Can Leafs become NHL's Cubs?


TORONTO — The party in Chicago is still going strong, just like it would for a long time in these parts if the Toronto Maple Leafs ever end the NHL’s longest Stanley Cup drought.

Yes, the Maple Leafs were watching Wednesday night as the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. And it was hard not to draw comparisons between the Cubs and Leafs, both iconic franchises in their respective sports with rabid, long-suffering fan bases. And both teams that have undertaken deep-rooted rebuilding efforts.

The difference is that the Leafs, of course, have just started theirs. Team president Brendan Shanahan doesn’t quite buy all the parallels, though.

“Not really,” Shahanan said Friday during his team’s practice. “There are always so many different nuances to each team’s approach in each sport. I couldn’t even tell you all of the details [of how] Chicago has rebuilt its team. But I can say that we think we’re pointed in the right direction. For us, the hard part in the next step is going in the right direction. And it’s not enough. That’s the key phrase for us, always — it’s never really enough until you truly get what you want. With guys like Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello running the team day-to-day, that’s the approach they bring.”

But yes, Shanahan appreciates what the Cubs accomplished.

“The Cubs are a great story. I enjoyed it,” he said. “I lived in Boston during the lockout in 2004 when the [Boston Red] Sox did it, and Theo [Epstein] was there for that too. So I’ve heard about the billy goat and I’ve heard about the Curse of the Bambino. And I’ve seen teams that got determined and ended those things. I think it’s a good lesson for everybody.”

Shanahan knows a thing or two about curses. The Detroit Red Wings had the NHL’s longest Cup drought before winning it in 1997. Shanahan played on that team and remembers how that weighed on the fan base in Detroit. Canada snapped a 50-year Olympic hockey gold-medal drought in Salt Lake City in 2002 — and yes, Shanahan was a key member of that team. So he’s been there.

But this would be the mother of them all.

Other NHL teams expressed interest in plucking Shanahan out of the league’s head office, but the Hall of Famer was lured by the one gig that presented the greatest challenge. The opportunity to end the NHL’s longest title drought in his hometown led Shanahan to accept the Leafs presidency in April 2014. The image of how this city would react to winning a Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967 is one that fuels him every single day.

“I think about winning here all the time,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that our players have to do the same. You have to imagine it before you can do it.”

Watching Cubs players and fans celebrate certainly made Leafs players appreciate the potential parallel.

“Absolutely, it’s an iconic franchise and you know how much more it means in a place like that for baseball, and in places like here for hockey,” Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk said Friday. “You know how sweet that would be, to be part of something like that. Obviously it comes with its own set of challenges and maybe the microscope is a bit stronger in a place like this. But the rewards can be great if you can accomplish what you want to accomplish.”

The Leafs are still far from getting there, with so many key decisions still to be made. But Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and the rest of the league’s youngest team provide plenty of promise.

But if there’s one important factor where the comparison differs, it’s that the Cubs had unlimited financial resources with which to go after players, while the Leafs are limited by the NHL’s salary cap. That’s just a reality.

“I wouldn’t take anything away from what Theo did, because that’s not a new reality for the Cubs and it hadn’t worked for 108 years,” Shanahan said of baseball’s not having a salary cap. “I think what he did was fantastic and Chicago is a great sports town. If you’re a sports fan, you enjoyed watching that stuff.

“It’s great, but it’s not the beginning nor the end of us focusing on what we hope to do here in Toronto.”

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