By Dan Robson
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Becoming the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs was one of the most meaningful honours of my NHL career.
Being named captain of any NHL team is great. But there is something special about wearing the “C” in Toronto.
I still can remember the day Cliff Fletcher and Pat Burns called me into the office and told me that I was going to be the Leafs’ leader.
It was my responsibility to take on the role that guys like George Armstrong, Dave Keon and Darryl Sittler had carried before me.
It was a bittersweet honour, too. I was given the captaincy after my good friend Wendel Clark had been traded in the summer of 1994.
Wendel was a first overall pick for the Leafs. He was the heart and soul of the team. He’d been there through good times and bad times.
He laid his body on the line every game he played. We’d just lost a guy that I’d battled beside for two and a half years. He was going to be a tough act to follow.
Wendel was traded for a young Swedish star named Mats Sundin — and Mats can certainly tell you a few things about being a Leafs captain too.
But here’s my best advice to you: Don’t change who you are.
You were named the Leafs’ captain not only because of your talent on the ice but also because how you carry yourself as a leader on the team.
Because no matter how talented you are, you work your ass off like you’re still trying to earn a spot on the roster.
When I first arrived in Toronto, Pat Burns sat me down and gave me a simple message.
“Be the hardest working guy in practice and games,” he said. “And everybody will follow you.”
(Burnsie told me that over several pints at Filmores, a Toronto strip club — but that’s another story for another time.)
The point is, Burns taught me that to be a real leader, I had to be the hardest working guy on the ice in both games and practice.
He was a blue-collar, lunch-pail kind of guy. He reminded me so much of my father.
Dad worked a Kingston Penitentiary. He worked hard his entire life — and inspired others to, too. He taught me the importance of that.
“Work ethic is everything,” he said. “You have to show up.”
When I was given the honour of being the Leafs’ captain, that was the best attribute I could bring. It wasn’t much of a transition. It was, go do your business.
I wasn’t much for giving inspiring speeches. I didn’t speak a lot in the dressing room that much at all, really.
But I gave everything I had on the ice — and I expected my teammates to do the same.
Afterwards — good or bad — I faced the media to answer for my team’s play. And the media in Toronto can be tough, but you’re the one who answers for the team you represent.
And when the heat came from the coaches, you wear that too. You make sure that from the top line to the bottom line, there is one vision for the team.
I learned those lessons from guys like my father and Burns.
But I also learned it from captains like Brian Sutter, who was my mentor while I was a young player in St. Louis. Brian could score goals. But also fought for his team. He played with his heart and soul.
In Calgary, I watched Lanny McDonald — a legend — lead our team to a Stanley Cup, even though his best playing days were behind him.
Everybody in that dressing room looked up to Lanny. He was an example of how to be a pro — and what it takes to win a Cup.
And in Toronto, there was Wendel.
Has any player sacrificed their body the way Wendel did with his?
He personified our team through the years I played beside him in Toronto. He was our leader. We followed him to battle.
During those years, we had a dressing room full of proven leaders. Guys like Mike Folino, Mike Krushelnyski, Bob Rouse, Glenn Anderson and Jamie Macoun. There were a lot of great examples for me to follow.
That’s where you learn to become a leader. You rely on the experience of the people in front of you. Recently, in the Leafs dressing room, that was a guy like Patrick Marleau.
But you’re in a unique a situation now. You are the new leader of a young and talented team.
When I wore the Leafs “C”, I played alongside my eventual replacement. It was clear that eventually, it would be Mats’ team.
I viewed it as my job to help prepare him for that. He was only 23 years old. It was my responsibility to help show him how it’s done.
Just like others had done for me.
John, you are the first captain the Leafs have named in three years.
You’re a player who doesn’t show a lot of emotion. You keep it under control.
You’re older than the other stars on the team — and that experience matters. You’ve been through it already.
Don’t change a thing.
As a boy, I know this was something you dreamed of.
So wear it proudly, now. I promise you, it’s an honour you’ll never forget.