Toronto Maple Leafs looking to blossom out of complicated past

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TORONTO – There’s a thing about history.

It can bring forth reminders of the good times, but also the bad.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have naturally accentuated the former while kicking off their centennial season celebrations with a series of olive-branch-extending gestures this week. Those will culminate with an ambitious ceremony before Saturday’s home opener against Boston that is being billed as “historic.”

A fundamental aspect of the tone the organization wants to set is summed in the new “Stand Witness” commercial spot, where the “100” gets flipped around to become “001.”

Looking back, but also ahead.

Today’s rebuilding Leafs are looking to bloom out of a wasteland. That includes one playoff appearance in 12 years, for starters, but also a Stanley Cup drought that will reach 50 years in the spring.

Still, there is some hope starting to form around the current team despite the long road yet to travel before contending for a championship. This week, Dave Keon reflected on Toronto’s 1962 Cup victory, and how that group had to contend with an 11-year drought before winning. The weight of the past is something the current batch of players will start to feel, he believes, as they become more competitive.

“You have to embrace the challenge,” said Keon, named the Leafs’ top all-time player on Friday. “I think that’s what they’re going to have to try and do. If you get better every year, then hopefully (they’ll) put themselves in a position where they can win. It doesn’t happen overnight; it’s going to take a little while.

“But it seems they’re getting the right players that are going to.”

A new season arrives with some symbolic changes. The Leafs introduced a sweater that features the logo worn during the successful run in the 1960s rather than the one donned by a lot of bad teams afterwards.

There is a complicated history here.

Under the direction of president Brendan Shanahan, who grew up a big Darryl Sittler fan in Mimico, the organization is trying to honour the good parts while moving on from the bad. And he isn’t much concerned about the Chicago Cubs-esque drought discussion that is bound to be raised once the rebuild is closer to completion.

 

“Look, my feeling is that if history and successful history is too much of a burden from you as an athlete then you really aren’t going to be a successful athlete anywhere – whether it’s in Toronto or in a market where no one watches the games,” said Shanahan. “These guys put pressure on themselves. I think that you’ve already seen the way that this city last year even just embraced the work effort and the commitment that the players gave.

“If the history, the successful history, of an organization stunts your ability to play the game then that’s really something that you’re going to carry with you anywhere in the world or in the sport.”

The biggest difference former Leafs captain Wendel Clark sees between the present and past is stability. There has seldom been this degree of sturdiness in ownership, management and coaching.

While playing here during the ‘80s and ’90s, he never got too caught up in the outside talk about the Leafs trying to bury their demons.

“When you’re a player you’re in the middle of it,” said Clark. “You don’t have time to worry about it. It’s like when a fan brings up something that happens – the Gretzky high stick (during the 1993 playoffs) – they remember all this and talk about it.

“That was Game 6 and we had to go into Game 7.”

Sittler and Paul Henderson were both part of Toronto teams that came shortly after the last Stanley Cup win in 1967. And yet carrying on the tradition established by the men who came before them was the least of their worries.

They believe the biggest barrier to success worked inside Maple Leaf Gardens at the time: owner Harold Ballard.

“I was honoured to play for the team,” said Sittler. “I was fortunate to play with guys that had won Cups and were part of the history of the organization. It was challenging at times when we went through the Ballard circus – you had all of this stuff going on in the background that made it difficult.”

 

Those types of issues aren’t likely to resurface around a team with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly soon forming the core. A team with Mike Babcock behind the bench.

As a result, the often-difficult half century that pre-dated their arrival here shouldn’t much matter either.

“As a player you don’t think of that,” said Henderson. “You don’t want to embarrass yourself, you want to win. There isn’t a guy in the room that doesn’t want to get his name on the Cup, but you have to be realistic too.

“(In the ‘70s I looked) at some of the other teams, and how we started messing with things, and that was the reason I left. There was no chance of winning.

“Now, I think there’s a new enthusiasm.”

When it was pointed out that the current Leafs players probably don’t even know who Ballard was, Henderson smiled.

“Well for sure,” he replied. “And thank god they don’t.”