Luongo Would Add Class, Savvy to Leafs

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 20) – International acclaim and salary notwithstanding, there are comparisons to be made between Alex Rodriguez and Roberto Luongo – two men, apparently critical to their team’s success, cast aside at the defining juncture of a season. But, that’s where the comparisons end. I had a front-row seat back in April when Luongo was benched in the opening round of the playoffs by coach Alain Vigneault of the Vancouver Canucks – his team having been startled in consecutive home defeats by Los Angeles. Little did anyone realize that the Kings were merely warming up in their Stanley Cup rout of Vancouver, St. Louis, Phoenix and New Jersey: a 16-4 landslide that yielded the first championship in club history. I was privileged to cover the L.A. romp in its entirety. Though Luongo was brilliant in the opening match of the series, and better-than-average in Game 2 (Los Angeles building its lead by ravaging the Canucks’ horrid special teams), Vigneault chose to replace him with back-up Cory Schneider for Game 3 at the Staples Center. The strategy did not work, though Schneider was hardly to blame for a 1-0 loss – slightly outperformed by Jonathan Quick, the eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner. On the day off between Games 3 and 4, Luongo faced a barrage of reporters at the Kings’ practice facility in El Segundo, just south of Los Angeles International Airport. Here was a proud veteran, with an Olympics gold medal to his credit, and less than a year removed from playing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final against Boston. Rather than bemoaning his circumstance, Luongo firmly backed his coach’s decision and threw full support behind Schneider. He worked closely with his stand-in during practice and encouraged Schneider in games at the bench during TV breaks. It was a show of complete selflessness in a brutally difficult situation – a stark contrast to A-Rod, perched indignantly in the Yankees’ dugout this week; expectorating sunflower shells by the dozen; showing up his manager, and insisting how much better the team would be with his sputtering bat in the line-up. Vigneault stayed with Schneider for the last two games of the L.A. series and was beset by average goaltending in the finale at Rogers Arena, when Schneider struggled and allowed Jarret Stoll to beat him with an un-screened shot for the overtime winner. As any purveyor of this corner would know, I have consistently felt that Luongo will be in a Maple Leafs jersey soon-after the lockout ends – citing a gut-feeling and clandestine information that general managers Brian Burke and Mike Gillis have been in frequent contact during the labor disruption. Loud whispers this week further alluded to such dialogue. Luongo would not only become the Leafs’ best goalie since Ed Belfour nearly a decade ago, he would bring a large measure of class and experience to an otherwise aimless team at the most critical position in the sport. Lost in the chatter about what Leafs would have to give up to obtain Luongo is how urgently Burke requires an up-grade between the pipes. Whenever hockey resumes, the Toronto GM will be staring at a fifth consecutive season of playoff absence; his club under the umbrella of new ownership. That is why I have long-contended Burke will do whatever it takes to acquire Luongo and entrust his immediate future in the veteran puck-stopper. It would be the most significant and potentially  team-altering move in his tenure with the Leafs…                    

MY PHOTO OF ROBERTO LUONGO FIELDING QUESTIONS AT THE L.A. KINGS’ PRACTICE FACILITY ON APR. 18. THOUGH CLEARLY DISAPPOINTED IN LOSING THE NO. 1 ROLE, HE STOOD FIRMLY BEHIND HIS COACH AND NETMINDING PARTNER.

Several media insiders were expecting the NHL to hack off a flood of regular-season games – perhaps twice the number of the initial two-week cut – especially after the double-gloom of the labor impasse on Thursday. Instead, the league announced the redundant elimination of all games before Nov. 2 – a portion of the schedule that had already been forsaken in the owners’ proposal to the players earlier this week. If talks remain stagnant on Oct. 25, that’s when the mammoth reduction will likely occur, and the Bridgestone Winter Classic on Jan. 1 will almost certainly become a casualty. It doesn’t mean the season will be shelved until the new year; only that the league – as Bettman warned on Thursday – will not commit the multi-millions required to construct an outdoor rink at Michigan Stadium. Under that scenario – and if the lockout ends beforehand – the Maple Leafs-Red Wings game of Jan. 1 (should it remain on that date) would be played at Joe Louis Arena. The only other possibility would have the NHL pushing back its signature event until sometime later in January. But, that would obviously impact the allure of the Winter Classic being played in its traditional New Year’s Day slot, before a large, national-TV audience on both sides of the border… With the U.S. labor force, in particular, still reeling from the economic calamity of 2008, workers continue to either lose jobs or absorb pay cuts. In that realm, NHL players are whistling past the graveyard while demanding that their current contracts be honored in full. As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, the players may be able to recoup lost finances, but they cannot buy back time. That’s where a breakdown may once again occur between the elite and the rank-and-file… Each time the players cluster behind their leader, someone points out how “carefully choreographed” the arrangement is. Well, what do you expect? That Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla, Jonathan Toews, Henrik Lundqvist, Zdeno Chara or any of the league’s most influential stars should be off to the side and out of camera range? Let’s be real… 

