Maple Leafs identity: Part I – “Beat ’em up in the alley”


Yesterday at Vintage Leafs Memories, Michael Langlois wrote an excellent post wherein he asked the question ‘do the Leafs have an identity? What does it need to be?’. We phrased this as an open-ended question to our writers. This morning, Danny Gray, JP Nikota and Ryan Fancey share their thoughts. Do you agree that the Leafs have been a team continually striving for a big, brashing team in the mould of the Bruins?

Danny –

Nothing better demonstrates the fact that the Leafs are Canada’s Team than the near century long battle over their "identity".

The architect of the Platonic Ideal of the Toronto Maple Leafs is undoubtedly Conn Smythe. If you don’t know anything about Smythe do yourself a favour and read up on him. When he served in The Second World War he left Frank Selke in charge of the Leafs. In 1946 when the Leafs failed to make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, the tension between Smythe and Selke became untenable. Selke resigned in a note that read:"Lincoln freed the slaves. Goodbye. I quit."

With the team once again under his complete control Smythe went about constructing the Leafs in his image. In his eyes there were "too many old men on our team. What we need is youth. Fighting youth. Kids with spirit." 

Conn’s team building idiom has become ingrained in the psyche of both Leafs’ fans and Don Cherry: "If you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you can’t beat ’em on the ice". Smythe’s Leafs would be tough, hard working, and hard hitting. Howie Meeker said of those teams: "if you got any of them mad or came out of the corner, you were dead." 

Quick test which Leafs GM said the following: "We want a hard, aggressive team with no Lady Byngers. I’m not interested in hockey players who don’t play to win. You can take penalties, but you have to play to win." I could have attributed that quote to Brian Burke and no one would have batted an eye. Smythe would have loved the way Burke has gone about building the Leafs. His emphasis on youth and toughness reflects what Smythe, and by extension many Leafs’ fans believe the team should be. 

Smythe turned the Leafs into a dynasty so it’s hard to argue with his results. Unfortunately his philosophy has evolved from being one way to build a team to the only  way. The blueprint is even forced upon successful teams that don’t fit the bill. The Mats Sundin-led Leafs were built on speed, high scoring, and unsustainable goaltending. Yet players like Tucker, Domi, and even Steve Thomas became folk heroes and were seen as giving the team its identity. 

Today Phil Kessel is seen by many Leafs fans as a player you "can’t win with". This is the enduring legacy of Conn Symthe. Whenever you read a trade proposal for Ryane Clowe, an article praising Colton Orr, or a criticism of Burke for not trading for Steve Ott you can thank Conn Smythe.

Ryan – 

I don’t think there are many teams that have an "identity" really. You have to be a good team to establish an identity, I think. The Leafs aren’t. They’re awful, and even with a supposed pipeline of prospects, there isn’t a lot to be excited about. I mean, outside of Reilly and perhaps Kadri, it’s not like we’re head over heels about any of these guys. 

I don’t have a suggestion as to what the Leafs identity should be. They need to get good first, then I’ll fall in love with whatever type of team they’re considered as. I suppose part of the fanbase, myself included, always wanted to see them turn in to the Bruins because we’ve admired players like Wendel and other tough guys in the past. But if they turn in to winners who play like the Canucks or Capitals, I’ll take that too.

JP – 

I don’t know how much I believe in the idea of ‘team identity’ at all. That is, I don’t know how often any particular player actually thinks about this kind of stuff, but I know that when I played, it wasn’t often. The fans, of course, are another story. Making up and applying their own narratives to the ebb and flow of a season is somewhat understandable as they try to make sense of what they see on a nightly basis. In Toronto, it seems that most fans tend to love "gritty" teams. At least, they love the gritty teams that win. My best guess to explain this phenomenon is a two-part answer:

The Home-Town Boy Effect: I think most of us would agree that a player’s origins matter very little, so long as they’re good at hockey. But that doesn’t prevent us from getting just a little more excited at the thought of a home-grown player doing well. All things being equal, fans like to be able to relate to their heroes, and if their appreciation for say, Mats Sundin’s Swedish culture begins and ends with a Muppet, they’re unlikely to jump on a bandwagon as quickly. Sure, Toronto is a cosmopolitan city, and is certainly less hung-up on the background of their heroes than oh, I don’t know, Montréal, but I think it still counts for something. I shouldn’t need to remind you that the Leafs haven’t had a really gritty hero from Canada for some time now.

If you can’t beat ’em on the ice, you might as well beat ’em in the alley: People love televised violence more than anything except maybe televised sex. I bet if the NHL could work sex into their act, they’d have done it already. Oh, wait. In any event, violence is a big draw, and if your team is going to lose, you probably would like to see some inflicted on their vanquishers.

  • RexLibris

    I remember similar discussions about the Oilers a few years back.

    They weren’t a tough team, a puck-possession team, a shudown-defense-first team, or even a lovable bunch of also-rans.

    I would tend to agree with Ryan that they need to accomplish something, or at least show progress in a particular direction, before an identity can be assigned to them.