The Ties That Bind

Three Captains
Whether it is fair or unfair, our perceptions become our reality.

Three Captains
Whether it is fair or unfair, our perceptions become our reality.

During an appearance on London radio’s “The Hook” with Norman James last Friday, our conversation at one point took an interesting turn toward the notion of player personality, and how it affects fan perception and the manner in which fans relate to the players.

It’s an interesting subject – the trichotomy of fan/player/team identity, and not one the majority of fans spend much time pondering. What is it, beyond star power, that draws fans to feel they have formed certain bonds with specific players they have never met? What is it that keeps others at arms’ length? Is it the nature of the players themselves, is it our own as fans, or is it perhaps both?

This admittedly rather unusual and complex topic arose via a seemingly-simple discussion about Tomas Kaberle, and the notion that perhaps it was time for both he and the Maple Leafs to part ways. As anyone who was following my Twitter feed the night of the Kaberle trade window deadline can attest (I say “was following”, as I lost quite a few that night), it is a notion with which I vehemently disagree. I’ll get into that in a moment – it all relates.

As the discussion turned toward the media and fan pressure, and particularly the stoicism and resolve Kaberle has displayed through all of the persistent trade rumours and NTC criticisms over the years, I began to wonder if perhaps so much of the attention – or should I say, the seeming desire among fans to see him traded – was really a product of a player who has simply been in one place for too long (representative of the old guard) – or if it was, in fact, something else entirely. As Mr. James so aptly put it, “when you’re not demonstrating this angst or urgency, or vocalizing your frustrations, people get the sense that you don’t care, and I think Kaberle has fallen victim to that.”

Nail, meet hammer.

Was it not the same for Mats Sundin? Did he not fall victim to those same perceptions? For all the consistency, for all of the records, he never was received in Toronto the same way as was Doug Gilmour, or especially, Wendel Clark. And he is rarely mentioned in the same breath, when discussing leadership and impact as a captain, as those two are … despite nearly every player he’s played with describing him as one of the most talented players they’d ever seen, a terrific leader, and one of the best teammates they’d ever had.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why that is?

(Spoiler alert: it’s not the European/Canadian factor. Nik Lidstrom rendered that argument moot years ago.)

Mr. Norman James, have you an idea?

“Wendel is the guy riding his bike to the beer store with a case of empties on the handlebars; Mats is the dude driving his slick Saab,” stated Mr. James. “And I think that (was something which) rubbed some people the wrong way.”

And therein lies the answer.

From my own experience living outside the GTA, I would argue the majority of Leafs‘ fanbase across the province is comprised of small-town, working-class folk. Think of who we spend our time with, our families, our friends. On a purely personal level, we relate more to – and identify far greater with – the guy we envision riding his bike or his truck to the beer store than we do the guy in expensive clothes driving a sports car to the winery. We relate more to the guy in the flannel and busting his ass each summer on the farm, than the guy flying off to northern Sweden each summer and showing up on televised poker tourneys wearing Armani. That first guy fits right into our own community – or at least proffers the illusion that he does. The second guy? Not so much.

And through that perception, through what we see and identify as something or someone similar to that or those in our own lives, a pseudo-bond is formed. We feel what we perceive the player is feeling; indeed, we feel something for a particular player, a personal connection to the player because he seems so much, on certain levels, like ourselves or (perhaps more importantly) what we wish ourselves to be.

That’s a part of it … but it’s so much more than that.

When you think of Wendel Clark, what do you remember? The hits, the fights, the goals. His heart on his sleeve during each and every shift. When you think of Gilmour, it’s much the same – the intensity on his face, the fire in his eyes, and — once more — his heart on his sleeve. Emotional displays are fascinating: tangible yet transient, we can see the emotions and we can feed off them, and feel (even if only in our imaginations) those same feelings ourselves.

With every big hit, every fight fought, every hard-won goal, every passionate statement on behalf of the team, the hormones fire and the testosterone flows among fans. And for the briefest of moments, we in our minds become that player – because he is doing what we always wanted to do, being who we always wanted to be, in a manner that we are able to feed off, and feel as though we are living our own childhood dreams vicariously through that player.

