The First Word: Walking the line of maturity

Often we thrust youth into the spotlight in the NHL, but it takes time for even the game's best and brightest to develop into players – and more importantly, people – who can be true leaders.
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In the wonderful and wacky 1980s, Canadian bank Canada Trust introduced their ATMs, called them Johnny Cash machines and had The Man in Black himself as their star promoter. They produced some classically schlocky TV ads: “Life’s too short to walk the line,” Cash professes, as he expounds the convenience of the instant teller, walking past a long bank queue, with the soundtrack of his first No. 1 hit, I Walk the Line, bouncing in the background.

Canada Trust also convinced Cash to license his likeness, in the form of life-sized cardboard cutouts, which they placed beside some of the ATMs. I remember this because my second-year university roommates and I thought it would be a good idea in the fall of 1986 to liberate a giant Johnny and hire him as door greeter at our apartment. Roughly eight months later, early one Sunday morning when we were moving out of our digs, a police officer approached our truck. I don’t recall if she saw Mr. Cash, but she caught us loading street signs, stop signs, a park bench and other property that had been, umm, borrowed by our student housing predecessors over the years.

The cop was unamused and threatened to arrest us for possession of stolen property. We begged forgiveness and got off with a warning. The thought that street signs we inherited could land us in legal trouble never crossed my 21-year-old mind.

A couple years later, I graduated from Carleton University with a degree in journalism and was lucky enough to have Bob McKenzie, then editor-in-chief of The Hockey News, take a chance on me. I’d come from a respected program and knew the fundamentals, but I was green and keen with little experience in between. I needed Bob, then his successor, Steve Dryden, along with some of my more established colleagues, to teach me…for more than a decade. During those years, I got married, had children, faced some of life’s curveballs, and opportunities to grow, for the first time. Eventually, when Steve departed in 2001, I was deemed ready to step into a leadership role. Had that happened in my third year, I can confidently say it would have been a disaster.

One pivotal conversation I had in my early years as editor, one that bled from hockey into real life, was with then-Chicago Blackhawks center Curtis Brown. He and his wife had lost their four-month-old daughter to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome a few months prior. His tone and messaging on the phone were remarkably poised and strong. I’d imagined he would have sounded shattered. He was still grieving but said they made a conscious decision to honor their daughter’s life by moving forward with theirs and being the best parents they could be to their other children. “Life is a series of tests,” Brown said. “Sometimes, unfortunately, the only way we can get stronger or better or become who we’re supposed to be is to go through these tests.” It was a profound learning moment for me, the 40-year-old guy in charge of a national magazine.

What’s the point? (Yes, there is one). Hockey, too often, eats its young. Sometimes it takes the form of pressure to succeed early or risk being labelled a flop. For those who do excel, it justifies the faith placed in them and verifies they were ready…to score, hit or save. To be among the best of the best. It does not prove they are ready to shepherd.

The most recent case study is Auston Matthews. Just days before the pundits expected him to be made captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, news broke he was facing disorderly conduct charges stemming from an alleged incident in Arizona. Forget whether he is proven guilty or exonerated (we’ll let the court system figure that out), but the notion a 22-year-old is ready to be a mentor of men, in the largest and most scrutinized hockey market on the planet, is confounding. Following days of frenzy in Leafs land, management wisely gave the ‘C’ to 29-year-old John Tavares.

The episode put the issue on the front burner, where the risk of getting burned is inversely correlated to the amount of on-the-job training required for the chosen one. Now more than ever. Omnipresent video and the social-media slingshot have us potentially being watched at all times. That goes exponentially for the famous. The disproportionately huge amounts of money that professional athletes are paid cannot buy savvy. There are no virtual-reality glasses that instill maturity.

These young men should be allowed time to grow and understand that some of the things they think are important today are, in the grand picture, space dust. And that some of the small stuff they think is insignificant can make a big difference. We should save them from themselves, give them time to prove they can lead by experience and example, before asking them to, without misstep, walk the line.

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