“Turn your [expletive] hearing aids up!”
It’s the type of comment that, shouted aloud in most parts of this fair city, could bring on the ire of every blue hair in the vicinity.
But when it came early on Tuesday morning, it merely signalled to a group of pro athletes that it was time to perk up, pay attention and get down to business.
The shouter in this case was Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, who was making like a drill sergeant after scheduling a lengthy practice for 8:15 in the morning in Tampa.
“Now I know how my parents used to feel back in the day,” alternate captain Joffrey Lupul quipped of the abnormal start time.
The rare early morning wakeup served to keep his players honest and out of the fine establishments in nearby Ybor City into the night – with early birds like goaltender James Reimer arriving at the rink before 7 a.m. – but it also appeared to leave some dopier than usual.
At one point in the skate, affable winger Leo Komarov was singled out for particular attention, with Carlyle bellowing that “everybody else in the building can hear me but you!” at the 26-year-old rookie after he muffed a drill.
“When you have a couple of days off the ice, I think what happens is that they forget a few of the things and it’s an 8 o’clock in the morning practice,” Carlyle said. “They’re human. They’re not any different than you or I and some days they’re not paying quite as much attention to detail as you’d like them. It’s up to us as coaches to find a way to send a message.”
Given the timing and tenor of the skate, the message on this day was that they still have a lot of work to do.
Despite the fact the Leafs have clinched their first playoff berth in nine years and have an 85-per-cent chance of finishing in fourth or fifth in the Eastern Conference, Carlyle and his players have shown an obvious desire to keep pushing to improve over their final three games.
That means that they won’t be sitting key cogs like captain Dion Phaneuf – even against bottom feeders like the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday and Florida Panthers a night later – or slackening the pace in the few practices remaining before the postseason begins next week.
What Carlyle did allow is that he may curtail the ice time for a few of his big-minute players, something that has already been evident in Phaneuf’s minutes in several recent games.
“Until the games mean nothing, we’ll play the best lineup every night,” Carlyle said. “We’re going to try and win the hockey games. We’re not going to play with anything other than attitude that we have to perform.”
That’s also been the mantra of his players, too, even if what will ultimately be a five-day trip to Florida has involved far more relaxation than anything else so far.
Since guaranteeing they would move on last weekend, the majority of the Leafs have stated they have their sights set higher, with gaining home-ice advantage in the first round at the top of the list.
To do so they will very likely need to be almost perfect in their remaining games, including a compelling finale against the struggling Montreal Canadiens on Saturday that could have a bearing on whether the two historic rivals face one another in the first round.
But Toronto’s objectives have shifted upwards in other ways as well. Lupul, for one, explained that while they entered the season aiming to simply make the playoffs, that doesn’t mean an early exit will be acceptable.
“Your goals are always changing and evolving,” Lupul said. “At the start of the year, it would have been unrealistic to come in and say our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. So we set a goal of making the playoffs, we’ve achieved that and now we’re taking our focus to try and get home ice in the first round.
“Then, in the playoffs, you take it one round at a time. I know it’s a cliché, but the idea is to get a playoff spot. It’s not like we want to win one round and the season’s a success. So our goals are changing. And they’re a lot higher now than they were at the start of the year.”
Nazem Kadri, meanwhile, was a little less philosophical, saying simply that he would be ready for the postseason simply because he has been waiting much of his life to play in them.
“This is a dream come true,” Kadri said. “This is what I’ve been watching since I was 5 years old, the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s where you make a name for yourself. That’s where you get the job done. By no means is it going to be easy, but we’ve just got to make sure we’re prepared right as soon as that puck drops.”