From Shaman’s Rock
By Jim Poling Sr.
I have never been a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Probably because I was born and raised in Northwestern Ontario, where most folks disliked southern Ontario and anything to do with it.
Toronto was the centre of power and privilege, sucking up our resources while giving us little in return. The Leafs were southern Ontario’s hockey team, so most of us Northern Ontario kids ignored them while cheering and dreaming of playing for the Montreal Canadiens.
Our hockey heroes were the masterful goaltender Jacques Plante, the left-wing legend Jean Beliveau and, of course, Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard, the greatest hockey player of all time.
We loved the Canadiens because they played the game with pure passion.
Many of the players, notably The Rocket, came from struggling, impoverished families. The Rocket and others of his era learned to skate, play and practice not in fancy arenas, but on frozen creeks just like we did.
I thought a lot about those great Canadiens teams while watching the hapless Maple Leafs blow another chance to win the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup. They haven’t won the cup since 1967, a full 56 years ago.
The Leafs’ barely got past Tampa Bay Lighting in Round One of the playoffs. Their four-games-to-one loss to Florida Panthers in Round Two was pathetic, especially the uninspiring play of their “Core Four” players – John Tavares, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner.
Those four – paid a total of US $40.5 million this season – failed to score once in the first three games against the Panthers. The amount of passion they played with could be placed in an eyedropper.
Passionate play drove Montreal’s Rocket Richard to become the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals in one season and the first to reach 500 career goals. He was a member of eight Stanley Cup winning Canadiens teams.
Richard played hard and rough. He was known as fire on ice for his lightning drives at the opposition net.
“When Rocket came flying towards me with the puck on his stick, his eyes were all lit up, flashing and gleaming like a pinball machine,” Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall once recalled. “It was terrifying.”
The Rocket and the Montreal Canadiens exemplified what the game of hockey is all about – the passion for scoring goals. Goals get scored when teams play with passion that lights fire in their eyes and their bellies.
It’s been a very long time, but Toronto once had teams that played with fiery spirit. They made 71 NHL playoff appearances, winning 13 Stanley Cups between 1918 and 1967
This year they had an excellent regular season record and fans expected to see them in this year’s final – something they have not seen in decades. If the team had shown the same passion as the fans, they might have been there.
When a team that should go deep into the playoffs and doesn’t, its problem is not just on the ice. There is something missing on the bench and in the executive offices.
The Leafs management was missing the ability to infect their players with the passion that wins championships. Management also seemed to lack confidence in itself, making continual lineup changes despite having one of the best regular season records in the NHL.
The Maple Leafs appeared to have had everything needed to be in the Stanley Cup final this year. Everything except passion and team spirit. They’ll have to find those two things if they want to go anywhere next season.
How and where will they find it? A good start would be to look down the street and take a few hints from that other Toronto team – baseball’s Blue Jays.
The Jays played some games on the same days the Leafs were suffering one playoff loss after the next. I did a lot of channel hopping to follow both teams.
On the Leafs channel I saw a lot of glum faces and dispassionate play. Turning to the Jays I saw impassioned, happy faces on guys enjoying playing the game. Smiles and laughter that build the team spirit that scores points and wins games and championships.