From The Star
If what the Maple Leafs introduced this week counts as a new logo, allow me to recommend a new musical group. They’re called the Beatles. Discovered those mop tops myself. Lou Lamoriello thinks they’ll be huge, too, if only they’d get some haircuts.
Giggles aside, let’s just agree that the Leafs’ redesigned crest, which will be worn as their main insignia beginning next season, is about as original as a 1960s cover band. It smells of a time when players reached for a nutritious in-game snack known as a cigarette. It’s as fresh as your great-grandfather’s ear hair.
And it’s exactly, precisely, unquestionably what the Maple Leafs needed. The not-so-new logo, closely modelled on the oft-tweaked one the club wore from around the 1940s into the 1960s, is a redrawing of Canadian classic, warm and fuzzy and familiar, with a touch of clean-lined modernity.
And it’s just the latest bit of evidence that the man who is in charge of the operation, team president Brendan Shanahan, has a deep and sophisticated understanding of the importance of embracing the right parts of the club’s past in the ongoing process of building its future.
As Shanahan noted in a letter to season-ticket holders explaining the change, the Maple Leaf was once “one of the most prestigious and intimidating symbols in the game.” It only makes sense for the Maple Leafs to take those formative parts of their history — the teams, say, that won five Cups in eight years in the ’40s, and four Cups in six years in the ’60s — and celebrate them prominently.
A radical makeover wasn’t in the cards, Shanahan said, because “we’ve got too much respect for our history, for the people that built this organization — guys like Teeder Kennedy and Syl Apps and George Armstrong.”
The idea the Leafs were beholden to the sweater they’d been wearing since 1970 was always hard to figure, especially considering how effusive players and fans became in recent years when the team wore throwback versions of their glory-days uniforms. The circa-1970 uniform has been worn by a long list of fine players, sure, but it has also been balled up and tossed on home ice in disgust. It has also been sported by some of the worst teams on the franchise’s ledger.
So give credit to Shanahan for asking a simple question: Why did the Leafs go away from a logo synonymous with success in the first place?
“I didn’t get a good answer,” Shanahan said.
Blame the late Harold Ballard, the eccentric one-time owner. Or blame the 1970s. And understand this is mostly cosmetic stuff, at least some of which is driven in part by a desire to boost sales of team apparel. Pretty much every sporting club on the planet, whether it’s a heritage property or not, peddles in perpetual rejigs and third-jersey splashes. That’s just capitalism.
Still, what the Leafs are doing here, as they embark on remaking a broken organization, is also a careful exercise in symbolism. Shanahan, to his credit, understands as much, even if he goes out of his way not to oversell it.
“It’s just one piece of what we’re trying to do here,” Shanahan said. “Ultimately what’s most important is what the players do while they’re wearing the sweater.”
Here’s what’s also important: Toronto’s NHL team, if it’s going to trade on the glory days, should care enough to have a healthy relationship with them, too. And a couple of big personalities that came before Shanahan certainly didn’t comprehend how to make that happen. Around the time Brian Burke got the job as Maple Leafs GM in 2008, he called the franchise’s past a “burden” — a word that inferred hindrance — and he wore it like a heavy one.
“This notion that the players are somehow accountable and responsible for 1967 or however many years out of the playoffs — those were teams that failed,” Burke said.
It’s true that nobody around today is actually accountable or responsible for the sins of the past. But Shanahan, who grew up in Mimico, seems to understand that it’s worth being informed by them. And it doesn’t hurt to correct one or two of them, either, as Shanahan recently did by spearheading the honouring of Dave Keon.
To Burke, and to ex-CEO Tim Leiweke, who infamously ordered the pulling down of historic photos from the Air Canada Centre hallways to insulate roster players from the pressure of championship expectation, the past was something to run away from. To Shanahan, the best parts of it are the benchmark to aspire toward.
“What we’re trying to build here and the history we’re trying to emulate is one that we identify more with that (throwback) logo than with the current one,” Shanahan said.
It’s a simple sentiment, and it rings as sincere. If Shanahan understands the significance of cherishing alumni, and the uniforms they wore, maybe it’s because as a player in Detroit he saw the way Hall of Famers like Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay were perpetually connected to the Red Wings. And so under Shanahan’s watch in Toronto there’ve been other nods to the old days, such as nameplates on dressing room stalls for Leaf greats. There’ve also been more black-and-white photos reverently hung in arena hallways, just as there will be more celebrations of the club’s history before and during the upcoming 100th season.
“Everything we do, big or small, whether it’s concrete or just gesture, it’s really about what we all have in mind and where we ultimately want to be,” Shanahan said. “We want to be a championship organization.”
That’s not a new goal, just like this isn’t really a new logo. But Shanahan’s short run as president has shown he’s got enough of an eye for the details that he might have an idea how to paint the big picture, too.