*YouTuber voice*: “Storytime!”
I wasn’t the best student in middle school. Sure, there were a few outside factors that didn’t exactly nurture my learning curve, but for the most part, the blame for my academic mediocrity fell almost entirely upon my own two shoulders. It was my fault. Plain and simple. But 13-year-old Mike certainly didn’t believe that, though. No, sir!
You see, rather than engaging in some duly needed introspection, that pre-teen dummy took the coward’s way out and deflected the shame of his self-inflicted failure onto everyone around him instead; the school, the teachers, even the air inside that stale building.
I was a bitter little boy. And though I ultimately made it through grades seven and eight and marched on to high school, if you had asked that same, bitter little boy to reflect back on his time at Deer Park Public School, he probably would’ve spouted off on how his teachers all licked a bunch of ass.
Which brings me to Igor Ozhiganov.
Igor Ozhiganov 2 @Dima_Erykalov: It's so different overseas.When you get to a lockerroom it seems all the players are ass-lickers that just wait for a coach to come to lick his ass.They always run to him, laugh of his jokes,make up to him. In Russia nobody'd talk to such a player
— Igor Eronko (@IgorEronko) August 7, 2019
Look, we’re not going to ignore the obvious here. That quote is objectively hilarious. So funny, in fact, that I’d say it was exactly what Twitter needed last night with the mid-August malaise in full effect and “30-50 feral hogs” marching itself solemnly toward meme retirement.
While undoubtedly unique in its candour, Ozhiganov’s quote is actually not the first public barb to be lobbed at the Leafs by a disgruntled former player this summer. Doing so has become a trend of sorts, in fact.
Take Nikita Zaitsev, for example.
In an interview with a Russian outlet published in Russian on May 25th, Zaitsev, now (hilariously) of the Ottawa Senators, bemoaned his usage in Toronto under Mike Babcock in a similarly candid manner, saying:
“Five to five I play in the defensive zone. When there is a throw in the attack zone, I immediately go to change…”
Zaitsev would then go on to turn his wrath over to the Toronto hockey market as a whole:
“They did say that the defence of Toronto is shit. Everyone wanted Muzzin. But they began to scoop him the next day. You just need to understand that this is Toronto. In any case, they will shame you because you are a defender.”
Like Ozhiganov, Zaitsev came over to the Leafs from the KHL as a free agent.
As a right-shooting defenceman set to join a roster that desperately longed for one, the glaring positional need of Toronto’s blueline put both players in immediate, albeit different, positions for success almost directly upon their arrivals; Zaitsev was placed on the Leafs’ top pair alongside Morgan Rielly to begin 2016-17; Ozhiganov beat out the recently re-signed Connor Carrick in camp last season for third pair duty next to Travis Dermott.
The similarities don’t stop there, though. As their respective tenures in Toronto came to an end in 2019 – Zaitsev’s lasting a total of three seasons; Ozhiganov’s only one – both players ultimately disappointed in regards to their on-ice performance and were therefore removed from the organization’s future plans as a result.
Hence; the pointed quotes.
And now we turn to Garret Sparks.
Sparks didn’t join the Leafs via free agency like Zaitsev and Ozhiganov – he was actually a seventh-round pick of theirs all the way back in 2011 – but the 26-year-old netminder indeed cracked the big club’s roster last season with the expectation that he would shore up one of Toronto’s most important positional groups. Of course, that didn’t happen.
To save you all from yet another re-tread of the numerous blunders Sparks made during his short-lived stint as Leafs’ backup, I’ll sum up his performance review in three simple words: He was bad.
So bad was Sparks, in fact, that management sent him to the shadow realm before game one of their first-round playoff series with Boston because they frankly didn’t trust him enough to even sit on their bench and wear a hat.
Maybe it was due to a lack of emotion? Honestly, who’s to say?
The Leafs inevitably traded Sparks, to the Vegas Golden Knights, in late-July.
It shouldn’t shock you, then, to learn that Sparks proceeded to cast a Star Destroyer-sized cloud of shade over the Leafs organization shortly following his exit. In an interview with Tracey Meyers of NHL.com, Sparks made what was surely the conscious decision to lament over a supposed “lack of fair opportunity” in Toronto despite having just spent seven full calendar years being given almost exclusively that.
Are you beginning to sense a trend here?
Simply put, all three of Zaitsev, Ozhiganov, and Sparks failed to meet expectations in their individual roles during the time they spent in a Maple Leafs uniform. Some failed more egregiously than others – Zaitsev wasn’t exactly given the easiest minutes on the team in both years two and three, to be fair – but they all still failed nonetheless, and to claim anything different would be to re-write history.
Throughout the 2018-19 season, each player contributed not to the overall success of his team, but rather to the continued futility of his respective positional group. Take a brief retrospective audit of the various weaknesses of those Toronto Maple Leafs, and what you’ll find is two gaping roster holes staring right back at you: defence and backup goaltending – realms in which Zaitsev and Ozhiganov (defence), and Sparks (goaltending) called his own.
Not to mention, the Leafs weren’t treating any of those three like one-and-done roster fillers, either. Zaitsev, Ozhiganov, and Sparks were each committed to, sought after, and viewed as important pieces to the championship blueprint by the Leafs organization. They were valued. And, in turn, they gave none back.
In the latter’s case, Sparks was kept within the Leafs organization for far, far longer than your typical seven-round pick ever hopes to be. Four different general managers oversaw his development and each one chose to invest what became seven years worth of resources into him. And even still, mid-way through an objectively disastrous first full season as an NHLer, GM Number Four committed to Sparks once again by signing him to a one-year contract extension in February.
Ozhiganov, on the other hand, was recruited heavily by the Leafs’ brain trust – and specifically, the coach whose ass he would one day claim sees a daily licking – over a period of two full years before eventually being sold on the prospect of leaving the KHL. They wanted him. Badly. And, in the end, management did what it took to get him.
Zaitsev, though, was perhaps the most coveted of all.
Signing in Toronto on the heels of a similar Babcock-led recruitment process to the one Ozhiganov would soon be treated to, a hefty initial dose of top-pair minutes and power-play usage in 2016-17 saw the then-25-year-old rack up 36 points as a rookie. Those are some decent numbers, sure. But the Leafs countered them in unexpectedly indecent fashion by handing Zaitsev an absurd seven-year extension worth $31.5 million that became an albatross roughly three seconds after pen hit paper.
When a team commits to you, caters to you, and sinks noted resources into your professional development, attempting to cushion your failure on a bed of excuses just doesn’t cut it.
The tenures of Zaitsev, Ozhiganov, and Sparks more or less mirror the trials of 13-year-old Mike – missing assignment deadlines, (in Sparks’ case) talking out disruptively in class, and just generally not doing the very simple and defined things one must do to stay afloat in the choppy waters of Canadian junior high.
Are these players all entirely to blame? Of course not. They each faced hurdles at varying points during last season which withheld them from reaching their respective ceilings – injuries being the most prominent example.
But at a certain point, that doesn’t matter. You’re not 13. Own your actions.
Whatever the context, there’s a distinct pang of shame that comes with realizing that you ultimately didn’t cut it. It’s almost like a piercing hot needle, one that pokes at your chest and renders you motionless. I’d bet comfortably that Zaitsev, Ozhiganov, and Sparks have all been feeling that shame for quite a while now. It’s natural. But rather than looking within, each player took a page out of my old pre-pubescent playbook and deflected their failure onto anyone within a ten-foot vicinity instead.
Whether that materialized in accusations of improper usage, a lack of opportunity, or simply licking some ass, the fact remains that all three took the easy way out. Just like an underachieving middle schooler would.