By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (May 12) – If the Maple Leafs come all the way back to eliminate Boston in their opening-round playoff series, Game 4 will be remembered as the most thrilling defeat in franchise history.
Call it an oxymoron; alliteration; malapropism or whatever you wish, but “thrilling” and “defeat” belong in the same breath. Here’s why.
Until the beginning of extra time on Wednesday, Leafs had worn the Bruins like an anvil at the Air Canada Centre. A 3-2 Toronto victory on Mar. 23 of the regular season – though it mercifully ended an eight-game railroading by the Bruins – bore no relevance, given an absurd territorial edge (Boston out-shot Leafs, 33-13, and would have produced more road-kill if not for the brilliance of James Reimer). In the big picture, Bruins had unconditionally toyed with the Leafs upon visiting our town through more than 1½ calendar years.
It began, unsuspectingly, with a 7-0 romp on Nov. 5, 2011 – a long time ago, yes, but the delineation between hope and despair for the hockey club.
Two nights earlier, in Columbus, Leafs had settled atop the overall NHL standings with a 4-1 rout of the Blue Jackets – rookie Ben Scrivens prevailing in his big-league debut. No Leaf observer could have forecast the ensuing meltdown, or the season-long pattern that sprung from it. Scrivens and Jonas Gustavsson took turns kicking the puck all over the Air Canada Centre while Tim Thomas perfectly handled 25 volleys at the other end. Goaltenders are commonly praised after recording a shut-out, but the Bruins could have had Polythene Pam between the iron – so wretched were the Maple Leafs.
Every fan of the Blue and White is aware of the biblical collapse in the final-third of last season that ensured a seventh consecutive playoff absence. In microcosm was the head-to-head arrangement with the Bruins that yielded an 0-6 record and ghastly 36-10 deficit in goals scored. By comparison, losing three of four to Boston in the lockout-shortened schedule was rather a thrill. But not so much as to prevent the hollow feeling that accompanied confirmation – two weeks ago – of an opening-round quarrel with the Bruins.
Not surprisingly, the Maple Leafs – a better-than-average road team – rebounded from a shaky opening match to square the series in Game 2 at the TD Garden. Back home, fans were disappointed with a 5-2 loss in Game 3 that could have been 8-2 had Bruins not grown weary of manhandling the Blue and White. Anticipation was therefore nominal heading into Game 4. But, that’s where it all changed… perhaps for now and almost certainly for later.
In more than 13 minutes of scintillating action, Leafs morphed into the fearless, commanding home team they must be in order to challenge for the Stanley Cup. Gone was the all-too-conventional pattern of fear and constraint; suddenly replaced by a cocksure demeanor that bodes particularly well for another elimination assignment later tonight.
LEAFS HAD COMMAND OF THE 13-MINUTE OVERTIME SESSION IN GAME 4. ALL THEY FAILED TO DO WAS SCORE THE WINNING GOAL. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
It was, by far, the most impressive sequence in many years by a Leaf team in a high-stakes environment on home ice. All the talk afterward surrounded the ill-fated pinch by Dion Phaneuf that led to David Krejci’s winning goal on a rare foray into Leaf territory. More should have been focused on a coming out by the home side; a graduation, for all to see, from timid to intrepid.
That it happened against the Bruins made it all the more credible.
BOSTON VIEW – MIKE SHALIN
BOSTON – Has anyone seen Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin?
Okay, Phil Kessel has seen them, as part of the line with Patrice Bergeron that has to handle the Maple Leafs’ top line. The trio has done a pretty good job of that.
Marchand led the Bruins in goals during the regular season. Seguin was second. Their total in the regular season was 34. Their total in the first five games of this series: zero. As in none. Bergeron has one goal and is the best faceoff guy on the ice. But the wingers have disappeared, which could be a scary thing for the Leafs as they attempt to bring the series back here for a Game 7 Monday night.
