Appreciation: An open letter to Tomas Kaberle
It's never easy to say goodbye to a family member. And over more than 12 seasons, 878 games and countless memories, that's exactly what you became.
It all started on October 10, 1998.
Two years after getting drafted by Toronto as a shy 18-year-old, there you were in your NHL debut against the Red Wings. There you were in your new home, far away from your old home in the Czech Republic.
A spirit of change floated toward the rafters that night.
It was the last time a season would begin at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was the first time the Leafs were in the Eastern Conference. The word "rebuild" was used more than once that summer.
You played nearly 30 minutes that night. You were on the ice for power plays and even the final minute of Toronto's thrilling 2-1 win. And although it was sketched in the dotted-line silhouette of first impressions, your extraordinary skill level was obvious.
You skated with the grace of a swan. You passed the puck with elegance and precision. None of this ever stopped once it started.
We didn't know much about you back then. Certainly, there was no way to divine the numbers and milestones now attached to your name with bittersweet finality: 520 career points. Eighth on the all-time list for games played in Toronto. The second-highest number of assists and points for a defenceman in team history, behind only a fellow by the name of Borje Salming.
Even this season, even after all this time, the numbers remain impressive: 35 assists ties you for fifth among all NHL defencemen and 16th among all skaters on all teams. Put it this way: You now have one more assist than Sidney Crosby and have factored into more than a quarter of the Leafs’ 146 goals this season.
How the Leafs compensate for these backend numbers is their problem. How you slience criticism that surfaced from certain corners in recent years – "He doesn't shoot enough," "He doesn't really care about winning" – is your problem.
Solving problems is what good families do.
You wanted to stay in Toronto. You asked for a contract extension. But when all was said and done, when it became obvious the family needed to change, you helped the only team you've ever known find a new team for your services.
You did the right thing and for that you should be commended.
In an ideal world, of course, you would have retired in blue and white during a sentimental ceremony. But idealism and sentiment should never cloud the cold decisions that need to be made in the world of professional hockey.
That spirit of change is floating up again toward the rafters.
The Leafs could have lost you for nothing on July 1. The "rebuild" word is in heavy rotation, just like when you were a rookie in that October game against Detroit.
So even though it feels like a day of mourning, the truth is, we should be celebrating. We should be celebrating everything you did for us. And we should celebrate the arrival of yet another first-round pick and yet another promising young prospect.
We may worry about what your departure means to the word we dare not use. We may second-guess this or that. But here's the thing: Sometimes you have to say goodbye to yesterday to welcome tomorrow.
So as trades go, when you factor in both time and need, this one feels beneficial for all involved. In the short-term, Boston benefits. In the long-term, Toronto benefits. And in between, you benefit.
You represented the Leafs in four NHL All-Star games. You represented the Czech Republic in three Winter Olympics. Along the way, you carried yourself with class and dignity, always content to inhabit the shadows away from the spotlight, always the same shy teen when the cameras flashed and the microphones whirred.
So this is it, then. Good luck in Boston. We are excited for you and excited for what we may become in the days and weeks and months ahead.
Farewell and thank you.
TOP PHOTO: COLIN MCCONELL/TORONTO STAR