Short of a complete roster overhaul, Brian Burke had one objective in mind as he took the thrown in the center of the hockey universe – change the culture.
While the pink slips delivered to players from years passed who were enamored within a losing environment make room for new changes, it was the selection of certain players all with unique characteristics that has restored the right attitude. An attitude such a historical franchise should employ, and a loyal fan base so dearly deserves.
After witnessing what could and should be the worst half season of hockey he has watched, Brian Burke pulled the trigger on his impact deal, a deal he insists changed the dynamic of hockey in Toronto. It was a cold Sunday morning in January, but rumors, reports and many computer modems were on fire as word was out that the Toronto Maple Leafs had acquired Dion Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames.
In not one, but two deals that day the sky lifted upon Leaf Nation and perhaps some light shed on the dark days of the franchise. Along with Phaneuf, Burke also welcomed Stanley Cup/Conn Smythe winner in J.S. Gigeure, and almost immediately the buzz grew and the attitude altered.
Knowing it would take much more than the quality of players already on board, Brian Burke ventured into the off-season keeping his goal in mind of changing the Maple Leaf culture, and named Dion Phaneuf the club’s 18th Team Captain. Adding not only to on-ice qualities but to the aspect within the Leafs locker room, Burke brought in players like Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong, Clarke MacArthur and Mike Brown.
In Versteeg, Burke obtained a quality young forward carrying the intangibles of a recent Stanley Cup winner. Armstrong brings an edge the Leafs were lacking, and the ability to chip in offensively. With MacArthur, Burke was able to sign an affordable free agent determined to prove his worth after the Atlanta Thrashers walked away from his 2.4 million dollar arbitration decision. While he may not find the score sheet very often, Mike Brown brings incredible speed and tight checking play while riding shotgun to Colton Orr when the gloves need to come off.
A stat not measured is one in which all these players bring to Toronto. Each player has the mentality, character and quality allowing for a new attitude of change among this Leafs team. That change ignited much sooner than thought, as players arrived in Toronto to skate together 2 weeks prior to training camp.
Although a 3-0 start does not indicate a lot as it much too soon to truly evaluate this team, a positive and almost fun loving vibe is surrounding the group and has become visible through their on ice performance. That vibe does not stop within the players, as Coaching Staff and Management are effected as well.
“The attitude is different,” Leafs senior vice president of hockey operations, Dave Nonis said Thursday. “A lot of that comes from the players themselves. Part of it is they have something to prove. Part of that is personalities. And winning doesn’t hurt.”
“There is probably a lot to prove for a lot of the guys,” Nonis said. “The players that were here last year obviously weren’t happy with their performance, by and large. Overall, when you finish 29th, you couldn’t have had a lot of great years.”
“Then there are other players who have joined us who were either free-agent signings or coming off years that they want to improve on and they have had a big part of our early success.”
In those remarks alone, the objective to change the culture is clear and the process is under way. While the downs of the season have yet to surface, it is vital for this group to keep their pace and embrace their winning attitude, something that Head Coach Ron Wilson believes is easier this time around.
“You want your team to have this kind of mood,” Wilson said of he team’s enthusiasm. “They work harder in practice and feel good about themselves. It’s a good group. They’re young, they’re enthusiastic and they are better to work with.”
That mentality will indeed encourage the steady performance of many players looking to have career years, and some rebounding from what would be considered set backs in establishing themselves within the league.
“That’s my job as coach, to try and coax the best years out of everyone,” Wilson said. “We’re a work in progress, but if they can do that, we’ll be in pretty good shape as a team.”
Whatever the word, whether it be “change”, “attitude”, “enthusiasm”, “culture”, and even “success”, all must remain in the mindset of everyone involved within this organization as they look to alter the previous years of failure. A process it is indeed, a process taking shape much sooner than many had expected.
The Leafs take to the ice tonight, looking to improve to a 4-0 record as they take on the New York Rangers at Madison Square Gardens.
About the Author
Written by RJ Emptage
Operations Manager of a retail chain in Southern Ontario (Sports Obsession). Specialize in licensed sports apparel and novelties (Visit sportsobsession.ca). Being from the Hamilton area I grew up and into a die-hard Toronto Maple Leaf Fan, and look forward to a bright blue and white future...(I know that sounds crazy doesn't it?) Love all things sports and the next best thing to playing them, is talking them!