By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 4) – So this is what winning feels like.
And sounds like.
It is so quiet in Leaf Land right now, you can almost hear Harold Ballard rolling in his grave. Not that the old curmudgeon had much experience with winning during his lousy, 18-year grip on the hockey club. But, never, would he allow for silence of any kind. Were Ballard’s Leafs on a 9-1-1 romp, he’d be chortling about Stanley Cup parade routes and other such nonsense that would make his general manager, coach and players cringe. By the way, the Maple Leafs had all of two spectacular runs during the Ballard regime: 8-1-4 from Feb. 16 to Mar. 15, 1975 and 19-6-3 to begin the 1977-78 season under rookie coach Roger Neilson.
There is absolutely no controversy right now.
The newspapers are full of stories about how the Leafs – scorching Phil Kessel, in particular – have mastered the science of winning in the National Hockey League. Graphs and charts display trends that one could not have imagined one month ago tonight, when Leafs were being annihilated, 7-1, by New York Rangers at the Air Canada Centre.
The dads are on the current Maple Leafs trip to Sunrise and Tampa, Florida – celebrating a wave of euphoria that has vaulted the Blue and White into third place in the Atlantic Division, two massive points ahead of Montreal for the first wild-card playoff spot and five insurmountable points out of non-playoff territory in the Eastern Conference. These are virtually uncharted waters for the Leafs of the post-2005 lockout era.
WHAT A WONDROUS TIME HERE IN LEAF LAND. SMILING PHIL KESSEL IS PLAYING SO WELL, HE WAS CONGRATULATED BY OTTAWA DEFENSEMAN ERIK KARLSSON ON SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE. CLAUS ANDERSON GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
If you’re detecting an undertone of sarcasm in this blog, it isn’t by accident. Make no mistake, the Leafs have earned their renaissance of the past 11 games, hoarding 19 of a possible 22 points. But, let’s see what happens when disaster strikes – like a two-game losing streak. The emotional fulcrum of this maniacal hockey region has no center of gravity. The 2013-14 Maple Leafs have contributed to that by offering little in the realm of grey matter. The club is either a near-perfect blend of Stanley Cup material or “brain dead,” as Randy Carlyle has referred to it on more than one occasion. The truth probably lies somewhere in-between but middle ground is virtually non-existent.
At some point between today and the end of the season, Apr. 12, the Leafs will encounter a speed-wobble and the collective nature of those on the periphery – fans and media – will be tested. Chances are it won’t be pretty. Kessel will step out of his Wayne Gretzky impersonation (two points-per-game during the current streak); Nazem Kadri will have a brutal defensive game and start gesturing at Carlyle; Jonathan Bernier and/or James Reimer will be yanked by Carlyle twice in the span of three games and Dave Bolland – once he returns from his ankle-tendon injury – will not be viewed as the missing Stanley Cup component.
When this happens, a sense of “normalcy” will return to the Toronto hockey market – everyone involved wondering how the situation could have gotten so remarkably out of hand during the “good” times.
Angst will again rule the day.
But, heck, at least it won’t be so damned quiet.
OLD LEAFS AND MARLIES
As I’m wont to do now and then, I attended a monthly gathering of NHL “oldtimers” on Monday afternoon at a Shopsy’s delicatessen in north Toronto. These lunches are wonderfully informal and they attract many former players and officials living in the area.
