Last night, I had the opportunity to go to the Leafs game courtesy of the legendary Watts and Volts Electric Company (and by that, I mean my uncle sent a few of us people he cares about to have a night off). It’s nice to go take in a game in the stands every so often to refresh your perspective on the game. That is, of course, until you end up sitting next to “that guy”.
“They may have a chance if they start scouting kids in Ontario. That’s how Boston beat Vancouver. Nylander? Send him back” please kill me
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) March 10, 2016
I wish I could tell you more delightful stories about how he planned to build his 2018 Stanley Cup Champion Leafs roster, but I snuck into better seats for the second and third periods. Regardless, this man’s train of thought isn’t new. For years, we’ve heard the same canned bologna about how the only way to win at the highest level, you need English-speaking Canadian boys; preferably from Ontario to keep the training process to a minimum. We hear it from the water-cooler fan, we still hear it on radio shows and television broadcasts; it’s a laughably ridiculous statement with all sorts of xenophobic undertones.
Besides, never mind that the Bruins team that he and so many others love to cite won that cup carried by an American goaltender going on a historical run, the shutdown defence of a Slovak, the scoring prowess of a Czech, and the two-way play of a French-Canadian. The Canucks, as much as people like to rip of them for losing that series, easily could’ve won it too; their sticks went dry and they still stretched it to seven. That team brought much of the same multiculturalism; their top six scorers involved four Europeans, an American, and a French-Canadian.
The idea that you need to be a “Good Ontario Boy” was, in a lot of ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Decades and decades of the league only being accessible to whoever the original six teams could feasibly scout and bring in led to a lack of regional variety. Even as other players from other cultures came in, teams “knew what worked” and put the emphasis on their most traditional flavour. Many of the best players were still Canadian, and often were developed in the exact leagues and positions that they wanted them to be, so they shrugged it off.
But at this point, it’s pretty undeniable that you don’t need a geographical location in your blood to win. It took until 1994 for a non-Canadian to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, and 2002 for a European to win it, but now these things are expected. Between 2008 and 2013, 5 of 6 winners were American or European. It took until 1999 for a non-Canadian to captain a Stanley Cup winning team, but now such an occurrence is commonplace and every competitor has the common sense to pick the best player for the job.
I don’t want to say that it’s “forward thinking” to believe in building a team filled with the best players rather than ones from a specific geographic location because that’s an insult to well-rounded, normal human beings who employ basic common sense in their decision-making process. But to bring this topic back to the Leafs, it’s nice to see that a group that is considered forward thinking in other regards appears to have also be so in this regard.
Look at the Leafs roster, and you’ll find absolutely no rhyme or reason to where a player is from, and how they got to where they are.
Do you want local boys? You have Peter Holland, Brad Boyes, and Frank Corrado. They all have different stories as to how they got to where they are, but their paths all somehow started at home and ended up down the street. Escape them, and you find that the Canadian contingent goes from coast to coast. Morgan Rielly grew up in British Columbia. Joffrey Lupul grew up in Alberta. Saskatchewan has Tyler Bozak and Brooks Laich, Manitoba has Byron Froese, Nazem Kadri represents a different part of Ontario in London, Quebec has Jonathan Bernier and PA Parenteau, and Newfoundland has Colin Greening. It’s a neat representation of the land.
But it doesn’t stay in Canada. James van Riemsdyk, Connor Carrick, and Jake Gardiner are all American. Milan Michalek is Czech, Michael Grabner is Austrian, Viktor Loov is Swedish, Martin Marincin is Slovak.
But then you have the players who took the long road to get here. Look at a few of the Marlies who were called up at the deadline, for example. Nikita Soshnikov of Nizhny Tagil, Russia was a kid who wasn’t looked at by NHL teams until he developed a knack for holding the puck on a string and dominating his opponents as a 21-year-old in the KHL. Zach Hyman was a local boy who took the college route as insurance for his low odds of “making it”, but his work ethic got him to the NHL anyway. Now, Mike Babcock believes they’re both here to stay.
Or Garret Sparks, who took the risk of coming up to the OHL as an American Goalie, was drafted 190th overall, and bounced back and forth between the AHL and ECHL for two seasons while quietly tweaking his play style to make himself more effective and prevent injury. It’s early, but he’s looking like he can be an NHLer less than a year after many wrote his Orlando stint off as a death sentence. Or even William Nylander, who didn’t quite have to break through adversity in the same way, but has the oddity of being a Calgary-born Swede who played throughout North America as a kid while following around his dad’s NHL teams.
None of the kids, or even the other players, have a story weirder than Leo Komarov’s, though. Komarov is the stock that keeps this multi-cultural, multi-developmental stew going. He was born in Estonia, grew up in a Swedish-speaking part of Finland, was drafted by the Leafs after his rookie season in SM-Liiga, broke out as a capable offensive player in Russia, and finally signed with the Leafs just before they lost rights to him. He showed up just in time for the lockout, played 14 AHL games, went back to Russia, played with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and despite everybody thinking the Leafs lost their chance, came back and became a lovable grinder.
But then he left again. Not because he was upset, but because he wanted to make the Finnish Olympic team. He led Dynamo Moscow in scoring, made the team, and came back on a long-term deal. Lou Lamoriello described him as a “core player”, and it’s not hard to see why. Beyond him being a blend of the prototypical grinder/pest and an effective scorer, Komarov know’s what it’s like to ride the roller coaster to the NHL, and how to not just handle the pressure, but thrive in it. His story is one that anyone can look up to and one that he can convey in four fluent languages.
Even Toronto’s draft strategy in recent years has shown no bias towards region or league; last year’s class had just as many players from across the street as across the pond, and there’s no reason to believe that will change.
Much like trying to sign a million players from East Nowhere, Ontario isn’t the key to winning a Stanley Cup, turning your team into a melting pot isn’t something that you should sit there and decide upon doing before you do it.
But as the region gap becomes effectively shut at the top level, any team that goes with the best twenty-player roster they can is more likely to succeed. As well, it’s just plain cool to see; especially in a city as diverse as Toronto, it’s almost more genuine for this team to be a melting pot than a line up of upper-middle-class kids from the local suburbs. Nobody is ruled out from being the next member of this team, whether they’re from Moscow or Markham. That’s something to embrace, not reject.