Calm Environment Helping Leafs

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Mar. 7) – With the Maple Leafs solidly in playoff contention midway through the NHL season, Randy Carlyle is being lauded for his coaching acumen. And, why not? Through 24 games, Leafs have performed energetically, boisterously and competently in the defensive zone. Goaltending has been a principal – and largely understated – factor, with James Reimer and Ben Scrivens providing one of the better tandems in the NHL.

In short, Maple Leafs are wholly deserving of their sixth place locale today in the overall NHL standings.

One factor, however, has been overlooked. For the first time in decades, Leafs are playing amid an environment of tranquility. The quiet efficiency of David Nonis and Carlyle stands in marked contrast to the Brian Burke/Ron Wilson era, when some form of clamor existed almost daily. Not that Burke and Wilson were exclusive to the setting; they merely followed a pattern that has dominated the Leaf scene for as long as anyone can remember – through success and failure. Creating a pastoral setting for the hockey club has been the prime accomplishment of the brief Nonis/Carlyle era.

LEAFS ARE BENEFITING FROM A LOW-KEY ENVIRONMENT UNDER GENERAL MANAGER DAVID NONIS (ABOVE), WHO TOOK OVER FROM BRIAN BURKE ON JAN. 9.

Think of what has prevailed in this city through the years.

• While the Leafs of the 1960’s fashioned a Stanley Cup dynasty – winning four championships in six seasons – they did so under the guidance of dictatorial Punch Imlach, whose forbearance and obstinacy pushed many players close to the edge. While the Maple Leafs were firmly in Imlach’s command, turmoil and deceit prevailed at the highest level of the organization: chieftains John Bassett, Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard jousting for control of the team and Maple Leaf Gardens; Smythe and Ballard siphoning hundreds of thousands from the building for their personal enrichment (malfeasance that sent Ballard to jail and would have done the same to Smythe had he not drank himself to death).

• Having emerged from the hoosegow and wrested control of Maple Leaf Gardens, Ballard presided – for 18 years – over the most dismal and turbulent epoch in Toronto sports history. While badgering such good hockey men as Jim Gregory, Bob Davidson, John McLellan, Red Kelly, Roger Neilson, Imlach and George Armstrong – and maligning such team legends as Dave Keon, Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson, Ron Ellis, Darryl Sittler and Rick Vaive – Ballard created an environment in which no person could succeed. Only upon his death in April 1990 did the franchise begin to recover.

LEAFS ENDURED UNTOLD MISERY UNDER THE DEMONIC HAROLD BALLARD – SHOWN HERE, LATE IN LIFE, WITH COMPANION YOLANDA MacMILLAN.

• A colossal skirmish over Ballard’s estate – involving executor Steve Stavro; Ballard’s long-time companion Yolanda MacMillan and his three children, Bill, Mary-Elizabeth and Harold Jr. – dominated the Leaf scene for more than a year after his death. It resulted in bitter turmoil when Stavro objected to the control Cliff Fletcher acquired upon being lured from the Calgary Flames by Gardens president Donald Giffin in June 1991.

• Though attaining monumental renown (by team standards) in the early-1990’s – Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, Felix Potvin and Co. appearing in consecutive Stanley Cup semifinals – the Leafs were governed by Pat Burns, whose prickly and domineering nature came closest to resembling Imlach.

• The late-90’s featured an acerbic battle for managerial control of the Leafs between president Ken Dryden and assistant GM Mike Smith; Dryden prevailing in a rancorous squabble among board members of the club.

• Between 1998 and 2006, Leafs were more competitive than at any time since the Imlach era in the 60’s. Architect Pat Quinn, however, abhorred the media in his early years as GM and coach – creating a poisonous environment for those entrusted with chronicling the team. Access to players was deliberately curtailed by Quinn, who jousted with reporters at every turn. To his credit, the big Irishman toned it down in subsequent years, allowing for his true nature to emerge. Cordial and dignified, he embraced the media. No one in my experience could speak as eloquently about the game and Quinn is fondly remembered for the success he brought to the Maple Leafs.

• In 2003, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – under the direction of Richard Peddie – hired John Ferguson Jr. to succeed Quinn as general manager. It was a nominal appointment; the young, inexperienced GM functioning in an oppressive climate in which he sought approval for every decision. Ultimately, the Board determined – with boorish public condemnation – it erred in hiring Ferguson, who lost his job in January 2008.

• After a brief interlude under Fletcher – coaxed out of retirement – Leafs ushered in the Burke era and all of its tumult. With a magnetic, fiery disposition, Burke promised a lot and delivered nothing in his term as GM. Only now, two months after a sudden dismissal, are Leafs bearing the fruit of his labor (Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin, Cody Franson, Mark Fraser, Ben Scrivens, James van Riemsdyk, Korbinian Holzer, Jay McClement) and demonstrating the pugnacity Burke envisioned.

All of this is being adroitly nurtured by Nonis and Carlyle (with able assistance from Dave Poulin, Claude Loiselle, Steve Staios and Fletcher) in a subdued, docile habitat – entirely foreign to Leaf teams of the past 50 years.

PHOTO FOR THE AGES

Though it was a somber moment when Frazer McLaren of the Leafs kayoed David Dziurzynski early in Wednesday night’s game at Air Canada Centre – the rookie Ottawa winger falling unconscious to the ice – Toronto Star photographer David Cooper captured the decisive blow in a marvelous image (below) that appeared on the front page of today’s Star sports section:  

Leafs tough guy Frazer McLaren, right,  drops the Senators' Dave Dziurzynski with a hard right hand during a fight 26 seconds into Wednesday night's game at the Air Canada Centre. Dziurzynski suffered a concussion and did not return.

PANDEMONIUM AT THE GARDENS

On this date, 46 years ago, one of the most disturbing episodes in NHL history took place at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was the first season of expansion – the league having doubled to twelve teams – when Philadelphia Flyers played Boston Bruins in a “home” game here in Toronto. Strong winds had torn a hole in the roof of the Philadelphia Spectrum, prompting the Flyers to play on the road for an extended interval. After a Wednesday game against the Leafs, the Flyers stayed in town and “hosted” the Bruins the following night – Mar. 7, 1968 – before roughly 10,000 on-lookers at the Gardens.

Midway through the game, former Leaf Eddie Shack and rugged Flyers defenseman Larry Zeidel bumped near centre-ice, between the benches. Suddenly, they began swinging sticks at one another – carrying out their feud along the boards and into the southeast corner of the building. Each player connected with face and neck, opening bloody gashes that horrified the Gardens crowd. NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended Shack and Zeidel for four games – a laughable punishment by today’s standards.

Zeidel retired after the 1967-68 season, having toiled mostly in the minors. Shack went on to play with Los Angeles, Buffalo and Pittsburgh before re-joining the Leafs in 1973-74. He retired in 1975 after 17 seasons in the NHL.

EDDIE SHACK OF BOSTON AND LARRY ZEIDEL OF PHILADELPHIA ENGAGE IN STICK-SWINGING EPISODE AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS 46 YEARS AGO TONIGHT.

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