Toronto Maple Leafs Retrospective: “The Passion Returns”

I’ve been watching “The Passion Returns: The ’92-’93 Season” for 17 years.  I have to coax it into the VHS player every time it tries to spit the tape out.  It’s tired, yet still willing.

This video yearbook chronicled Toronto on their remarkable playoff run, which restored credibility to the Maple Leaf that was tarnished for many years.  That season and certainly the video itself are the reasons I am a Leaf fan.

When fans of the team think of their closest opportunity to winning the Stanley Cup since 1967, they think of ’93.  Even more so than the Curtis Joseph/Mats Sundin years (1998-2002) I think, where they made two Conference Final appearances.

The “Passion” referred to, I believe , is the type that comes with being a Maple Leaf in the city of Toronto.  Did the filmmakers mean to imply that the passion of the city had returned?  It

(Photo: Joe Pack)

was always there, in my opinion, even when there was little to cheer for.  For fans watching this recollection, it becomes apparent that what had returned was the pride in being a Leaf: as a player, coach, and manager.  Mike Foligno: “You never see one of our jerseys on the ground.  Our jerseys are either hung up or on someone’s back.  And we carry that feeling on the ice”.  Then Doug Gilmour says what would have surprised many NHL players at the time: “I never knew Toronto was this good”.  Toronto has always wanted players to cheer for that were passionate about the team and knew the impact of what a winning team would bring to the fans.  That’s why you won’t see many Mogilny jerseys in the city.

The feeling and makeup of this team has shaped my understanding of what the Leafs need in order to seriously compete again.  The following is a look into the parallels and contrasts between the current Maple Leafs system and that of 1992/93.

The GMs: Cliff Fletcher vs. Brian Burke

Hey, Cliff’s still here!  And though Burke has employed three former general managers to win by committee, he is indisputably the captain – so let’s compare them.  Both arrived in Toronto with great fanfare.  The video mentions  several times that Fletcher brought “instant credibility” to a struggling franchise.  He most notably engineered the Gilmour trade, added Andreychuk, and hired Pat Burns away from the hated Montreal Canadiens.  The key to the success of the team, according to Cliff in the video was that “the players became believers”.  Sounds kinda cult-y.  But then, so does this article, I suppose (now re-titled: The Passion of The Leaf).

Burke, I’d say, certainly brought instant celebrity to the helm of the team, for better or worse.  Some have compared Burke’s acquisition of current captain Dion Phaneuf to Fletcher’s “theft” with Gilmour.  Phaneuf obviously hasn’t since had the same impact as Gilmour, yet the move encouraged fans that a definitive “next step” was taken in the evolution of the team.  Burke’s status, more than anything, signaled to fans that nothing less than a Stanley Cup title would be acceptable for him.  So the expectations are higher.  But Cliff can help with that.

The Coaches: Pat Burns vs. Ron Wilson

The slogans each coach placed on the dressing room wall say it all.  Wilson’s: “The Price of Success is Hard Work”.  YAWN.  It sounds like a parent yelling “do your chores!”.  Dad’s right, but he’s not cool and I want to move out as soon as possible.  Pat Burns knew he was dealing with adults: “Don’t Just Play…Compete”.  Yeah, man.

Ron Wilson
"Oh, Mr. Willlllsonnnnn" (THW)

In the video, Burns appears to have almost as much physical presence in the game as the players do.  His arm swinging like a windmill after defeating the Canadiens in his former barn.  His scary attempt to reach LA Kings coach Barry Melrose when the team benches weren’t side by side.  Burns: “I feel I’m part of the team.  I don’t think I’d step on to the ice to do it but…you want to.  ‘Cause that’s the kind of coach I am and that’s the type of family I want”.  Pat explicitly showed his passion for the Blue and White.

I like Ron Wilson, his track record, and his sarcastic approach to the media.  But by not showing his pride as a coach as aggressively or as often, by not appearing as vulnerable and choosing to control (relatively speaking) his public outbursts, he doesn’t provide the necessary emotional desperation that fans and players thrive off of.  Perhaps in this stage of growth, the Leafs need a cool uncle, not a hard-ass father.

The Captains: Wendel Clark vs. Dion Phaneuf

Phaneuf hasn’t yet had the chance to prove himself.  But he could learn a few things from Wendel.  Wendel was loved.  Still is.  Dion could benefit from opening up a bit.  Give Cabbie (formerly of The Score and now with TSN) a hug when he asks.  Smash your stick on the ice like Clark did after losing to Gretzky and the Kings.  Be a positive link between coaches and players.  Clark is shown shaking hands with his coach after Burns’ return to the Forum and momentous win over the Canadiens.  Burns notes that simply “a look in the eye” was all it took to send a message to his Captain.  Like Ron Wilson, Phaneuf must not only use his talents, but show to his team what kind of family he wants.

The Leaders: Doug Gilmour vs. ?

No current Leaf has taken the team by the throat and taken charge.  Bill Watters (former Leaf GM and Sportsnet Analyst) utters my favourite statement in the video.  It still gives me goosebumps.  Watters: “When your best offensive player is your best defensive player, you have what it takes to win”.  Right?  The Leafs do not have a Pavel Datsyuk, Mike Richards, or Ryan Kesler.  That type of player will wake up both ends of the bench in one shift and blur the line between the different responsibilities given to the forwards and defencemen.  Regardless of their position, teammates of Gilmour played up to his standard.

There are many more comparisons to be studied.  Reimer could be a Potvin, taking over for a veteran and surprising everyone with his play and cool exterior.  Kessel who is not yet an Andreychuk, is reluctant to go to the dirty areas for scoring chances.  A long jaunt in the playoffs would restore some credibility to a team clear-cut by former management.

But “The Passion Returns” reminds us all: The organization must share a pride in the Leaf.  The fans are already waiting.