As the Maple Leafs begin the final third of the NHL’s 2015-16 regular season, the Stanley Cup isn’t within reach. However, the team and management are concentrating on the things they have a say in: the game at hand – in this case, Saturday night’s tilt against the Philadelphia Flyers at Air Canada Centre – and the opportunity to continue establishing themselves, both individually and as a unit, as people whose drive and determination to improve are beyond reproach.
In other words, while it’s certainly true NHLers want to win every game in which they play, they also understand there’s a bigger picture to keep in mind, and, with the assistance of head coach Mike Babcock and his staff, they can’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.
“As players we want to win, but in all sports, it’s important to have a process,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said after Toronto’s morning skate Saturday. “You have to accomplish goals along the way as a team and as a player, and with Mike, I think he’ll give you almost milestones or points of your game he wants you to improve on or achieve to the point you do it naturally, and as you continue to do that, he puts more trust in you.
“As a team, we’ve gradually improved in that area. We’re doing things we can be proud of, and there are certain milestones within the process we have to get to.”
“I think you could say process could be part of it, but I think it’s more of being professional, still playing well, still having pride,” added veteran winger Brad Boyes. “There’s a lot of things that go into it. It all eventually becomes one big process, but when you break it down, it’s being a pro, wanting to do well. Everyone here wants to win, so we’re going to keep doing that. It’s not as if certain things are out of reach, so you don’t try. Guys like winning. We lose, it doesn’t feel good, and we realize that. You come in the morning after a win, it’s a big difference. So we want that good feeling, (and) we’re going to keep doing that and keep having that mindset of playing well and trying to win.”
Babcock acknowledges that individual circumstances can be vastly different among members of the team, but he believes that they all share a common goal aside from winning: namely, continually proving that they want to be in Toronto and grow with the organization, and demonstrate to the entire league what they’re made of.
“If you look at our team, there’s a whole ton of guys on one-year contracts, there’s a whole bunch of guys that want contracts that plan on being here, there’s a whole bunch of guys that I assume want to play on the team, so the best way to look after yourself is to do it right each and every day.” Babcock said. “So we maintain the same approach we would if we were leading the league as we are as far as getting ready, and you’ve got to respond accordingly. And your actions every day tell who you are. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do – and you’re not just telling the Leafs, you’re telling 29 other teams in the league. So for me, it’s really straightforward.”
Prior to Toronto’s game against Philadelphia, the Leafs will honor Canadian military members as part of the franchise’s 10th annual Armed Forces Night. More than 500 soldiers will be in attendance to see the game – thanks to generous season-ticket-holders who donated their seats as a gesture of appreciation for the sacrifices they make in Canada’s name – and everyone who has participated in similar events over the course of their hockey careers remains deeply affected by the men and women they meet and the stark reality of their brave service.
For instance, the 33-year-old Boyes has had grandparents who fought for Canada in conflicts decades ago, but when he played for the Florida Panthers a couple years ago, team owner Vincent Viola – a former Army Ranger – arranged for him and his teammates to visit the iconic West Point military academy. And around the same time, during a trip to Germany, Boyes visited a U.S. military hospital in which the most severely injured soldiers were cared for. That latter experience still resonates strongly with him.
“It was not only eye-opening, it was respect, admiration,” Boyes said of the visit. “You look and you see (soldiers) having jars beside their bed with shrapnel that they pulled out of their leg or their head. It hit me pretty strongly and pretty hard – not only to see that, but to talk to them to hear their mindset. These guys are 18, 19 years old (and told) ‘OK, you guys get to go home now (that you’re injured),’ and the guys are like, ‘Screw that, I want to go back, I want to fight.’”
“It’s a big deal, it (earns) a lot more respect from myself to see that first-hand. My grandparents were in the war, my grandfather fought for Canada, you see that and hear those stories, but to see it up close, to see what these kids are really doing, it’s really tough to put into words. You can’t describe it, to be honest.”
Babcock will be experiencing his first Armed Forces Night with the Leafs, but he fully appreciates the efforts made by front-line service members and everyone who makes the western world a free and safe place.
“I lived in the U.S. the last 21 years, spent my life here in Canada,” Babcock said. “When you live in Spokane, (Washington), like I did (as a junior hockey coach), and there’s a base right there, when you’re around in the U.S., someone in everybody’s family you know has someone in the military. So when everybody you know has someone as a member of the military, it’s a way different programme.
“In Canada, for me it hasn’t been as prevalent, but I think it’s so important that we honour the people that have given us the opportunity to live in a great country like this and give us the freedom we have to do what we do – whether that be the fire department, the police department or the military. Those people are putting their lives on the line to make sure that you have the freedom you have, so it’s a fantastic thing and it’s very important we honour them.”