What a Week: Grapes and Orr

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Nov. 9) – For those who have forgotten, hockey is a terrific, multi-dimensional sport – capable of sustaining itself at the worst of times. With the game in a holding pattern once again, it requires no effort to embrace the legacy of those that have never been locked out of a big-league arena. What a privilege it was, this week, to be among true ambassadors of the sport – from Wally Stanowski, the oldest living member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, to the 85-year-old son of Montreal Canadiens legend Howie Morenz, to the most famous individual in this country and the greatest hockey player that ever lived. All of that, for me, in a five-day span. On Thursday night, I was reminded that Don Cherry – even at 78 years of age – still has the gift of charm. Bobby Orr has retained that gift through an unparalleled life in the game. Both were centre-stage here in town at the end of this week; soon to be joined by numerous other Hockey Hall of Famers for the annual induction ceremony Monday night. First, to Cherry: Canada’s most recognizable person cannot go anywhere without being hounded – mostly by well-wishers. Truth be known, he prefers to shun the spotlight when not in front of a TV camera once a week on Saturday night. When with his son, Tim, at a minor-league hockey game – a favorite activity – Cherry makes himself small and inconspicuous; often wearing a cap or hoodie. During his years traveling for Hockey Night in Canada, and while reporters convened near ice level for a morning skate, he would sit high up in one end of the arena with ubiquitous pal Ron MacLean. During his weekly Coach’s Corner segment, intruders are forcefully kept out of the studio – only MacLean, a floor-director and camera operator on hand. The man known as “Grapes” has generated a number of spin-offs, including three books and nearly a quarter-century’s worth of his popular Rock ’em Sock ’em video-DVD compilation. He would prefer to avoid flaunting such items in person. That said, Cherry is virtually incapable of disappointing an admirer. I can still see him standing for hours in the lobby of the Chateau Champlain hotel in Montreal – doling out hundreds of autographs on a Saturday afternoon. There is no need for him to promote his DVDs; Cherry’s name, alone, sells copies. Yet, there he was on Thursday night, at Real Sports Bar & Grill across from the Air Canada Centre, launching his 24th Rock ’em Sock ’em video. Poring on the charm and warming to every person, Cherry posed for dozens of photographs with his patented thumbs-up salute. No one was turned away. Though cantankerous and vehemently opinionated with MacLean on Saturday nights, he is gentle and soft-spoken off camera – in every way, the most iconic figure from coast to coast in our land. Orr is on the same pedestal – always has been; always will be. No player controlled a game as he did with the Boston Bruins from 1966 to 1975 before his spongy knees gave way. Bobby was in town on Friday to sign a mural-likeness at the Hall of Fame and promote a 3D theatrical film: Stanley’s Game Seven. While also a magnet for people of all ages, Orr – soon to be a senior citizen – retains disarming modesty. Both men were subjects of my trusty Nikon…                    

IT IS ALWAYS A PRIVILEGE TO REPRESENT MY LONG-TIME PAL, JOE THISTEL, AND SIRIUS-XM NHL NETWORK RADIO AT AN EVENT SUCH AS THURSDAY EVENING’S DON CHERRY PROMOTION AND FRIDAY’S APPEARANCE BY BOBBY ORR. THE DAPPER ONE (ABOVE) POSED FOR COUNTLESS PHOTOGRAPHS WHILE NO. 4 SIGNED A WALL-MURAL AT THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME. ORR, OF COURSE, PLAYED FOR CHERRY WITH BOSTON BRUINS IN THE MID-’70s.

        

DOWNTOWN TORONTO LATE THURSDAY AFTERNOON AND COVER OF CHERRY’S LATEST VIDEO.

ORR AND HOCKEY HALL OF FAME CHAIRMAN BILL HAY. THEIR PATHS FIRST CROSSED IN 1966-67 – ORR’S ROOKIE SEASON IN THE NHL AND HAY’S FINAL SEASON AS A GOOD SCORING CENTRE WITH THE CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS.

CHERRY POSES WITH TORONTO SUN COLUMNIST STEVE SIMMONS AND ENJOYS A LAUGH WHILE DOING A RADIO INTERVIEW  ON THURSDAY NIGHT.

ORR SIGNS HIS MURAL AND GREETS REPORTERS.

EXPANSION NHL JERSEYS ON DISPLAY AT THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME.

