By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Oct. 28) — If I had $100 for every groan from a Maple Leafs player about the unpalatable Air Canada Centre climate, my down-payment on the Bridle Path would have long ago been submitted. And, I’m referring to groans merely in the past decade.
For those unaware, the Bridle Path is a residential neighborhood in mid-town Toronto with gaudy mansions that range in value from $1.4 to $27 million. In other words, a little more than I’m coughing up to rent my apartment three miles southwest (even at $2,100 a month). It provides an example of how frequently wearers of the Toronto hockey uniform whine about appearing before the ghoulish denizens of downtown. “Oh, the horror of playing at home,” they snivel after another in a monotonous chain of lifeless exhibitions. “We’re so much more relaxed on the road.”
Hasn’t it grown tiresome, folks? And, isn’t such whimpering a measure of character more than reaction to a tangible performance barrier? I mean, seriously — every year we are treated to the same flimsy alibi: “The environment at Air Canada Centre (and Maple Leaf Gardens before that) isn’t conducive to success. Too much pressure. Fans too quick to react when we lay down our sticks and surrender to the first inkling of misfortune. Why us?” And all of that for the most expensive patronage in the National Hockey League. Doesn’t it strike you as increasingly lame?
PHIL KESSEL — IF EVEN NOTICED — WAS A STEP BEHIND EVERY BOSTON PLAYER ON SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE AS LEAFS TURNED IN ANOTHER DEPLORABLE EFFORT AGAINST THE BRUINS. CLAUS ANDERSEN GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Look around the NHL. And, start with the club most intrinsically familiar to the Leafs. The Montreal Canadiens haven’t won the Stanley Cup in 21 years, a full decade longer than any previous drought. By comparison, the Toronto hockey famine would date to the Medieval Period. How is it, then, the Canadiens manage to feed off their home crowd – responding to both apprehension and encouragement? Remember the way team and audience blended so wonderfully in the playoffs last spring? On the flip-side, have you ever heard the Bell Centre when Habs are scuffling? I certainly have. Live and in person. It is not pleasant for the boys in red. Yet, the Canadiens don’t often wither. They embrace spectator unease with a singular purpose: To recover and quell the arena environment.
The Leafs? They fold inward and then moan to reporters.
Montreal is 4-0-0 at home early in the season. Toronto is 1-4-0 — its lone victory in overtime against Colorado; three of its four losses (to Pittsburgh, Detroit and Boston) utterly humiliating. Is anyone out there going to tell me that playing in Toronto is three times more difficult than playing in Montreal? I understand it’s an introductory sample-size for 2014–15, but not really. In Montreal, though winning the Stanley Cup may not be quite so anticipated anymore, there’s an assumption the Canadiens will compete for the NHL title. Anything less is considered abject failure. Here in Toronto, and for as long as most can remember, scraping into the playoffs is reason for a municipal holiday. Even a deceptively-good finish to the schedule is viewed as progress. So, expectation cannot possibly make Toronto a more arduous city than Montreal in which to perform.
The Maple Leafs have routinely fallen flat on home ice in the post–2005 lockout era. All they’ve had to contend with during that time is a couple of unfrozen waffles; three or four discarded jerseys and lots of vocal disgruntlement — every syllable of it richly earned. When you miss the playoffs in eight of nine seasons, you cannot expect the home-folk to aniticipate glee. It has to somehow be generated on the ice and when it is, the Toronto crowd flips like a Romanian gymnast. Conversely, if the usual pattern prevails, of course the ticket-buyers will become restless. It is all they are accustomed to here (whereas in other cities, the house might be half-full). And, the Maple Leafs won’t reverse that trend by fleeing town for a couple of days — cathartic though it may seem. Only when management assembles an undercurrent of fortitude (particularly among its “leaders”) will the Air Canada Centre become what it truly is: Background noise.
Until that happens, you can expect more of the same.