Now take a step back, and apply that same lens to Mats Sundin. Did you ever feel quite the same way about him, his play, as you did Gilmour or Clark? If you did – and you may well have — you are in the minority among fans. Why is that? Sundin was every bit as great a player, as great a captain for this team. And yet, that same bond with the fans was never there. Come the end of his career, people were more interested in his trade value than what he had accomplished for the team … a perception unheard of at the time Gilmour was traded, and especially when Clark was moved the first time (in exchage for for Sundin, of all people).

Why is that, I wonder? My inclination is to argue it all comes down to personality. To nature. To style. Mats Sundin was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a fiery or outwardly passionate player. On the contrary, he was cool and calculated, calm and strategic, brilliant yet boring, both on and off the ice. He was the thinker, not the doer; the philosopher as opposed to the man of action. The guy who could simply shut out everything around him and relax within the trappings of a lifestyle of which most could only ever dream. Sundin was not your typical guy, and not the sort whom most could relate to a member of their own community. In short, for the average fan, the working-class guy fighting hard to make ends meet just to get through the week, to identify with Sundin, his lifestyle, his persona – to feel any sort of bond – was nearly impossible.

And yet he was a terrific player, perhaps one of the best this team ever had. Where a water-off-the-back personality and luxurious lifestyle perhaps kept fans at arm’s length, his talent and ability to produce were never compromised. But he was, quite simply, not Dougie, and not Wendel. Where folks were up in arms at the trading of both those players, they were similarly up in arms at the fact that one of the all-time greats to suit up for their team was not willing to accept a trade. That bond just wasn’t there, nor could it, arguably, ever have been.

And here we return, full-circle, to the subject that sparked this particular topic: Tomas Kaberle. Here’s a guy who is among the Leafs‘ all time leaders in points by a defenseman, one of the top pure puck-movers in the game today, signed to a ridiculously below-market contract. And all anyone has wanted to do for the past three years is get rid of him.

“Well he’s regressing,” they say. Here’s a fun fact: after 41 games last season, Kaberle had registered a tremendous 35 points. And then the changes came. Gone were a number of the Leafs‘ top-producing forwards, key to the transition game and powerplay, the two areas where the majority of Kaberle’s points were generated. In came Dion Phaneuf, whose presence resulted in a reduction of ice time, and somewhat of a role adjustment for Kaberle, who could muster only 14 points over the next 41 games. It should be noted that Phaneuf also struggled mightily to put up points on a club adapting to new players and resulting adaptations to the coaching system. And yet, in the minds of many, Kaberle had suddenly become a regressing player over the span of a mere 3 months, now more expendable than ever.

“Well he has value,” they say. True, he does. Not only in terms of players who may fill one hole while creating another, and unknown draft picks, he also carries an intrinsic value to the team itself. Quick, name another player on the Leafs‘ blueline who can skate the puck out of the zone as swiftly, complete that first pass nearly every time, deftly sneak a one-time pass direct to the tape of a teammate in scoring position, and spearhead the transition game with authority and reliability. There isn’t one; and there are precious few in the league.

Indeed, Kaberle is a valuable commodity, but not only on the trade market. But as fans are wont to do, a pariah is picked to be representitive, in singular fashion, of all the team’s woes. Who better than the guy they never could identify with in the first place? It happened with Hall Of Fame defender Larry Murphy, and proven winner Mathieu Schneider, two guys who, coincidentally, had less outward personality than a tree stump. And it is happening now with Tomas Kaberle … and has been for the past few years.

And yet, he takes it all in stride. It is a rare gift for an athlete – for any public figure – to be able to simply shut out all the outside noise and simply go about his business. But that’s what Tomas Kaberle does. He says little, stays out of the spotlight, always shows up on gameday, gives his best effort and goes off into his own private world. He is, in a sense, exactly what we should wish for in our role models, a guy who sets the sort of example we should all strive to live by. And yet, as was the case with Sundin, the only thing many can see is the potential trade value the player may have, and not the value he provides his team, and his teammates. If we don’t feel that we know a player, we don’t feel anything for the player; and thus he is rendered just another commodity, another bargaining chip, less a quality player whose rare abilities are key to the success of the team and more a quantifiable asset whose exchange holds the key to the hopes and dreams of the future.

