By HOWARD BERGER
MONTREAL (Mar. 3) – I was on a train Friday night from Toronto when news broke that Ron Wilson had been fired as coach of the Maple Leafs, which is somewhat ironic given that word of Pat Burns’ death arrived the last time I took a train here. That isn’t to trivialize either situation; just to point out a rather bizarre coincidence.
During the Leafs 5-4 loss in Chicago on Wednesday, I was tipped off in the United Center press box that Wilson would likely not survive another defeat – information I led with in a game story for the National Post. The 48-hour delay between that moment and tonight’s official word offered Brian Burke the opportunity to iron out contract details with Randy Carlyle – his No. 1 choice, all along, to replace Wilson. Carlyle, of course, stood behind the bench for Burke’s club in Anaheim when it won the 2007 Stanley Cup.
Beyond the 1-9-1 death-spiral Leafs are in, Wilson may have sealed his fate with unreserved comments about goalie James Reimer after last Saturday’s embarrassing loss to Washington at the Air Canada Centre. There was nothing inaccurate about his appraisal of Reimer’s work, but neither did Wilson make any attempt to “protect” one of the club’s most significant assets – a major error, according to former Leaf Glenn Healy, who also played goal for the team during a rough patch in the late-’90s.
“Ron may have been frustrated after the game last week, and rightfully so, but he made a mistake being so brutally honest about Reimer in public,” said Healy, in town as part of the Hockey Night In Canada telecast crew for tonight’s Leafs-Habs game at the Bell Centre. “If you want to say things like ‘we could have used a save or two’ and ‘the first two goals were stop-able’, say them to [Reimer’s] face; not to a room-full of reporters. Make something up… lie through your teeth; whatever. But, don’t throw your goalie under the bus like that. Nothing good can result from it.”
GLENN HEALY HERE IN MONTREAL FRIDAY NIGHT.
Healy’s point is well-taken, given a blatant remark made by Burke to reporters shortly after he assumed the Leafs GM role in November 2008.
When discussing his relationship with media, Burke said, “If I have to flat-out lie to you guys to protect my team, I will.” Assuming that Burke has carried that philosophy through his tenure with the Leafs – and instructed those beneath him to do the same – Wilson fouled up badly in his post-game session last weekend. Perhaps consecutive-night victories over Florida and Chicago later in the week would have prompted Burke to look the other way, but a humiliating no-show at home against the Panthers – and a blown 3-1 lead at the United Center – was the final straw.
“If I’m Ron Wilson and I lie to Howard Berger, it’s no sin,” Healy explained. “It doesn’t matter how silly or phony it comes across, you have to protect your players after a bad performance. The best coaches in all of sport know how to do that.”
We could find out – in short order – whether Carlyle possesses such acumen. Unless he can cast a spell over the Leafs, it may not be possible for the club to pull out of its nose-dive in time to salvage a playoff spot – though Burke made the right call by changing coaches and refusing to wave a white-flag on the remaining 18 games.
Wilson wasn’t – and isn’t – a bad guy, but he has long maintained a puzzling and fatal arrogance when relating to those he considers less-inclined about hockey (i.e. every person that carries a reporting badge). Playing the media “game” – so to speak – doesn’t guarantee employment in the coaching ranks; everyone was fond of Paul Maurice and he spent only two seasons behind the Toronto bench. It’s almost a given however, that influential voices in print; on radio and TV will temper remarks, and perhaps even go to bat for a likable coach.
Wilson engendered either deafening silence or brutal criticism.
Carlyle, if he’s smart, will have taken notes.
The current and former Leaf coaches were defensemen and teammates with the 1977-78 Maple Leafs early in their playing careers – bios from the Toronto media guide pictured below. Adding to the irony is a third Leafs teammate – Bruce Boudreau – who replaced Carlyle behind the bench in Anaheim earlier this season.
On another matter, the element of the Maple Leafs collapse that surprises me most is how revisionist-history has been authored by so many people. Media colleagues I admire and respect – and fans that blow only with the wind – are now insisting they foresaw the Leafs killer slump weeks in advance; that it was inevitable such a misguided, shallow, poorly-coached team would plummet out of contention in the Eastern Conference.
What a load of crap.
I’m not here to suggest that a single observer of the Blue and White expected a run for the division or conference, but spirits in Leaf Land were soaring in early-February. If you’re a fan of the hockey club, be dead-honest: When the Leafs went into Ottawa on Feb. 4 and obliterated the Senators 5-0 before a nation-wide audience on Hockey Night In Canada – extending their unbeaten streak to five games – tell me you weren’t brimming with euphoria and confidence; that you weren’t all but convinced the team, returning to complete health for the first time this season, had found its stride and would easily remain at or above the Eastern playoff perimeter.
I can’t remember a soul on the media side suggesting the 10-4-2 run of proficiency in the New Year was a mirage… a mid-season fluke. Though Wilson had rankled a number of people by announcing his Christmas-day contract extension via Twitter, no one in early-February was calling for his head; suggesting, rather, that he wouldn’t return to the club if it failed to end a six-year playoff drought. Goaltending, though hardly in Vezina territory, had stabilized, with Jonas Gustavsson performing reliably and James Reimer appearing to have shaken his early-season neck ailment. There was no indication of abject failure with either man.
So, where have these cries of “Ahhhaaaaa!!” come from?
I’ll tell you, without reservation, that I never would have predicted, or even considered, a 1-9-1 disaster, and that from a guy who remembers covering exactly such a collapse with the Leafs (tomorrow – Mar. 4 – will be 16 years since Cliff Fletcher fired Burns after the club had won three of 24 games). I figured the current Leafs, at full strength, were easily the best of all Toronto teams in the post-lockout era, and I’d have lost my shirt against anyone willing to bet otherwise. Had such a person affixed a 1-9-1 caveat to the wager, my home and car would have followed.
It’s the reason I contend that a sizable portion of venom being directed at Wilson and Burke is fraught with hindsight. Leaf fans, especially youthful ones, have every reason to be disappointed – and bitterly so – given the promise of early-2012 and the expectation of finally watching their heroes in a playoff setting. Without question, Burke and Wilson are culpable for the current mess, as they’d have been credited for guiding Leafs beyond the regular season.
Perhaps, at some point, we’ll be enlightened about an underlying malaise – independent of Wilson – that doomed the club, such as a personality rift among players, as suggested by my former colleague at The Fan-590, Greg Brady.
Those, however, that sanctimoniously claim they knew the club would tumble like a boulder off a cliff are full of you-know-what (log onto mapleleafshotstove.com for the missing word). Practically everything in the Leafs comportment of January and early-February suggested maturity, depth and resolve.
To now be anointing Burke and Wilson as lame-brains from the outset is mean-spirited and disingenuous, in spite of Friday’s coaching move.
I also chuckle at those that professed hope of the Leafs “tanking” for a better draft position. As if already missing the playoffs for more than half-a-decade has proven of any consequence. The only credible tack for Burke to assume is the one he chose by replacing Wilson – avowal toward ending the post-season famine. I’m not certain how any true fan of the Leafs could sanction the club conceding more than one-fifth of the schedule that remains. Or, what benefit such action could possibly provide.
After the promise of early-February, it has been one downer of a month for Leaf fans. None, however, would have even joked – as recently as four weeks ago – about their team crumbling like flake-pastry.
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