The first signs of revolution came on the chins – defiant hairs sprouting on the faces of the Toronto Maple Leafs after general manager Lou Lamoriello and his famous no-facial-hair edict decamped for the New York Islanders.
Given the age of most of the Maple Leafs, there were no wild, castaway-style growths like that famous one sported by San Jose Sharks veteran Brent Burns. The beards ranged from Nazem Kadri’s close-cropped but thick covering (he was the kid you sent to the Beer Store when you were in Grade 9) to Auston Matthews’s attempt that barely fits the definition of the word to the wispy patches of peach fuzz that wandered along Mitch Marner’s chin.
However, the meaning of each growth attempt was clear. Now that Lamoriello and his strict managerial style, which demanded the individual subsume himself in the team, are gone and 32-year-old Kyle Dubas is in charge, these young players are going to show some personality.
The funny thing is, this emergence of flair is not confined to the Maple Leafs. The Carolina Hurricanes devised an elaborate postgame salute to the fans that replaced the traditional centre-ice gathering and stick salute following a win, for example, and the Winnipeg Jets’ Patrick Laine is the centrepiece of a video that celebrates his scoring and pokes fun at his rival Matthews and Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin. It seems the staid old NHL woke up all at once and decided to get in on the personality celebrations practised for years in the NFL and the NBA.
The change was not long in coming for the Leafs as they exploded out of the blocks, literally and figuratively, to start the season. Along with leading the league in points with teammate Morgan Rielly at 12 over five games, Matthews is now as demonstrative as he is skilled in scoring.
When Matthews scored late in the third period last Sunday to give the Leafs a 6-5 lead over the Chicago Blackhawks, it came seconds after Chicago star Patrick Kane brought on an explosion of sound from the crowd at United Center when he tied the score. After he scored, Matthews put his hand to his ear to mock the silent crowd. Then Kane scored again with 29 seconds left in regulation to tie the score (the Leafs won in overtime) and repeated the gesture to taunt Matthews as the crowd roared.
The display came as quite a surprise to a lot of the media types who followed the Leafs through Matthews’s first two seasons in the NHL. They grew used to hearing Matthews, who turned 21 on Sept. 17, issue platitudes in a detached monotone, the sort of thing common among young players taught by their agents to never say anything remotely controversial.
Matthews has also appeared in fashion pictorials in GQ and Sharp magazines recently, something else Lamoriello frowns upon. It’s just a matter of a growing comfort level, Matthews told reporters this week.
“You just grow more comfortable with yourself and with your teammates and everything as the years go by,” he said. “Obviously we’re still kids, so we want to have fun out there and I think that’s really important.”
“Kids” is the operative word here. Thanks to the salary cap, which works against the old practice of awarding veterans rich contracts that recognize past service as well as the present, the NHL has grown younger over the past decade. With youth comes exuberance and displays of personality.
“Everybody's into different things and if you're not, I mean, there’s nothing against you, right? Everybody can be their own person,” Matthews said. “Traditionally, it’s more of a conservative sport, but I think you see more and more younger guys come into the game and they got that flash and I think it can only help the game.”
Despite taking a postgame shot at his off-season training pal Matthews, Kane, the relative greybeard at 29, has a flamboyant personal history of his own. He did say he disapproved, but gave the impression it wasn’t serious opposition.
“I know it’s an emotional game out there, but I didn’t really like him doing that,” Kane told Sportsnet. “Even the ref was saying maybe he could have called an unsportsmanlike on that or whatever. Yeah, when we scored to tie it up, I was happy to kind of give it back to him. We kind of smirked at each other on the bench after that.”
Today’s NHL youngsters are even treading on what used to be taboo ground, directly mocking an opponent or criticizing another team’s policies. Laine managed to do both in short order.
In the video celebrating his scoring ability, the actors say Laine should have been drafted ahead of Matthews, who was taken first over all in 2016, one ahead of him. Also mocked was Ovechkin’s old bit of warming his hands over his hot stick after he scored his 50th goal in 2009.
And then Laine had something to say when he learned the Vancouver Canucks banned video games on the road this season as part of an effort to foster togetherness in the wake of a 31-40-11 record in 2017-18: “They need something to blame after last year.”
But it isn’t just the kids who are leading the NHL to the new era of flamboyance. The Hurricanes’ postgame salute, an elaborate affair that begins with a series of slow claps and ends with the whole team jumping into the glass, is led by 37-year-old Justin Williams. He said new team owner Tom Dundon had a hand in it.
“We want to have fun when we win. The game should be fun,” Williams told ESPN. “We want the players to enjoy winning and the fans to enjoy being here. Our owner has been pushing that all the way. Why wouldn't you try something different?”
There is still work to be done in getting every player to buy in, though. Rielly, for example, doesn’t seem to have received the memo. He may have eclipsed Bobby Orr’s modern-day NHL record for most points by a defenceman in the first five games of the season with 12 but he’s not interested in any celebrations.
“I’m not going to really talk about that,” Rielly said after he had two points in the Leafs’ 5-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday to set the mark. “It’s not that important. I think it’s important that we move on. There’s a lot of things going on with this team to be proud of when it comes to wins or when it comes to new players playing really well. There’s lots of things to talk about, and I’m not really going to address personal stuff.”