Toronto Maple Leafs: Captains and the Teams They Reflect

Dave HaineContributor IIIJuly 6, 2010

MONTREAL- APRIL 10:  A Toronto Maple Leafs fan supports Dion Phaneuf #3 during the NHL game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens on April 10, 2010 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Maple Leafs the Canadiens 4-3 in overtime.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

As a kid, I grew up playing the game of hockey, hoping one day I would get to wear the "C" on my own jersey thanks to my Leaf heroes. I looked at Rick Vaive and then after a gap in Leaf history Rob Ramage; Wendel Clark was followed by Doug Gilmour, and I felt a connection to the Blue and White. I liked a lot of Leafs during those years.  A lot of fantastic players such as The Swedish legend Borje Salming, Bill Derlago, Steve Thomas, Gary Leeman, and Russ Courtnall were all high contributing Leafs but none of them had what it took to wear the "C".  

Rick Vaive (1982-86) was a power forward with good hands but was believed to have never reached his full potential. In the end, his frustration with the Ballard Empire and poor roster around him he faded as a leader and he was stripped of the "C." Rick was the Leafs first 50 goal scorer. 

Rob Ramage (1989-91) was at the twilight of his career although he did attempt to play a few more years after leaving Toronto. Rob was a former first pick overall that was trying to bring a level of stability to the once proud organization. Three years after stripping Vaive of the "C," Ramage was more of a grasp at respect around the league and grooming the next true Leaf Captain.

Wendel Clark (1991-94) played the game with incredible intensity.  He made waves as a rookie and really was a key player in the upswing in Toronto. The players around him were tougher and his leadership was crucial. Doug Gilmour was one of the players they brought in, and he along with Wendel took the Leafs to conferences finals in 1992 and 1993.

Doug Gilmour (1994-97) took over for Wendel and during that time the Leafs continued to be energetic and contending but never reached the same level as they did under Wendel.  The team reflected Dougie as they were a veteran team with the goal of Lord Stanley but it was never meant to be.

I took it for granted as a fan. I recognized the Captain needs to be the guy.  When I say "the guy" I don't mean the next Gretzky (although it would be nice to have the next "Great One").  As a kid, I didn't understand the connection between the Captain and his team.  I think of my Leafs and they need to be led by a player with a certain swagger, a confidence, and a passion. Maybe it's just public image or a sign of respect for the "best player," but to me, as a fan, it had to be more than that.  As a fan, that Captain needs to be a snapshot of the team, of my team... and I should like what I see!

I understand the Vaive era wasn't the most successful but as a kid I believed.  They turned the corner in the early 90's and it was like the Ballard saga never existed and the city of Toronto was alive.

Mats Sundin (1997-2008) was named Captain in a "best player" situation. Something happened when the "C" landed on Mats Sundin's jersey.   No disrespect to Mats as he was a great Leaf, but he doesn't scream leader.  Sundin was well respected and a class act. Gradually, the roster put in place around Sundin was a perfect reflection of him.  The team was kind of soft, more than a few Europeans and really lacking passion.  Sadly, it was not a team I could relate with and I found my enthusiasm slipping.  Always loyal to the Blue and White but didn't feel the fire.  The team had some success after a slow start in Mats term carrying the momentum from the 90's. A glimpse of glory with players like Gary Roberts sharing a leadership role but after 2002 the well ran dry.

After a long run as Captain, Mats opted to moved on. At the time it was disappointing but that may have given the Blue and White a chance to recapture their Mojo. It would have been easy to put a "C" on Kaberle, White or Stajan.  I'm not sure if Brian Burke or Ron Wilson deserve the credit for being patient but they made the right move by waiting.  It took a couple years but they found their man. Obviously it is way to early to know what level of success will follow but as a fan I feel the fire burning again.

Dion Phaneuf (2010-????) is a offensively talented yet hard nosed defensemanknown for his work ethic and competitive nature.  Brian Burke is slowly but surely building a team around him in that exact image.  Tough to play against, hungry and intense.  It seems to me we are turning the corner once again and it may take a few years still before all the pieces are in place but I'm back on the edge of my seat and excited with 3 months before the next puck drops. 

I look at these Leaf Captains and see a relationship between them and the Leafs teams they led.  In the end, the NHL comes down to winning and losing, but as a fan that journey means so much more when you feel a connection.  I can safely say I'm connected, and as Dion would say "I'm excited!"