RANDOM THOUGHTS: Even in the absence of Zdeno Chara, Boston rolled over the Leafs without breaking a sweat on Saturday. And, it got me thinking about players in the NHL (excluding goalies) that, if injured, are impossible to compensate for. Such players have to be defensemen that gobble up 25 to 30 minutes of ice-time. Chara, in my view, tops the list given his gargantuan size, reach and strength. Drew Doughty and P.K. Subban would be next in line… In nearly three decades of Coach’s Corner — whether it be Dave Hodge, Ron MacLean or Ken Daniels (who occasionally sat in with Don Cherry) — the host has never, in my recollection, sat mute for the entire show. That’s what MacLean did on Saturday night, as an emotional Cherry spoke about fallen Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent — killed last week in separate acts of home-land barbarity. Conservatively attired, Cherry implored Canadians to blend sympathy with financial aid to the families of each man. It was vintage Grapes, in the most appropriate way…
RON MacLEAN SITS QUIETLY AND REVERENTLY AS DON CHERRY ASKS CANADIANS TO SUPPORT THE FAMILIES OF NATHAN CIRILLO AND PATRICE VINCENT. CBC/ROGERS
Can someone please explain to me the vastly overused sports term “night in and night out?” As in so-and-so “gives his best effort night in and night out.” What does that mean? I do go out at night. Which means I’ll probably come back in at some point. But, how does it apply to a football or baseball player? And what happens to that player in a day game? It’s like hearing so-and-so “has to stay within himself.” Can you imagine someone going up to bat and there suddenly being two of the same player? Simply because he didn’t “stay within himself?” I don’t get it… Sportsnet here in Canada made an exceptional move by grabbing Dave Randorf from TSN as one of its hockey play-by-play men. I always liked Randorf as host of TSN’s Canadian Football League intermission panel. Only now am I learning to appreciate how versatile he is. Dave is also a very polished speaker, as I discovered at an event hosted by Ryerson University last week. The renowned school of business and communications in downtown Toronto has launched a Sports Media program with 60 inaugural students. A reception was held on Thursday at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Maple Leaf Gardens. Speakers included Ryerson grad Randorf; legendary sports TV executive Rick Brace and the esteemed president of Ryerson, Sheldon Levy, who will step down in 2015… I think I’m going to run for public office. If the new mayor of Toronto – John Tory – can go from radio to City Hall, why can’t I?… Tory is an impressive speaker and business-person. He has never received proper due for holding together the fragile Canadian Football League during his term as commissioner from 1996 to 2000. I still have newspaper columns and stories from the 1996 Grey Cup in Hamilton suggesting it would be the final CFL championship game. Tory was among those that assured it would not be… My only thought for the new mayor: If you honestly wish to ease the traffic paralysis in our city, you must somehow convince two million people to live elsewhere. The Toronto infrastructure cannot accommodate nearly six million residents. Not even close…
THE NEW MAYOR… THE OLD COMMISSIONER. CITY TV
It’ll be interesting to see if the Kansas City Royals have one more post-season bullet. San Francisco Giants are clearly the deeper, more experienced team with the big-game, money pitcher (Madison Bumgarner) a World Series dynasty cannot do without. And make no mistake, if the Giants win for the third time in five years, it will be a dynasty and provide California five major sports championships since 2010 (Los Angeles Kings the other two)… My friend Kevin McGran said it best in the Toronto Star on Monday: “Indeed, the only team for which the Air Canada Centre is tough to play in is the Maple Leafs”… I really enjoy what FOX has done during the World Series by conducting live interviews with starting pitchers of the next game. The players are at ease, knowing they will not be called upon that night, and have provided good TV with announcers Joe Buck, Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci. Jake Peavy of San Francisco and James Shields of Kansas City were particularly jocular.
I had to chuckle at this gaffe in the Toronto Star on the weekend. We know the Canadian Football League has, at times, struggled with attendance, but it’s never been quite as bad as the Star indicated in its box-score of the Alouettes–RedBlacks game in Ottawa Friday night:
Just in time for Halloween, The Hockey News has come out with one of its best-ever theme issues. The Nov. 3, 2014 edition (below) is indeed macabre and it features arguably the most unflattering picture ever of a hockey player (Zdeno Chara two images down). But, it’s great reading and a terrific presentation by Jason Kay and his staff.
KEN CAMPBELL’S MOVING ARTICLE ABOUT ZACH AND JEAN-PAUL PARISE IS A MUST READ. J.P PARISE WAS A TENACIOUS FORWARD WITH THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS AND MINNESOTA NORTH STARS IN THE 1970’s AND A MEMBER OF THE LEGENDARY CANADIAN SQUAD THAT TOOK ON THE RUSSIANS IN SEPTEMBER 1972. HE IS DYING OF CANCER. THE STORY REVEALS HOW ZACH PARISE’S FATHER IS CONFRONTING HIS FATE.
In this part of the world, peak Autumn colors for 2014 have come and gone. I had one last chance to grab the trusty NIKON and cruise the area — last Friday — near my mid-Toronto apartment:
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