Leafs May Still Have One Bullet

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Jan. 12) – I’m going way out on a limb here; perhaps even grasping at a dump-truck full of straws given how abysmally the Maple Leafs have performed since the beginning of November – and particularly since getting the doors blown off by Columbus at Air Canada Centre, Nov. 25 (7-12-4 in 23 games, including that night, with two regulation-time victories).

But maybe – just maybe – Leafs have a bit of “sprint” left over from last season, when they played with a whole lot of oomph in the 48-game lockout schedule. Clearly, the current team is lurching through the 82-game marathon. There is no indication – as we speak – that Leafs will make the playoffs for only the second time in a decade. Salvation, however, could materialize with the 19-day break for the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Leafs play Vancouver at the ACC on Feb. 8 and are idle until a road game against the New York Islanders, Feb. 27.

Only three Toronto skaters – Phil Kessel; James van Riemsdyk (United States) and Nikolai Kulemin (Russia) – will go to the Olympics; rather unflattering given that virtually half the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues were chosen. Then comes a “sprint” of 22 games in 45 nights that will determine the Maple Leafs playoff destiny.

WILL THE LEAFS GET TO CELEBRATE PLAYOFF GOALS THIS SPRING – AS DID DION PHANEUF, NAZEM KADRI, JOHN-MICHAEL LILES AND PHIL KESSEL AGAINST TUUKKA RASK OF THE BRUINS LAST MAY? WE’LL FIND OUT DURING THE POST-OLYMPIC SPRINT.

We know Leafs will come out of the break rested. Barring another injury, David Bolland (a.k.a. The Savior) will be back from the ankle ligament he severed at Vancouver, Nov. 2. If the club remains healthy, and some divine presence can cast a spell over it during the gold medal chase in Russia, perhaps the incumbent players will get a sniff of what it took a year ago. Kessel, Kulemin, Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson, Tyler Bozak, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Carl Gunnarsson, Mark Fraser, Frazer McLaren, Colton Orr, Jake Gardiner and James Reimer were all part of the compelling sprint that should have culminated in a first-round playoff triumph over the Bruins. Maybe, as the temperatures warm and the buds begin to bloom, these Buds will flourish once again.

For that to happen, such “moral” victories as Friday night in Washington will need to become obsolete. Particularly in the wake of a beer-league effort like the one in North Carolina 24 hours earlier. Until “better performances” are awarded with points, they will remain worthless. And, Leafs have pretty much used up all the mulligans they deserve this season. The returning players from last year’s relentless group – especially Nos. 3 and 81, the big-money men – must begin to lead, not follow. Goaltending has to remain solid, ideally amid games of 35 or fewer opposition shots. Maple Leafs somehow have to recapture that playoff “feeling” they had through the abbreviated schedule a year ago.

Is it possible? In theory, yes.

In practice, it’ll be “show me” time for a staid, passive team.

OH WHAT A RIDE: The Leafs consecutive-night jaunt through Raleigh and Washington reminded me of a harrowing trek during the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs. I had the privilege that spring – while working for The FAN-590 – to be sent all over hell’s half-acre during the Stanley Cup tournament, covering games in Vancouver, Calgary, New Jersey, Washington, Carolina, Chicago, Boston, Detroit and Pittsburgh. After an Eastern Conference semifinal match in Carolina between the Hurricanes and Bruins, I had to be in Washington 24 hours later for Game 7 of the Capitals-Penguins series (that monumental clash of titans Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin). Pretty easy trip… about a 50-minute flight north from Raleigh on USAirways. Or so it should have been.

There was no indication of trouble upon arriving at Raleigh-Durham Airport on the morning of May 13. Perhaps that dreaded numeral, alone, should have been a warning. Check-in was routine; we had a plane, and the USAirways gate attendant pressed on as usual. And then? Nothing. Boarding time came and went. Departure time came and went. Peering out at the Bombardier CRJ regional aircraft, there appeared to be activity on the tarmac, but nothing out of the ordinary. Why, prey tell, were we sitting around and watching the day pass by?

USAIRWAYS CRJ REGIONAL JET.

Word finally came that our aircraft had sprung a leak of hydraulic fluid – merely the stuff that enables a pilot to maneuver flight-control surfaces on the wing, tail and horizontal stabilizer. Everything except taking off, turning in flight and landing can be accomplished without hydraulic fluid. No wonder we had a delay. Troubling, however, was that no time-frame could be issued by airline mechanics. Given it was mid-morning, we were told the flight would surely leave “at some point.” With that, a wild stampede ensued toward the USAirways Customer Service desk – fellow passengers looking to make alternate arrangements.

I stood behind, figuring that even if the hydraulic repair took four hours, it would still only be 2:30 in the afternoon. The Capitals-Penguins game was scheduled for 7 p.m. I’d be up in Washington by 4 o’clock – in plenty of time to check in at the hotel; shower, and get a taxi to the Verizon Center. And, it pretty much worked out that way, though I doubt I will ever again board a commercial aircraft with just one other passenger. Yes, it was me, two pilots, a flight attendant and a man returning from a business trip. You had to see this poor woman going through the mandatory safety instructions with 48 empty seats on a 50-seat plane.

