By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 20) – Brian Burke is not easing up on the “rats” in the National Hockey League. When I spoke with the Maple Leafs president and general manager in the second intermission of Thursday night’s Toronto-Minnesota game, he insisted the phenomenal spate of head injuries this season is an aberration caused by players delivering cheap shots in the absence of a deterrent.
“It goes back to what I said a couple of weeks ago – the ‘rats’ in the league are running around with immunity and taking liberties with other players knowing they will not have to answer the bell,” Burke groused. “I may have to re-check the numbers, but I can tell you that during our last Board of Governors’ meeting [Dec. 5-6], concussions were actually down from a year ago at the same time. I think it seems as if the incidence is way up because of the caliber of players that have been affected [Sidney Crosby, Chris Pronger, Claude Giroux among them]. But, the number in December was actually lower.”
Burke said he doesn’t share the concern of others – myself included – that the speed of the game; the size of today’s player; improved protection with modern, scientific equipment and an ice surface roughly the same dimension as 80 years ago has created a predisposition toward head trauma; one the league can neither police nor control. He believes the trend will lapse under the stewardship of the NHL’s first-year czar of discipline, Brendan Shanahan.
“Shanny has to keep whacking these guys [with long suspensions], it’s as simple as that,” Burke said. “The ‘rats’ are going to continue running around because they know they don’t have to stand up for themselves and fight. If there’s no accountability on the ice, then Shanny has to deal with it in the boardroom. When I was handling discipline for the league [1993-98], I got rid of a lot of cheap stuff – slashing and two-handed baseball swings – by coming down hard on players. Brendan has to keep doing the same thing.”
BRIAN BURKE IN HIS EXECUTIVE BOOTH AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE THURSDAY NIGHT: “SHANNY JUST HAS TO KEEP WHACKING THESE GUYS,” BURKE SAID ABOUT NHL DISCIPLINARIAN BRENDAN SHANAHAN STAYING TOUGH ON LEAGUE “RATS”, WHOSE “CHEAP SHOTS”, HE INSISTED, HAVE LED TO MANY CONCUSSIONS.
When asked if the general lack of respect among opposition players surprises him, Burke replied, “nope, not at all. Fighting is down considerably from a year ago and guys that would otherwise have to answer for their conduct are running around bravely and dishing out cheap shots. That won’t change until we modify the rules. All we can do right now is whack these players with long suspensions. I don’t think it’s enough of a deterrent and that’s why I’m an advocate of fighting as a means of dealing with the ‘rats’. If some of these chicken-sh– players had to stand up for themselves, we’d be in a different situation.”
Burke’s team, meanwhile, authored a different situation by easily dispatching the Minnesota Wild – a club on a free-fall through the Western Conference standings after lighting it up early in the season. Goals by Nazem Kadri and Joey Crabb before five-and-a-half minutes had elapsed was all the Leafs would need in a 4-1 triumph that busted off a three-game slide.
My photo-review, now, of a blustery day and night here in town on Thursday:
FOR THE FIRST TIME THIS SEASON, A LEAFS HOME GAME WAS PRECEDED BY SOME TRUE HOCKEY WEATHER (ABOVE AND BELOW) – A MAJOR SQUALL THAT BLEW PAST NORTH TORONTO IN EARLY AFTERNOON.
REFEREE DEAN MORTON SETS TO DROP PUCK BETWEEN TIM CONNOLLY OF LEAFS AND MATT CULLEN OF WILD – FIRST VISIT BY MINNESOTA TO THE AIR CANADA CENTRE SINCE NOV. 10, 2009.
JOFFREY LUPUL SEEMS NOT THE LEAST-BIT INTERESTED IN DEAN MORTON’S INDICATION (ABOVE) FROM THE NEARBY “WAR ROOM” OF JOEY CRABB’S GOAL AT 5:11 OF THE FIRST PERIOD THAT GAVE LEAFS AN EARLY 2-0 LEAD. PERHAPS LUPUL HAD SEEN CRABB’S SHOT PASS UNDER THE NET FRAME, WHICH A QUICK VIDEO-REVIEW CONFIRMED.
THE FACES AND BODY-LANGUAGE AT THE MINNESOTA BENCH (ABOVE) ARE THOROUGHLY INDICATIVE OF ANOTHER EARLY DEFICIT, AND THE CLUB’S FREE-FALL IN THE WESTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS (2-6-2 AND FOUR CONSECUTIVE DEFEATS) AFTER A BLAZING START CREDITED TO PHENOMENAL GOALTENDING BY NIKLAS BACKSTROM (BELOW).
JONAS GUSTAVSSON DROPPED A MAJOR PIECE OF HIS EQUIPMENT (ABOVE), BUT EMERGED UNSCATHED THANKS TO GOOD DEFENSIVE WORK BY DION PHANEUF AND LUKE SCHENN.
VETERAN DANY HEATLEY RELAXES AT MINNESOTA BENCH (ABOVE) DURING A TV TIME-OUT.
