Drew Doughty hopped on TSN 1050 today to promote National Smile Power Day, and he certainly made a lot of Leafs fans happy with what he had to say about the task of being a superstar in a big market like Toronto.
Doughty: "I think all of us Southern Ontario players, we secretly want to play for the #Leafs, you know, we all have that kind of soft spot"
— Leafs Lunch (@LeafsLunch1050) June 15, 2017
Doughty, who mentioned in the radio hit that he grew up cheering along with his dad for the Montreal Canadiens, and has previously stated that he also supported the very same Los Angeles Kings that he plays for today, heaped praise on the team in its current state of the team and their head coach, Mike Babcock. But the bulk of the talk was centred around the idea of a player of his stature playing for a team like Toronto.
“We would all love to play here, especially with the team, the way that they’re getting better and stuff like that”, said Doughty. “But I think it just always comes down to how hard it would be to live in a city being that big of a celebrity. I’m spoiled in Los Angeles, where I walk anywhere I want and not one person’s going to recognize me. If, say, I did for some reason play for the Leafs, I don’t know if I could get used to that or not. I think that’s the problem, why guys don’t sign here.”
The thought is far from insane. Hockey players tend to fit well into the stereotypical low-key, under the radar type; some relish the attention but most prefer to be left alone. By playing elsewhere, star players can stay out of the relative limelight during the season, and when they come home for the summer, it helps keep their profile down. This especially rings true if you’re the guy expected to be the local face of a struggling big-market team; Toronto didn’t have too much trouble attracting stars in the late 90s and early 2000s, but once the team fell out of the regular playoff picture, that quickly fell off a clip.
This, of course, is beginning to change with the Leafs’ ascension. The team appears poised to be a powerhouse in the league over the next few years, and in Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner, it looks like they’ve got a few young faces that will take most of the marketing and celebrity pressure off anybody who joins. That’s good when you have a Toronto-area pool of free agents coming up that looks like:
- 2017: Joe Thornton
- 2018: John Tavares, James Neal, Rick Nash
- 2019: Jason Spezza, Drew Doughty, Matt Duchene, Tyler Seguin, Jeff Skinner, Wayne Simmonds
- 2020: Alex Pietrangelo, Chris Tanev
Surely, adding any one of those players in some way, shape or form would be incredible. But you also wonder if there would be the type of subtle passion that Doughty brings up. For veterans like Thornton and Spezza, they’ve been NHL players for longer than they were just fans on the outside; emotional attachment has surely flown out the window. For those that are younger? Well, the “lost generation” syndrome kicks in. Kids who didn’t have a great Leafs team to cheer for, so they idolized individual players or picked different teams.
We know a few of these to be the case, like Doughty, Duchene, and should he hit the market down the line, PK Subban. Steven Stamkos’ interest in the Leafs last year was more about the situation than it was the crest, and similar can be said about John Tavares. It’s been rare in the past decade or so to hear about young, top-end prospects that had that level of caring in them, with the exception of the top of the 2015 draft (Connor McDavid, Dylan Strome, and Mitch Marner all somehow had rooting interests despite seeing one Leafs playoff series after the age of six). So, I’m not entirely sure how much the “dream” applies for now.
The good news, though, is that the team is good enough that “we’ve got a shot at winning, you’ll be close to him, and you’ll have less pressure on you” might be a strong enough pitch to a player without having to tug at emotional heartstrings, and that continued success will breed a generation of locals who genuinely do care, which could aide the team down the line.
For now, though, the hometown focus should be on the players who have been developed from within; the Marners, the Connor Browns, Zach Hymans, and many others. But hey, if Doughty is still sitting around the free market in 25 months…