Following the Leafs – Again

By HOWARD BERGER

ABOARD AIR CANADA #135 TORONTO to EDMONTON (Oct. 29) – Good heavens, it is late Monday night. Or, depending on your whereabouts, early Tuesday morning. Regardless – if in North America – you are probably asleep right now. As I should be.

But, heck, that’s hockey travel.

And, it could be a lot worse.

I am firmly planted aboard an Air Canada Airbus-320 that lifted off from Runway 5 at Pearson Airport at 11:15 p.m. Seated in 1-F, the first row of Executive Class – as always, at a window. Captain says the flight to Edmonton should require three hours and 51 minutes. That puts us on the ground at 1:06 a.m. Mountain Time – 3:06 where I came from. Given the plane was scheduled to land at 1:07, we’re doing pretty well.

I can easily count the number of times I’ve departed Pearson after 11 p.m. Once, on a flight to Paris; delayed a couple of hours by some mechanical issue. There was a morning connection at Charles de Gaulle on Scandinavian Airlines to Stockholm for the Maple Leafs 2003 training camp. I made it, but not by much. On three or four other occasions, I’ve taken the last Air Canada flight of the day from Toronto to Ottawa, which departs close to midnight.

THAT’S ME – THE CLUTZ – FAST AT WORK ON MY OVERNIGHT FLIGHT TO EDMONTON. KUDOS TO THE CHAP BEHIND ME FOR HAVING THE RIGHT IDEA.

Hockey travel is hardly foreign to me… but, it’s been awhile.

For those unaware, I made practically every road trip with the Toronto Maple Leafs between 1994 and 2009 while working as a reporter at The FAN-590 (now Sportsnet-590). The radio station hacked my budget after the 2009-10 NHL season; eliminated the budget for 2010-11, then eliminated me a few months later. And, not a moment too soon.

I got back on the road in 2011-12 while starting up this website. Made roughly three-quarters of the Leaf away games and was privileged to cover all 20 playoff matches of the Los Angeles Kings, who won their first Stanley Cup. Last season, I took a breather. Decided to stay away from the rink altogether and watch hockey on TV with my 16-year-old son, Shane. Enjoyed the hell out of it, too.

Now, it’s time to be “seen” once again.

As such, I am gradually trekking toward the left coast for the Maple Leafs three-game western-Canada swing, which begins later tonight in Edmonton; continues Wednesday in Calgary, and concludes late Saturday afternoon in Vancouver.

Considering Leafs missed the playoffs in my last five seasons at the radio station, this is an altogether different circumstance – one that takes me back to the “glory” years under Pat Quinn between 1998 and 2006. Of course, being a Leaf zealot is always in vogue, regardless of doom, gloom or playoff years absent. But, there’s been a not-so subtle change as Leafs improved in the lockout-shortened schedule last year. Suddenly, it’s “cool” to watch hockey in our city once again.

My friend, Norma, for example, swears not to be a fan of the sport even though she grew up in Winnipeg and appeared to enjoy herself – some 30 years ago – when we attended playoff games between the old Jets of Dale Hawerchuk and Paul MacLean and the mighty Edmonton Oilers of Gretzky, Messier, Coffey et al. Norma even sat through two periods of the Leafs-Penguins clash on Hockey Night In Canada last Saturday as we munched on Chinese food. So, I’d say she’s fibbing.

My daughter, Lauren, on the other hand, has gone gaga over the Blue and White since the playoff series with Boston last May. She has Leaf “wallpaper” on her I-Phone and the club’s 2013-14 schedule easily at hand. Lauren, now 13, stayed at my apartment last Friday and insisted on watching the Toronto at Columbus game.

I took her temperature, but it was normal.

“Dad, I love the Leafs!” she exclaimed.

See what I mean?

MONDAY DUSK IN TORONTO.?CLIMBING OUT OF PEARSON FIVE HOURS LATER.?

Leaf trips to western Canada are always special.

Several times, I’ve been caught looking at my notes in the press box as a loud roar ensued. Gazing downward to see which member of the home team had scored, I caught visiting players in mid-celebration. Such is the blend of partisanship in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver when Leafs invade – now once per season.

Reflecting through the years, a couple of trips come to mind.

In March 2000, Leafs swept with a 6-5 overtime win at Vancouver; a 2-0 shutout in Edmonton and a 6-2 romp at Calgary. Flying cross-country, they followed with a 4-2 triumph in Ottawa, during which Toronto defenseman Bryan Berard lost 80 percent of vision in one eye when accidentally clipped by Marian Hossa on the follow-through of a shot.

Three years later – and I’ll remember it for as long as I live – I watched as Doug Gilmour crawled pathetically to the visitors’ bench beneath me at the Saddledome. One of the most popular figures in Leaf history had torn his knee to shreds on his first shift back with the club, having been acquired from Montreal two days earlier at the trade deadline.

It was the final moment of Gilmour’s Hall of Fame career – ironically, in Calgary, less than a decade-and-a-half after helping lead the Flames to the 1989 Stanley Cup.

Time will tell if anything noteworthy happens this week.

In the interim, we continue to soar through the night sky. The lights of Saskatoon were out my window moments ago.

Our entertainment system is full of Hitchcock; the morbid among us can watch Psycho and/or The Birds.

I’d rather fall asleep.

At some point.

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