44 Leafs Notes and Opinions

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Mar. 30) – As a way of commemorating each spring since the Maple Leafs last Stanley Cup final appearance in 1967, I offer you these 44 thoughts:

 1) I’ve seen a lot of bad Leaf teams over the past 40-plus years, nearly three-quarters of that time spent as a reporter covering the Blue and White. But, never – and I mean not once – have I witnessed such a lame, feeble, less-honorable collection than the one so visibly mailing it in at the end of this season. I suppose you can blame management, but players are responsible, in any circumstance, for professional decorum. The great San Francisco 49er teams of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana in the late-’80s had a motto: “We’re an extension of one another.” The current Leafs have become an extension of abandonment and resignation. Shame on them. 

 2) Brian Burke – as others before him and (perhaps) after him – cannot disassociate from the Leafs championship drought. True, he had no influence on the years before he arrived; nor did John Ferguson, Cliff Fletcher or anyone else since Punch Imlach. As in business, however, a new regime assumes the incumbent debt-load. In commerce, a debt-load is financial. With the Leafs, it is emotional. The Stanley Cup famine doesn’t go away when a new administration arrives. It is exponential and will be an ever-mounting burden for whichever individual runs the hockey club.

 3) The last scoring play by the Leafs in a playoff series occurred at 15:08 of the third period on Tue. May 4, 2004. It was Mats Sundin from Gary Roberts and Alexander Mogilny and it deadlocked Game 6 of a Conference semifinal against Philadelphia at Air Canada Centre, setting the stage for Jeremy Roenick’s winner at 7:49 of overtime.

 4) Last Leaf other than Sundin to score in the playoffs: Czech-born defenseman Karel Pilar.

 5) Imlach managed and coached the ’67 Leafs. Were he alive today, Punch would be 94. He died of heart-failure in his Toronto home on Dec. 1, 1987. Leafs owner, Stafford Smythe, would be 91; his business partner, Harold Ballard, 108. Leafs assistant GM, Frank (King) Clancy, would be 109. Oldest Leaf on the ’67 team – goalie Johnny Bower – is 87. Youngest Leaf – Mike Walton – turned 67 on Jan. 3 of this year. 

 6) When Leafs last hoisted the Stanley Cup – May 2, 1967 – Brian Burke was two months shy of his 12th birthday. Leafs coach Randy Carlyle had just turned 11. The oldest current Leaf – defenseman John-Michael Liles – would be born 13 years, six months and 23 days later, on Nov. 25, 1980.

 7) Best Leaf player at any position since 1967? No question: Doug Gilmour. Had he been three or four years younger when Fletcher acquired him from Calgary, “Killer” would own every franchise scoring record.

 8) Worst Leaf player at any position since 1967? Also easy: Barry Melrose. The man can certainly talk hockey today; he was a better-than-average coach, but alarmingly bad as a defenseman with the Blue and White from 1980-83.

 9) Average price for gasoline in Toronto on May 4, 2004 (when Leafs were last in playoffs): 96.5 cents/liter. Today: $1.36.1/liter. Average gas price in Toronto on May 2, 1967: 33 cents/gallon or roughly 11.5 cents/liter.

10) Leafs have missed the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons. In the seven springs between 1998 and 2004, the club appeared in 80 playoff games – an average of more than 11 per year.

11) Leafs worst season in a minimum 70-game schedule (since 1949-50) was the 1984-85 club, which finished 20-52-8 for 48 points and dead-last in the NHL, thereby garnering the right to draft Wendel Clark first overall. Between games 54 and 78 that season, Leafs were 9-15-1 for 19 points. Between games 54 and 78 this year: 5-17-3 for 13 points.

12) Dion Phaneuf is absorbing the bulk of criticism during this startling Leaf collapse – ostensibly for not attaining the promise expected of him when he joined the team and had the captain’s ‘C’ slapped on his jersey. But, let’s get one thing straight: Phaneuf never promised any magic; all he did is stress how much of an honor it was to be named captain of the Blue and White. No person outside the Toronto organization lauded the club for its rush to ordain Phaneuf. It was Burke and the Leafs that sold Dion as the second coming of Christ – and did so to the detriment of a still-young player. So, don’t blame No. 3 for falling short of “expectation”. All he’s guilty of is an inability to match team-generated-hype.

13) That said, how do Leafs return in 2012-13 with Phaneuf as captain? Though it isn’t entirely his fault, the credibility of leadership on the current club is in tatters. Even Randy Carlyle’s resume has been smeared in the blink of an eye.