Is it unfair? Of course it is. But it’s also not to be unexpected. Absent of the formation of a bond or connection – either real or perceived – the player becomes, in the minds of fans, more of a thing than a person, a tangible asset as opposed to a human being. One of our great failings as fans – and this applies to all fans in all sports – is that in our shortsightedness borne of a desire to either win now, or cling to abstract dreams of future possibilities, we tend to overlook the benefits of what we do have at the current moment. Fans of the Maple Leafs are fortunate to have a player of Kaberle’s talent – and unflappable nature – as a key member of their beloved team. Just as they were – and are only beginning to appreciate – with Mats Sundin.

Upon his return to Toronto, as a member of the Vancouver Canucks, Mats Sundin was greeted with the expected video production of his highlight moments as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. What was not expected, in light of the fallout among fans over his decision to not accept a trade and the team’s subsequent move in another direction during free agency, was the extended standing ovation he received during the tribute. In the years since the dramatic soap opera that ensued in the offseason of 2008, talk of Mats Sundin – once reviled for his very desire to lead the Maple Leafs’ back to glory – has morphed from incensed complaints about selfishness and how a true leader would fall on his sword for the good of the team (although how it would have helped his cause to lead the team to glory if he were to accept a trade was a question that was always conveniently ducked), into something else entirely: great plays, records, a talent unlike one we’ve ever seen.

In short, time is beginning to heal old wounds, as it always does. While a bond, real or imagined, never will exist between Mats Sundin and the majority of fans, the way one does with Clark, Gilmour, Domi and Roberts (to name a few), the extent of Sundin’s legacy, and his value to the Maple Leafs for over 13 years, is finally being realized a number of years after it was all said and done.

Human nature is tricky, especially when it comes to the relationships we form, and those we perceive. We are emotional beings, and in order to connect, we need to be able to feed off one another, experience the feelings of another, imagine the other as a part of the fabric of our own community, for only then do they truly represent “Us”. Where such a bond existed with Clark and Gilmour, with Roberts and Domi, the lack of any sort of ability to identify with the player, to feel that he is or could be “one of us”, the inability to feed off his emotions and connect them to our own, led to a natural lack of appreciation for all that Mats Sundin contributed – and meant – to the team during his time in its sweater. And only in the years after his departure are we finally beginning to realize what it was we once had, and were so willing to cast aside.

What remains to be seen is whether we, as fans, can find it within ourselves to apply those same lessons to the manner in which we perceive Tomas Kaberle. For although we may never be able to trick ourselves into believing that we understand him, or that he represents our own individual communties, or even satisfy our vicarious longings by feeding off his emotions and outward personality, there is much to be appreciated about what it is the Maple Leafs – and their fanbase – are so privileged to call their own in this most unique and talented player.

As time moves on, new heroes — and undoubtedly new pariahs — will emerge, and new connections and emotional attachments will be formed.  In the immediate future, one can glimpse at players such as Luke Schenn (another take-no-prisoners country farm boy) and Nazim Kadri (another heart-on-the-sleeve type), or even Phil Kessel, whose public persona is closer to that of Sundin and Kaberle than the easy-to-bond-with Gilmour and Clark.  Where each of these players — and those sure to follow — end up in terms of their legacy among fans remains to be seen, but one can only hope that at the end of the day they are judged not on the ability of fans to identify with them (and subsequently perceive a form of personal representation), but rather through their contributions during their careers, and the effort they put on display night after night, as members of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

One can only hope such recognition is realized long prior to a tear-inducing video homage, and far-belated standing ovation.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

Author’s Note: This post is not intended as a direct comparison of Clark/Gilmour/Sundin. That is not the argument being made. Rather, it is intended as a look at the manner in which we, as fans, choose to perceive our star athletes, using the example of the aforementioned three to illustrate the point. — GB