One of the things Brian Burke promised when he took over as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs was a sea change from the country-club atmosphere that settled over the team in previous years.
With the Burke era officially beginning its second year today with a game against the Buffalo Sabres, opinions are divided about the success of his first year - but most of the critics agree the players work much harder than they did in the past. However, no one should take that as a sign that a change in culture is complete.
True culture change, say those who took on the burden of doing it, takes years, sometimes more than a decade to complete. It takes a lot more than getting rid of a few lazy players who may be a bad influence on their teammates and bringing in some hard-workers.
Ken Holland, general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, the NHL's most consistently successful team over the past 12 years, says you could argue a culture change that began in the early 1980s when Jim Devellano took over as GM and continued through a couple of regimes until Holland took over in 1997, took as long as 15 years.
"If you're looking at the change to an elite team, it was probably 10 years," Holland said. "But if you're talking about going from what was the worst team in the world, as it was in 1985, to a playoff team, then you could say five years."
In the case of the Red Wings, Holland said, there were three distinct stages to the change. The first, from about 1985 when Devellano's first moves began to bear fruit, to 1990 when the Red Wings started to experience some success in the playoffs. The second went from 1990 to 1995 when the Wings were a consistent playoff contender but could not get over the hump to win a Stanley Cup. The third started after an embarrassing loss in the 1995 Cup final to the New Jersey Devils and culminated in winning the 1997 Cup, the first of four the Wings would win over the next 12 years.
As far as players go, Holland said the most important milestones were drafting Steve Yzerman in 1983 and then scoring a coup in the 1989 entry draft by getting Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov. But those young players had to learn from hard-working veterans over the years such as Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov, many of whom came in trades.
The key to success with youth, Holland said, is patience. That is an issue in Toronto, given defenceman Luke Schenn's struggles in his second NHL season.
"The odd 18-year-old kid can change the fortunes of your team, but they're named Gretzky and Lemieux," Holland said. "For most of them, it takes a long time.
"People think next year you're going to be twice as good, which is unrealistic. You go home for the summer and think you made it after your first year, plus your buddies are telling you, too. So, it is not until your second off-season that you hit the gym a lot harder than you did after the first year."
Once the Wings were talented enough to start winning, they still had much to learn. The next great move ahead did not come until after the Wings were swept in the 1995 Cup final by the Devils and Yzerman agreed to listen to head coach Scott Bowman's advice to pay more attention to his defensive game. Once the other players saw the resident superstar playing at both ends of the ice, they followed suit.
"With the Red Wings, it gets passed on to the next guy," Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said. "Stevie Yzerman passed it on to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. And you have all the guys in the room passing on war stories, the tribal stories I like to call them."
Wilson believes the Leafs are headed in the right direction but are still missing some parts.
"We've got the work ethic, no one can say we don't," he said. "But we don't have the talent like a team like the Red Wings. We don't have a leader here who is out there doing the right thing all the time, a genuine Stevie Yzerman or Nicklas Lidstrom.
"[Yzerman]wasn't regarded as a leader until he was about 10 years into his career. He got the captaincy early, but it was Scotty Bowman who basically brought it out of him and that took three or four years. That's why if it's Luke Schenn for us, it's going to take three or four years."