Un­plugged with Leafs’ pres­i­dent

The Expositor (Brantford) - - SPORTS - MIKE ZEISBERGER

TORONTO — As part of a press con­fer­ence Tues­day an­nounc­ing fes­tiv­i­ties for the Maple Leafs 100th an­niver­sary game on Dec. 19, throw­back Toronto Are­nas jer­seys were handed out to the dig­ni­taries on hand in­clud­ing mayor John Tory.

The clas­sic blue-and-white tops the Leafs will wear on that Tues­day af­ter­noon against the Carolina Hur­ri­canes proved to be a hit, with the ma­jor­ity of those in at­ten­dance buzzing at how spiffy they looked on Darryl Sit­tler and Darcy Tucker, who mod­elled them for those on hand.

Sit­ting up on the stage, tak­ing in the en­tire scene, team pres­i­dent Brendan Shana­han wore a no­tice­able grin of sat­is­fac­tion, a far cry from the stoic steel-faced look he of­ten had dur­ing his first sea­son run­ning the Leafs.

Re­mem­ber back to 2014-15, when dis­grun­tled fans were chuck­ing Leafs jer­seys onto the ice in­stead of em­brac­ing the his­tory and fu­ture of what the bleu-and-white rep­re­sented? Bit­ter­ness and in­dif­fer­ence oozed through the fan base, heated emo­tions that were fu­elled by the famed Sa­lute- Gate in which play­ers re­fused to ac­knowl­edged the home crowd af­ter a vic­tory.

Shana­han’s re­sponse dur­ing his end-of-the-sea­son press con­fer­ence on April 13, 2015 was easy to trans­late: We don’t want play­ers who don’t want to be here.

“We need to have a team with greater char­ac­ter,” Shana­han said at the time. “We have to have peo­ple that rep­re­sent this city, that rep­re­sent this team, as it de­serves.”

Call­ing the no­tion that the me­dia and pub­lic spot­light made Toronto a dif­fi­cult place to play “a cop out,” Shana­han then added that “We have an in­cred­i­bly re­silient loyal fan base. We need to have an in­cred­i­bly re­silient group of play­ers who love to play in Toronto. We need a re­silient group of man­agers from top to bot­tom that are com­mit­ted to do­ing this in Toronto in spite of any dif­fi­cul­ties or per­ceived dif­fi­cul­ties that this is a harder mar­ket than other mar­kets. I don’t be­lieve that.”

Twenty-nine months later, Shana­han’s vi­sion seems to be ma­te­ri­al­iz­ing in front of our very eyes. With train­ing camp open­ing Thurs­day, th­ese young Leafs are on the rise. On Mon­day bodog.ca listed the Leafs odds to win the Stan­ley Cup at 14-1 — tied with the Tampa Bay Light­ning, Nashville Preda­tors, Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals and Ana­heim Ducks for fourth best among the NHL’s 31 teams. To that end, es­teemed col­league Steve Sim­mons colum­nized Mon­day that the fran­chise is tak­ing the proper steps to­wards a first cham­pi­onship in half a cen­tury.

In the process, th­ese Leafs play­ers seem to care. The logo on their chest and the city they rep­re­sent mean some­thing. That didn’t seem to be the case not-so-long ago.

Shana­han isn’t Tim Lei­weke. He isn’t pub­licly boast­ing about po­ten­tial pa­rade routes. He un­der­stands there’s a long road ahead.

But, he also ac­knowl­edges the ship is head­ing in the right di­rec­tion, with the end-game be­ing a Cup down the road. The days of Sa­lute-Gate and jersey-toss­ing cer­tainly seem a long way back in the rearview mir­ror.

With play­ers and coaches con­gre­gat­ing later this week, Shana­han took time Tues­day to ad­dress a num­ber of is­sues.

“There’s a lot of things that go into it, but I do get a real sense that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween our play­ers and our fans is very very good, very very strong,” Shana­han said. “There’s a mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion there. The fans like our team and our team likes play­ing for them.

“When we get into the play­offs and we get to fill Maple Leaf Square, and they get to see that en­thu­si­asm, the arena be­comes much louder, a much more cel­e­bra­tory place, the play­ers feed off of that. Th­ese are young guys who seem to em­brace that spot­light and re­spon­si­bil­ity of be­ing a Toronto Maple Leaf.” “Op­ti­mism is cer­tainly a nice thing but I think for the peo­ple that are with our team and with our play­ers and with our man­age­ment, we’re all fo­cussed on the lit­tle things,” he said. “It’s great that peo­ple are ex­cited but we know how much work has gone into this — and still will.”

Shana­han is stay­ing well grounded on this mat­ter de­spite all the ex­cite­ment in the city. There is, he says, so much more to do.

“I’m a lit­tle hes­i­tant,” he said. “At the end of the day we got into the play­offs in our 81st game. We didn’t get past the first round. And still there was still a lot of hap­pi­ness and joy about where we could go. But, we un­der­stand there’s a lot of work ahead of us.

“We’re pleased with the work we’ve put in. Our coach­ing staff and our man­age­ment have been phe­nom­e­nal. Very ded­i­cated. And, like said, I think our fans like our play­ers. I think our play­ers like our fans. They en­joy be­ing Maple Leafs. They love what’s hap­pen­ing in the city. But they’re also smart enough to know — which is in­cred­i­ble be­cause they’re still a very young in­ex­pe­ri­enced team — that they’re THE EXPOSITOR just get­ting started.”

“I think it’s a lot sim­pler than that. He’s a great hockey player, he’s a great am­bas­sador, he’s a great ex­am­ple for our young play­ers. You talk about longevity and prepa­ra­tion and pro­fes­sion­al­ism that Pa­trick brings, he’s a good hockey player. So I don’t think we were try­ing to send a mes­sage. We had an op­por­tu­nity to add a good hockey player to our team, some­one we thought would not only be an ex­cel­lent fit but an ex­cel­lent role model as well. And we feel we were lucky enough to get him.”

Shana­han is clear on this: He doesn’t con­sider the de­bate over the “C” to be a pri­or­ity.

“I think it’s im­por­tant to have lead­er­ship,” he ra­tio­nal­ized. “And you don’t need to be a cap­tain to show lead­er­ship on the ice or lead­er­ship in the room. And so for us, it’s al­ways go­ing to be about hav­ing as many lead­ers as pos­si­ble.

“When Mike and Lou and our staff de­cide it’s the right time to make the move, they’ll do it. For me there are more im­por­tant things that are go­ing through the process now. Like I said, when the time is right, the time is right and we’ll know it. We’ll make the de­ci­sion then.”

Said Shana­han: “I think we’ve had sev­eral play­ers who have shown lead­er­ship and I think Aus­ton has done a great job of that as well. Again I think it’s a story for the press. I don’t think it’s a story for our play­ers and I don’t think it’s a story for us. I’ve been on lots of teams where even though one guy has worn the “C” lots of other guys have stood up in lead­er­ship roles. Some­times guys who had very small roles on teams had im­por­tant voices.

“What I like about our team is that they re­ally seem to like each other, sup­port each other, and in a lot of ways show­ing lead­er­ship.”

DAVE ABEL/POST­MEDIA NET­WORK

Pres­i­dent of the Toronto Maple Leafs Brendan Shana­han speaks at a me­dia con­fer­ence in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the Toronto Maple Leafs 100-year an­niver­sary game on Dec. 19.

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