TORONTO â€” When Brendan Shanahan was traded to Detroit in the fall of 1996 the Red Wings were engulfed in a 42-year Stanley Cup drought. When Shanahan assumed the Maple Leafs presidency in the spring of 2014, Toronto’s dry spell was at 47 years.
The Wings won their first Cup since 1955 in Shanahan’s first season with the club and added three more by 2008. Shanahan is intent on following a similar blueprint with the Leafs, hoping to restore glory to a long-beleaguered Original Six franchise.
“I’d say with him it seems that he has a very clear path and plan that he wants to follow â€” in the way the team’s run and the way we want to play and things like that,” said Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk ahead of Sunday’s Centennial Classic meeting between Toronto and Detroit.
“There’s a very clear direction for all that stuff.”
Detroit won championships with a combination of skill, shrewd drafting and patient development that was unparalleled in the NHL for almost two decades.
Shanahan has made those elements cornerstones of a Leafs team booming with high-end young talent, including Calder trophy candidates like 19-year-olds Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and a prospect pool that’s thought to be among the league’s best.
It’s quite the turnaround from three years ago when Toronto last met Detroit in an outdoor game. At that point the Leafs were a marginal playoff team without any real hope of Cup-contender status.
“Now, it’s almost like we expect to win every night,” defenceman Jake Gardiner said. “Back then it was ‘Are we going to win? Who’s going to win this game?’ It was more of an unsure feeling.”
Arguably Shanahan’s biggest coup as team president was luring long-time Wings head coach Mike Babcock to Toronto on a rich eight-year deal, later hiring Ari Vuori, formerly a scout with the Wings, as the Leafs director of European scouting.
It’s the idea of what Detroit built that Shanahan is chasing, a team constructed around skill that can sustain itself for years with internally developed talent. The Wings famously replaced Hall of Famers like Shanahan and Steve Yzerman with future members like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, a process that seems to be finally slowing in recent seasons with Detroit now in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990.
Shanahan has tried to build a winning culture like the Wings of old, a process which started with the hiring of Babcock and general manager Lou Lamoriello in the summer of 2015.
“It’s funny because people talk about the culture thing; it’s a word that’s thrown around a lot, but how do you ever accomplish that? And I think it’s by little details that you have to focus on every single day to do that,” van Riemsdyk said. “It’s not just that you say you want a winning culture and it automatically appears. It takes time to kind of build that.”
While Babcock built a structured program on the ice, Lamoriello immediately altered the way things were done off it. The Leafs general manager implemented rules governing how players dressed, cut their hair, and even spoke to the media. He sought to emphasize team and tradition rather than the merits of any one player.
“That’s a big thing with him,” Gardiner said of Lamoriello. “It’s about the Maple Leafs and not just one guy.”
He added: “People think it’s not a big deal, but it’s just little things like that that kind of just bring out the professionalism in most guys.”
Just as they do in Detroit, Shanahan has tried to better honour the Leafs’ past, including a new logo honouring the Cup-winning teams from earlier eras. He thought it important that today’s Leafs shared the same dressing room as the old-timers participating in Saturday’s alumni game.
Babcock even had the group of former Leafs, which included Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour and Curtis Joseph, sit in on a team meeting.
Dressing room stalls made up for Mats Sundin, Johnny Bower and other team greats mirrors a tradition that has its roots in the Motor City. Legends like Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay were known to hang around the Wings in the days that Shanahan played and Babcock coached there.
“We saw it as inspiration and it was a reminder, again, that you’re playing for something bigger than just yourself,” Shanahan said.
Toronto’s Cup drought will hit 50 years this spring, but the Leafs of today and tomorrow look a lot like the Wings of old. That’s no accident.
“We’re hoping to restore our franchise to its rightful place and we’re working on that,” Babcock said.
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press