Marchand, who was great in the first game without getting onto the score sheet, has two assists; Seguin has none. Of the two, Seguin has had the better chances, firing wide on too many occasions. No one has to tell these guys they have to score, that the David Krejci line can’t score all the goals moving forward. Marchand has now gone nine playoff games in a row without a point, scoring once against Washington last season, while Seguin scored twice. The Bruins need their offense.
“We do. I’ll leave it at that; we do,” coach Claude Julien said after Game 5. “They know we do. That has to come for us to be successful starting next game. It’s something that’s called accountability and we have to have more of that from that line as far as being a difference maker or at least something positive. They’ve got to give us – I thought the [Chris] Kelly line tonight was really good. Krejci’s line has carried us, obviously the [Gregory] Campbell line has done their job. If we could get those guys going, it would really help our team a lot.”
Which brings us all to Sunday night.
This Bruins team seems to be one that thrives on adversity, and the way it played in the first half of Friday night’s game qualifies as adversity. This team is also dangerous on the road; and you have to wonder if the Leafs, who hung on like George Chuvalo in the last 10 minutes Friday, have anything left.
I think the series ends Sunday night.
James Reimer had a great Game 5 but can he really do that again? Don’t some of those many rebounds have to start going behind him?
Mike Shalin has covered hockey and baseball during his lengthy career. Writing hockey for UPI, he followed the Rangers and Bruins; covered the Stanley Cup final, and worked the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. He covered the Yankees for the New York Post in the early-80?s before switching to the Red Sox for the Boston Herald from 1983 to 1995. He’s the author of DONNIE BASEBALL – a biography of Yankees legend (and current Los Angeles Dodgers manager) Don Mattingly.
LOVE YOUR MOTHER… WHILE YOU CAN
I WROTE THIS VERY DIFFICULT BLOG ABOUT MY LATE MOTHER TWO YEARS AGO THIS WEEK. PLEASE LOOK IT OVER… AND NEVER FORGET THE MESSAGE.
TORONTO (May 8, 2011) – In this sports town of ours, it is common to speak – numerically – in terms of a deficit. For example, we know the Maple Leafs have gone 43 seasons without playing in the Stanley Cup final. Baseball fans are all too aware that the Blue Jays haven’t made the playoffs in 17 years, after winning their second World Series title in 1993. History buffs will remember the Argonauts somehow failing to win the Grey Cup over 31 seasons (1952-83) in a nine-team league.
My deficit has nothing to do with sports. As of this afternoon, it stands at 15 years, four months and seven days. That’s how long it has been since I had a mom. Jan. 1, 1996: the date will be seared into my memory for as long as my memory lasts. This deficit will go on forever. And that’s why it is so important for those of you that still have a mom to spend extra time with her today; to tell her how much you love her; how important she is; how selfless she is, and how your world has been shaped – through good times and bad – by her unconditional devotion.
You’re one lucky dude (or dudess) if you still have a mom… doubly so if she’s in good health. I had that privilege for nearly 37 years, until my mom – Sandee – got a death-sentence. I remember that date, too: Nov. 8, 1995… the worst day, to this point, of my life. Not that I was expecting favorable news, mind you; our family and friends were all anticipating the worst, and we got it – like a George Foreman wallop to the solar-plexus.
In mid-September of that year, mom was at the beauty salon when her hair-dresser noticed a small bump on the back of her scalp. Mom went to the doctor a few days later and was told the bump was “probably nothing”, but to keep an eye on it. Not long after, she developed a backache, which wasn’t particularly worrisome; mom had always carried a bit more weight than her frame required, and aching backs are common among people of all ages. In late-October, my diary-book on the Leafs 1994-95 lockout-shortened season On The Road was released. I brought a copy to my parents’ house in North York and waited for mom to arrive from doing some chores.
Certain images in our lives get locked into the mind forever, and the sight of mom walking up the front steps of her house that day is a haunting one to me. The grimace of pain as she negotiated those five stairs – bent slightly back with an awkward side-to-side gait – had me concerned. Typically, whatever discomfort she felt – and we later found out how enormous it must have been – disappeared from her face when I presented her a copy of the book; she always reveled in any success I achieved. Moments later, she said she needed to take a hot bath, as her back was extremely sore; the chiropractic treatments hadn’t been working too well.
