TORONTO – Through the many twists and turns of a life spent in the NHL, Brooks Laich has often reflected back to the words his mother Jane first started telling him as a boy.
‘Have hockey live inside in your heart and let it come out.’
“That was mom’s famous line,” Laich said during a recent interview. “Even to this day she reminds me that the game is fun, and is always fun, and when you’re having the most fun you’re playing your best.”
But even after 12 years in D.C., and even after joining a team that was officially eliminated from playoff contention a couple days before the Capitals locked up the top seed in the Eastern Conference, Laich is a pretty happy guy right now.
What he has found in his new surroundings is some hope, which starts with the fact he’s playing. He’s already recorded his top seven ice time totals for the season during three-plus weeks as a member of the Leafs.
“My role had severely diminished in Washington,” said Laich. “I was playing less minutes than in my rookie season on a nightly average. I didn’t see much of a future there personally. So the chance to come here and re-establish myself and almost have a second lease on my career, I’m very thankful for it and it’s a huge opportunity for me.
“I love the game and I want to play the game a long time, but I didn’t feel like I was going to be able to do that if I had stayed in Washington.”
Even with another year left on his contract at $4.5-million, Laich is essentially auditioning for a mentorship role on a young Leafs team. This season has featured an incredible amount of roster turnover but GM Lou Lamoriello has estimated that half the lineup could be different again come September.
One thing that should help Laich is that his positive outlooks seems to align perfectly with head coach Mike Babcock, who even rewarded the veteran centre with some power-play time during Monday’s win over Calgary.
“Obviously you get to choose your attitude every day and I don't discount for one second when you go from a team that looks like they're knocking on the door to a team that isn't, you have to take a look at things,” said Babcock.
“The other thing is motivation; if you look under what's next to motivation is what's in it for me. When you're playing six minutes a night vs. suddenly getting to be important, that's the other side: The team is not as good but the opportunity is really good.
“So then, if you choose your attitude right and you choose to make an impact on kids, you can have a real impact on them.”
There is a certain freedom for Laich in knowing that he won’t be going eight minutes between shifts here. The next step for him in re-establishing his place is chipping in a little more offensively after putting up just nine points so far this season.
Away from the rink, the Wawota, Sask., native is getting more comfortable in his new city – putting his impressive photography skills to work while hosting his mother for a visit last week.
It was a full-circle moment for a family that once painted Brooks’ room Maple Leafs blue and decked him out in the gear of his favourite NHL team. When Jane Laich attended two games at the Air Canada Centre, she wore a new sweater while watching her son play.
“She bought a Leafs jersey the first day she got to town,” said Brooks. “Blue was always her favourite colour.”
Both of his parents – father Harold will likely get to Toronto at some point – had a big influence in helping him reach 754 NHL games and counting.
But they went about it in different ways.
“There’s two side to this,” said Laich. “My dad was the analytical one: ‘You did this wrong, you did this right, do this.’ My mom – good bless her soul – I never played a bad game. I never played a bad game for mom, she was always supportive, always believed in me, thought I was doing my best.”
In Toronto he appears to have found a place where he can be more at his best.
Laich praises the “accountability” he sees from Babcock and the coaching staff and believes his young teammates will greatly benefit from it. He also talks about wanting to be part of something bigger like he was a decade ago on a young Capitals team.
All told, it brings context to how he’s managed to go from first to worst without carrying any lingering resentment about the trade.
“I don’t know if I’ve fully dealt with it and moved on, or I don’t know if I haven’t dealt with it and moved on,” said Laich. “But I’m a Maple Leaf and I feel that through and through. I think what really helped me was that closure – the game in D.C. (on March 2) – I think being able to say my goodbyes personally I think was something that really helped me cut the cord and move on.
“I woke up the next day and we played Minnesota here, and I woke up and I had completely forgot about everything in D.C.
“And I had moved on from it.”
With clear eyes and a full heart.