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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Maple Leafs remind us why team toughness is still important

It is incredibly sad to hear the news of former Canuck Gino Odjick losing his battle to a heart condition at such a young age.

Odjick’s style of play and infectious personality made him one of the most popular Canucks players in their 53-year history. In fact, if you went through most rosters in Odjick’s era, it would be hard not to find one or two guys on each team who tried to emulate what he brought to hockey.

Thirty years ago, I hit Greg Adams during a game in Vancouver and I knew right away that Odjick was coming after me to drop the gloves. If you want to go and take a few healthy runs at opposing players, you just knew there was a price to pay — and Odjick made me pay it that night. Now don’t worry, I’m not turning this column into another version of “old guy reminiscing about the good ol’ days.”

The game has benefitted greatly during its evolution from a one-dimensional style of play to an era that showcases tremendous speed and skill. We don’t see many players like Odjick anymore, but that doesn’t mean teams can’t look back at history and take the good things that Odjick brought to the game and add it to their repertoire. That’s what we’ve seen from the Maple Leafs of late, and it’s left a starving fan base wanting more of it.

This Leafs roster has rarely shown glimpses of this type of play for what feels like an eternity. They tried and failed to add toughness through free agency with players like Colby Armstrong, David Clarkson, Matt Martin and most recently Nick Ritchie, who couldn’t find their fit on the Leafs. The Leafs haven’t had a player connect with the fan base with sheer physicality and grit since Wendel Clark, Tie Domi and Darcy Tucker did it throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s.

Fast forward to this version of the Leafs. Going into last weekend they had relied on solid goaltending, great defensive coverage, quickness and their world-class scoring skill to once again be among the top teams in the NHL. Some believe in today’s era that this should be enough. But last Saturday, when Wayne Simmonds stepped on the ice for his first shift against the Bruins and ran Nick Foligno over, it set a tone which, quite frankly, was refreshing. Simmonds proved even a small dose of his style of play could factor into an emotional game against an arch enemy. Although they lost, Simmonds showed that there is value in initiating a physical game against a physical team.

“That was a big moment for us. I thought it got our bench awake a little bit,” Auston Matthews said after the game.

Tuesday night against the Panthers was Michael Bunting’s turn to come to the aid of Matthews. Then it was Zach Aston-Reese challenging Radko Gudas after what he thought was a questionable hip check on Pierre Engvall.

What is going on here? Did this Leafs team finally discover some real push back? If so, the next question is: Can they make it part of their identity?

Toughness looks very different in 2023 than it did in Odjick’s day. It no longer comes solely in the form of brute strength and the ability to land an uppercut. Those days are pretty much gone. You can debate all you want if the fight that ensued between Simmonds and Foligno last Saturday was even necessary, but you can’t deny the raw emotion it instantly created for the players and fans watching what ultimately felt like a playoff game.

A few nights later, Bunting and Aston-Reese brought the fans at the Scotiabank Arena to their feet. It energized their teammates in what became a frenetic game.

For the same reason we binge-watch Netflix, we are drawn to heroes and villains in hockey. Simmonds played the part of the villain to Boston fans but was a hero for Leafs Nation. Whether it’s Simmonds, Bunting, Aston-Reese or Dryden Hunt, the next time an opposing player takes a run at Matthews or Mitch Marner, I would hope one of them will rise up and respond. This last week, this team proved that they have the ability to not sit back and watch. It must have been intoxicating for Leafs fans.

So much talk and emphasis the last 20 years has been made to clean up and get rid of players like Odjick without understanding what he truly offered the game. We can’t sanitize the game so much that every player looks and moves the same, can we? This is not about dropping the gloves and fighting. It is about everything it represents. It’s about the passion, emotion and the spontaneity that can keep you on the edge of your seat when the superstars of the game aren’t putting the puck in the net.

Odjick was beloved by Canucks fans because his toughness did more than protect and defend his team. It elevated everything about the game — from the players on the ice to the fans in the stands. And as the Leafs proved in two emotional games against the Bruins and Panthers, that toughness remains an important part of today’s game.

Kyper’s Korner

All eyes were on Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois on Tuesday night in Montreal as Winnipeg made its only appearance of the season. Apparently all the talk among many players after the game was Dubois’ strong desire to end up as a member of the Canadiens when he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency in July 2024 … Unintended fallout from Ivan Provorov’s decision to skip warm-ups on Pride night in Philadelphia on Tuesday night because of the rainbow jersey: his value ahead of the NHL trade deadline. According to one NHL executive I spoke to, Provorov “just shut down Chuck Fletcher’s ability to trade him.” … Wonder if some teams looking to bulk up for the second half revisit Simmonds. After a good showing in Boston, Simmonds still can’t find regular spot with the Leafs. Perhaps his desire to retire a Leaf changes too … By the way, earlier in the season it was Ottawa who showed interest in Simmonds … Interesting to hear Vancouver Canucks ownership first offered the president’s title to former executive Dale Tallon before having change of heart when Jim Rutherford became available. Wonder what Tallon is thinking now while watching from afar.

Change(d) my mind:

On parity in the NHL. Half way through the season and we’re closing in on 12 NHL teams waving the white flag regarding playoff aspirations. Yes, it’s true any team can win on any given night but it’s not true that any team can make the playoffs 40 games into their season.

Nick Kypreos is a former NHL player, Stanley Cup champion and current host of Sportsnet’s Real Kyper and Bourne radio show. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star and is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @RealKyper

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