DETROIT — Even when you’re lucky enough to spend time around a team with a reporter’s notepad every day, you’re always aware that there’s only so much about that team you can truly know.
As an outsider, you can observe cliques and get a sense for friendships. You can speak to players about how they feel for one another. But you’re never in the dressing room or in meetings or on the bench during the moments that matter most, the times when a group is tested and the true dynamic is revealed.
And so it was especially interesting for those that follow the Toronto Maple Leafs to see how Auston Matthews handled his time in the all-star spotlight last weekend. Specifically, his decision to unexpectedly don a No. 12 Patrick Marleau sweater and reveal it during the skills competition, an ode to a long-time member of the San Jose Sharks in the building where he enjoyed most of his best NHL moments.
It was a special moment – one that arguably told us a little more than even those Instagram videos or Christmas family photos with Matthews, Mitch Marner and the Marleau family. This was a chance to pay back a veteran who has taken the young Leafs under his care over the last year and a half.
"It’s crazy. I never really would expect anything like that, but for him to feel the need to do that is pretty special," Marleau said before Friday’s game against the Red Wings. "It means a lot."
This was no easy thing for Matthews to pull together.
After getting the idea, he said it took "about 50 different people" to grant their approval at the NHL level before he could go ahead with it. A Marleau sweater was made up quickly – it was a little too snug and affected Matthews’ performance in the accuracy shooting event – but it got a huge reaction from the SAP Center crowd when he took off his own Leafs jersey to reveal it.
"I think the ovation kind of speaks for itself and speaks for Pat and what he’s done," said Matthews.
A point worth making is that he didn’t have to do it.
Matthews was voted captain of the Atlantic Division and was one of the stars among the all-stars as a result. That he chose to use that stage to honour a 39-year-old teammate who was vacationing in Turks and Caicos says a lot about how revered Marleau is inside the Leafs dressing room.
It’s an important consideration in any discussion about whether his $6.25-million cap hit can be justified through the end of next season, especially given the likelihood that Marleau’s age will continue to put a drag on his performance. There are still some intangibles that bind a team. Inside the Leafs organization, Marleau’s value is being measured by much more than goals and assists.
"I thought it was special," coach Mike Babcock said of the gesture from Matthews. "I’ve said it 100 times, and probably to nausea for you guys, I think Patty Marleau’s a real important part of our team. I don’t think we end up with John Tavares without getting Patrick Marleau, and I don’t think we end up with Patrick Marleau without doing what we did before. This just didn’t happen over a period of time. It’s taken us four years to get this level and every piece has been a way to get something else.
"And no different than [Monday’s trade], we wouldn’t have got [Jake Muzzin] unless we were good. The reality is you’ve just got to keep getting better and it shows the kind of respect the guys have for him."
Even the most analytically inclined organizations have had to make allowances for the value of glue guys. The Houston Astros came to understand that when acquiring 40-year-old Carlos Beltran before winning the 2017 World Series.
For as much as Kyle Dubas has been lauded for being at the forefront of the NHL’s push towards deeper data-driven decision-making, it’s some of the personal touches he’s brought since becoming Leafs general manager that resonate most with his players. He’s known for keeping an open dialogue and has instituted regular meetings where people inside the organization take turns discussing what’s most important to them.
The goal is to create a family type of environment. The kind of place where everyone is mindful of each other, and looking for ways to assist and share credit.
Should the Leafs go on a playoff run this spring or next, you can be sure the young guns will rally around the chance to help Marleau win a Stanley Cup before retirement. He’s already ninth on the NHL’s all-time games played list and could climb as high as fifth before April. He’s been at this a long, long time.
And after looking out for Matthews and Marner, those guys are looking for ways to give something back to Marleau. We saw that in San Jose when Matthews scrambled together an impromptu tribute.
"It was late notice so everybody that kind of had their part in it, it was pretty amazing to get it done that quickly," he said.
Marleau had no idea it was coming. He was watching TV in bed at his beachside resort and thinking about getting some sleep when his phone blew up.
A strong, silent type not known for showing much emotion, he was clearly touched.
"It was special," said Marleau. "It was pretty cool to be honored like that by Matty."