By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 20) — Actually, and I beg pardon of The Beatles, it was 20 years ago tonight. Late tonight Eastern Standard Time.
Professionally, it became a milestone — my first game covering the Toronto Maple Leafs as a full–time hockey reporter at Canada’s first all–sports radio station, The FAN–590. Historically, it was a Toronto hockey milestone: The first game played in a Maple Leafs jersey by the man that today sits atop the all–time club scoring list.
Yes, it was two decades ago tonight — Jan. 20, 1995, a Friday — that Mats Sundin debuted in blue and white. At the old Forum in Inglewood, Calif. against Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. The start of a 48–game National Hockey League schedule truncated by the first of (to date) three owners’ lockouts. Leafs were still in the Western Conference and all games were played against Conference opponents — as would again be the case 18 years later during the 48–game season of 2012–13.
As such, travel dominated the abbreviated calendar for the Leafs — and yours truly — who spent much time on jets heading to and fro between California, Texas, the American mid–west and western Canada.
PROGRAM: KINGS vs. MAPLE LEAFS AT THE L.A. FORUM 20 YEARS AGO TONIGHT.
END OF LOCKOUT: My lifetime record for sleep deprivation – 37 hours and 50 minutes – was established during the marathon bargaining that ended the NHL labor impasse. I awoke in New York at 7:30 a.m. on Monday (Jan. 9, 1995) and finally collapsed onto my hotel bed at 9:20 p.m. Tuesday. In between, the NHL (led by second-year commissioner Gary Bettman) and the NHL Players Association (led by executive director Bob Goodenow) held discussions that nearly wiped out the entire shootin’ match. With a breakthrough or a total collapse of negotiation possible at any moment, reporters on hand dared not retire to their hotel rooms. Even the time invested by those with a full urinary bladder created undue anxiety over a “missed” announcement.
MY OLD PAL ARTHUR PINCUS (TOP–LEFT) KEPT THE MEDIA IN NEW YORK INFORMED OF THE NHL OWNERS’ AGENDA WHILE MAPLE LEAFS PRESIDENT AND GENERAL MANAGER CLIFF FLETCHER (TOP–RIGHT) MAINTAINED CONTACT WITH ANXIOUS REPORTERS IN TORONTO.
FINALLY, IT WAS OVER. DOUG GILMOUR (TOP–LEFT) TORE INTO A PLATE OF SPAGHETTI WHILE COACH PAT BURNS (RIGHT) DISPLAYED A COPY OF THE LEAFS 48–GAME SCHEDULE.
The Leafs of ’95 were essentially the team that advanced to consecutive Conference finals the previous two springs… with one big difference. Sundin had been acquired from Quebec in a trade that sent Wendel Clark to the Nordiques minutes before the 1994 NHL draft in Hartford. Engineered by GM Cliff Fletcher and coach Pat Burns, the shake-up did not have the intended effect – chiefly because the team’s best player, Doug Gilmour, could not maintain his phenomenal pace.
Between January 1992 (when he was acquired from Calgary) and the Stanley Cup drive of 1994, Gilmour was the greatest player in Leafs history – establishing single–season club records for assists (95); points (127) and playoff points (35). Burns used Gilmour in every key situation during the ’92–93 and ’93–94 seasons and the smallish center ultimately ran out of gas. His uncompromising determination never waned but Gilmour’s stamina (owing to a pair of achy feet) diminished, as did a split–second of timing in his magical, play–making hands. It resulted in the Leafs becoming a very average team in the shortened ’95 campaign.
It was, however, a unique season, given its (at the time) unprecedented delay and last–minute salvation (by the width of a razor-blade) in New York when all seemed lost. Moments after the NHL announced its teams would play a 48–game schedule among Conference opponents, I received a call from now–defunct Warwick Publishing asking if I’d be interested in following the Leafs through the abbreviated campaign for a book. I ran the idea past Burns, who generously allowed me access to the team bus and to charter flights (when desired). I would cover the Leafs game–by–game, home and away, until the start of the 2009–10 season, when new management at the radio station felt it no longer worthwhile and feasible to accord the Blue & White blanket coverage.
TORONTO AND L.A. TIED 3–3 IN SUNDIN’S FIRST LEAF GAME 20 YEARS AGO TONIGHT.
THAT’S SUNDIN (WEARING JOFA HELMET) IN MIDDLE OF TORONTO SUN PHOTO.
Twenty years ago tonight marked the first of 981 games Sundin played for the Maple Leafs through the end of the 2008–09 NHL season. He would replace Gilmour as captain in September 1997, thus becoming the first European–born skater to wear the ‘C’ in Toronto. Today — nearly seven years after his last game as a Leaf (at Montreal, Apr. 5, 2008) — Sundin remains atop the all–time club scoring list with 987 points, 71 more than fellow Hall–of–Famer Darryl Sittler. Mats would score his first of 420 career goals as a Leaf (also a team record) the following night in San Jose, as the Sharks dumped the Leafs 3–2. Sundin (as per Toronto Star photo, below) victimized goalie Arturs Irbe.
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