14) No person has spoken on behalf of Toronto hockey followers as succinctly as radio analyst Jim Ralph, who posed a simple yet burning question while the Leafs were being trampled by Philadelphia on Thursday: “Isn’t it time for someone – anyone – in blue and white to step up?”

15) Jussi Rynnas became the 59th person to tend goal for the Leafs since the start of the 1967-68 season.

16) My best travel moment in these Cup-less years: sitting next to Bob Dylan on an Air Canada flight from Los Angeles to Toronto. We were both in Executive Class… I used an upgrade certificate; I’m assuming he could afford to pay. Notoriously shy; a fedora pulled slightly downward to cover his face, I nudged him with my right elbow and nervously asked: “Are you who I think you are?” He looked at me; smiled, and said, “Yup.” I told him, “Okay, it’ll be our secret.” We did chat a bit during the four-hour flight. I wondered how a person so bashful and introverted could comfortably perform in front of thousands of people: “Just natural,” he shrugged. “I don’t even think about it.” Dylan was coming north for business affiliated with his band at the time, the Traveling Wilburys – spawned by ex-Beatle George Harrison and including Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne (lead singer of the Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO) and Tom Petty.

17) Worst travel moment: Descending at night through a thunderstorm en route to Pittsburgh for a Stanley Cup final game in 2009. We were on an Air Canada Dash-8/turbo-prop and I have no idea how that thing held together. The flashes of lightning out the window; the loud, simultaneous claps of thunder and the violent motion of the aircraft was disconcerting, to put it mildly. Oddly enough, it cured whatever fear I had of flying. Today, I listen to music; read a book, and hardly even notice when a plane is bouncing around.

18) Constant losing breeds apathy in most hockey markets, though Toronto has been immune… up to now. This end-of-season humiliation appears to have finally exacted a toll. Even young fans can tell the difference between a struggling team and one that has waved the flag. Performing so weakly and vulnerably on home ice has only exacerbated the situation. “Selling” the 2012-13 Leafs, therefore, will be an unprecedented challenge. Corporate involvement and the long-standing “habit” of attending games will ensure that tickets are accounted for, but remote achievement on the ice will be viewed skeptically. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, Leaf fans rejoicing over another week-long burst from the gate. A mid-season record that suggests playoff worthiness will be ignored until proven viable. The gullibility of Leafs Nation has been altered – perhaps for many years – by the brashness of Burke and the sorrowful display by his current team.

19) A quote from last April we are certain not to hear from Burke this spring: “If we played the first half of the season the way we did the second half, we’d be one of the best teams in the league.”

20) For those unaware, Leaf fans did protest with their feet… once. As the club wobbled toward the end of the 1990-91 season – obliterated by a 2-16-1 start – the Grey seats in the upper-corners of Maple Leaf Gardens were virtually empty. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen row upon row of seats in a particular section of the Gardens or ACC unsold and unused.

21) Only member of the Leafs broadcast crew on May 2, 1967 still alive is TV color commentator Brian McFarlane, who turned 80 in August. Play-by-play announcer Bill Hewitt died on Christmas Day 1996. His pioneering dad, Foster, left us on Apr. 21, 1985. Intermission host Ward Cornell succumbed to cancer on Feb. 5, 2000, though not before providing me with an incredible thrill by introducing himself at a restaurant on Eglinton Ave. and saying how much he enjoyed my radio work. Talk about a humbling moment. Pre and post-game TV host in ’67, Jack Dennett, died on Aug. 27, 1975.

22) For those who pay attention to the occult, it has surely been noted that the Leafs calamity on home ice began the night Mats Sundin’s No. 13 jersey was lifted to the rafters at the ACC (Feb. 11). For those unconcerned with voodoo, that 5-0 trouncing by a weak Canadiens team was the first – and obviously accurate – indication of the character deficit on the Leafs. That the players were not moved in any way by a wonderful pre-game ceremony and motivating speech from the franchise scoring leader spoke more loudly than any of us realized at the time.

