term interests of the Toronto Maple Leafs. A big ask, I get it. This isn’t the part where I tell you it’s wrong to challenge which way we are going. That’s up to you.
From Matt Martin, to Matthew’s contract, to the Polak Smash, to the draft filled with hulking henchmen, we saw the first signs of duress. “I think we’ve gone this way before. Hey boys…No!!! It’s the skeleton of Ol’ Davey Clarkson!!!!!.” After being stranded, lost in the woods, planes crashing, shipwrecked in the Arctic, or almost burnt alive in the desert sun, I might have a couple reservations about where I’m being taken on my next fishing trip.
If you have reservations as we go forward far be it for me to tell you to stifle it. Myself personally, I can’t in good conscience pretend to think I know a better route to the Stanley Cup than Mike Babcock or Lou Lamoriello. I can’t. I’m not insinuating this is the case, that the masses are rioting, screaming “Hell No – We Won’t Go”. I believe all Leafs Nation feel strong about the group. Wait for it though, be ready, because I promise you it’s coming.
Yes, I’ve put my absolute faith in Leafs management blindly before (please see *pig slaughter of 2005* above and read “A Letter from Jude to the Carlylions” -Chapter 19, Verse 67). But that’s over with and it’s what Mike Babcock is talking about when he says we are just getting started. This season marks the beginning of a new century of Leafs hockey and I’m ready to march whatever direction our management points us in. We all need something to believe in, and I believe in the future of this team.
JFJ took us into the darkness of the forest and he didn’t even bring a fricking backpack. Never mind so much as a compass. I mean who the hell goes into the woods and doesn’t think to bring a flashlight??
Now Burkie, he took the canoe stamped “yacht” across the high sea and boastfully thought he’d make it just because he named the boat “Truculence”. Oh, you bet Burkie yeah, that 25 footer ya got there should be fine out in the 7 meter waves of the NHL playoffs. But you didn’t have to worry, the boat capsized before getting that far.
And Nonis vs the Sahara, that was going to end well. Sheik Dave in the desert sun, red as a beet, sweating his balls off. Who needs a canteen or a little shade when you’ve got about 45 million dollars invested in a fleet of &*#’ing camels!!!
There’s a reason why I’m so willing to forget about the failings in the rearview and trust there’s an end to the road this time, and so should you. I would say we’ve tagged on a few extra miles over the summer. Another draft where Hunter took the podium more than the rest, the addition of two solid goaltenders, modest progress has been made. Did the Maple Leafs scoot ahead another 15 miles by signing Steven Stamkos? Nope. Did they get a little boost from Jimmy Vesey? No again. (Newsflash – he might be as good as Zach Hyman, Josh Leivo, or Connor Brown and would be hard pressed to make the team.) Should there be concern all of a sudden about our leadership group and where they are taking us?
The answer, absolutely not. If you’d like to join the Leafs and help get to the desired championship a tad quicker, by all means, come on along. But if you don’t, no sweat. My exact words, or word when Stamkos signed in Tampa? “Meh”. As a matter of fact, if you go too far too fast you run the risk of hitting the wall, burning yourself out. There’s no rush here anymore. Leafs management know where this road they are on leads and no matter who screams and yells “Wrong way”, with all due respect, the brass will be tuning you out.
Brendan Shanahan drew the map and Kyle, Mark, Lou, and most of all Mike Babcock, they will maintain our course. This will be a controlled, measured, calculated journey with an understanding and a knowledge if we mind our pace that the organization, and every one of us who’ve never gave up no matter how bad the road became, will at long last reach the end, Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The Leafs are winning a championship this century, make no mistake about it. When exactly? Truth be told, not even Nostradamus or a confidence oozing Mike Babcock can provide a definitive answer. How many miles to go before drinking from hockey’s holy grail? Nobody can say for sure. All I know is this time Toronto is equipped with a G.P.S. (Glorious Prospect System) and personnel who can actually read radar’s, atlas’s, charts, even the stars (thanks Kyle).
The days of getting lost along the way are over and done with. When the Maple Leafs complete their grim mission and all the parties, parades, joy and tears are over, I can hear Coach now…*blows whistle*… “We’re going twenty miles more.”