The decision to join mainstream media wasn’t one I took lightly, after spending virtually my entire adult life immersed in the game I love — playing, coaching, scouting and managing hockey. As I worked through the process, my good friend and former agent Brian Burke asked: “What about the compete part? Do you think you’ll be able to live without the day-to-day competition?”
Was my life that wrapped up in a word? Of course I could live without it. I’ve competed my whole life. Every single day. I won’t miss it a bit. It’s out of my system. In fact, I’ll relish the slower pace and embrace a quiet day.
Later that afternoon I was out for a ride along the lake on Big Green, the slick 35-year-old Bianchi mountain bike that has been my training partner every step of the way. Big Green was always on the back of my truck when I travelled, for an instant workout anywhere.
Beautiful day, clear sky, bright sun, just another leisurely ride. Until a guy passed me on a fancy high-priced bike — geared out head to toe, and flying. Here we go. So much for not competing any more. I took off after him, finally caught up, then blew by him and felt a huge sight of satisfaction coming on. Seriously? Had I not just explained to my confidant hours before that I was fine not competing?
Competing isn’t something you choose to do. It chooses you. It takes over.
And it was one of the main reasons why the Maple Leafs acquired Mark Giordano at the trade deadline.
The 38-year-old defenseman found success a little late. Now he has the skills and experience that come with playing 1,000 NHL games and winning the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defender. And he competes.
TSN broadcaster Jamie McLennan, who played with Giordano and coached him in Calgary, spoke glowingly of his former teammate: “It’s how he’s wired; he always will be. He’s so versatile, he will find different ways to be effective. And he’ll leave it out there every night.”
That’s the kind of player a coach welcomes. It makes their job easier, because the players on either side of Giordano in the locker room won’t feel like they have a choice. He will compete at a level that drags everyone into the fray with him.
The off-season acquisition of forward Michael Bunting also helped in this area, while the Leafs have seen stars such as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner up their own compete levels. In youth hockey, elite players can get by on talent. But as the level of play increases, there are simply more good players.
The hockey world is in full agreement that the regular-season Leafs are among the most talented in the league. Their best players rival anyone’s. The question is whether that will be enough at playoff time. They felt they needed more, and hope that the addition of Giordano and role-playing forward Colin Blackwell from Seattle will help.
The top teams all have stars, and they’re expected to perform. They often cancel each other out. It’s the next tier that wins in the playoffs: Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow in Tampa, Ryan O’Reilly in St. Louis. Patric Hörnqvist was a key part of Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017. Experts appreciate the high deadline prices paid this year for the likes of Brandon Hagel, another Tampa pick-up, and Artturi Lehkonen by the powerhouse Avalanche. Their motors set them apart.
Closer to home and a playoff removed, a less-talented Montreal team outcompete the Leafs, Jets and Golden Knights last season on the way to the Cup final. Unless we include the compete factor as a talent, which Montreal had in abundance.
I’d thought my own compete level had waned, but apparently that hasn’t been the case. In fact, thinking back, it always presented itself in some form — whether it was a tremendously heated game of Scrabble with my daughters or playing keep-away in a neighborhood game of pond hockey, where I would sometimes simply not let anyone touch the puck . Adults and kids alike. For a while.
I’ve spoken often about the ingredients necessary to build a Stanley Cup champion: Health, talent, timing, depth and flat-out good luck are all necessary. Compete is the secret sauce that will determine the last team standing.