AFTER A DREAM START TO HIS ROOKIE SEASON BEHIND THE MINNESOTA BENCH, LIFE HAS BEEN DIFFICULT FOR COACH MIKE YEO (ABOVE); THE WILD IS MISSING ITS TOP FORWARD, MIKKO KOIVU. MEANWHILE, YOU COULD ALMOST DETECT A SMILE ON RON WILSON’S FACE (BELOW) AS THE LEAFS CRAFTED AN EARLY LEAD EN ROUTE TO BREAKING THEIR THREE-GAME LOSING STREAK.
LEAFS FORWARD MIKE BROWN (18 ABOVE) BATTLES FOR POSITIONING IN FRONT OF THE NET WITH MINNESOTA DEFENSEMAN NICK SCHULTZ.
TO OBTAIN FACE-OFF LEVERAGE NOWADAYS, CENTRE-MEN OFTEN “CHOKE UP” ON THEIR STICKS, AS DISPLAYED ABOVE BY KYLE BRODZIAK AND MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI, FLANKING LINESMAN LONNIE CAMERON.
LEAFS EXECUTIVE CLIFF FLETCHER (RIGHT) CHATS WITH NASHVILLE PREDATORS’ SCOUT NICK BEVERLEY IN THE FIRST INTERMISSION THURSDAY NIGHT. FLETCHER HIRED BEVERLEY TO REPLACE THE LATE PAT BURNS AS LEAFS COACH IN MARCH 1996 AFTER THE CLUB HAD LAPSED INTO A COLOSSAL TAILSPIN. BEVERLEY TOOK LEAFS TO THE PLAYOFFS AGAINST WAYNE GRETZKY AND THE ST. LOUIS BLUES – A SERIES DURING WHICH HE GAINED NOTORIETY FOR CALLING HIS PLAYERS “NIMRODS” AFTER A LOSS IN MISSOURI. LEAFS WERE EKIMINATED IN SIX GAMES AND BEVERLEY WAS REPLACED AS HEAD COACH FOR THE FOLLOWING SEASON BY MIKE MURPHY.
IN THE TELECAST BOOTH ON THURSDAY WAS TSN’s GORD MILLER – A VERSATILE VETERAN THAT CAN STAND ALONGSIDE ANY PLAY-BY-PLAY BROADCASTER IN NORTH AMERICA.
LEAFS PHIL KESSEL ATTEMPTS TO SPEED PAST MINNESOTA’S CLAYTON STONER EARLY IN THE SECOND PERIOD, AS FRESH ICE REFLECTS TELEVISION LIGHTS FROM ABOVE.
EVERY GOALIE IN THE NHL – INCLUDING NIKLAS BACKSTROM (ABOVE) – SHOULD BE WELL AWARE, BY NOW, OF JOFFREY LUPUL’S JERSEY NUMBER, GIVEN LUPUL’S UNWAVERING COMMITMENT TO STAND IN FRONT OF THE OPPOSITION NET.
THOUGH HE FACED A LIGHT WORK-LOAD (21 SHOTS), JONAS GUSTAVSSON HAD TO MAKE SOME TIMELY SAVES IN THE SECOND AND THIRD PERIODS – INCLUDING A GLOVE SNARE (ABOVE) WITH DEVIN SETOGUCHI AWAITING A REBOUND, AND A SPLIT-SAVE (BELOW) WITH MINNESOTA’S NICK JOHNSON (25) NEARBY.
THERE WAS LIMITED EMOTION IN THIS GAME, COMING ON THE HEELS OF TUESDAY NIGHT’S DIVISION QUARREL WITH OTTAWA AT THE ACC. BUT, LEAFS CAPTAIN DION PHANEUF DID TAKE EXCEPTION (ABOVE) TO KYLE BRODZIAK ENCROACHING ON GUSTAVSSON’S TERRITORY.
DANY HEATLEY PAID GUSTAVSSON AN UNSCHEDULED VISIT (ABOVE) IN THE SECOND PERIOD.
MINNESOTA INCURRED PENALTY TROUBLE LATE IN THE MIDDLE FRAME – CAL CLUTTERBUCK AND CLAYTON STONER (ABOVE) PROVIDING LEAFS A 5-on-3 POWERPLAY FOR 1:15 THAT KESSEL CAPITALIZED ON FOR A 3-0 TORONTO LEAD. BRODZIAK’S BODY-LANGUAGE (BELOW) EARNED HIM AN UNSPORTSMANLIKE-CONDUCT MINOR ON TOP OF HIS BOARDING PENALTY IN THE FINAL MINUTE FOR CRUNCHING CLARKE MacARTHUR NEAR THE LEAFS BENCH.
FANS THAT REMEMBER THE MINNESOTA NORTH STARS OF THE 1970s WILL RECOGNIZE TOM REID (ABOVE), A DEFENSEMAN WITH THE CLUB FROM 1969 TO 1978 AND CURRENTLY THE RADIO ANALYST FOR WILD GAMES ON KFAN IN MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL.
MINNESOTA AND TORONTO PLAYERS EXECUTE A LINE CHANGE EARLY IN THE THIRD PERIOD (ABOVE), WITH RAY FERRARO OF TSN LOOKING ON FROM HIS SPOT AT ICE LEVEL BETWEEN THE BENCHES.