Thinking nothing of it, we all went on with our lives.
At the beginning of November, I covered a Maple Leafs road trip to Winnipeg, Vancouver and Edmonton over a four-night span. Arriving home from Edmonton on Sunday afternoon (Nov. 5), my wife, Susan, picked me up at Pearson Airport – joining me around the luggage carousel. On the drive home, she said, “I’ve got something a bit scary to tell you,” informing me that mom had coughed up blood several times while I was on the trip. To this day, I have only once slammed on the brakes in the middle of a wide-open highway.
I’ll never forget those words involuntarily escaping my throat. In a fraction of a second it hit me… the inexplicable, sub-conscious feeling of doom I’d been trying to escape for several weeks suddenly made horrifying sense. Mom didn’t have a “probably nothing” bump on her scalp and the knifing pain in her back – immune to chiropractic and strong medication – wasn’t a muscle issue. The coughed-up blood sealed it: she had cancer – in her lungs, her back, her bones and God-knows where else (as if it mattered).
Oh, the anguish of that week. We didn’t need an MRI to tell us what we already knew, nor did mom – the calmest among us. Though she didn’t say so until later, she had accepted her fate well before the official diagnosis: a massive tumor on her spine – likely originating in the lung – that had spread to her bones (thus the scalp lesion).
I’ll always remember how bravely and resolutely mom looked her oncologist in the eye as he delivered the heart-wrenching news: “Mrs. Berger, we have no cure for this. We’ll try to prolong things as best we can but we’re talking weeks-to-months, not months-to-years.”
I recall the brief silence that followed; how mom glanced over at us with a half-smile, half-grimace on her face and an almost imperceptible shrug. How she looked at the floor seconds later; shook her head, and gently said, “Fuck” – which turned out to be the extent of her self-sympathy. From that transitional moment; a moment so absolute in every sense of the word – and until she fell into a coma seven weeks later – my remarkable, dying mom held her family together.
She did so through a difficult operation – an elective procedure that enabled her to use her extremities for whatever time she had left. Surgeons removed a softball-size tumor, and as much of its root-growth as they could, from her spinal column, allowing her to grasp a knife and fork at the dinner table a bit longer… with full and devastating assurance the tumor would redevelop in all its nastiness.
Once recovered enough from surgery to return home, mom experienced a brief though blissful stretch of purgatory – a fortnight during which her recurring spinal growth was asymptomatic. We had family dinners; laughed and joked as best we could – always wondering when that inevitable “other shoe” would drop.
Once it did, it carried the weight of an anvil.
Mom suffered through debilitating muscle spasms, as the cancer attacked her spine once again. To this day, I don’t know how I grew accustomed to that agonizing wail down the hall in her bedroom… but I did. Though I wanted so desperately to run as far as humanly possible from that hideous sound, I couldn’t… and wouldn’t.
Yet, when she finally; mercifully succumbed to her disease, I was nowhere near her side.
Three nights before she passed away – on Friday, Dec. 29, 1995 – mom shocked all of us by snapping out of her narcotic-induced pallor. I had spent the entire day lying by her side, holding her hand, as she comfortably tripped out on Morphine; mumbling recollections of her childhood on a farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This was hardened proof of a person’s life flashing before her eyes in the shadow of death.
Around 7:30 p.m., I was watching a TV program when I suddenly heard, “Hi How”. I snapped around; did a double-take like never before, and said, “Mom?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” she smiled.
I walked over to her side of the bed – wondering if I were in a dream – and fell to my knees. “How is this possible… you haven’t been lucid in almost a week?” I asked, hugging her gently; tears streaming down my face. That, by the way, is something she wouldn’t tolerate… not from me, anyway. Whenever I began to cry in her presence, she flashed me a wordless look – forefinger wagging – that demanded I stop, or leave the room. Some choice, huh? Choking back the tears, I called for my dad and sister. They, too, couldn’t believe their eyes.
