Leafs’ Rookie Week Kick-off

By Randy Nicholson
The annual Maple Leafs Rookie Camp and Tournament will start soon in Kitchener. This is an incredibly significant event, as it is the ultimate realization of Ken Dryden’s stated promise to build a team that will contend for the Stanley Cup every season.

The best thing about Cliff Fletcher’s time as the Maple Leafs’ boss was that the club became so startlingly successful in such a relatively short period of time. But in many respects, this was also the worst thing about Fletcher’s reign in Toronto. Sudden play-off success encouraged the club to take a “win now” approach and make several trades involving the young players/picks who should have been there to take over when Gilmour, Clark, Ellett, Andreychuk and the other core veterans collectively ran out of steam. As a result, the club that Dryden inherited following the 1996-1997 season had one of the thinnest collection of prospects in the entire league.

During the past two seasons, the Maple Leafs have again begun to travel with the NHL’s elite – but this time the future has not been sacrificed in any way. While the big team has set the league on its ear with entertaining and winning hockey under Pat Quinn’s heady leadership, the farm system was also being repaired and replenished. Youngsters like Markov, Kaberle and Antropov have already burst onto the scene to play significant roles on the Leafs’ varsity. Exciting players such as Svoboda, Mair, Farkas, Yakushin and Hakansson are now pushing hard to make the Air Canada Centre their next playing address and the system is chock full of solid prospects behind them as well (Hodson, Tellqvist, Racine, Zavoral, Zion, Rourke, Boyes, Vernarsky, Cereda, Sozinov, Ponikarovsky, Travnicek, Mrazek and Delisle to name but a few). More importantly, the Leafs suddenly seem to have learned how to challenge and nurture their budding stars so that they possess the best possible chance of realizing their full potential.

And so we embark on another “Rookie Week” hoping to identify the next Markov, Kaberle or Antropov. Yet, it is the growing depth of youth that the Leafs will put on the ice in Kitchener that will be even more important in the longer term. These are the players that will ultimately deliver on Mr. Dryden’s pledge to Maple Leaf fans all over the world.