A Team That Grows Together, Plays Together


I am a big believer of creating teams by having the players grow up together. It’s exactly what we have here. Our core is extremely young and everybody is developing, maturing together. It creates a bond which cannot be duplicated otherwise. Psychologists will tell you that having players (young men) go through stuff together in roughly the same period of their lives has an unparalleled bonding effect.

Teams that are put together in that manner are almost always successful. And those that are the exception to that rule certainly can’t be blamed for their lack of team spirit or “togetherness”. More often than not, just putting together a group of talented players, or big money free agents gets you nowhere, except maybe in a big hole you dug up for yourself.

Just look at the SJ Sharks, the Washington Capitals of the world. Sure, they get the crowd out of their seat but what did those teams actually win? The NY Rangers? Let’s not go there. Soccer is another example, maybe even a better one because of all the money involved. Man City spent over 300 million pounds to bring in players and still haven’t won anything besides one FA cup. Chelsea still haven’t won the Champions League, soccer’s legitimate equivalent to the Stanley Cup.

Then look at the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Boston Bruins or the FC Barcelonas of the world. Sure they have talent, loads of talent. But even when that talent evaporates, like it did with the Penguins last season, or what losing Marc Savard meant for the Bruins, those teams found ways to win. It certainly wasn’t star power. Nobody could argue that last year’s Penguins were indeed strong enough to compete in the playoffs. Yet it took Tampa Bay (which almost made the Finals) 7 games to crack open a roster without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz. Nobody could argue that the Boston Bruins had a good enough roster to compete for the Stanley Cup prior to the playoffs and yet we all saw what happened in Vancouver.

One can also argue that team spirit can come from other places. Matching characters of players, chemistry, all that stuff. And that person would be right. All I’m saying is, all those characteristics are that much stronger if they are cultivated early, from day one of the players’ NHL careers.

As far as the leader of our new look Leafs is concerned, sure Dion’s not that young. But it’s the first time he captained a team, the first time he has ever had to lead a young group of players. Responsibility is a funny thing. It changes you. Dion could easily get away with having a bad game in Calgary (although he didn’t quite get away with it) with Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr there for other players to look up to. In Toronto, he’s the experienced one. Everyone is following his lead. And even though Dion didn’t have the best start in Toronto, or as a captain, there isn’t a person in the world who can claim they didn’t see a positive change in his attitude eversince he first put that C on his sweater.

Brian Burke did an excellent job of removing players that he thought were in the way of that new look chemistry and attitude. It’s certainly not my place to question the winning desire of a loyal servant like Kaberle, but it is quite possible he really needed a new start to fuel his passion for winning. It’s quite clear that sometimes when a team is losing so many years, players get accustomed to that, they become stale. As far as Kaberle goes, I mean that in the best way possible, because he never wanted to leave Toronto and when he did, that player did his best to do right by the club. All other departures said nothing about the players (Giguere, Beauchemin, Versteeg etc.) other than they needed a change of scenery. Those weren’t bad players, nobody could argue that they didn’t wanted to win, but things needed to change in order to give younger players room to grow together.

Another very important point is actually drafting and getting players that want to play for the Leafs. Not just that, players who loved the organization prior to joining. Call me old fashioned if you must but I really, and I mean really love a player who joins this team because he wants to be here. I said it before, I’ll say it again, if you love something, you’ll bleed for it. Your average NHL player can become a really good performer (IE Clarke MacArthur) for the team if he has the desire to play for that team. Then again, a player like Versteeg, who’s arguably more talented (raw talent) doesn’t perform. Simple as that. Sure, we can call concepts like “team spirit, playing for your brother, the name on the front is more important than the name on the back, there is no I in team etc.” cliches but they are cliches for a reason. They work.

In a team building sense, I think that Burke realized all of this sooner than any of us did. He knows, that to be able to compete and play, and prior to his ultimate belief of building from the back, he needs to have a team that represents a whole, with no weak links. That’s why he’s the GM, and Brian Burke.