Leafs Hiring Spott On

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (July 14) – Here’s a prediction: Steve Spott will be the next head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Take it to the bank.

Precisely when this will happen remains a mystery but I’m thinking two years at the absolute latest, providing Randy Carlyle serves the entire term of his contract extension. You may be snickering at my benevolence – unable to imagine Carlyle surviving until 2016. He is, however, the head coach right now and unless the Maple Leafs improve their roster, winning enough games to make the playoffs will be quite a challenge. To condemn Carlyle for such a deficit may not be fair, though he’ll remain the likeliest target. In Spott, the Leafs have added a younger (by 12 years), contemporary figure. Assistant coaches act primarily as a buffer between the head man and the players. Spott is more indulgent than Carlyle and he worked splendidly with the inexperienced faction on the Toronto Marlies – guiding the team, in his first year, to the American Hockey League (Calder Cup) semifinal. It’s difficult to envision the Leafs allowing him to slip away as they did Dallas Eakins when he left last summer to coach the Edmonton Oilers.

That said, retaining Spott would buck a franchise trend.

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STEVE SPOTT (RIGHT) STANDS BEHIND THE TORONTO MARLIES BENCH NEXT TO ASSISTANT COACH (AND FORMER MAPLE LEAFS WINGER) DEREK KING.

Only four times since their 1967 Stanley Cup conquest have the Leafs developed a coach. John McLellan replaced Punch Imlach behind the bench in 1969-70 and maneuvered Leafs into the playoffs in 1971 and 1972. Dan Maloney retired as a player and was coach of the team in 1984-85 and 1985-86. The tempestuous John Brophy replaced Maloney and served parts of three seasons behind the bench during the most turbulent decade in club history (Leaf “lifer” George Armstrong briefly and reluctantly filled in after Brophy was fired midway through the 1988-89 schedule). Clearly the best of the post-1967 lot was the late Roger Neilson. Promoted from Dallas of the Central Hockey League by Harold Ballard in 1977-78, “Captain Video” – as he was known – guided the Leafs to a 92-point season and their first Stanley Cup semifinal appearance since 1967. He survived the Ballard circus for two years.

The other 13 men to coach the Maple Leafs since Imlach was fired in April 1969 (Red Kelly, Floyd Smith, Joe Crozier, Mike Nykoluk, Doug Carpenter, Tom Watt, Pat Burns, Nick Beverley, Mike Murphy, Pat Quinn, Paul Maurice, Ron Wilson and Carlyle) began their careers elsewhere.

Nurturing Spott and grooming him to become Carlyle’s successor would therefore connote a shift in team philosophy and mesh with the apparent (and wise) blueprint of Brendan Shanahan and David Nonis to develop from within. Right now, there is no evidence that Spott has been hired (along with Peter Horacek) to ultimately replace Carlyle. A progressively-thinking club, however, would make such a move with an eye on the future. And, I sense the Maple Leafs have finally adopted a progressive game-plan. As such, Steve Spott will become the 29th coach in team history. The only question is… when?

WEEKEND THOUGHTS: Not sure about you, but I’m going to miss all the near-death experiences in the World Cup. Soccer is grand theater – literally and figuratively… I wonder if Gary Bettman would have been booed had he presented the World Cup trophy to Germany instead of FIFA boss Sepp Blatter?… Toronto Raptors’ play-caller Matt Devlin capably filled in for Buck Martinez on TV during the Blue Jays series at Tampa Bay over the weekend. I love Matt – I think he’s one of the best in the business – but I also get a kick out of him. For example, all weekend long, he referred to broadcast partner Pat Tabler as “Tabby.” Not once, have I ever heard Martinez call Tabler anything but “Pat.” And, never do I recall Devlin referring to his basketball sidekick Jack Armstrong as “Army.” Go figure. I also chuckle when I hear Matt talk about Blue Jays center-fielder Colby Rasmus, whom he pronounces “Rass-Miss.” I’m just horsing around here with Devlin. As mentioned, he’s a terrific and versatile member of the local broadcasting contingent. And a good guy, to boot. We’re fortunate to have him… Is there a rule that all English play callers in soccer have to be from Great Britain? I’ve never heard anyone with a North American accent call a big international match. And, it cracks me up when just about every British announcer follows a goal with “Ohhhhhhh brillllllllliant!” Imagine Joe Bowen using that instead of “Holy Mackinaw!” and vice versa… Soccer fans are known for emotional and sometimes violent responses. But, given that Rio de Janeiro was not reduced to rubble after Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany in the World Cup semifinal, we may have to think differently.  