NHL PLAYERS (LEFT-TO-RIGHT) JONATHAN TOEWS, ERIC STAAL, SHANE DOAN AND CARLO COLAIACOVO PRESENT A UNITED FRONT AFTER BREAKDOWN OF NEGOTIATIONS WITH THE LEAGUE ON THURSDAY. BUT, THEY ARE LOSING WAY MORE THAN MONEY.

I read this week that the NHL lockout is “partly responsible” for the increased focus on the AHL Toronto Marlies. That’s like saying humidity and dark clouds are partly responsible for rain. Marlies went to the Calder Cup final last spring; they boast several legitimate Leaf prospects (Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri, Korbinian Holzer, Ben Scrivens) and a coach – Dallas Eakins – that is fully NHL-qualified. But, their augmented profile in Toronto is 100 percent attributable to the lockout… Not sure why some people are mocking the decision by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to roll back the price of Toronto F.C. season tickets. Yes, the Major League Soccer club has to put it together on the field one of these years, but the ticket decrease is a bold expression of culpability by team president Tom Anselmi. It should not be scorned… Want to feel a bit better about the Leafs? We all know they have the longest Stanley Cup drought among teams that were playing on May 2, 1967. St. Louis Blues, also without a championship since ’67, debuted on Oct. 11 of that year. But, the Leafs do have four championships in the past 50 years – dating to 1962. New York Rangers, by comparison, have one Stanley Cup in the past 72 years; Chicago, two in the past 74; Boston, three in the past 71. Most glaringly, given its glorious past, Montreal has but one Stanley Cup in the past 26 years after winning 23 championships in the previous 70. Buffalo and Vancouver are zero-for-42 years heading into the next NHL season, whenever that may be… No amount of sports ineptitude in this city is surprising but it must be a terrible disappointment for the small, devoted core of football fans to see the Argos fall apart late in the season – even if it is a common thread among Toronto teams. The city’s only playoff hope was demolished in a three-game home-stand, losing to Saskatchewan, Montreal and lowly Winnipeg while yielding 104 points. Ultimately, Argos will discover they made a mistake in hiring Scott Milanovich as coach last winter. He has presided over the least-disciplined, most penalized team in the CFL. That destructive element is always a reflection of the coach…

SCOTT MILANOVICH: ROOKIE HEAD COACH UNABLE TO CULTIVATE DISCIPLINE.

It was on this weekend last year that James Reimer suffered the head/neck injury that ruined his sophomore NHL season. Early in a game at Montreal, Brian Gionta of the Canadiens bowled over the Leafs netminder while skating through the crease. The blow dislodged Reimer’s helmeted mask and he was hounded by concussion-like symptoms for two months; never regaining his impressive rookie form… And, it was 20 years ago this weekend that the Blue Jays and Braves began the 1992 World Series at Fulton-County Stadium in Atlanta. After losing the first game and trailing in the ninth inning of Game 2, the Jays were rescued by third-baseman Ed Sprague – not starting that night – who slammed a pinch-hit home run off ace reliever Jeff Reardon. Toronto prevailed in six games for its first of consecutive championships. Covering that series for The Fan-590 remains among my career highlights… One of my true enjoyments each Sunday is watching an NFL game called by veteran sportscaster Dick Stockton, 70 years old next month, who works for FOX. Between 1978 and 1994, Stockton was among the lead play-by-play callers at CBS. He described one of the great moments in Toronto sports history on Oct. 14, 1992 at SkyDome. As left-fielder Candy Maldonado squeezed the final out of the American League Championship Series against Oakland, Stockton exclaimed “… and the Blue Jays have finally won the pennant!” How apropos after the Jays had lost the ALCS in 1985 (to Kansas City), 1989 (to Oakland) and 1991 (to Minnesota). Stockton will call the New Orleans at Tampa Bay NFL game at 1 p.m. this Sunday… Even if the Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox cannot work out compensation for manager John Farrell to leave Toronto, how can the Jays retain Farrell with any credibility? Having shown a willingness to discard Farrell, the Jays must look elsewhere for a manager in 2013… Not feeling overly confident about my New England-Green Bay Super Bowl pick, but there is some football to be played.

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