After futzing about for months, the Toronto Maple Leafs finally landed on a beauty-pageant reveal for their new captain.
Before Wednesday’s season opener, the team was introduced man by man. The last four to come out were previewed as “your captains.” John Tavares emerged last wearing the ‘C’.
Tavares is perfect for the job. He has the two requisites – hockey pedigree and the ability to speak at length without saying anything interesting. You will give up asking Tavares questions long before he tires of feeding you non-answers.
That second part is going to get more important as this season goes on. Because this team has a serious problem constraining its drama to the ice.
Tavares’s new position as the Leafs’ media maître d’ should have been the big story on the night. That’s not hard. Don’t do anything stupid at work for eight hours. Most of us have to do that every day of our lives. The Leafs couldn’t manage it.
The other story was the benching of Jason Spezza. Since it is the more mean-spirited of the two narratives, it’s the one more people paid attention to.
Spezza is no longer the player he once was. He came to Toronto over the summer to wind down his career as a low-cost grinder.
Not everyone handles diminished circumstances well. Spezza has. He is one of those people who seem genuinely delighted just being part of things.
Playing in Wednesday’s opener against Ottawa will have mattered more to him more than most. Spezza is from Toronto, and the Leafs were playing the team on which he enjoyed his glory years.
This should have been an easy call: Let the guy have his moment.
The Leafs could not let the guy have his moment.
If this is what it appears to be – head coach Mike Babcock signalling to general manager Kyle Dubas that there are players he admires, players he can live with and then there’s Jason Spezza – he picked a heck of a time to make his point.
Poor Spezza was forced to come out in the morning and explain he’s totally okay with being scratched because, according to the coach, he needs a little more practice on the penalty kill. This is a man who’s played 16 years in the NHL. He probably understands how the penalty kill works.
Watching Spezza eat the insult was excruciating. Whatever good feeling was created by elevating Tavares is undone by this petty shot at a veteran of many NHL wars.
What is about the Toronto Maple Leafs that makes people work there incapable of seeing either the forest or the trees? A lot of them act like they haven’t figured out they’re in the woods.
When he arrived in town four years ago, Babcock put in a marvellous performance at his opening presser. He was the one who did the dirty work of telling Toronto fans that things were going to get really bad before they got any better. Until he said it, no one in the organization had put it in terms so blunt.
Because he is Mike Babcock, people accepted it. He earned a couple of years’ worth of salary that day.
Based on bottom-line results, he hasn’t earned much since.
Babcock wasn’t brought to Toronto because he is a marvellous tactician or developer of talent. Anyone at his level can draw up plays and discipline young players.
His primary job is to act as a human firewall between the franchise and the hysteria that surrounds it. Babcock is there to project authority – to the fanbase, just as much as the locker room.
The Spezza decision chips away at his stature with both. Is this really the hill Babcock wants to die on? A fight over who’s going to feature for a few minutes a game on the fourth line? In October?
Some people are deep in the weeds. Then there are people who’ve started digging under the weeds.
Babcock’s other job is winning. In order to win in Toronto, things must be calm. History’s taught us that much.
Generation after generation, regardless of who’s in uniform, the Leafs handle pressure like it’s a radioactive material. Once they’ve come into contact with it, they start looking queasy. After a while, they get faint. In April, they lie down and die.
If some sports franchises thrive on incident, the Leafs are at the extreme other end of that spectrum.
So what a great way to start a season in Toronto:
You get into a corrosive slanging match with your third-best player, then show him who’s boss by paying him like he’s Jean Béliveau reincarnated.
A few days later, your second-best player rolls into your office and says, “Yeah, when I said nothing happened this summer, that wasn’t exactly true.”
And then on the night your best player should be enjoying one of his career highlights, you make sure no one’s talking about him. As far as getting the voyage under way goes, Exxon does better boat launches than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Less than 30 seconds into the season, Ottawa scored. In the arena, it sounded like someone had turned off the soundtrack. Sudden, total silence.
That sound is the Toronto hockey fan’s natural state – nervous fear bordering on panic.
Knowing that, the Leafs ought to approach their fans like they are wild animals – no sudden movements; a lot of soothing noises.
So it is less than helpful when the guy you hired specifically to keep things calm and orderly is over in the corner screaming, “Everyone look at the fire I am starting!”
Dubas tried hard to put a pin in the problem – “Mike and I are 100 per cent on the same page” – but that won’t work.
Nobody believes that things are ever fine in Toronto, or that anyone’s “100 per cent on the same page.”
Because no matter what they tell, that’s what the Leafs keep showing them.