Andrew Podnieks is the author of numerous hockey books including an updated version of The Blue and White Book for the 2001-02 season, Portraits of the Game, Canada's Olympic Hockey Teams, and The NHL All-Star Game: Fifty Years of the Great Tradition. He also writes a column called "Pods Shots" for the Hockey Hall of Fame Web site.
There is an odd paradox about the modern-day training camp in hockey. Oldtimers will tell you that in their day players would use camp to lose that excess 20 pounds after a summer spent without serious exercise.
Today, players arrive in camp in phenomenal physical condition. Coaches ban fighting in camp and most jobs are already secure. But, the result is that scrimmages aren't intense and there is no ferocity. Physically the players are there; emotionally they're not. Thus, in some ways, the old training camp was more productive.
The 2001-02 Leafs had a docile, predictable camp, uneventful and even mundane. Everyone showed up in the requisite perfect shape, but no one had much to prove and the team seemed to go through the motions. The result was a dreadful opener against the Senators. Cujo had an awful game, the D looked disconnected to the forwards and to each other, and captain Mats Sundin didn't exactly lead the way in enthusiasm and energy despite a perfect prelude to the proceedings with the 48th Highlanders and the Big M's 27 being lifted into the rafters.
Fans and media are both passionate and impatient about the Leafs. We follow their every movement, we cherish every Leaf day that passes, and we crave a winner in the worst way. As a result, the team's every move is scrutinized for meaning. After the Ottawa game, everyone was saying this was going to be a long season, that Cujo is going to be distracted by his contract situation, that Antropov clearly belongs back on the Rock, that we desperately miss Kaberle.
A few days later though in Montreal, these wrongs had been righted and everyone did an about face. Cujo was solid and performed his typical game-saving acrobatics in OT; the defence looked poised and kept their game simple without Kaberle; Antropov had a fine game and scored a critical goal. Just like that, this is a team that's going to do some damage. And sure enough in the third game, all the pieces fell into place during a 6-1 rout of Anaheim.
So what kind of a team do we have this year? Simply put, it's way too soon to tell. Will the Ducks version of the Leafs show up more often than the Sens version? If you look at the lineup from last year to this, the current team is unquestionably more skilled. The likely guess is that the team will score more goals, but how will that shake out on a nightly basis, and how will that make us better prepared for the playoffs?
The key to the season lies in each player's value in one word: passion. Skill without passion can easily be defeated by passion without as much skill. But, skill and passion together is unvanquishable. To come out to the home opener not with a loss--which could be tolerated--but with a supremely lacklustre effort, is cause for early season alarm. To come out in Montreal with the kind of performance they had that night will earn the team many points over the 82-game season.
Coach Pat Quinn can alter the lines and assignments, but only each player can create a passion for himself each night when he steps on the ice. So far, there's nothing greatly wrong with the team and much good about it. Defence can be taught; scoring can't be. But the Leafs' season-long destiny rests in the hearts of the players in the dressing room.