CANYON OF TOWERS

Driving the final two or three blocks south on Bay St. toward Air Canada Centre is Toronto’s equivalent of the old Chinese water-torture. Even Bobby Orr leaned over and asked, “What is it with all the road-construction in this city?” Wish I could answer. Maintenance work has converted a 1.5-kilometer trek on Bay into a 30-minute exercise. To amuse myself on Thursday – and while stationary for 30-45 seconds at a time – I opened the sun-roof on my car and pointed my trusty Nikon northward. The effect, displayed below on a crystal-clear autumn afternoon, was rather stunning as I passed beneath the canyon of office towers in the financial centre of our country…    

NEAR THE INTERSECTION OF BAY AND KING ST. IS THE 57-STORY CIBC BUILDING (TOP-LEFT) AND THE 31-STORY EARNST & YOUNG TOWER (RIGHT) – PART OF THE TORONTO-DOMINION COMPLEX. ONE BLOCK SOUTH – AT BAY AND FRONT ST. – IS THE 51-FLOOR TD CANADA TRUST TOWER (BOTTOM-LEFT) AND 41-STORY SOUTH TOWER OF THE ROYAL BANK PLAZA (RIGHT).

Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t like this but the more hockey people I talk to, the more I’m hearing the same: the club’s apparent overflow of can’t-miss prospects numbers two – Morgan Reilly and Matt Finn – both drafted in June. Rielly could be the best junior defense prodigy in the game right now among players already drafted; Finn is also expected to skate in the NHL at a fairly advanced level. Otherwise, there isn’t an impact player in the organization – not Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Tyler Biggs, Greg McKegg, Brad Ross or anyone else Leaf fans are salivating over. Jake Gardiner showed promise last season but isn’t likely to be a second coming of Ray Bourque, as the hockey hype-machine in this city suggests. Complicating matters, at the moment, is underachievement at a position the club can least afford: goal. Ben Scrivens is playing poorly for the AHL Toronto Marlies… Hockey die-hards in this city haven’t had much to be thankful for in recent decades – with a couple of prime exceptions. In Borje Salming (1973-89) and Mats Sundin (1995-2008), Leafs have boasted two of the top-four Swedish-born players in NHL history (Nick Lidstrom and Peter Forsberg the others). Salming went into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996; Sundin will be honored on Monday night as part of the 2012 class. Sundin is the Leafs’ all-time scoring leader (987 points). Salming is fourth (768 points) and first in assists (620)… My thought today on the NHL lockout: if the Players Association continues to instruct the owners on how to share revenue, there will not be an agreement. Owners assume all the financial risk and maintain the prerogative to divide income as they see fit. To think otherwise is to swallow the bunk that owners and players form a “partnership”. Nothing could be farther from the truth, even with the sides principally agreeing on a 50/50 revenue split… Two things that drive me bananas when I hear them on TV or radio: so-and-so was a great player “year in and year out.” What the hell does that mean? I suppose it refers to Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, but is otherwise a senseless term. And when will announcers stop saying a player is “chomping at the bit?” The correct phrase is “champing at the bit” and it refers to a race-horse showing stress or impatience by chewing on the metal mouthpiece used by a jockey. The connotation is similar but the words are wrong… Sports writers can often be brazen and direct, but Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star took it to a captivating extreme the day after the NFL Chiefs were destroyed, 31-13, in San Diego last week. When comparing the AFC West rivals, Mellinger wrote: Keep in mind the Chargers stink too, guys. Their quarterback turns it over too much, their roster is declining and their coach will probably soon be fired. But the Chargers’ is a more conventional brand of stink… by now we all know there is nothing quite as putrid as the Chiefs’ reliably rotten stink. We’re part of history here, you know: An up-close look at the kind of relentless, tenacious, opening-kickoff-to-final-whistle, never-take-a-snap-off stink against which all future generations of terrible teams will be judged. This season is so far noteworthy for the historic achievement of going half a season without holding a lead in regulation, and for turning Romeo Crennel from a dignified and accomplished man to one painfully without answers about how he steered a talented team into oncoming traffic. The Chiefs are not just the worst team in the NFL. They’re building a case as one of the worst in modern NFL history… the only drama left is whether the Chiefs will ever lead a game, and when owner Clark Hunt will break his silence to fire a coach who looks clueless and a general manager who obsesses over everything but quarterbacks. Sickening and disgusting. Now, tell us what you really think, Sam… Though I’m pleased for Scott Milanovich and wish him nothing but the best, I strongly disagree with the Toronto Argonauts rewarding him a contract extension. In his rookie season as head coach, Milanovich presided over the least-disciplined club in the Canadian Football League – one that took an endless stream of debilitating penalties in spite of frequent admonition. A coach that cannot evoke discipline is doomed to failure. As for the Argos advancing from 6-and-12 to 9-and-9 under Milanovich, let’s be honest: the team couldn’t help but improve after GM Jim Barker acquired future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Ricky Ray from Edmonton. Though Ray missed three games with a knee injury, a three-win enhancement was very modest. And, it begs the question: why wasn’t Barker extended? He’s the man that hired Milanovich from Montreal; traded for Ray; stole Chad Owens from the Alouettes for a fourth-round draft pick in June 2010 and signed University of Virginia product Dontrelle Inman – the best Argonaut deep-threat receiver since Darrell K. Smith more than 20 years ago – after Inman was released by the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars. If the Argonauts are so enthralled with Barker’s choice as head coach, why didn’t the club add to the one year remaining on his contract? Argo CEO Chris Rudge danced around the question: “I like the working relationship with Jim; he’s here for the foreseeable future. He and I have decided what the priorities are; we’re acting on those and we’re not going to be driven to create other priorities by the needs of other constituencies.” Huh? Barker is thrilled with the “priority” of signing his head coach while he is left to twist in the wind as a lame-duck GM? That’s quite believable… Imagine playing for the 2012 Jaguars: you are dead-last in the NFL at 1-and-8; you have seven games left on your schedule and your next assignment is on the road against 7-and-1 Houston. Ouch!… Absolutely love the name of Texans rookie linebacker Whitney Mercilus (pronounced “merciless”) from the University of Illinois… Bruce Arthur of the National Post was recently named the best sports writer in Canada for 2012 – a much-deserved honor. But, nothing Arthur accomplishes in print will ever match his abounding presence on Twitter. As of late Friday afternoon, Arthur had posted 96,531 Tweets since Oct. 29, 2009 – the rough equivalent of 30,166 per year; 2,514 per month; 580 per week; 83 per day and 3.5 per minute. How any person can devote that amount of time to such trivia is both impressive and mind-boggling… Sad to  hear that Hall of Fame defensemen Allan Stanley and Harry Howell have been stricken with varying grades of dementia. Stanley, a cornerstone of the Leafs’ dynasty in the 1960s, lives in a chronic-care facility and no longer recognizes the people closest to him. Howell, a pillar on the blue-line with New York Rangers in the ’60s and the last defenseman to win the Norris Trophy before Orr reeled off eight in succession, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s… Silly to think the Argonauts would be over-confident against any opponent – in any situation – but the club had better stay grounded heading into Sunday afternoon’s semifinal playoff against Edmonton. Argos finished the regular season with two impressive wins while the Eskimos lost eight of their final 10 games; played quarterback-shuffle all year and fired their GM, Eric Tillman, earlier this week. All signs point to a Toronto victory, but only if the Argos have no difficulty pulling on their helmets. Any swelling above the shoulder will lead to a different result – remembering that the Eskimos prevailed in both head-to-head match-ups this season and smoked the Argos, but good, at Rogers Centre on Aug. 27 (the 26-17 final score grossly flattered the home side)… 

