By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Aug. 16) – Though cynical minds have long dominated Leafs Nation – and with reason – the parallel drawn between current and former regimes is confusing. This anomaly came to light again with the upbeat announcement of a monument to be constructed on the west plaza of Air Canada Centre commemorating the greatest players in franchise history.
Before a single breath could be exhaled, cyberspace was humming with a derisive chant of “here we go again” – referencing the Leafs and their ardent proclivity to honor the past. The prevailing notion in the decade-and-a-half since Maple Leaf Gardens closed is that the hockey club exaggerates celebration of the 1960’s, in particular, to divert attention from the longest current Stanley Cup drought. Quite frankly, I have never been able to follow this line of thinking. Why should players that were driven maniacally by Punch Imlach to win four National Hockey League titles between 1962 and 1967 be diminished as a result of subsequent failure? If you, as an insurance salesman, broke company records 50 years ago, shouldn’t your achievement stand alone? Would you not feel slighted to be minimized as a result of that company’s regression in your absence? The simple answer: Of course you would.
Accordingly, why should Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment consider any excuse to cold-shoulder a Stanley Cup achievement – whether it happened 47 years ago (as most recently) or 96 years ago (as when the Maple Leafs forerunner, the Toronto Arenas, won the initial Cup in franchise history)? There is no downside to celebration – be it a wedding, a Baptism, a graduation or a sports championship. Though the Leafs have done a lot of things wrong since 1967, commemorating accomplishment is not among them. The club’s storied past belongs as much to the current regime – and its enormous fan-base – as to those in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. It should be liberally embraced.
SURVIVING MEMBERS OF THE 1967 STANLEY CUP LEAFS WAVE TO THE CROWD AT AIR CANADA CENTRE DURING A 40th ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION, FEB. 17, 2007.
This rings particularly true for elders, like myself, who remember the disgraceful antics of Harold Ballard in the years between 1972 and 1990. During that franchise vacuum, the embittered owner of the Leafs deliberately and increasingly scorned all reference to prior achievement, even though he had been front-and-center in the 1960’s Cup dynasty as co-proprietor of the hockey club with Stafford Smythe and John Bassett. Such living Maple Leaf legends (at the time) as Red Horner, Joe Primeau, Ted Kennedy, Syl Apps, Hap Day, Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon and Bob Baun were disdained by Ballard and unwelcome at the Gardens. Only Johnny Bower, Dick Duff and George Armstrong had keys to 60 Carlton as scouts for the club. Red Kelly coached the Maple Leafs for four seasons (1973-74 to 1976-77). All else were forgotten.
The despicable pattern ended only after Ballard died on Apr. 11, 1990 and Cliff Fletcher was anointed president and GM of the Leafs in June 1991. Fletcher’s first priority was to welcome back all former players, regardless of achievement. Whether it be Darryl Sittler or Denis Dupere, the Gardens was a place to gather for those that had worn the Blue and White. An alumni lounge was established; Stanley Cup banners were made and ceremoniously dangled from the girders (the lone misstep was emblazoning the banners with the post-1970 – and current – Leafs logo rather than those corresponding to championship years; this was corrected when the Air Canada Centre opened). Cradling of the past culminated with the closing of Maple Leaf Gardens (Feb. 13, 1999) when all living players were invited to walk onto the ice in a post-game ceremony. It ranked among the proudest displays in franchise history.
Those that succeeded Fletcher as president of the Leafs – Ken Dryden, Pat Quinn, Brian Burke and, now, Brendan Shanahan – smartly picked up on the trend. Born in 1969 and raised in Mimico, Shanahan wasn’t around for the Imlach dynasty. He was, however, a young boy when the Leafs of Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming made some noise in the late-70’s; a teenager during the bumbling Ballard era of the 80’s, and then seven years into his Hall-of-Fame career when the Pat Burns-Doug Gilmour Leafs nearly played for the Stanley Cup in 1993. So, he is well-acquainted with the Toronto hockey market and has experienced a liberal chunk of Maple Leaf history. The Legends Row monument outside Air Canada Centre becomes a Shanahan legacy even before his first game as president of the club. Not a bad way to start.
DEPICTION OF THE LEGENDS ROW MONUMENT TO BE CONSTRUCTED ON THE WEST PLAZA OF AIR CANADA CENTRE, IN MAPLE LEAFS SQUARE.
If the Leafs might consider one change, it is the frequency of pre-game commemoration at the ACC. As a former player, Shanahan is able to gauge the emotional and physical drawback to the interruption of routine and the necessity of pausing for 45 minutes between the end of warm-ups and drop of the puck. It’s an unnatural progression for players on game night and should be managed more scrupulously.
Otherwise, neither the Leafs nor their fans should consider a celebration of the past as a denouncement of the present.
PERSONAL NOTE: For nearly 20 years, Pat Park has executed the role as Maple Leafs director of media relations with fierce loyalty and immense pride. Word is he was re-assigned earlier this week by the hockey club. I have always enjoyed my association with Pat and I wish him success and happiness in all future endeavors.
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