State-Side Weekend Thoughts

By HOWARD BERGER

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (June 1) – So, I’m here in the former hockey home of Donald S. Cherry for a family event this weekend.

I normally wouldn’t write about this, for obvious reasons, but there is no other way to explain what happened. At 3:30 this morning, ol’ Mom Nature knocked and I got up to pay a washroom visit. Gazing at my Blackberry (yes, I’ve stayed with a BlackBerry), I looked for a final score in the Blue Jays game at San Diego. No luck. I went back to bed and thumbed through the weekend USA Today for a few moments, then checked again for the Blue Jays score: 4-3 San Diego in 17 innings. Game ended at 3:15 a.m. EDT.

Un-freaking-believable!

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Rochester, for those unaware, was the American Hockey League affiliate of the Maple Leafs during the club’s Stanley Cup dynasty in the 1960’s. It was close enough that Punch Imlach and King Clancy could make the 3½-hour drive along the QEW and New York State Thruway to check out Leaf farm-hands on a regular basis. At one time or another, practically every Leaf player of note in the 60’s and early-70’s had a turn at Rochester War Memorial Arena (re-named Blue Cross Arena in 1998).

Among them: Bob Baun (1956-57); Al Arbour (1962 to 1967); Kent Douglas (periodically, 1963 to 1970); Bruce Gamble (1966-67); Brian Glennie (1968-69); Billy Harris (periodically, 1956 to 1965); Larry Hillman (periodically, 1961 to 1968); Ed Litzenberger (1963 to 1966); Jim McKenny (1965 to 1969); Bob Nevin (1956 to 1960); Jim Pappin (periodically, 1960 to 1968); Eddie Shack (1965-66); Don Simmons (1961 to 1963); Peter Stemkowski (periodically, 1963 to 1966) and Mike Walton (periodically, 1963 to 1966).

Don Cherry was a mainstay here – appearing in 390 games on defense for the Americans between 1963 and 1972 before starting his coaching career with the team. And, Wayne Gretzky’s younger brother – Keith – played 66 games for the Amerks between 1987 and 1989, registering 11 goals and 37 assists.

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This really has become a disaster of a season for the Blue Jays – 23-32 at roughly the one-third mark. A couple of times, the club has strung together three wins, only to give them right back. On TV, Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler are exhorting fans – convinced, beyond imagination, how incredible the team would be – to stay patient, which is the home broadcaster’s job, of course. “The team just has to get to .500,” Tabler said this week of a club that was expected to be 10 or 15 games above the break-even point by now.

Fundamentally, the Jays are a mess, running the bases like bantam players; getting doubled off on line drives. Normally, that’s a reflection of the manager, but John Gibbons knows how to play the game and he should be able to get the basics across to his players. Something unquestionably is wrong and the Jays have no chance of escaping last place (an awfully low expectation) in the American League East until it is corrected.

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For the second time in as many seasons, a 48-game, lockout-shortened schedule in the NHL has yielded few surprises. In 1995, it seemed novel to witness New Jersey sweep Detroit in the Stanley Cup final. It was, however, a portent of the best playoff teams in subsequent years – the Devils and Red Wings combining for seven championships in 19 seasons.

This spring, we have the last four Stanley Cup winners in the Conference finals. Which tells us the cream rises to the top in nearly every situation.

Given how spectacular Jonathan Quick has been in goal once again, and the incomparable firepower of the Penguins, a Los Angeles-Pittsburgh Cup final seems most logical. But, I’m staying with my pre-playoff hunch of Boston and Chicago. The Bruins pulled off a miracle to eliminate the Leafs in Round 1, which is typically the most difficult and unpredictable. Then they steamrolled New York Rangers. Chicago was the best team in the NHL all season and had its scare in Round 2 against Detroit. Rebounding from a 3-1 series deficit to knock off the Red Wings confirmed the Hawks’ distinction.

Once again, I’m going with Boston in 6; Chicago in 7.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS PULLED OFF QUITE THE ESCAPE AGAINST DETROIT, BUT I’M LOOKING FOR THEM TO KNOCK OFF THE DEFENDING CHAMPIONS IN ANOTHER SEVEN-GAME MARATHON. BILL SMITH GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

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I wasn’t surprised when the Rangers fired John Tortorella this week. In spite of remarkable talent, New York proved not to be in the same universe as Boston. In Game 4, when Chris Kreider scored in overtime to provide Rangers their lone victory, I wrote here that I sensed the team had stopped playing for Tortorella. Before Kreider’s re-direct of Rick Nash’s feed, Bruins were toying with the Blueshirts, and twice came within inches of a sweep. That’s not how a desperate club responds, particularly on home ice.

I really liked Tortorella during his years in Tampa. A straight-shooter has always been my favorite-type of individual and he never danced in media sessions. In the opening round of the 2006 playoffs, I covered the Tampa Bay-Ottawa series. Lightning was the defending Stanley Cup champion, having won in 2004, prior to the lost season of ’04-05. On a day between games, I was standing in the dressing room corridor at Scotiabank Place as Tortorella walked past, leaving the arena. I stopped him; introduced myself; told him how much I admired his candor, and implored him not to change.

I’ll never forget the sincerity of his reply.

“Thank you, Howard. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.”

Once in New York, however, Tortorella became embittered and I found it disappointing. Obviously, the Big Apple and Tampa are incomparable media centers and maybe the spotlight had a depleting effect. But, I don’t recall a hockey person reacting with such unfettered malice in front of reporters.

Some of you may be thinking: “Oh yeah? You covered Ron Wilson.” But, the comparison is invalid. Wilson was sarcastic and biting, though almost never blatantly disrespectful. And Ronnie did not provide a curt, one-word response to questions that annoyed him. In fact, I found him to be insightful in nearly every gathering with reporters, regardless of mood.

EVEN AT HIS WORST, RON WILSON WAS NEVER AS DISCOURTEOUS TO MEDIA AS JOHN TORTORELLA. I SNAPPED THE ABOVE PHOTO IN RON’S FINAL MEDIA SCRUM AS LEAF COACH – FEB. 29, 2012 – AT THE UNITED CENTER IN CHICAGO.

I could be wrong, but I sense Tortorella has ruined any chance of returning as a coach in the NHL. I can’t envision a general manager considering his comportment beneficial or analogous to success. And, I agree wholeheartedly with Larry Brooks of the New York Post, who Tweeted that any media outlet hiring Tortorella ought to “be ashamed of itself.”

Not that the veteran coach couldn’t entertain or provide valuable insight. The hypocrisy, however, would be astounding in light of his vehement disdain for the media.

That said, I wouldn’t bet against him landing another TV gig.

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If Leo Komarov goes home to play in the Kontinental Hockey League, I think the Leafs will truly miss him. And, that’s coming from an observer that felt he was not of NHL-caliber early in the abbreviated schedule. I was wrong.

Komarov proved to be a wonderful addition to the improved hockey club. Though he had stone hands around the net, his energy and physical play – especially on the forecheck – became part of the Leafs’ fabric. Komarov and Jay McClement, in my view, were the club’s most valuable role players.

I think David Nonis should try hard to retain the 27-year-old forward.

               

LEO KOMAROV’S WILLINGNESS TO MIX IT UP PROVED EXTREMELY VALUABLE TO THE MAPLE LEAFS IN THEIR SEASON OF IMPROVEMENT.

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