When Brooks Laich began his first full season as an NHLer a decade ago with the Washington Capitals, the situation he was entering wasn’t exactly ideal: the Caps had missed the playoffs in two of the previous three years and were in the early stages of a massive roster-reshaping – and on a personal level, Laich had been acquired from Ottawa in exchange for veteran winger Peter Bondra, one of the most popular and productive players in franchise history.
But even at age 22, Laich possessed a maturity and drive that, in short order, made him an integral component of Washington’s climb back to being a Stanley Cup playoff contender. And one of the veterans on that Capitals team – and a man whom Laich mentions today as a mentor – says it was clear even then that he had a number of qualities that set him apart.
“It was kind of a tough time for our organization, because we were trading everybody left right and centre,” said former NHL goalie Olie Kolzig, now Washington’s professional development coach. “But Brooksy, he came in, and you knew right away he was a hockey guy. He knew the game, he understood the game, he was a student of the game, and there was a confidence and swagger about him. It wasn't an arrogance or anything, but you knew he believed in himself. And we hit it off right away. He made a very, very good first impression.”
The same is true for Laich in the weeks that have followed his late-February trade from the Capitals to the Maple Leafs. Although there’s no doubt it was difficult for him to depart the organization to which he’d devoted so much time, passion and energy, Laich arrived in Toronto with nothing but a positive outlook and a determination to be an asset to head coach Mike Babcock and his new employers.
But that didn’t surprise Kolzig in the least.
“He’s definitely a ‘cup-half-full’ type of guy,” Kolzig said of Laich’s relentlessly upbeat approach. “I give him a lot of credit, because he left a team that is on the verge of maybe winning their first Stanley Cup, breaking all these records this year, and was going to a team that’s in full rebuild. Having said that, though, you’re going to Toronto – and if you can become part of the turnaround and get that franchise back to where it was a while ago, there’s probably not a better place to play when you’re winning.”
That said, Laich understood he couldn’t simply stride into the Leafs’ dressing room and assume the organization’s youngsters would line up behind him and follow his every move. If he was going to have their respect and become an extension of the coaching staff the way all key NHL veterans are to their team, he’d have to earn it by playing and practicing as hard as anyone.
“First off, you’ve got to understand what the coaching staff wants, what kind of identity are we trying to build here, what’s our foundation going to be,” Laich said after a recent Leafs practice. “And then as a leader, if you want to be a leader, you can never ask somebody to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. If this is the way we’re going to play, you have to do it yourself, so that other guys see it. Then you can talk to other guys about doing it. So the important thing for me was to come in and play really well, that would enable me to have a voice in the locker room. Hopefully I've done that. The coaching staff has trusted me with a few things quietly, I'm trying to do my best to help them out, help our team grow, and make us better.”
Babcock recognized the same thing – that the 32-year-old Laich would need to establish himself as a contributor in order to have an impact on the Leafs’ youngsters – and has given him an average of 13:37 of ice time per night in his 18 games with Toronto to begin to rebuild a game that had been decimated by injuries in recent years.
“The first thing he's trying to do was get his game back, and once you do that, you get playing the way you're capable playing, you're able to help the guys more,” Babcock said of Laich. “But obviously, we are in a situation where we've got lots of kids and lots of new kids, so when we bring one up we try to assign a guy to help them out a little bit, and he's very capable of doing that.”
Babcock and Laich count themselves as Canadian Prairie boys – Laich was born and raised in Wawota, Sask., while Babcock grew up in Saskatoon – and Laich has been thrilled to see the Stanley Cup-winning bench boss’ passion for the game up close.
“I don't know if I've ever seen a head coach with that much energy,” Laich said of Babcock. “He's incredible, he really is. It's really a treat to be on the bench with the way he runs it. I've never seen anything like that. As a student of the game, you love to learn from somebody like that, somebody, (with) an incredible passion for the game and a passion for winning. He hates to lose, loves to win. It's really neat to learn from.”
Laich scored his first goal as a Leaf March 31 against Buffalo and now has five points in his time with the team. But he wasn’t brought in to lead Toronto in scoring. Rather, he was acquired to help set the tone for the coming generation of Buds youngsters, in much the same way he did with current Caps stars Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
From Laich’s perspective, that begins and ends with consistency.
“You train yourself to play one way, and that's the only way you know,” Laich said. “Whether it's in practice today or whether it's in the game tomorrow, if you want to be a professional for a long time, you train yourself to play one way. And when you step on the ice, those habits, it doesn't matter if you're here you're in Florida if you're in Dallas if you're in Tampa Bay, your habits are your foundation, it's the only way you know.
“So you can say we’re not in a playoff race, (but that) doesn’t change how you play the game. We're not trying to play spoiler. We play the game one way and that's hard and that's to win. That's the only way we know.”
He may have been a Leaf for a little more than a month, but Laich already has seen enough to expect big things for the organization in the months and years to come.
“I kind of have to watch what I say a little bit, because I've learned that headlines can run wild in this city,” Laich said with a smile. “But in confidential conversations with people that matter to me, people in my life that I trust their hockey opinion, I've talked about our team and, I see very good things in our team. Very good things.
“I've been through a process like this before, but I think we are we are building something very special. You want to build an identity and that foundation, and by doing that you create habits so that you play the same way all the time and then the game comes easy. It takes a lot of work, a lot of effort, extra effort, attention to detail, but I really believe that we have a strong hockey club.”