Paralysis By Analysis

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 10) — Let’s see now… what have we learned about the Toronto Maple Leafs after one whole game of the 2014-15 season?

Well…

? The top line of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk couldn’t check a suitcase nor can Fast Phil be trusted with a golden, late-game chance.

? Stuart Percy is the leading candidate for the Calder and Norris trophies.

? If you want to beat Jonathan Bernier, straddle the goalline. He’ll stop anything head-on unless five teammates completely ignore P.K. Subban.

? David Clarkson is the NHL’s comeback-player-of-the-year.

? So much for all that bullsh– about analytics.

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THE MAPLE LEAFS–CANADIENS REGULAR-SEASON OPENER AT AIR CANADA CENTRE WAS GIVEN THE FULL MONTY BY THE TORONTO STAR: ON ITS FRONT PAGE (ABOVE) AND SPORTS FRONT (BELOW).

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Look, I understand the need for a reporter to submit analysis of every Maple Leafs game. I did it for 17 years at The FAN-590 and I miss doing it. With social media and Leafs-related websites, it’s a different ballgame today. In the Foreword to Al Stachan’s enjoyable biography of Wayne Gretzky (now out in trade-paperback and I’ll have more later), columnist Roy MacGregor of the Globe and Mail writes aptly about changes in the hockey media landscape:

It is impossible to speak alone [today] with a professional athlete. The moment his mouth opens, small hand-held recorders and iPhones press in on him to vacuum up every word – many of the recorder holders not paying the slightest attention or, for that matter, even bothering to look at the player. Whatever he says, even the most utterly meaningless — “the first goal is important… we have to play desperate hockey” — is instantly sent out on Twitter.

During the majority of my years covering the Leafs (1993–2010), I had the best media gig in town. Social media was a thing of the future and immediate information could be garnered only by listening to the radio. If a story broke, I could discuss it all afternoon on Canada’s only all-sports station. You wouldn’t see anything about it until the supper-hour TV sportscasts or read about it until the next morning. So, yes, as Roy MacGregor points out, the way of “doing things” has surely changed (whether for better or worse is a matter of opinion). I am rather amused by the glut of mandatory dissection today, but it’s terrific that fans have access to so much Blue and White blather. It’s called “feeding the beast” and there is no shortage of attraction or curiosity.

Still, there has to be some perspective and it’s nearly impossible to maintain equilibrium when information and opinion is coming at you from 20 different directions — often at the same time. I mean, think about it: Nearly 72 hours will pass between the end of Wednesday night’s game against Montreal and the start of Saturday night’s visit to Air Canada Centre by Crosby, Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins. That allows three days for media and fans to dismember a 1/82nd sample-size of the Maple Leafs schedule. Suppose the top line scores three goals against Pittsburgh and Stuart Percy is on the ice for three Penguins goals. Are Bozak, Kessel and van Riemsdyk suddenly unstoppable; Percy a sieve? Then, what happens if the situation reverses itself Sunday night at Madison Square Garden? You see what I’m getting at?

The NHL season is way too long for even the most benign conclusion to be drawn from Opening Night. Compounding the issue is the carryover effect. The “same old Leafs” undercurrent was pervasive in the moments after Montreal’s late, 4-3 triumph. Yes, Dion Phaneuf looked on with both hands gripping his stick as Max Pacioretty breezed past him; cut toward the net at an impossible angle and scored on the game’s first shot – one that most of us would have stopped, yet somehow fooled Bernier. Yes, Bernier yielded his share of head-scratchers a year ago. Yes, the “same old Leafs” were on full display leading to the Habs’ winning goal: Brandon Kozun made an errant pass in the attacking zone… there was no urgency whatsoever on the back-check through the neutral zone… Roman Polak (a first-year Leaf) lazily tried to inhibit Tomas Plekanec with stick rather than body (Plekanec’s centering pass caromed in off the skate of Percy with 43 seconds left). And yes, wouldn’t you know, the Maple Leafs were out-shot. Been there — seen that.

It was, nonetheless, the first game of a new season after a summer in which the Leafs put a fair amount of work and money into altering their well-heeled propensities. Does the club not deserve maybe a couple of weeks before a “same old” declaration? At least, no one was klutzy enough to write that the Maple Leafs are off to a “bad start.” Small mercies are better than none.

THE “GREAT” BIOGRAPHY

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Al Strachan’s biography of Wayne Gretzky had the misfortune of coming out at the same time as Bobby Orr’s autobiography. For those those that aren’t aware, there’s a difference: Biographical work is written about a subject; autobiographical work is generated by the subject, in the first-person (often with a ghost-writer). Autobiographies are generally more popular and easy to read, though not necessarily better-written or as penetrating. Much depends on the subject… and the author. Given that Gretzky and Orr are largely considered to be the greatest hockey players of all time — and that Gretzky’s career was more recent — I found it puzzling that Orr’s book sold much better. It was a No. 1 seller throughout Canada and, I’m told, did very well (for obvious reasons) in and around Boston. I just now got around to reading the Gretzky book and was pleasantly surprised. Of course, Gretzky’s name, alone, is alluring and Strachan can spin a yarn as well as any hockey writer. As such, the first-person element – in my view – was hardly a make-or-break factor.

It was Strachan who wrote in the first-person, availing himself (and his readers) of a long and close relationship with Gretzky. At times — particularly near the beginning of the book, which often grabs or loses the reader — Al was a bit schmaltzy about that relationship; his affection for The Great One, though genuine, a bit over the top. Otherwise, it was a terrific read, enhanced by the personal reflections and stories that Strachan assembled through his many years of association with Gretzky and Glen Sather, who coached and managed the unparalleled Edmonton Oiler teams of the 1980’s.

The book is now available in trade-paperback for $19.95 CAD / $17.95 U.S.

I strongly recommend it for hockey fans of all ages.

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