Phaneuf Could Power the Leafs, If…

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 13) – The magnificent colors of autumn are in peak form right now here in southern Ontario – normally a sign that the National Hockey League is open for business.

Sadly, the prevailing color in the NHL is black, synonymous with dark arenas from coast to coast in Canada and the United States.

Instead of breaking out my trusty Nikon at the Air Canada Centre for the Leafs’ season opener this weekend – Montreal was supposed to be in town – I got into the car and drove for two hours north of the city, taking pictures of the incredible foliage. With these images as a reminder of the seasonal void, I present to you my weekly compilation of sporting thoughts…

For the average hockey fan, it is justifiably difficult to understand why the owners and players continue to hijack the game. Other than the fact this stand-off is typical of labor unrest – it happens with auto workers, postal workers, teachers, etc. – there doesn’t appear to be a defining issue. Like it or not, at least we knew the owners would keep the doors closed in 2004-05 until the players were coerced into a salary cap. That sort of fundamental ambition isn’t central to this argument. As such, a number of individuals paid to follow the dispute are struggling to maintain even a fragment of interest. For example, I couldn’t care less about negotiation that excludes the so-called core economic issues: in other words, practically every moment of discussion thus far between the sides. I suppose – to use an analogy – a football team trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter can choose to kick a field goal before trying to score a touchdown. Apparently, that’s what the feuding parties have settled upon in this labor squabble, as they clean up peripheral matters before addressing – we all hope – the big elephant in the room. As of this moment, there is absolutely no indication when that may begin to happen. Given the initial cancellation of regular-season games on Oct. 4 – one week before the scheduled openers – we are five days away from the next cut: expected to be another two-week block, wiping out the last week of October and first week of November. Once that occurs, the NHL will no longer be able to conduct a full 82-game schedule and playoffs without extending into July – a situation the league will not allow…  

I’m sure Gary Bettman and Bill Daly will lose hours of sleep when they learn that Toronto hockey fans rallied in protest outside the Air Canada Centre today. If the same people spent one-tenth of that energy demonstrating against their perpetually rotten NHL team, maybe Leafs would come close to making the playoffs one of these decades. Instead, the beloved Blue and White gets a free pass year after year… Speaking of decades, if the 2012-13 season is washed away in labor muck, it will be a minimum 10 years between playoff appearances by the Maple Leafs (2004-2014). And that doesn’t provide for Leafs not having anything close to a playoff-worthy roster today. So, one decade may be a lavish estimate… My point about “overkill” coverage of the Toronto Marlies has nothing to do with legitimacy of the AHL or the product offered to addicted hockey fans in this region. It’s just that as soon as the NHL lockout ends, newspapers, TV and radio stations will drop the Marlies like a hot-potato and the stands at Ricoh Coliseum will be half-empty once again. It may be filling a void, but the enthusiasm is temporary and largely contrived… Watching replays of the 1993 playoff run by the Leafs, I am convinced that Dion Phaneuf is not the problem here nearly 20 years later. In fact, Leafs might have easily dispatched Wayne Gretzky and Los Angeles Kings in the ’93 Stanley Cup semifinal if they’d had more of a physical presence on the blue-line. None of Dave Ellett, Todd Gill, Jamie Macoun, Bob Rouse, Sylvain Lefebvre or Dmitri Mironov could crash and bang the way Phaneuf can. But, Dion will not be considered an effective captain and leader until Brian Burke assembles a “lead-able” group around him. Though the club has some high-end talent, it is woefully shy of character, as the 30-game collapse of last season proved… While Twitter is awash with players castigating Bettman and league owners, I haven’t heard a whisper from the Leafs. Phaneuf did speak out at a charity golf tournament last month, but where is Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Mike Komisarek, Tyler Bozak, Tim Connolly and Clarke MacArthur? It seems the core of the Leafs is awfully accepting of this delay. Perhaps, that shouldn’t be surprising…   

