Don Cherry does have a point.
The way the Toronto Maple Leafs — of all teams — have handled the Nazem Kadri pudginess factor is puzzling. And thanks to Cherry weighing in, a few days after the Leafs forward prospect was sharply criticized by AHL Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, the story has had legs for nearly a week.
If any organization should understand how ripping a prospect’s fitness would be blown up, dissected, analyzed six ways to Sunday, it’s the Leafs, situated as they are in the centre of the hockey universe.
So, when Eakins told a larger-than-usual AHL media scrum (filled with listless NHL reporters), that Kadri’s body fat level was “unacceptable,” relative to others, the stuff predictably hit the fan.
“If anyone wants a blueprint on how to destroy someone, just follow the Toronto Maple Leafs,” said Cherry, in the punch line of his Twitter comments, which were widely published.
The episode reminded me how the Ottawa Senators took a very different tack with a first-round pick of theirs several years ago. His name: Jason Spezza.
For his first NHL camp, Spezza, who had been an OHL star, did not arrive in Ottawa at the level of fitness expected by Randy Lee. Lee was then the team’s strength and conditioning coach, today he is director of hockey operations and development.
Rather than making a public proclamation that Spezza did not have NHL-level fitness, the organization worked directly with the young centre to express their expectations. Understand, this was a decade ago. Today, teenage hockey players are fabulously fit, in almost every case, before they reach their first NHL combines test. Obsession with training and diet has reached all the way down to minor hockey.
But, 10 to 15 years ago, some top junior stars were still getting it done with the skill and “game” they’d had since peewee hockey. Learning to be a pro, on the ice and in the gym, had to be taught.
Just Wednesday, Lee was saying on the Team 1200 radio station that goaltending prospect Robin Lehner, in his fourth Senators camp, is in improved physical condition, having lost about 10 pounds.
Did the Senators organization tell the world that Lehner needed to lose weight or improve his overall conditioning? No, they shared it with him privately. They didn’t embarrass him.
“It’s our job to support these guys,” Lee said, about developing young NHL talent. “Some guys take longer.”
In Spezza’s case, it was bad enough he was sent down to the minors with a previous general manager’s statement about the NHL being a “man’s league.”
He got over that affront. In the past several seasons, he has also become one of the fittest Ottawa players, as he came to “get” the fitness religion that teams like the Senators demand of their young talent, directed by strength and conditioning coach Chris Schwarz.
Spezza’s enlightenment had its origins in 2003, when Spezza began training with former Maple Leafs winger Gary Roberts, a Toronto-based strength and diet guru, who learned under Ottawa’s Lorne Goldenberg (Daniel Alfredsson’s strength trainer). Suddenly, Spezza was dining on ostrich and buffalo meat. He became a gym rat, lost weight, but gained muscle. Even as he continued to hone his skills, he came to understand skill alone would not make him a top NHL centre.
Oddly enough, Kadri also trained this summer with Roberts, and Kadri was proud of his improvement. Alas, considering the lifestyle change required, one summer is not enough. Kadri might just need “longer” time, as Lee said some players do.
Toronto’s seventh overall pick in 2009 (the same draft in which Ottawa selected Lehner in the second round), Kadri doesn’t turn 22 until this Saturday.
He’s not washed up yet, is he? Let’s hope not, although prospects have been known to wither in the Toronto glare, and there are already huge questions about Kadri’s potential. Making a national story out of his body fat and choice of “fuel,” to use Eakins automobile analogy, doesn’t make it easier for prospects to succeed — unless the Leafs know something we don’t.
On Wednesday, Eakins took advantage of his opportunity to respond to Cherry’s remarks.
“He’s a strong-willed guy,” Eakins told reporters, including Michael Traikos of the National Post. “I’m sure he believes in everything he had somebody type for him. But I’m a massive fan.”
Eakins added that he’d be pleased to welcome Grapes at a Marlies practice or game, given that Cherry had yet to darken Eakins’ doorway with a visit.
“I invite Don to come on down,” Eakins said, ” … we’d be honoured to have him.”
It’s likely Eakins viewed Kadri’s crime of excess body fat as particularly sinful because Eakins himself is a fitness freak, competing in extreme endurance tests such as the Leadville 100 (mile) mountain bike race in Colorado.
Until further notice, we will assume Kadri is not quite ready for the Leadville 100 competition. First up for him — proving himself, again, with the Leafs AHL farm club.