By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Nov. 21) — That the Maple Leafs petulantly slithered off the ice Thursday night at Air Canada Centre without the common stick–raising salute to their fans was typical of a team entirely devoid of character.
In that regard, it should have surprised no one.
Before we go further, it must be understood that the Leafs have never initiated a custom. All they do is follow. The stick–raising salute in the center circle after a home–ice victory began with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden three seasons ago. The Leafs, and the rest of the National Hockey League, quickly caught on. Buffalo and Chicago had long–ago originated the annoying goal–horn before the Maple Leafs installed a particularly irritating one in the organ loft at Air Canada Centre. Passing a huge Canadian flag across the mid-level seats during the national anthem? Began in Ottawa and was copied by the Leafs. Montreal initiated on–ice projection during its pre–game hullabaloo more than a decade ago but the Maple Leafs were too cheap to install the device until this season. That comes directly from the person in charge of such imaging in the NHL. Now, it is common at every Toronto home game. Banner raising? Patented in Montreal; the Maple Leafs following suit more than a generation later, after the death of curmudgeonly Harold Ballard.
As I scan my memory, I can think of only one custom the Leafs have initiated (and maintained) — “honoring” jersey numbers instead of retiring them. This has allowed such comparative lightweights as Stan Weir, Mike Kaszycki, Miroslav Frycer, Darby Hendrickson and Matt Stajan to continue wearing the No. 14 jersey of the greatest player in franchise history. Is it therefore any wonder that Dave Keon excuses himself from nearly every Leaf–organized event? As a comparison, Keon must simply look at how the Canadiens treat his all-time contemporary, Maurice Richard. The Rocket is more revered posthumously by the Habs than the full–of–life Keon is by the Leafs. So, the collective middle–finger accorded fans by the current players on Thursday night — while disgraceful — was hardly the snub of anything originating here in hockey’s center of the universe.
I HAVE LONG CONSIDERED DION PHANEUF A BETTER LEAFS CAPTAIN THAN THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY. BUT, DION SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF HIMSELF FOR SANCTIONING THE STICK-RAISING SNUB OF FANS ON THURSDAY NIGHT; DOUBLY ASHAMED FOR ADDING TO IT WITH A LAME EXCUSE.
That said, any Leaf supporter who believes the utter and insulting bullsh– from captain Dion Phaneuf about slinking off the ice as a “way to change things up” will soon be looking for swampland in Death Valley. Even a Toronto shinny fan cannot be that oblivious. This was a deliberately concocted “up–yours” by some dressing room genius and clearly sanctioned by the “leaders” of the team: Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. Though I cannot be sure, my sense is that Joffrey Lupul came up with the brilliant idea, for it was Lupul who whined loudest about the Air Canada Centre outcry Tuesday night while his team was losing by a converted touchdown to Nashville. Regardless of origin, either Phaneuf, Kessel or both should have immediately shot down any such concept. In fact, were they to care about being inventive for a change, perhaps the Leaf players could take to bowing to the denizens of the ACC after victories. For, in no place on the North American professional sports map — with the possible exception of Wrigley Field — would consumers habitually subject themselves to degradation, defeat and unconscionable price gouging.
Were he a truly strong leader, Brendan Shanahan would have already spoken out against his players’ sniveling display. After all, the Leafs president grew up in west–Toronto and understands, full well, how inexplicably fortunate the club is to retain such an unconditional following. If you’ve heard anything from ol’ Brendan, let me know. Chances are, he has chosen to sweep under the rug this episode like every other indignity perpetrated on Toronto’s indulgent hockey fans through the years. Next time the Maple Leafs win a game at Air Canada Centre, Shanahan and the entire front office should join the spoiled brats wearing blue jerseys for a communal acknowledgement at center–ice.
Such a gesture, though, might further expose the massive leadership void on the hockey club; one that its chief lieutenants refuse to address. Far better, I suppose, to ignore — as most would a toddler in mid–tantrum.
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