I watch baseball dispassionately, but I woke up this morning, saw the score of last night’s game in Washington, and felt sorry for fans of the Nationals. When I hit the sack around 10:45 p.m., the Nats had an apparently commanding 6-2 lead over St. Louis in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. Washington led 7-5 to begin the ninth inning and it appeared the former Montreal Expos were headed to the title round against San Francisco. But, the Nats could not subdue the cardiac Cards. The defending baseball champions survived being one strike from elimination (as they twice did against Texas in the World Series last fall), and carved out a 9-7 victory before a crestfallen sellout at Nationals Park. It took me back to Exhibition Stadium here in Toronto and Game 7 of the American League championship in 1985. The Blue Jays – having made the playoffs for the first time – crafted a 3-1 series edge over Kansas City. Led by the sizzling bat of George Brett, the Royals rebounded to tie the best-of-seven round and set up a winner-take-all trip to the World Series in Game 7. That’s when Jim Sundberg entered the lexicon of sports killers in this city. Blue Jays were trailing, 2-1, in the top of the sixth when the light-hitting catcher launched a Dave Stieb pitch off the top of the fence in right field for a two-run triple. Royals crushed the hearts of Blue Jays fans with a 6-2 win that silently emptied the old park at the CNE… Labor strife in the Bettman administration has consumed a total of 432 calendar days – 103 in 1994-95; 301 in 2004-05, and 28 thus far in the current mess: the equivalent of one year, two months and seven days. Is it even possible to calculate how much revenue the owners and players have sacrificed during that time?… Separated at birth: Argos quarterback Ricky Ray and Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander. See for yourself…

Speaking of the Argos, they have provided sports fans more to get pumped about than all other professional teams combined in this city. Still, they are incompatible with such contending clubs as B.C. Lions, Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders, as indicated by lop-sided defeats in three of their past four games. Heaven knows what might befall the Argos on Sunday afternoon when they host a surly Montreal team coming off an embarrassing home-field loss to Winnipeg, and without core players Ray, Chad Kackert and Dontrelle Inman. This one could get ugly in a hurry… The sporting void in this city isn’t being filled with basketball fervor – at least not at the outset. In their first two exhibition games, Toronto Raptors have played before announced crowds of less than 11,000 at the Air Canada Centre, or about 60% capacity… We know that football is a great revenue generator south of the border, but how about field-goal nets in the NCAA being sponsored by Allstate Insurance? That’s right, the Allstate logo and name adorns the back-of-the-end-zone netting that prevents footballs from entering the seating area. Will NHL behind-the-goal protection be next?… Undefeated Louisiana State University rolled over its opposition last year to post a unanimous No. 1 ranking in the BCS football standings, only to come up flat against No. 2 Alabama in the championship game. This season, LSU has already lost one of its first six matches and is ranked No. 9 heading into tonight’s game in Baton Rouge against No. 3 South Carolina… As mentioned, Leafs have sufficient top-end talent. What they sorely lack – among other things – is the type of scrappy forward unit Pat Quinn had a decade ago with Travis Green, Darcy Tucker and Shayne Corson. Leafs’ top forwards (Kessel, Lupul, MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski) are all soft physically. James van Riemsdyk will add size and scoring ability up front, but he is not a banger…