LEAF PLAYERS GATHER AT BENCH (ABOVE) AS A.C.C. VIDEO-BOARD SHOWS REFEREE DEAN MORTON DONNING THE HEAD-SET FOR A VIDEO-REVIEW CONFERENCE WITH THE NHL “WAR ROOM” (THERE WERE THREE-SUCH DELAYS ON THURSDAY); FELLOW REF DAN O’HALLORAN (13) STANDING TO HIS RIGHT. ULTIMATELY, MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI’S GOAL AT 0:47 OF THE THIRD PERIOD WAS UPHELD FOR A 4-0 TORONTO LEAD.
IT ISN’T OFTEN THAT BOTH PLAYERS ARE KICKED OUT OF THE FACE-OFF CIRCLE – PARTICULARLY AT CENTRE-ICE – BUT LONNIE CAMERON ASKED FOR A NEW PAIRING (ABOVE) WHEN WARREN PETERS AND TIM CONNOLLY FAILED TO LINE UP PROPERLY. DANY HEATLEY AND JOFFREY LUPUL MOVED IN (BELOW) AND THE GAME RESUMED.
CLARKE MacARTHUR HASN’T SCORED IN SIX GAMES BUT HE WAS MORE THAN WILLING TO FIGHT FOR TERRITORY IN FRONT OF THE MINNESOTA GOAL ON THURSDAY – BATTLING JARED SPURGEON (ABOVE) AND SCREENING BACKSTROM (BELOW).
BRAD STAUBITZ OF THE WILD GOES AFTER A LOOSE PUCK IN THE CORNER (ABOVE), WITH CONNOLLY KEEPING A CLOSE WATCH.
GUSTAVSSON PEEKS AROUND DEVIN SETOGUCHI AND TEAMMATE LUKE SCHENN (ABOVE) MIDWAY THROUGH THE FINAL PERIOD.
GUSTAVSSON FACED A COUPLE OF THIRD-PERIOD SHOTS – FROM SETOGUCHI (TWO ABOVE) AND DARROLL POWE – EN ROUTE TO IMPROVING HIS RECORD TO 14-9-0 ON THE SEASON; THE MONSTER THEN HAD A WELCOMED BREATHER (BELOW) AS THE A.C.C. ICE CREW DID ITS THING DURING A TV TIME-OUT.
FROM ICE LEVEL LATE IN THE GAME, BACKSTROM RESTS AGAINST THE CROSS-BAR (ABOVE) WHILE KESSEL IS HOUNDED (BELOW) BY MINNESOTA DEFENSEMAN MIKE LUNDIN.
CAPACITY HOUSE AT THE A.C.C (ABOVE) LEFT THE BUILDING RELIEVED THAT ITS TEAM ENDED A THREE-GAME LOSING STREAK.
MINNESOTA ALTERNATE CAPTAIN MATT CULLEN STANDS BY (ABOVE) AS REFEREE DAN O’HALLORAN CONSULTS WITH “WAR ROOM” TO DETERMINE IF THE WILD HAD SCORED IN THE DYING MOMENTS. NICK JOHNSON’S GOAL WAS UPHELD, COSTING GUSTAVSSON HIS THIRD SHUT-OUT OF THE SEASON WITH ONLY 2:27 REMAINING. THAT’S FELLOW REF DEAN MORTON AND LINESMAN SCOTT CHERREY NEXT TO O’HALLORAN.
MINNESOTA PLAYERS LEAVE THE ICE DEJECTEDLY (ABOVE AND BELOW) AFTER THEIR FOURTH CONSECUTIVE DEFEAT, WHILE THE JUBILANT MAPLE LEAFS CELEBRATE THEIR 23rd VICTORY OF THE SEASON AT THE OPPOSITE END.
HAPPY LEAFS MOVE TOWARD CENTRE-ICE (ABOVE) AND THEN SALUTE FANS AT THE A.C.C. (BELOW).
IT WASN’T A HAPPY NIGHT FOR ONE OF THE BEST GUYS I’VE EVER KNOWN IN THE GAME – MINNESOTA ASSISTANT COACH DARBY HENDRICKSON (ABOVE), A LEAFS FORWARD IN THE LATTER HALF OF THE 1990s.
THE WILD RETURNED TO MINNESOTA LATE THURSDAY NIGHT AFTER LOSING ROAD GAMES IN CHICAGO, ST. LOUIS, PHILADELPHIA AND TORONTO – THE TEAM’S EQUIPMENT LOADED IN BAGS FOR TRIP TO PEARSON AIRPORT.
IT WAS A DREARY NIGHT FOR NIKLAS BACKSTROM, TALKING WITH A REPORTER AFTER THE GAME (ABOVE) IN THE NEARLY-DESERTED VISITORS’ DRESSING ROOM. BACKSTROM’S RECORD ON THE SEASON FELL TO 12-12-4 WITH THE 4-1 LOSS TO THE LEAFS.