I have a theory. I keep coming back to it then summarily dismissing it. But, today, I can’t dismiss it. It’s a small theory about why the Toronto Maple Leafs continue to struggle year after year after year. Call me crazy, but what if the players on the team simply can’t stand playing in such a hockey-mad city – but, deep down, they don’t know it?

What if being recognized everywhere, never having a moment of anonymity, always being under the media microscope deeply affects their performances? Affects them to the point of being a major detriment to their abilities and drive. Major league performance anxiety, if you will. Is it possible?

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The reason I keep coming back to this thought is because hockey players are, fundamentally, different than other athletes in major professional sports in two related areas. One, most NHL players have not attended university. Some enter the league when they are just 18 years old. That’s how old most high school seniors are.

They have not had the life experience that MLB, NBA or NFL players have had before entering their league. To put it simply, they are not – generally – as highly educated or experienced.

Two, and this is more important that the first point, hockey players are generally not glory hounds. As a group, NHL players do not tend to seek the spotlight. There are, of course, exceptions. But, on the whole, I believe NHL players are quite happy to enjoy the company of their teammates and not be in the spotlight. The same cannot be said for most NBA, NFL and MLB players.

Quickly, name the five largest egos in professional sports. My five would be A-Rod, Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, Kobe Bryant and Roger Clemens (pseudo-retired). Did you name an NHL player? My guess is that you didn’t. Now, put those two points together and look at NHL players in Toronto.

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They are generally very shy young men (this year, they are the youngest team in the league), without the benefit of extensive secondary education, and they cannot walk two steps down the sidewalk in T.O. without being mobbed by rabid Leafs’ fans.

In Los Angeles, star defenceman Drew Doughty would have to throw himself in front of a fire truck to be recognized. I guarantee you that Duncan Keith can go many places in Chicago without ever being seen. In Toronto, that simply cannot happen. There is no break for Leafs’ players. Yesterday, in Stouffville, Leafs’ players got together at Keith Acton’s restaurant to meet fans and sign autographs. That is not happening in Nashville or Miami or Tampa or Phoenix.

And, it’s a double whammy because these are not young men who particularly enjoy being front and centre. Montreal is also a hockey-crazed city, but even the massive ego of Patrick Roy had enough at one point. And the problem isn’t just the fans, it’s the media focus in Toronto.

Do you think Tyler Bozak enjoys reading how his play sucks day after day after day? If he had three goals for the Atlanta Thrashers, absolutely no one outside the front doors of Philips Arena would give a s**t. No one would care about Brett Lebda’s minutes, or Phil Kessel’s inconsistency or Mike Komisarek’s giveaways.

In Toronto, they are literally eaten alive. I get that these other cities have their fan bases, but the Leafs’ fan base is about TEN MILLION PEOPLE! Now, I’m getting anxiety just thinking about that.

Like, I said, it’s just a theory but I think it has some validity. And, of course, every post-1967 year that creeps past only makes the circumstances surrounding playing in Toronto worse. There is absolutely no way to prepare an NHL player for the daunting task of performing in Canada’s largest city.

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I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe Brian Burke (celebrating his second anniversary as Leafs’ GM) should simply build the team based on personality and ego, rather than skill. Tie Domi thrived here. Fans loved Darcy Tucker.

Neither one of those clowns had much skill but they should could BS with the best of them – and never meet a camera they didn’t like.

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  • Great take on things Steve. Oilers face a very similar situation out here in Edmonton, being constantly recognized everywhere they go. It is a similar situation in Calgary and Montreal too.

    Perhaps it explains the lack of Lord Stanley North of the Border?

    • The “North of the Border” syndrome crossed my mind while I was writing this piece.

      I think Toronto and Montreal are a big step up, spotlight-wise, from Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Vancouver.

      But, in 2010, pressure may indeed affect all six teams of players in Canadian cities.

  • They have not had the life experience that MLB, NBA or NFL players have had before entering their league. To put it simply, they are not – generally – as highly educated or experienced.

    HAHAHA NFL and NBA athletes are more educated than NHLers? The former might have played sports for teams that represent universities and colleges in the United States but they are by no means any more educated than hockey players.

    Not sure you could even say that they have more experience with crushing adulation since the best hockey players are gods within their minor hockey environments.