By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (June 21) – Welcome, officially, to summer.
Every year at this time – prior to the National Hockey League’s “silly season” – fans in the big markets begin to dream in technicolor. This market, in particular, hungers for any morsel of information – real or imagined – that may augment the only NHL club to have not made the playoffs in an 82-game season since the 2005 lockout.
But, ardent followers of the Toronto Maple Leafs – disenchanted by years of unfulfilled promise – have wizened up in the past decade. The intelligent among them are now immune to flowery words and catch-phrases. Young Leaf rooters have absolutely no concept of team success – the seven-game playoff whoops! against Boston in May 2013 being their lone (and bitter) taste. Consider that a hockey enthusiast in this city has to be in his/her early-20’s to have even the faintest recollection of the 2002 playoffs, when the Maple Leafs last skated in the Conference final – losing in six games to Carolina. As for the Stanley Cup final… well, even somebody my age has to strain the memory. And I’m 55. The Centennial Year championship under Punch Imlach is best recalled by those in their 60’s and 70’s. Yes, it really has been that long.
A HOCKEY FAN IN HIS OR HER LATE-‘TEENS WOULD STILL NOT REMEMBER PAT QUINN LEADING THE MAPLE LEAFS TO THE STANLEY CUP SEMIFINALS IN 2002.
We must therefore look at the Maple Leafs through a 20/20 lens. And consider – pragmatically – what to expect from the club this summer.
In the context of free agency, and as it pertains to an impact player, only one question need be pondered: Is Toronto, at this point, an appealing alternative for an individual with multiple options? The easy, impulsive answer is “no” but there are factors to consider beyond the plight of the Maple Leafs. Those, for example, that have performed well in a tepid hockey market may wish ply their trade in a city where people live and breathe the game. Marketing opportunity abounds for virtually anyone that pulls on the Blue and White jersey. Others will be attracted to a clean, vibrant city with the same traffic nightmare as less-clean, vibrant cities. New direction at the top with Brendan Shanahan may signal a halt to the downward spiral (though we’ve heard that from others). Most alluring, of course, is the ethereal notion of one day raising the Stanley Cup in this town for the first time since 1967 and being part of a group that eradicates the longest-such famine. So, yes, there is, and likely always will be, incentive to play hockey in our burgh.
Obviously, there is a weighted flip-side that includes – in no particular order – having to repeatedly experience and answer for failure; attempting to move around in a municipal hell-hole that sanctions road construction on every north-south artery at the same time, plus the likelihood of being recognized and disturbed anywhere outside the home. People will say this comes with the territory and lifetime financial security, but the latter can be attained in less-maniacal hockey territory amid such weather climes as Florida and California. So, the downside of joining the Maple Leafs – especially at this juncture – is considerable.
THERE IS NOTHING INDIFFERENT ABOUT HOCKEY IN TORONTO AND SMILES CAN TURN TO FROWNS VERY QUICKLY. IT IS NOT EVERY PLAYER’S CUP OF TEA.
Such reticence has not been noticeable through the years with one prime exception: Since the advent of unrestricted free agency in 1995, the Maple Leafs have only once attracted the clear plumb of the crop – Curtis Joseph in 1998. And it wouldn’t have happened had Ken Dryden and Don Meehan not bumped into each other while buying ice cream one night in early July. Despite his subsequent performance, an argument can be made that David Clarkson was the best available UFA last summer. After seasons of 17 and 30 goals in New Jersey, the feisty Clarkson chose – amid a number of options – to play in his home town.
Others have done the same, with varying results.
Gary Roberts, Steve Thomas (born in England but raised here) and Joe Nieuwendyk played well for the Maple Leafs. Roberts and Nieuwendyk couldn’t wait to pull on the blue-and-white jersey and couldn’t wait to tear the damned thing off – together – in the summer of 2005.
When considering the repercussion of free agency, one factor stands alone: It is virtually impossible to buy a Stanley Cup team. The great champions of the past 20 years – New Jersey, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles – have deployed the traditional, tried-and-true method of drafting well; developing from within and prudently trading for reinforcement. Drew Doughty may be the best hockey player on Earth right now. The Kings chose him second overall in 2008, knowing he would become a franchise cornerstone. Doughty and the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 before falling off a year ago. Seeking another opportunity this season – but fighting to score goals – general manager Dean Lombardi added Marian Gaborik from Columbus at the trade deadline. The result? Fourteen goals from Gaborik in 26 playoff games and a second Stanley Cup. Patrick Kane, Johnathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford were all drafted and developed by the two-time-champion Blackhawks. Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer and Patrick Elias were products of the Devils’ system and virtually the entire Detroit roster sprang from the draft – a particular credit to the eagle-eye of chief European scout Haaken Andersson.
So, it’s best to not get all crazy in the hours before July 1.
