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Mirtle: Forget the cynicism: This Leafs statue is long overdue

Oh dear cynics, don't worry.

We hear you.

Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs are trotting out the history again.

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They're honouring some long-ago greats and shining a bright light on the fact that the glory years are so long ago.

Expect to hear that complaint a lot as they head toward the century mark in 2016-17 and the party hats really come out.

But that doesn't change the fact the Leafs' latest initiative – an intricate statue of 10 former Leafs that the team offered a first look at on Thursday morning – is a great idea.

It's an overdue one, too.

This franchise has a complicated relationship with its past. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke learned that rather quickly last year when, immediately after taking the job, he mused about planning a Stanley Cup parade and taking down photos of triumphs long ago.

He even told my colleague, Cathal Kelly, at one point last July that the Leafs' history "ain't what we're selling any more."

Fans were outraged. Alumni even more so.

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The new boss had unwittingly put his foot in a hornet's nest and stomped around, an awkward start to his time in Toronto.

The reality in this city is the Leafs are eternally damned if they do and damned if they don't recognize their history – at least until they turn things around on the ice.

The sad part of that fact is that the recent futility – driven by ownership and overall mismanagement – has taken something away from playerssuch as the late Ted (Teeder) Kennedy, the first "legend" announced as part of the monument now under construction in front of the Air Canada Centre.

Thursday could have been a day to hear his story, which was poignantly offered by his son, Mark.

Mark explained how the long-time Leafs captain was raised in Port Colborne, Ont., by a single mother – of five children – who held down three jobs."That was my Dad's hero," he said.

Meanwhile, on local sports radio, the discussion was about which Leafs were the "least deserving" of the honour.

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And it didn't take long for social media to fill up with vitriol over the idea of honouring anyone wearing blue and white, given the team hasn't won a playoff series in the past decade.

Let alone a Stanley Cup.

"Smug level of self-congratulation by MLSE truly remarkable," wrote one fan, echoing many others. "Truth is Leafs have not iced a winner in almost 50 years."

What's also true is the Leafs have been guilty of going to this well too often, especially in the late stages of ugly seasons. Pregame ceremonies tend to lose meaning when they're every two weeks before a weeknight loss to the Florida Panthers.

That said, putting up a monument to those who are deserving – such as Kennedy – isn't that.

Far from an empty, easily arranged photo op or puck drop, the Leafs "legends" statue has a certain permanence to it. This isn't a tacky gesture to sell tickets – which is never a problem anyway – but a worthwhile addition to what's become a pretty impressive gathering place for Toronto sports fans the past two years during the NHL and NBA playoffs.

The team also spared no expense in bringing in American sculptor Erik Blome, who among other projects designed the Wayne Gretzky statue that sits outside of the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

If it's done right, it could be a jewel – a tourist attraction and history lesson all in one.

"That's what makes this special," Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said. "Players from different decades will be able to be immortalized on one team and one bench together."

That so many of them will come from the distant past is an indictment of how the Leafs have been run for years, sure, but that doesn't mean those who came before don't deserve to be there.

And any empty spots left on the bench will serve as a good reminder – to Leiweke, Shanahan and whomever else takes the helm down the road – that this is a franchise sorely need of some new heroes and reasons to celebrate.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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