The production value of TSN’s football coverage is without peril in this country. Live games are presented flawlessly; the network’s No. 1 play-calling tandem of Chris Cuthbert and Glen Suitor can stand alongside any in the business, on either side of the border; the energetic prime studio panel of Dave Randorf, Jock Climie, Matt Dunigan and Chris Schultz doesn’t miss a beat. But, documentary production is off the charts – be it the short stories presented during nightly Sportscenter shows or the phenomenal Engraved on a Nation series that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup next month. It is must viewing… I am currently reading Rosie DiManno’s compelling biography of former Leafs coach Pat Burns, who died of cancer nearly two years ago. While being closely attuned to the saga of Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher firing Burns after a game at Colorado in March 1996 – I covered the fateful road swing through Winnipeg, Dallas and Denver and flew back to Toronto from Denver on the same commercial aircraft as the GM and coach – I remember  Burns sneaking out of our city in the shroud of darkness. I did not know about the ensuing hours, covered in the prologue of the new book by DiManno, who writes: It’s well past midnight, sleeting, and Pat Burns is halfway home. There’s a six-pack on the seat next to him, a duffel-bag containing a few articles of clothing, and a cellphone stamped with the Toronto Maple Leafs logo. Just outside Kingston, the vacancy sign of a Super 8 motel beckons. Burns is tired right down to his bones – so weary, eyes puffy from sleeplessness, spots blurring his vision – so he prudently pulls his pickup off Highway 401 and into the motel’s parking lot. At the front desk, the bored clerk doesn’t recognize the disheveled guest, who checks in for just the one night, and Burns is grateful for that. Anonymity is what he craves at the moment, not an autograph-seeker and definitely not an armchair expert with advice for a hockey team that has been imploding spectacularly. Only a handful of people are aware of this development, however. It’s a secret, a hush-hush contrivance that was the final gesture of mercy offered to Burns by the franchise where he’d been as much a Leaf luminary as Doug Gilmour, his beloved Dougie. If you’re a hockey fan, this book is well worth $32.95 CAD and will make a superb Christmas gift…

I have no political affiliation or preference, but didn’t Joe Biden look just a trifle ridiculous with all his nervous laughter during the vice-presidential debate on Thursday? Whether or not you like Mitt Romney, his running mate – Paul Ryan – came off far-more genuine during the 90-minute quarrel. It reminded me of the best-ever debate performance by a political figure. Leading up to the unnecessary federal election here in Canada on May 2, 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to engage his opposition – the late NDP leader Jack Layton and Liberal contender Michael Ignatieff. Instead, he remained stone-faced while under verbal attack and looked directly into the TV camera at voters when his turn came to respond. Harper won a landslide majority government. He has never done our country a shred of dishonor… It has been a decade-and-a-half since Toronto had a dominant pro sports team. The 1997 Argonauts were undoubtedly the best in franchise history with a 15-3 record and Grey Cup triumph over Saskatchewan. Argos outscored the opposition 660 to 327 over 18 regular-season games, or 37-18 per match. As Mike (Pinball) Clemons, a running back on the ’97 team, later told me: “Nobody else had a chance.”… It was nice to run into a couple of old hockey friends during the Road Hockey to Conquer Cancer event at Ontario Place two weeks ago. I used to boo the hell out of NHL referees Bruce Hood and Bryan Lewis when I was a young Leafs fan in the ’70s, but they both turned out okay… I’m convinced that my hardest-working media colleagues are Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star and Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News. Both are hockey writers: McGran covering the Leafs; Harrington the Sabres. Neither seems to take a day off, in winter or summer...

Speaking of media colleagues, I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun for inspiring me to write a notes blog. Not certain, at all, if I can do it as well as him, or as often. Steve set the newspaper standard many years ago… I’m looking at a “survivor’s” World Series between New York and St. Louis. The Yankees and Cardinals always seem to go the distance before prevailing with dramatics. It would be a terrific cap to the baseball season… Can someone tell me exactly when an “interception return for a touchdown” became a “pick-six”? I’d like to know… Had some nostalgic moments the past couple of weeks looking at video of Argonaut games from 1968 to 1970 provided by a long-time friend. My father, Irv, told me he was going to “a meeting” on Nov. 9, 1968 when, in fact, he attended the Eastern Semifinal between Hamilton and Toronto at CNE Stadium. During that game, Argo running back Bill Symons busted off a 100-yard touchdown run that remains paramount in CFL lore. When Dad came home and handed me a program from the game, I threw a two-day tantrum (I was nine years old). But, he was smart in not telling me beforehand; I wouldn’t have let him out the front-door. Among the DVDs I was given is a full television replay of that game from CBC, including commercials…

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