We spent the next couple of hours talking with mom as if her struggle had been a nasty joke. She wasn’t in pain; wasn’t in a stupor, and seemed capable of popping out of bed for a trip to the supermarket. How the hell was this happening? At one point in the conversation, she inquired about my job, surely unaware I’d missed an inordinate amount of work in the prior three weeks. I told her the Leafs were in the midst of a four-game road trip that would finish on the weekend in St. Louis and Dallas, but nothing about hockey or work mattered much.
“Why don’t you go to those last two games?” she asked, encouragingly. “I’ll be here when you get home.”
“What if you’re not?” I replied, half-idiotically.
“I’ll be here,” she softly repeated. “You have a job to do.”
With that, a palliative-care doctor entered the house. Having attended to dying patients many times over, he was only mildly surprised to see mom chatting with us. After he examined her, I pulled the doctor into an adjacent room and asked for his opinion on attending the Leaf games in St. Louis and Dallas.
“Will she be alive when I get home?” I asked, pointedly.
“Well, I’m not God,” he replied, probably for the thousandth time to a family member. “But, she does seem to have stabilized for the moment. If she’s encouraging you to go, I think you should consider it.”
Double-checking with mom, she seemed almost insistent that I go. Dad signed off on it, too. I called Air Canada and booked a flight to St. Louis for early the next morning. Then, a return to Toronto from Dallas with American Airlines on Monday night (I would fly on the Leafs’ charter from St. Louis to Dallas after Saturday’s game).
Needing suddenly to pack a suitcase, I went in to see mom. Head slightly propped on a pillow, she extended her arms to me. “Go do your work,” she urged. “I love you very much.”
It was the last time I saw her alive.
Less than four days later, I stood above an open grave and shoveled dirt onto my mother’s coffin; I had dreaded the hollow, gut-wrenching sound it would make when the soil hit the top of the polished wood, but I survived.
The moral of this story – melancholy though it may be – involves the most basic of parental instincts: to protect a child.
Mom didn’t want me to cry in front of her.
And, she didn’t want to die in front of me.
Moments after landing in St. Louis on that Saturday morning, I called home. Dad answered and said mom had taken a serious turn for the worse. She was unresponsive and her swallow reflex no longer worked. “The doctor says her organs will shut down pretty soon,” he informed me. Wishing only to return to Toronto on the same plane, dad would have none of it. “No, How… your mom wants you to get back to work. We’ll stay in touch, don’t worry.”
What a woman… encourages me to travel for work so I won’t be there when she lets go. And she let go – as it turned out – almost as soon as I left the house on Friday night.
“She didn’t want you to see her die,” dad later confirmed. “She just didn’t.
These memories are painful to recall. They do not, however, overwhelm the years of love and interaction with the greatest woman I’ve ever known. When I think of mom today, I remember how she lived much more than how she died. I also remember the repeated warnings from family members and doctors about her three-packs-a-day smoking vice.
We could have talked forever. There was no way she’d quit.
And that’s why she accepted her fate – stubbornly and bravely. “I knew what I was doing,” mom told me during her brief illness. “I just never thought it would happen to me.”
In the end, it will happen to all of our moms – one way or another. That’s why this day, in particular, is so important. On Mother’s Day each year, we’re provided a reason to say all the schmaltzy things we assume our moms take for granted.
Don’t take anything for granted.
Walk up to your mom – so full of life – and wrap your arms around her like an angry bear. Tell her, in no uncertain terms, how important she is; how meaningful life is because of her, and how you could never love another person quite the same way.
Go ahead… do it. Don’t waste a precious moment. That lady with the sparkle in her eyes won’t be there forever.
I’ve lived it.
And, damn, do I miss that sparkle.
MOTHER AND SON ON FEB. 3, 1992 – MY 33rd BIRTHDAY. LESS THAN FOUR YEARS LATER, SHE’D BE GONE.
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [THORNHILL ON]