Hardship is all relative. Take Brooks Laich, for example. On Sunday night, he was traded from the best team in the NHL to the second-worst and likely saw the best chance he’ll ever have at a Stanley Cup taken away from him. On the other hand, he’s engaged to Julianne Hough, with whom he was watching the Oscars when he learned of the trade. And he’s made more than $31 million playing hockey, with another $4 million to come next season.
Still, it was difficult not to feel badly for Laich, who was dealt from an emerging powerhouse in Ottawa in 2004 to the doormat Washington Capitals, only to have the whole thing play out again 12 years later and be a lot more stinging this time. Laich was a glue guy, a hardworking and loyal grunt for a team that underachieved, only to have the team realize that his salary cap hit and role on the fourth line did not mesh at a time when it’s finally primed to live up to its potential. And he was shipped out, mandated to start all over again with a team just as bad as the one he went to in 2004. And just in case he needed to be reminded, he's scheduled to play his old team when the Maple Leafs visit Washington Wednesday night.
“If you just look at the opportunity that was in front of us in Washington…I put in 12 years of service there, I was really hoping to chase down a Stanley Cup and in position very well to do so this year,” Laich said after his first game as a Maple Leaf. “I’m an honest guy and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed to not have the ability to see that through. But at the same time, change is part of life. Playing in the National Hockey League is a privilege, and I still love the game. I love the game more than ever, and this is just another chapter in my life.”
And here’s the thing. That was exactly what the Maple Leafs needed to hear from him. The last thing they needed around this group of players was a veteran guy pining for the good old days and lamenting the loss of his shot at eternal glory. Brooks Laich is a farm kid from Saskatchewan who does the awe-shucks thing very, very well. He's a 32-year-old veteran who referred to his coach as "Mr. Babcock." But the thing with Laich is that it’s actually genuine.
And even if he never scores a goal or registers an assist for the Maple Leafs in the 103 games he’s due to play for them over the rest of this season and the next, he’ll be worth every penny of his $4 million salary and his $4.5 million salary cap hit. In fact, with the void in leadership that is in that room at the moment, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Laich should be this team’s next captain. (Notwithstanding the Leafs signing Steven Stamkos this summer, something I don’t believe will or should happen. But that’s a rant for another day.)
Until recently, the Maple Leafs had a captain who would alternate between one foot and another with his arms crossed in interviews, looking as though it was the last place he wanted to be. They had a captain who either led the charge or at least endorsed a decision last season that saw the players thumb their noses at the fans. They had a captain that never seemed to be a fit, one who was as uncomfortable as anyone has ever been in that role.
In Laich, they have an evangelist, a Pied Piper who will bring younger players along and one who will make them proud to be part of the organization. Yes, he’s disappointed about being traded, probably even more than he’s letting on publicly. And that will grow into a full-blown depression if he has to watch his former teammates skate around with the Stanley Cup on a hot, sultry night in June. But he will never let it permeate into his role as a hockey player. And that quality will be required in abundance as this organization continues to move through and experience the pain that Mike Babcock talked about when he was hired last summer. There is still more coming and the Leafs need people like Laich to absorb it.
“I’m very excited to be here. I don’t want anybody to discount that,” Laich said. “I plan to prove it to my teammates over the next six weeks that I’ll be coming to the rink with a smile on my face. I’m going to have some fun playing this game, get to know the guys, and put in effort and prep for games and be a good teammate, and all those things.”
That has got to be beautiful music to the ears of people such as Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Babcock. The Maple Leafs had four players make their NHL debuts Monday night and seven make their debuts as Leafs. They had nine players in the lineup 25 or under. This is a crucial, crucial time over the next year or so, one when players such as Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and whomever they pick in this year’s draft will learn how to become NHL players. When a team is this bad, players can learn how to lose as much as they can how to win. They need Laich to show them the way.
And if you think that doesn't matter, just cast a glance westward and see what a void in veteran leadership has done to the Edmonton Oilers.