Leafs players don’t support Toronto’s “Tank Nation”

As the Maple Leafs prepare for their fourth consecutive absence from the Stanley Cup playoffs – the longest such drought in franchise history – a faction of fans known informally as “Tank Nation” has become more vocal in their encouragement of the team to lose as many games as possible between now and the end of the season. With highly–touted prospects John Tavares and Victor Hedman waiting in the wings to be the first two players selected overall in this coming June’s draft, therein lies an understandable desire among this group of supporters to finish as low as possible in the standings in order to obtain the best chance at winning the draft lottery, thus maximizing the opportunity to land either player.

With the Leafs having been mired in a cycle of mediocrity for the past several seasons, during which they’ve never iced a team good enough to be a legitimate championship contender, but not bad enough to earn a high enough draft pick to land a franchise player, the so-called “Tank Nation” bandwagon has gained momentum in recent weeks, particularly in light of GM Brian Burke’s housecleaning at the trade deadline that saw the continuation of the team’s rebuild, with the exits of Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore in exchange for second-round picks.

The past week has demonstrated that the pleas of “Tank Nation” has fallen on deaf ears of Burke, head coach Ron Wilson, and the twenty players in the Leafs’ dressing room.

Monday’s 2-1 defeat to Ottawa went down to the wire after Wilson successfully challenged Jason Spezza’s illegal stick, resulting in a late Toronto power-play. The following night at Air Canada Centre, the Leafs prevailed in overtime over the New York Islanders, in a game more publicized for Wilson’s post-game tirade on veteran reporter Howard Berger than for any of the on-ice action. Wilson took exception to Berger’s suggestion that the timing of the coach’s manoeuvres in pulling out all the stops to win games should have been done “in November, when the games meant something”. In a tirade that was broadcast on several outlets, the Leafs bench boss admonished his annoyance for supposedly having his “integrity as a coach” being compromised. On Thursday, Wilson’s burning competitive desire was still evident in a loss to Tampa during which he was ejected after excessively berating officials following a jousting match between Leafs forward Ben Ondrus and the Lightning’s Evgeny Artyukhin. The week for the Leafs concluded on Saturday with an 8-6 slugfest against the Calgary Flames in which the Leafs were victorious.

Over the past four games, Toronto has demonstrated a resilience to exert as much effort as possible in winning games – regardless of the degree to which their draft lottery positioning is jeopardized, and rightfully so. Here are a few basic reasons of why the notion of ‘tanking’ games is not acceptable, by any measure.

  1. The tanking strategy cheats the paying fans, who fork over their hard-earned dollars for tickets to watch their teams play. With the top-end ducats going for $182 apiece at Air Canada Centre, assembling a lineup comprised of anything but a roster fully committed to winning would be bordering on criminal.
  2. There is no guarantee of winning the draft lottery, as abysmal as a team may finish at the end of the regular season. For an example of how the improbable may happen, look no further than the 2007 Chicago Blackhawks, who squeaked into the number 1 slot even with only an 8.1 per cent shot of getting the chance.
  3. The notion of putting forth a subpar effort is a discourtesy to other teams, in particular the clubs chasing your opponents for coveted playoff spots. The Leafs play the Sabres and the Canadiens twice each before season’s end. With Buffalo and Montreal jostling with Pittsburgh, Florida, Carolina and the New York Rangers over the remaining seeds in the Eastern Conference, any suggestion of tanking simply upsets the integrity of the playoff race.

The issue of allegedly tanking games came into prominence at the conclusion of the 1983-84 season, with Laval superstar Mario Lemieux revered as the next sure-fire franchise player, and as history would prove, with good reason. With Pittsburgh and New Jersey both destined for futility, the Devils accused the Penguins of deliberately icing a substandard lineup when minor league goaltender Vince Tremblay started many games in February and March. New Jersey earned only 10 points over its final twenty games of the year, and still finished ahead of Pittsburgh by three points.

“There was a principle involved,” then Devils general manager Max McNab told The Hockey News. “It would have made me sick to my stomach to do something to lose games.”

A quarter-century later, the philosophy of a full commitment to winning, independent of a team’s forthcoming draft position, is still evident in hockey culture.

“Our coach says, even if we don’t make the playoffs, we need to play our games very well,” a smiling Mikhail Grabovski told reporters after registering his third 2-goal game of the year during Saturday’s win over Calgary. “Everybody comes in and plays hard.”

Toronto forward Matt Stajan echoed the message of his teammate. “As professionals, we come to the rink to win hockey games and do the best that we can every night. We’re never, ever going to throw games or even talk about it. We wear the Toronto Maple Leaf proudly and we want to win every single game.”

The Leafs may very well finish the year in a position to land a premium draft pick.

But if they do, it won’t be because they played like they wanted to be there.

Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, a regular column at TMLfans.ca