23) Other notes from May 2, 1967: The Beatles were one month shy of releasing the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band record and more than 1 1/2 years from producing the “White Album”… Curtis Joseph was three days old, having been born in Keswick, Ont. on Apr. 29, 1967, the night of Game 5 between the Leafs and Habs in Montreal… Ground had been broken on the ill-fated World Trade Center complex in New York just more than eight months earlier, on Aug. 25, 1966. The twin towers would open on Apr. 4, 1973… Current U.S. President Barack Obama was three months shy of his sixth birthday… Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had turned eight two days earlier, on Apr. 30, 1967… Albert Einstein, who developed the theory of relativity, had been dead for only 12 years, passing on Apr. 18, 1955… The Boeing-747, the world’s first wide-body jetliner, wouldn’t fly commercially for almost three years, until Pan American Airlines introduced it on Jan. 22, 1970… Nearly 27 months would pass before Neil Armstrong took his “giant leap” and became the first man to walk on the moon (July 20, 1969)… Bruce Springsteen was 17 years old… Wayne Gretzky was six… David Beckham would be born exactly eight years later (May 2, 1975)… Current IOC President Jacques Rogge turned 25 the day Leafs last won the Cup… Canadian politician Belinda Stronach celebrated her first birthday… The Chicago Cubs World Series drought stood at a mere 59 years… CBC news icon Peter Mansbridge was 19; no wonder he suffers so with the current Leafs… Lady Gaga (a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta) would join us a tad shy of 19 years later, on Mar. 28, 1986… Color TV was still in its infancy – color production of American-based programming in prime time beginning just the previous autumn (1966)… Batman (with Adam West and Burt Ward) was all the rage on TV and The Flintstones were still being aired in prime time… The “Classic 39” episodes of The Honeymooners (with Jackie Gleason and Art Carney) had been filmed only 11 years earlier, in the season of 1955-56… Moe Howard and Larry Fine of The Three Stooges were still alive… Actor Carroll O’Connor, 42, was living anonymously in Italy, still more than three years from debuting as Archie Bunker on the best show in television history, All In The Family… Don Cherry, a 33-year-old minor-league defenseman, had just played 72 games for the 1966-67 Rochester Americans, registering six goals, 21 points and 61 penalty minutes… His future “partner-in-crime”, Ron MacLean, was seven and had recently moved with his family from Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory to Red Deer, Alberta… A Man For All Seasons, starring (among others) Orson Welles, had just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Rod Steiger won Best Actor for In The Heat of the Night, defeating fellow nominees Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke) and Spencer Tracy (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner)… Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) won the Oscar for Best Actress… Super Bowl I between Green Bay and Kansas City had been played at the Los Angeles Coliseum less than four months earlier – Packers defeating the Chiefs 35-10… Saskatchewan Roughriders were defending Grey Cup champions for the first time… Sudbury native and resident, Joe Bowen, was 16… I was eight, and watching George Armstrong score his legendary empty-net goal on a black-and-white TV at the foot of my parents’ bed on Kennard Ave. in Downsview.

24) Beyond a competitive financial bid, can you think of incentive for a noted free agent to sign with the Leafs this summer… or any summer before the club begins to show some reasonable progress? I can’t.

25) Long renowned for evading reporters, Phil Kessel has been particularly accessible and vocal after some of the Leafs most-humiliating set-backs. And, good on him for that. I’ve always felt that losing eats at Kessel, who is providing the club all he can in his capacity as a goal-scorer. Fans expecting a Gilmour or Clark type will forever be disappointed. Burke, if he felt he could build his team around Kessel, was mistaken.

26) Most goals Leafs have scored in a post-1967 game: 13, against Detroit, on Jan. 2, 1971 at Maple Leaf Gardens (13-0 win). I can still see Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio leaving the bench for the visitors’ dressing room in utter humiliation midway through the third period – sent there by unpopular coach Ned Harkness. Most goals Leafs have allowed in a post-1967 game: a team-record 14, at Buffalo, on Mar. 19, 1981 (14-4 loss).

27) Where is Ron Wilson and what champagne do you think he’s drinking these days?

28) If so inclined, how does Burke land a legitimate, No. 1 goalie this off-season and at what cost? No such commodity will be available in free agency and there’s virtually no chance bitter rival Mike Gillis will trade Cory Schneider or Roberto Luongo to Burke (if the Vancouver GM deals either). Leafs would have trouble with Luongo’s contract anyway.

29) You keep reading it here, so remember: James Reimer will be a much-improved goalie next season after a full summer of rest and reflection. He has the goods to play in the NHL.

30) Raise your hands, all of you, that felt in October the New York Islanders, Carolina, Ottawa and Florida would finish ahead of the Leafs this season – a likelihood right now. And what about Calgary getting fleeced in the Phaneuf trade but sitting 10 points ahead of the Leafs today in the standings?

31) What if Leafs had kept their No. 7 slot in 2008 and drafted Erik Karlsson rather than trading up two spots to grab Luke Schenn? That question asked, I still have tons of faith in Schenn – a young, mature player – and believe it will be proven a mistake if Burke gives up on him this summer.

32) Can you imagine how Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo are privately snickering right now – given the remarkable development of the St. Louis Blues under Ken Hitchcock and the firing of one-time Leaf nemesis Ron Wilson? Perhaps an example of good things happening to good people.