Naturally, I had my trusty Nikon in hand:
HOCKEY FANS IN TORONTO AND NEW YORK ARE BOUND TO RECOGNIZE THESE TWO GENTLEMEN. STEVE VICKERS (LEFT) WAS A TERRIFIC JUNIOR PLAYER WITH TORONTO MARLBOROS BEFORE JOINING NEW YORK RANGERS IN 1972-73, WHEREUPON HE SCORED 30 GOALS AND WON THE CALDER TROPHY AS NHL ROOKIE-OF-THE-YEAR. VICKERS WILL BE 63 IN APRIL. BOB NEVIN (RIGHT), NOW 75, WORE NO. 11 FOR THE LEAFS DURING THEIR STANLEY CUP SEASONS OF 1962 AND 1963. ON APR. 18, 1962 – AT THE OLD CHICAGO STADIUM – LEAFS WERE HOPING TO WIN THE CUP IN GAME 6 OF THE FINAL. MIDWAY THROUGH THE THIRD PERIOD, BOBBY HULL BROKE A SCORELESS TIE AND SENT THE STADIUM INTO HYSTERICS. DEBRIS LITTERED THE ICE, AS BLACKHAWK FANS ENVISION A SEVENTH AND DECIDING MATCH AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS. DURING THE DELAY, THE VISITORS HAD TIME TO CALM DOWN. NOT TWO MINUTES AFTER PLAY RESUMED, NEVIN TIED THE SCORE, SETTING UP THE GAME (AND CUP)-WINNER, BY DICK DUFF, 90 SECONDS LATER. BOB WAS TRADED TO NEW YORK IN THE ANDY BATHGATE DEAL OF FEBRUARY 1964 AND WAS CAPTAIN OF THE RANGERS FROM 1965 TO 1971. HE LATER PLAYED FOR THE MINNESOTA NORTH STARS AND LOS ANGELES KINGS.
WALLY STANOWSKI, 94, IS THE OLDEST SURVIVING MEMBER OF THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS. BORN IN WINNIPEG ON APR. 28, 1919, STANOWSKI PLAYED FOR THE LEGENDARY LEAF TEAMS OF THE 1940’s – MANAGED BY CONN SMYTHE AND COACHED BY HAP DAY. HE WAS A MEMBER OF FOUR STANLEY CUP TEAMS (1942-45-47-48), INCLUDING THE ’42 CLUB THAT BECAME THE FIRST IN NHL HISTORY TO REBOUND FROM A 3-0 DEFICIT AND WIN A BEST-OF-SEVEN SERIES (BEATING DETROIT IN THE STANLEY CUP FINAL). THE ACCOMPLISHMENT WAS LATER REPEATED BY THE 1975 NEW YORK ISLANDERS (OVER PITTSBURGH) AND 2010 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (OVER BOSTON).
NOT FOR CHILDREN
Toward the end of these monthly gatherings, the microphone is turned over to Ron Hurst, who played 64 games for the Leafs between 1955 and 1957. Children are quickly ushered out of the restaurant.
With a warning of “reader discretion advised” – and slightly paraphrasing – here was Ron’s best offering from Monday:
An elderly couple has re-married. The wife, hoping to impress, cooks up a giant, multi-course meal for her new husband.
Afterward, she asks, “Well, how was dinner, Honey?”
He replies, “So so. Not the best meal I’ve ever had.”
The wife then decides to out-do herself and cooks up an ever bigger, multi-course meal for her husband the following night. Again, she asks how he enjoyed it.
“It was okay. Not even as good as last night.”
Now, she’s mad. She goes to a local pet store and buys a bag of dog food.
“What is that for, Mrs. Smith? You don’t even have a dog.”
“It’s for my husband. I’m cooking it for dinner tonight.”
“Oh, Mrs. Smith, if he eats this stuff, he’ll get sick and die.”
She goes home and cooks it up anyway. That night, she serves it to Mr. Smith, who gobbles it up very quickly.
“How was that dinner, Sweetheart?” she asks.
“Best meal I’ve had in years,” he replies.
A few weeks later, the pet store owner is walking past the Smiths’ home when he notices a wreath on the door. He goes over and knocks. Mrs. Smith answers.
“What happened, Mrs. Smith?”
“Mr. Smith died earlier in the month.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Was it immediately after you served him the food from my store? Did he get sick and pass away after dinner?”
“No,” said Mrs. Smith, “it was about five days later. He was licking his balls on the couch when he fell off and broke his neck.”
RON HURST (LEFT) POSES WITH HALL-OF-FAME DEFENSEMAN HARRY HOWELL.
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