FANS OF THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS WERE BLESSED TO HAVE BORJE SALMING (TOP-LEFT) AND MATS SUNDIN FOR A COMBINED 29 SEASONS. HALL OF FAMERS, THEY RANK AMONG THE TOP-FOUR SWEDISH-BORN PLAYERS IN NHL HISTORY.

THE WORK OF TURK

        

In keeping with the Boston Bruins theme, I chatted with Derek Sanderson this week about his compelling new book (above): CROSSING THE LINE – THE OUTRAGEOUS STORY OF A HOCKEY ORIGINAL. Written with prolific co-author Kevin Shea, Sanderson bluntly recounts his decline from a two-time Stanley Cup winner (1970 and 1972 in Boston) to financial ruin, and a brief spell as a raging alcoholic living off garbage remains in New York’s Central Park. Now a successful business-planner in Boston, Sanderson (nicknamed “Turk”) hides nothing about his fall from grace – hoping it will serve as a cautionary tale for others. In the realm of hockey, the Niagara Falls, Ont. native is best remembered as being the player that fed Orr from behind the St. Louis Blues net for the Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime at the Boston Garden on May 10, 1970. It yielded the most iconic photo in the game’s history – Orr flying horizontally through the air after directing Sanderson’s pass between the legs of veteran goalie Glenn Hall. “Actually, Bobby and I did the give-and-go thing quite often in those years,” Sanderson recalled. “But, it stood out just a wee-bit on that afternoon in 1970.” As with others that marveled at Orr in his prime, Sanderson cannot summon the proper adjectives. “You have to remember that Bobby was never off the ice – he took a regular shift; handled the point on our power-play and usually killed the full two minutes of a penalty. And, he did it on wonky knees. No one has ever played the game at such a higher level than all others in the NHL. He was the best… period.” A common theme in the book is how Sanderson would call upon Orr during his most troubled times. “Bobby was always there for me – a true friend, no matter the circumstance,” Derek said. “But, he had ‘rules’ and I had to be ready to follow them. The most difficult was getting sober after many years of abusing alcohol. But, I was eventually able to do it and Bobby stayed with me the whole way.”     

DEREK SANDERSON RAISES ARMS BEHIND THE ST. LOUIS NET AFTER PASSING TO BOBBY ORR FOR THE OVERTIME-WINNING GOAL IN GAME 4 OF THE 1970 STANLEY CUP FINAL. ORR IS FLYING THROUGH THE AIR WITH AN ASSIST FROM BLUES’ DEFENSEMAN NOEL PICARD.

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