Players Should Never Make the Call

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Mar. 18) – I haven’t a clue how severely Jonathan Bernier is injured. But, I do know he’s worse off for starting in goal against his former team – Los Angeles Kings – a week ago tonight at Staples Center. And, nothing else really matters.

It is clear now that Randy Carlyle allowed Bernier to decide whether or not he was well enough to play. Given that James Reimer had to work the final two periods, Bernier made the wrong call – as would any human being in his position. That is why a coach should never relinquish final say on an injury ruling. Bernier would have been in traction before declaring himself unfit to encounter the club that traded him to Toronto. No chance a little “groin-tweak” was going to get in the way. Forget that just about every move a goalie makes involves some extension of groin muscles; this was an important sentimental occasion that Bernier would not miss for the world. We can therefore only speculate how markedly the Leafs will be effected with their No. 1 goalie hobbling down the stretch, and a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference yet to be secured.

Upon reading my blog here yesterday (1iVrEKF), former Leaf Mike Pelyk (1967-1978) emailed this reply: “Howard, second-guessing here, but my thought is if a player wants to play, sometimes a coach has to say ‘no.’ Red Kelly [Maple Leafs coach from 1973-77] was famous for holding back guys who were not 100 percent – except during the playoffs.”

JONATHAN BERNIER’S LAST “HEALTHY” START FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS WAS EIGHT NIGHTS AGO IN ANAHEIM – HERE, SPRAWLING TO MAKE A SAVE OFF KYLE PALMIERI (21) OF THE DUCKS. BERNIER FELT A GROIN “TWEAK” THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON IN SAN JOSE AND DID NOT PLAY AGAINST THE SHARKS (IT WAS JAMES REIMER’S GAME, ANYWAY, IN A CONSECUTIVE-NIGHT SITUATION). BERNIER WAS STILL HOBBLING WHEN ALLOWED TO DECIDE WHETHER HE WOULD START AGAINST HIS FORMER TEAM, AT LOS ANGELES, ON THURSDAY. HE AGGRAVATED THE GROIN INJURY; LASTED JUST ONE PERIOD, AND IS CURRENTLY SIDELINED.  HARRY HOW GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM   

If the Magnetic Resonance Imaging study of Bernier’s groin truly revealed a “strain” – and my long-time experience covering the Leafs allows for suspicion – the goalie should be able to return by the weekend. If the MRI revealed a slight “tear,” Bernier will either be sidelined longer or severely hampered by the injury. It is obvious why the Leafs might wish to minimize the ailment for public consumption; though the truth will ultimately prevail, the club would be pilloried for allowing its No. 1 goalie to escalate a strain into a tear by making his own call for the game at Los Angeles. Much better to keep the vultures circling a while longer. Even where “fault” cannot be assigned, the Maple Leafs have been known to fudge information. This happened in January 2006, after defenseman Bryan McCabe suffered what the Leafs called a “minor groin strain” during a 3-2 victory at Edmonton.

At the time, McCabe was on pace to rub out Ian Turnbull’s team-record of 79 points in a season by a defensemen (established in 1976-77), his all-star effort contributing mightily to an 8-2-0 eruption in ten games prior to the injury and a 24-15-3 overall mark for Leafs – unmistakably, a playoff clip. Suddenly without their offensive spark on the blue-line for nine games, the Leafs dropped eight consecutively; staggered to a 4-13-1 record and missed the Stanley Cup tournament for the first time in seven seasons (coincidentally beginning a seven-year absence).

I was packing for a road trip to Colorado and Minnesota when I received a telephone call from a trusted “medical” source. McCabe had missed two games at the time and the source told me his MRI had actually revealed a “slight tear in the groin-muscle.” Inquiring about the severity of such an injury, my source said McCabe would “probably miss a few more games than the Leafs initially contended” and – of greater import – “would not likely return to his previous form for the remainder of the season.” I promptly reported this on The FAN-590 and flew to Denver.

The Leafs practiced at Denver University – after which, in a media scrum, I presented my “findings” to coach Pat Quinn. I nearly passed out when Quinn confirmed the information without argument (though you did scowl at me, Pat) and I decided not to press the big Irishman on his public contention of a “minor groin-strain.” By way of direct example, this is why I’m not entirely sold on the Leafs’ claim involving Bernier – particularly given Carlyle’s ominous culpability for allowing his No. 1 stopper to make the game-time decision at Los Angeles last week.

BRYAN McCABE’S NINE-GAME, MID-SEASON ABSENCE WITH A GROIN INJURY VIRTUALLY KILLED THE MAPLE LEAFS’ PLAYOFF ASPIRATIONS IN 2005-06.

Even if the Leafs are being 100 percent up-front about Bernier’s injury, it still doesn’t excuse Carlyle. His lapse of judgement almost certainly kept Bernier out of Sunday’s 4-2 loss at Washington. There is no guarantee, of course, that Leafs would have won that game with Bernier, but he is their No. 1 goalie and will miss a second match tonight in Detroit. Who knows to what extent the needless muscle aggravation will hamper Bernier down the stretch and – potentially – into the playoffs? This is why a coach should never defer in such matters.

Irrelevant in this argument is the obvious capability of Reimer. No person would be shocked if the Leafs’ back-up goalie held the fort, so to speak, for however long Bernier is either unavailable or hobbled by the injury. Still, Bernier was acquired by Dave Nonis last June to supplant Reimer in the starter’s role and after some dithering by Carlyle, he did just that. At no point in the season is Bernier’s presence more critical than right now – with the Maple Leafs not yet assured of a playoff spot and battling for a top-three finish in the Atlantic Division.

Clearly, Reimer should have both started and finished the game in L.A.

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