With the Olympic break going into the final stretch for the week, and the trade deadline quickly approaching, I had some thoughts on what’s missing from this team besides the usual items that we all want. Like a goal scorer, a solid defenceman, a big name superstar etc. In my opinion for whatever it’s worth, it’s really about something bigger, and something that has been missing from this franchise for quite some time.
Let me first tell you that I’m a bit old school when it comes to sports. Meaning, I like the player that has a bit of an edge to him. Swagger as I like to sometimes call it. You know, confident of his abilities and a player that has that leadership role built into him. He plays hard all the time, gives maximum effort with every play and expects nothing less than that from his teammates. Works hard, plays hard, and while at it has some skill and makes others around him better. Able to stand up for his teammates, and able to talk to the coach and be a sound board for the players if needed. A player that finishes his checks, and plays with blood dripping down his face, and doesn’t miss a shift because of it. Those are just some of the on ice attributes.
As for off ice, and there’s no way of me knowing what players do, but I would hope that they take care of their bodies by eating properly, have a solid workout routine and getting proper rest. Not being a night owl, and behaving with respect by not getting into trouble and being a public nuisance. Overall my favorite players are guys that know how to be a pro.
You’re probably wondering where the heck am I going with all this. I’m getting there.
This past Friday afternoon as I was driving home from the office, I was listening to the Hockey Night In Canada Radio show as I always try to do, that comes on at 4:00 P.M. eastern. One of the guests was former NHLer Gary Roberts, one of my all-time favorite players and my favorite player to ever wear a Florida Panther sweater, even though it was for a short time.
To me, watching Gary play over the years, I never fully realized how tough, how smart, how skilled, and how much of a leader he really was until I could see him live on a nightly basis when he played for the Panthers. Yes he was older when we signed him as a free agent after the lockout, and certainly past his prime, but there’s no way that you can discount what he brought to the team when he was healthy. He played mostly on a line with Olli Jokinen and various other players, like Nathan Horton. Gary displayed a leadership and a work ethic that seemed to resonate across the team. Almost like a father figure on the ice and on the bench, Gary along with fellow elder statesmen Joe Nieuwendyck, Martin Gelinas, and even Chris Gratton, brought something to Florida that they hadn’t had since the Cup challenging team in 1996. And something that’s been missing since. Leadership, hard work, and charachter.
Gary was asked about a number of things throughout his career. Winning a Stanley Cup with Calgary, playing with all the different players on the various teams, scoring goals that mostly came from the dirty areas. He talked about what is was like to have to retire at such an early age due to his broken neck, and how he was somehow able to get himself healthy again and make a comeback at age 30. It was his desire for the game, and how much he missed it, that drove his comeback attempt which as we all know was successful.
He has been a fitness nut since his comeback and he owns some fitness centers in Toronto and has been credited with the recent improvement of Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Stamkos spent all last summer working out with Gary and followed a routine that has helped him develop into a much more impact type player this season. Gary still looks great, and he credits his work ethic to the success of his career and recongizes that there isn’t enough of that in the NHL today. He was asked about his favorite city that he played in, and while he couldn’t name one (he picked three), he didn’t mention South Florida. Gary and Uncle Jack did not get along all that well as Gary felt that the stifling defensive style that Uncle Jack forced the Panthers to play was a bore. My take is that the Florida players (most of) didn’t know what it took to win (they still don’t) while Gary was here. The players were young, they didn’t know what to do. Gary and co. tried to improve that, but since he left it’s been sorely missed.
Now let me go back a few years. Once the lockout was settled, every hockey fan couldn’t wait for the upcoming season to get started and for the free agency frenzy to begin. At that time, Jacques Martin was the head coach, and Mike Keenan was the general manager for the Panthers. Say whatever you want about that, but one thing for sure, something was missing and Keenan did his best to find it with the limited resources he was given. All Martin had to do was blend it together. Free agency started August first, and I’ll never forget where I was. Vactioning with my family in Vancouver, British Columbia at the time. I turned on TSN, Canada’s version of ESPN. Within a minute of the start of free agency, the Florida Panthers made the first announcement of signings. Both Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyck were coming to South Florida with two year deals. WOW! Ballsy move, and I loved it. Forget about how old they were etc. The plan that year and the year after was get guys that had leadership skills, good work ethic, and could teach these younger players how to do things right. It was not only make the playoffs, it was build a team that could challenge for the Cup.
The Panthers shortly thereafter held a special meet the players afternoon with the opportunity to get autographs etc. I’ll never forget waiting in line and finally getting to meet Gary with his solid handshake and tell him how happy I was when I heard of him coming, and how great it was to meet him. He acted, just as I expected. Professional, gratious, and personnable.
Back to the radio interview. There were some things that Gary talked about that I think you’d interpret were missing from the Panther players he played with. One of the most notable was learing how to be a pro as I mentioned earlier. Behavior on and off the ice. The distractions that you have off ice are plentiful especially here in Florida. Knowing when not to go out and drink yourself into a drunken stupor, not spending all your off time at the beach and golf course. Yes, you need to relax and get away from the game once in awhile, but mostly what he noticed in the last five years of his career, was that players needed to learn the things that would make them a solid professional hockey player. While he didn’t name any names or cities, I knew what he was talking about.
So Mr. General Manager, Randy Sexton, and the rest of the Panthers organization including Stu Seigel and Cliff Viner, here’s my challenge or my request. We all know that there needs to be some changes with this team and that you’ll need to make some moves in order to improve it. Whatever you do, make sure that whoever you acquire and whoever you bring on board has some of the qualities that this team is missing. A difficult task, but I challenge all of you to take a real hard look at how soft this team is and has been. Get players that can actually make us a tough opponent, and that we can be proud of. No more lazziness. No more wishy washy grunts. Get players that work hard, every shift, every game, and players that know how to be Pro’s. Yes we need someone to score the goals, and someone to stop the pucks and a d-man to move players out of the crease.
Most good teams have players like this. Ryan Smyth on L.A., Adam Foote on Colorado, John Madden on Chicago, Mike Knuble on Washington. It just makes sense to have these guys as role models and leaders.
We need to get back to the work ethic that was displayed by the 1996 team. They weren’t the most talented, but they were smart and worked hard. And most importantly they knew how to win and could teach those around them.
Make no mistake in order to win, we must have a few players who have a reputation like this guy!
Found this photo on the internet and thought that the sentiment was perfect.
Thanks for reading.