Leafs’ hire of AHL coach Moore evidence of changing times in hockey

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner (left) and Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas are surrounded by media during a press conference at the Paradise Double Ice Complex in Paradise, NL on Saturday, September 14, 2019. (Paul Daly/CP)

I’m confident we wouldn’t have even had this conversation a week ago.

When Kyle Dubas met the media to introduce the man he’d just hired to coach the Toronto Marlies, he was asked about the vetting process he conducted before giving Greg Moore a contract to run the American Hockey League team.

"I mean, we talked to every employer that Greg has had in his role as a coach and talking to the teams about him (from his playing days) was relatively easy — being a captain at every level," Dubas said Monday. "There wasn’t any negative in terms of his character. We also did a full criminal background check in Canada and the U.S., which turned up nothing, of course.

"That’s why he’s here."

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

I’ve stood in a lot of scrums after a lot of hirings and can’t ever recall that being among the first few questions asked.

There was nothing wrong with it, of course, given the wider conversation being held around the sport. The tremors are still being felt from the allegations against Bill Peters and his subsequent resignation from the Calgary Flames, not to mention a bevy of other stories that have come trickling out about the questionable ways power has been exerted within hockey.

In fact, not long after Dubas and Moore spoke with reporters, the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos announced Monday that they had fired head athletic trainer and equipment manager Jamie LeBlanc for a "recent pattern of demeaning and derogatory comments, threatening behaviour and unprofessional conduct."

Who you employ and how they behave has never been more relevant. The level of scrutiny has gone up considerably over a handful of days, which should in theory create a healthier and more nurturing atmosphere across the sport, but also comes with some uncomfortable conversations (and revelations) about where we’ve been.

That includes in Toronto, where a story about Mike Babcock putting a then-teenage Mitch Marner in an incredibly uncomfortable spot with veteran teammates made the rounds following Babcock’s Nov. 20 firing.

Dubas wasn’t the general manager when the former coach had Marner make a list of which Leafs worked the hardest during the 2016-17 season and shared the results with a couple players who received a poor rating. But it’s clear that a similar incident wouldn’t be tolerated on Dubas’s watch now — not with the standard he’s established for every young player who enters the organization.

"We want them to walk out of here, whether they retire one day playing their full career (in Toronto) or they get traded or sign elsewhere, I think we want the first thing that they talk about is how they were treated here first and foremost as people," said Dubas. "And then how that treatment and how the support we gave them in their mental health and mental well-being … serves as the foundation for how they perform as an athlete. That’s what we really want to be about and what we’ll continue to be about."

They obviously see Moore as someone who can deliver on those values with the Marlies. The 35-year-old spent a couple years coaching with the U.S. National Team Development Program and was more recently behind the bench for the USHL’s Chicago Steel.

He is also a former captain at the University of Maine and a longtime AHL player who made a strong impression while serving as a guest coach and presenter during Toronto’s development camp last summer.

The Leafs reached out to Moore after bumping Sheldon Keefe up to the big club to replace Babcock. It’s unusual for a coach to jump leagues in-season, but the opportunity was too good to pass up.

"It was a no-brainer for me from what I’d already observed," Moore said. "I definitely found that the model here is progressive and, not just progressive to be different, but progressive for good reason and very focused on what they were doing in how to develop the person and develop the athlete."

Asked for a specific example, he pointed to how Dubas prioritizes the mental health of players. He also appreciates the opportunities the organization gives its athletes to work on their individual skills.

Both are in line with his own philosophy for coaching.

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"I think connecting and relating to the players (is important)," Moore said. "I think with the new-age athlete, especially, caring for them as people before athletes. Their well-being mentally, what kind of lifestyle they live in, are they happy? You know all that stuff translates before you get to the hockey and once you build habits with them and a culture and a care for the guy across the room from you.

"I think everybody has more buy-in to want to play and work with each other. Just having that mindset and then letting the hockey take care of itself."

Moore will spend the next two weeks shadowing the Leafs’ coaching staff before formally taking control of the Marlies on Dec. 16. The idea is to get him up to speed and comfortable with the inner workings of the organization while also avoiding disruption during a busy stretch of games on the AHL schedule.

The hiring process unfolded pretty quickly.

"It just became very clear that the way he communicated, the way he coached was going to be a good fit and certainly be in line with how we are operating here," Dubas said. "So that was how we came to the decision."

These are decisions that will now be judged on much more than wins and losses.

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