TORONTO BLEW JAYS

In fairness, it is difficult to chastise our baseball team here in Toronto, even though it has plummeted 10 games in the American League East in the past 38 days. During a wondrous stretch in May and early-June, the Blue Jays went 20-4; had the second-best record in the Majors and led their Division by six games. Then the wheels began to fall off. Since a June 6 victory over St. Louis at Rogers Centre, the Jays are 11-23 and have just concluded a disastrous road trip (2-8) through Oakland, Anaheim and St. Petersburg, Fla. There is, however, no way to minimize that the club has been without four of its top five hitters (Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind) at various times throughout the downturn and has needed to fill holes with an assortment of call-ups from Triple-A Buffalo. With unpredictability among starting pitchers and a mostly unreliable bullpen, there’s no way the ballclub can withstand such a deluge of injury to its top bats-men.

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BLUE JAYS NOSEDIVE BEGAN AFTER THIS JUNE 6 GAME AT ROGERS CENTRE.

Sadly for the Blue Jays, it has cost them a remarkable opportunity with fans that are begging for an outlet. The Leafs continue to break more hearts than George Clooney. The NBA Raptors spiked adrenaline for a couple of enthralling weeks in May. But, an entire generation of baseball observers here in Toronto hasn’t a clue of what it feels like to experience so-called “pennant fever” and meaningful games in mid-to-late-September. Even casual followers of Major League Baseball will know the Blue Jays’ last playoff moment was Joe Carter’s walk-off home run at SkyDome against Philadelphia that won the 1993 World Series. Original fans of the ballclub in 1977 had to wait only seven years for such excitement and once it began, it lasted more than a decade.

During its unparalleled stretch of 24 games in May and June, the current squad elevated baseball promise like we haven’t seen since the championship years of the early-90’s. I attended the aforementioned June 6 clash at the ‘Dome with St. Louis. The Jays prevailed 3-1 and were miles in front of Baltimore atop the A.L. East. Complete strangers slapped high-fives and chanted “Let’s Go Blue Jays!” when leaving the Rogers Centre that night. For me, it was a powerful sense of deja vu – having been privileged to cover the World Series era two decades ago for The FAN-590. The Saturday (June 7) game against the Cardinals, however, began what we now recognize as the famed “Toronto collapse” – patented by the CFL Argonauts of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s; cemented by the 1987 Blue Jays and copied rather spectacularly by the Maple Leafs in each of the past three NHL seasons (the ’87 Jays, if you aren’t aware, spit up a 3½-game lead over Detroit in the final week by losing seven in a row – the last four games at old Tiger Stadium).

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TORONTO STAR SPORTS FRONT OF OCT. 5, 1987.

The sheer length of the Major League season allows forgiveness for teams that put together a monstrous streak in the first couple of months. As such, the 20-4 run has kept the Blue Jays well within striking distance of a Division title or wild card playoff berth. Toronto is in second place, four games behind Baltimore, and is tied with Kansas City, 2½ games in back of Seattle, for the second W.C. spot (Los Angeles Angels lead the W.C. pack in the American League by 6½ games). So, a rare, meaningful September here in town is hardly out of the question.

Imagine, however, the excitement heading into the All-Star break had the Blue Jays not plummeted after the opening week of June? Toronto baseball fans got their first-such taste 31 years ago this month when the young Blue Jays of Lloyd Moseby, Willie Upshaw, George Bell, Jesse Barfield and Alfredo Griffin came alive under manager Bobby Cox. Leading the A.L. East by two games over Baltimore, the Jays were featured – for the first time in franchise history – on national TV in the United States. ABC sent its Monday Night Baseball crew to Exhibition Stadium for a game against the Kansas City Royals on July 18, 1983. The telecast was billed as “Who are these unknowns from the north?” and it drew one of the largest television audiences of the season.

An appearance by the indomitable Howard Cosell was all the rage here in town, as Cosell sat alongside Al Michaels and ex-Orioles manager Earl Weaver in the broadcast booth. The Blue Jays performed splendidly on the big stage – demolishing Kansas City 8-2 and receiving one of the all-time defensive gems in team history from shortstop Alfredo Griffin, who was co-winner (along with Minnesota’s John Castino) of the 1979 American League rookie-of-the-year.

From my scrapbook collection, here is a look at that seminal night for the Blue Jays and baseball in Toronto 31 years ago this week:               

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TORONTO SUN COVER THE MORNING AFTER JAYS AND ROYALS.

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HEADING INTO THE GAME (ABOVE AND BELOW).

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TORONTO STAR GAME STORY (ABOVE AND BELOW).

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BOXSCORE: ROYALS at JAYS, JULY 18, 1983.

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GLOBE AND MAIL GAME STORY.

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FROM THE TORONTO SUN (ABOVE AND BELOW).

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TORONTO STAR TV COLUMN.

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LEGENDARY TORONTO SPORTS COLUMNISTS – NO LONGER WITH US – FOLLOWED THE BLUE JAYS SUDDEN RISE TO PROMINENCE IN 1983 (ABOVE AND BELOW).

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FROM LATER IN THE KANSAS CITY SERIES, A TORONTO STAR PHOTO FEATURING BLUE JAYS CATCHER AND CURRENT TV PLAY-CALLER BUCK MARTINEZ.

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YES, TEMPERATURES WERE HIGH AROUND HERE.

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