33) It seems like a million years ago but one of the most exhilarating regular-season accomplishments for the Leafs occurred in the past decade. Having already eliminated Ottawa in three consecutive playoff match-ups, the 2003-04 Maple Leafs went to Scotiabank Place for their final game – the winner to enjoy home-ice advantage in a first-round clash between the teams. Toronto rolled to a 6-0 victory and knocked off the Senators, once again, in Game 7 of the Conference quarterfinal at Air Canada Centre.

34) His legal issues notwithstanding, Rick Vaive should be the next Leafs player honored with a banner-raising ceremony. He was the first Leaf to score 50 goals in a season – doing it three consecutive times in the early-’80s – and his competitiveness in the face of perennial team futility would teach the current group a thing or two.

35) Those that claim Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson are “Leaf haters” should have their heads examined, though I wonder if “Huey” is growing tired of traveling cross-country from Vancouver most weekends to call such pointlessness here in town? Glenn Healy’s colorful, unfiltered opinion is a particular asset to Hockey Night In Canada, but he sure gets under the skin of Leaf die-hards with his accurate assessment of the club.

36) Burke should be looking much-less for raw talent and more for players with demonstrated character in his re-shaping of the Leafs. In his defense, Colby Armstrong had shown that trait – a bit over-zealously, at times – but regularly nonetheless in his years with Pittsburgh and Atlanta. A sequence of nagging injuries, topped by the debilitating effects of concussion, have ruined Armstrong’s two seasons in Toronto. He’s one “rat” Burke admires.

37) Burke-detractors Al Strachan and Larry Brooks are undoubtedly enjoying the Leafs collapse this season. Thankfully for Burke, Strachan has retired, though his views have shown up in book form. Brooks still has his hands full on a daily basis with Rangers coach John Tortorella, and they’ve become my personal choice to one day succeed MacLean and Cherry during first intermissions on Saturday night. Can you imagine looking forward to that act each week?

38) If it makes you feel better, as a Leafs fan, to include St. Louis and Los Angeles among NHL teams with the longest Stanley Cup drought, by all means continue to do so. Yes, none of the Leafs, Blues or Kings have won the Cup since the spring of 1968 when all three were first eligible to compete. But, you cannot dance around the fact L.A. and St. Louis were not yet in the league on May 2, 1967 and wouldn’t play their first-ever game for more than five months. Methinks a judge or jury would convict Toronto of the longest famine.

39) Have any of you wearing bags over your head at Leaf games paid five cents for the privilege?

40) As with death and taxes, you can be sure that success will return to the Leafs at some point in the future; not long from now, the law of averages will supersede any factor in such inevitability. And when that time arrives, fans will reflect on the current era with a overwhelming sense of revulsion, wondering why they invested so much time and energy in the worst stretch in franchise history. The sad part about this is the number of good people in the Leaf organization. Burke may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I’ve always admired his willingness to speak loudly and clearly. He hasn’t uttered more than a peep since hanging up on CFRB morning host John Moore earlier this month, and perhaps wisely so. I know I’m in the vast minority, but I haven’t completely lost confidence in his ability to recover from the current mess. Brian’s lieutenants – David Nonis, Dave Poulin, Claude Loiselle and Cliff Fletcher – are honest, grounded individuals with a wealth of experience in the game. Carlyle is making every effort to provide candid reflection in the presence of media and will help move the team in the proper direction… if Burke and Co. can somehow provide him with players that suit his on-ice philosophy and system. Given salary-cap restriction, that will not be easy.

41) Summer prediction: Though much time will be spent on Rick Nash and his ultimate whereabouts, the Leafs will make a strong bid to land Eric Staal from Carolina. Staal plays the position (centre) and has the size Leafs are most-lacking. His contract is prohibitive (four more years at a cap-hit of $8.25-million), and there’s no guarantee Burke could assemble a package that would entice Jim Rutherford to trade his best player. But, the Hurricanes have missed the playoffs three years running with Staal and may also be in a mood for change. In my mind, Staal would be far-more worthy of Burke expending prospects than Nash. He’s a superb talent – equally adept at scoring and setting up goals. Players of his ilk only become available in free agency nowadays, and rarely so. If Burke is truly intent on filling that deep, compulsory void up the middle, he’ll be looking Carolina’s way this summer.

42) Another prediction: Unless Burke unloads him as part of a trade-package, Nazem Kadri will play regularly for Carlyle next season and thrive… providing he’s not deployed in a front-line capacity.

43) The Leafs are 85 years old. All 13 Stanley Cups were won in the initial 41 years of the franchise.

44) I’m already wondering how many sequels of this blog I’ll have to write.  

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