The above is an image of “character.” I apologize if you are eating. But character is not something that you can, generally, touch with your hand. You can’t sift through columns of it in the paper or online, like you can goals and assists and plus/minus. And it’s a very slippery slope to question an NHL player’s character – although that’s coming a few paragraphs down. Slowly, with the precision of a surgeon, Maple Leafs’ GM Brian Burke is changing the character of his hockey club. It’s just one more step, one more component that will ultimately form a winning hockey club.
When Burke took over the Leafs’ GM chair in November 2008, he arrived in Toronto with his gums flappin’. In fact, they still are. One of the first, and most memorable, Burke quotes went like this. "We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That’s how our teams play," said Burke. "I make no apologies for that. Our teams play a North American game. We’re throwbacks. It’s black-and-blue hockey. It’s going to be more physical hockey here than people are used to."
Physical is one thing. Character is another. And, day by day, Burke is adding character guy after character guy to this club. The latest addition is Joffrey Lupul. He’s played five games for the Leafs and, in each, he’s worked noticeably hard and, in his debut, punched up Canadiens’ precocious defenceman PK Subban. But character is a lot more than just fighting. By that barometer, Colton Orr and Mike Brown are loaded with the big “C.”
Character, to me, is a player’s ability to overcome adversity or conditions that are clearly not optimal. Lots of players just curl up and emotionally retreat when the going gets tough. Not these Leafs.
The ultimate character move this season came when, against the Carolina Hurricanes on February 3rd, Leafs’ forward Darryl Boyce essentially had the right portion of his nose severed by the photographers’ opening in the glass (see image above). Did he miss a game? He did not. Pure character.
On November 22nd, Mike Brown got drilled where it really hurts guys a lot. Missed just one game. In Atlanta, in early January, Colby Armstrong got sucker punched by Thrashers’ Ben Eager. Armstrong not only missed zero games, but he also chipped in three points over the Leafs’ next three wins on the west coast. Character.
Even mild-mannered Nik Kulemin, who took a pop to the face courtesy of the Hurricanes’ Tim Gleason, did not miss a start. And those are the recently anointed character guys. The Leafs’ best display, of late, is winning character games.
The two last week, in Boston and Buffalo, were two affairs that many gave the Leafs little chance of winning. They won both. They impressed by hanging onto a lead against the Bruins. Then, in Buffalo, Joey Crabb scored the ultimate “character” shorthanded, game-winning goal against the Sabres.
NHL teams that are struggling this season – Edmonton, Ottawa, the Islanders – are never going to be mistaken for character clubs. And, last week, when the Leafs made their long-awaited trade with Boston, no “character” left town.
Brian Burke is managing his assets very carefully. Kris Versteeg, who complained about his precious car being defaced, who never “fit in” with the Leafs, is gone. Again, no character dealt away.
If the Leafs are going to continue their improbable, late-season run, character will be a key component.