Unless Paul Stastny is available; absolutely wants to play here in Toronto, and David Nonis can afford him, the Leafs aren’t going to be made or broken in free agency. That won’t stop countless hockey zealots from breathlessly plopping in front of their TVs one week from Tuesday, but the entertainment and banter will far out-strip anything tangible from the millions being tossed about. A fan of the Maple Leafs should be more interested in trade options that could revamp a foundering nucleus and in the club continuing to nurture its decent stable of prospects. If Nonis chooses to veer from the aforementioned, nothing he accomplishes in free agency will bear results.
The proof is in the pudding – and engraved on the Stanley Cup.
EXPORT “A” CALENDARS
Back in the 1960’s, while going for my bi-weekly brush-cut, it was exciting to look around the barber shop for the Maple Leaf Gardens calendar sponsored each year by the EXPORT line of Canadian cigarettes. These were gorgeous items – 25½ inches in height; 16½ inches wide – with sparkling color photos and accents over dates on which the Leafs played. I had several of them from the 1970’s but I was given a number of older ones in 2000 by a former Maple Leafs doctor.
In the world of hockey collectibles, the EXPORT calendars are quite valuable because a) they were no longer produced after 1975 and b) there simply aren’t many of them around anymore. Here are photos of three such items that I own from the 1960’s:
1964-65 EXPORT CALENDAR
THE MEMORIAL CUP CHAMPIONS OF 1963-64 HAD A NUMBER OF FAMILIAR FACES. HAROLD BALLARD IS IN MIDDLE OF THE FRONT ROW. TO BALLARD’S LEFT ARE PETER STEMKOWSKI, COACH JIM GREGORY AND ROD SEILING. FUTURE LEAFS MIKE WALTON AND RON ELLIS ARE PLAYERS FLANKING THE MIDDLE ROW. JIM McKENNY IS SECOND-FROM-RIGHT AMONG PLAYERS IN THE THIRD ROW. AND BRIT SELBY IS IN FAR-RIGHT OF THE FOURTH ROW. SELBY WOULD WIN THE CALDER TROPHY TWO YEARS LATER.
1966-67 EXPORT CALENDAR
MY FIRST LEAFS GAME WAS SATURDAY, DEC. 3, 1966 vs. DETROIT.
BRIT SELBY WITH FRIEND.?
PHOTOS OF MINOR LEAGUE CHAMPIONS WERE PART OF CALENDAR.
YOU MIGHT RECOGNIZE THE PLAYER IN MIDDLE OF THE SECOND ROW. HE’S ON TV IN CANADA EVERY SATURDAY NIGHT. DON CHERRY WAS A DEFENSEMAN WITH THE AHL-CHAMPION ROCHESTER AMERICANS IN 1963-64. TO CHERRY’S LEFT IN THIS PHOTO IS FUTURE HALL-OF-FAME COACH AL ARBOUR – ALSO A DEFENSEMAN.
1967-68 EXPORT CALENDAR
IN OCTOBER 1967, THE MAPLE LEAFS PLAYED PLAYED EXPANSION TEAMS FOR THE FIRST TIME – HOSTING LOS ANGELES KINGS ON THE 25TH AND CALIFORNIA SEALS THREE NIGHTS LATER. THE NHL GREW FROM SIX TO 12 CLUBS THAT SEASON.
MORE FUTURE LEAFS AND NHLers WERE PART OF THE 1966-67 MEMORIAL CUP CHAMPS. BRIAN GLENNIE WAS THE MARLIES CAPTAIN (MIDDLE OF ROW 1). GLENNIE WAS FLANKED BY STAFFORD SMYTHE TO HIS RIGHT AND HAROLD BALLARD TO HIS LEFT. HALL-OF-FAMER BRAD PARK IS SECOND-FROM-LEFT IN THE SECOND ROW. AND FUTURE LEAFS DEFENSEMAN MIKE PELYK IS FOURTH-FROM-RIGHT IN THE SECOND ROW.
MARCH 1968 WAS A BUSY MONTH AT THE GARDENS. ON SUNDAY THE 3rd, LEAFS TRADED FRANK MAHOVLICH TO DETROIT IN THE MULTI-PLAYER DEAL THAT BROUGHT NORM ULLMAN AND PAUL HENDERSON TO TORONTO. ON MAR. 7, THE GARDENS WAS SITE OF A GAME BETWEEN BOSTON AND PHILADELPHIA THAT FEATURED A LEGENDARY STICK-FIGHT BETWEEN EDDIE SHACK OF THE BRUINS AND LARRY ZEIDEL OF THE EXPANSION FLYERS. PHILLY PLAYED A “HOME” GAME IN TORONTO WHILE ROOF-DAMAGE TO THE SPECTRUM WAS BEING REPAIRED. AND MAHOVLICH PLAYED HIS FIRST GAME AS A RED WING AT THE GARDENS ON MAR. 9. HE SCORED EARLY ON BRUCE GAMBLE BUT LEAFS SCRAMBLED BACK FROM A 4-0 DEFICIT TO WIN THE MATCH, 7-5.
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