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Something To Believe In

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In 1892, English poet Sir Henry John Newbolt wrote Vitaï Lampada (They Pass On The Torch of Life), a lyric about a soldier learning the tenets of bravery and courage — of stoicism — through the practise of sport.

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night
Ten to make and the match to win
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play, and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat.
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red -
Red with the wreck of a square that broke
The gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed its banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks -
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind -
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

Indeed, there is inspiration to be found in these words.

While it is true war metaphors in sport have become an overused cliche in modern days, there was a time when their application was far more meaningful. Nevertheless, in spite of its modern overuse, the analogy holds as true today as ever: a squad/team sent into battle, forced to rely on one another; leaders setting the example, inspiring those beneath them; courage in the face of great odds, anguish and reflection in the face of defeat. One can go as far back as Ancient Greece to find these metaphors in practice, where sporting events were often used as preparation for wars.

Over a century has passed since Newbolt’s classic poem, and yet a closer look reveals that while the world may have drastically, changed, the insights perhaps have not.

The youthful Toronto Maple Leafs, in the face of seemingly-insurmountable odds, have won many admirers in their steadfast refusal to give up the race for the playoffs. Stoically — some might say heroically — they have battled back from defeat to remain in the hunt for a postseason berth. Undeterred by the unfavorable reality of the standings, this team refuses to give up hope, and has shown a relentless dedication to continue the fight until the very end.

Leadership defines success in all walks, be it business, personal affairs, times of war, or simple competition. When times are perilous, when hardship ensues, and when all looks lost, it is our leaders we look to for guidance and support.

And in Toronto, in the game of hockey, leadership has prevailed. It is no coincidence the Leafs‘ best stretch of hockey this season has followed the resurgence of captain Dion Phaneuf, who has visibly taken command both on the ice and off.  There may be 23 players in the room, but the one wearing the ‘C’ is still the one they all look to for the example, part of it tradition, part of it respect for the decision to nominate the individual with such an esteemed honor, and an earned respect which translates to a willingness to follow. Our Captain is committed to the cause. He believes. What excuse do we have? It is a great truth in the world of sports — as in all walks of life — that as leaders go, so too go their followers.

But even the best among the team’s players, and the most respected of its leaders, cannot lead the team to victory alone. And here it falls upon the rest of the team to support their leaders, and each other, with their own spirited efforts. James Reimer may be young, fresh, and inexperienced, yet he has been able to rally the team with not only his performance, but his exuberance, confidence, and a steadfast refusal to yield to the weight of the task ahead.

Similarly, it has been young defenders Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie, and relatively-inexperienced forwards Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur, who have taken up the rallying cries of their captain, and their youthful backstopper, and led their team through battle time and again. Their belief in their teammates, and in themselves, inspires their play; in turn, their play has inspired and strengthened that belief throughout. For without support, without backing, without comrades-in-arms, there can be no victory.

And so the battle is waged, and so the battle continues. As in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, the task ahead is monumental; indeed, one that would cause many to surrender before the battle has even begun. And yet the game is played, the fight is fought, the march toward victory continues. Not because a victory is necessarily in hand; indeed, it may be the case that failure — in the immediate moment — is all but inevitable.

Yet within that failure, hope for future success can be found. Tennyson describes soldiers walking into certain death not for the mere sake of doing so, but rather for  the importance what the battle represents, for what it inspires, and for the memory that will remain: that of the unwillingness to surrender in the face of extraordinary odds, and the commitment to fight for a belief in themselves, the merits of the task, and the defense of all for which they stood.  Similarly, Newbolt alludes to the age-old metaphor of passing the torch in the context of inspiration (“And none that hears it dare forget”); of lessons learned and applied, and the hope which lies therein.

While it is true the Maple Leafs‘ current run may not lead to the ultimate goal of a post-season berth, there is much for the fans they represent to be excited about. Despite numerous occasions where one might expect the team and its players to fold, they have not; rather, they continue to play to win, refusing to allow even the most egregious of defeats to cast a pall upon their next foray into battle.  They are inspired, and in turn, they inspire us all.

With that in mind, let us enjoy the final nine games for what they are: a team refusing to throw in the towel in the face of overwhelmingly negative odds, fighting the good fight in belief of the merits of the cause.  An example has been set; legitimate hope for sustained success in the march toward victory can be glimpsed — at long last — upon the horizon.

In the words of Newbolt, “Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

And enjoy it for all that it is worth.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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