Finally, just before 3 p.m., we were rolling down the runway at Raleigh-Durham. The initial part of the flight was routine but I grew suspicious when we began descending 15 minutes after takeoff. On a trip between Raleigh and Washington, such a maneuver would begin 35 minutes after departure. At first I thought, “Well, maybe the plane is so light with just two passengers that the captain pushed the damned thing toward Mach-1 to make up time.” I looked out the window and saw a large airport 20,000 feet below. Gazing at the USAirways magazine, I determined it was Richmond, Virginia. I was correct. How did I know? Roughly three minutes later, the flight attendant casually mentioned we were making an emergency descent into Richmond. Why? Because hydraulic fluid was again leaking from the plane. Oh, joy.

For the next 20 minutes, I privately asked forgiveness from anyone I’d upset in my life. I looked at wallet photos of my children. It wasn’t exactly 9-11, but how did I know we’d get down before the aircraft went “dry.” It was rather comforting when the plane landed without apparent difficulty. I say “apparent” because the captain – upon my de-planing – told me he was “seconds away from declaring Mayday” to the Richmond tower. I thanked him for his skill and walked into the airport.

MY UNSCHEDULED LANDING POINT ON MAY 13, 2009.

There were no flights between Richmond and Washington but I was told the drive north would take only two hours. Still plenty of time to make the hockey game. Now, remember, this was Richmond VA. Nice place, I’m sure, but not exactly New York, London or Paris. There’d be no issue renting a car, right? Wrong. AVIS, Budget, Hertz, National, Dollar… they were all “sold out.” For what, I couldn’t imagine. Maybe there were hydraulic leaks all over the country that day. Finally, I came upon Take Your Chance Rental Car – or something along those lines. It was a local dealership that offered me its lone remaining vehicle: a 15-seater van. I took one look and could hardly fathom getting behind the wheel of that monstrosity. But, it was either the van, or no Game 7 up in Washington.

If you had only seen me lurching northward on Interstate-95. I had my foot on the floor and made it all the way to 40 miles-an-hour. Thankfully, about 20 minutes outside of Richmond, there was a hill. I gunned the friggin’ van and all but cruised into the nation’s capital. That mini-bus guzzled fuel like the Space Shuttle. Mercifully, traffic was bunched up on the other side – going southward from Washington. I remember how relieved I was to see the Pentagon, knowing how close it was to Reagan National Airport. I dropped off the van; took a cab to the Airport Hilton; showered; shaved, and made it to the Verizon Center as the national anthem was being played. All in a day’s work.                       

REMEMBER THE NATIONAL SPORTS DAILY?

AS PER WIKIPEDIA: The National Sports Daily, simply referred to as The National, was a sports-centered newspaper published in the United States beginning on January 31, 1990. The newspaper was published as a tabloid and appeared seven days a week. Frank Deford, who at the time was writing for Sports Illustrated and a contributor at National Public Radio, was hired to be editor in chief despite his inexperience in running a newspaper of any kind.

When The National was launched, it featured National Basketball Association superstars Michael JordanMagic Johnson, and Patrick Ewing on the first cover to represent the Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York media markets (where the paper was initially available). The cover price was 50 cents. Deford immediately set out to get what was referred to as a “murderer’s row” of sportswriters. Deford said that hiring Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports editor Van McKenzie away from the paper was the “best thing he did” and was the linchpin for getting many of the writers who eventually signed up. Once McKenzie was hired, he brought his auto racing writer Ed Hinton and one of his investigative reporters and NFL analysts Chris Mortensen with him. Tony Kornheiser and Norman Chad, both of whom had been writing for the Washington Post, were hired as well, as was New York Daily News writer Mike LupicaRocky Mountain News writer Jay MariottiDallas Morning News writer Ivan MaiselBoston Globe writer Leigh Montville and various others.

Problems arose almost from day one, as The National was not as widely circulated as expected. For the first few months, where the paper was being rolled out on a market-to-market basis, there was an expected circulation of 250,000 copies a day, eventually hoping to rise to 1,000,000 copies by 2001. To top it off, major market papers refused to allow The National to run advertising in their publications. As the year went on the financial state of The National got worse and worse, to the point where the company had tens of millions of dollars cut from its budget as 1991 began. The price of the paper was also raised to 75 cents from 50, which caused the already low circulation to decline – something the owners could not afford. Despite a last-ditch effort to start an online distribution through Compuserve, which was one of the earliest Internet providers, the declining circulation was enough for The National to announce it was ceasing publication.

On June 13, 1991, The National put out its final issue with its front cover (pictured above) reading “We Had A Ball: The fat lady sings our song.”

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I was in my second year at what was then still known as CJCL AM-1430 when The National came out in January 1990. The radio station was located on Holly St. in the Yonge/Eglinton area of mid-town Toronto (where I now live) and I would walk up to the Lichtman’s news-stand on Yonge St. virtually every day to purchase a copy of the newspaper.

I enjoyed reading the “Murderer’s Row” band of columnists (as listed above). When word circulated that the paper was in dire straits, I began collecting copies – most of which are pictured below. The biggest name in sports at the time were boxer Mike Tyson and basketball star Michael Jordan, whose Chicago Bulls won their first NBA championship as the final edition of The National went to press. The initial copy I kept (below) was from the day after Buffalo Bills lost to New York Giants in their first of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances – the infamous “wide-right” game, in which Bills’ kicker Scott Norwood missed a final-play field goal that would have knocked off the Giants.

Enjoy this look-back:   

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