By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 6) — If at first you don’t succeed, try 19 more times.
That may not sound particularly functional but how often, in nearly half–a–century, has such a term been applied to the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Earlier today, the coaching carousel spilled its 18th rider since Apr. 6, 1969 when George (Punch) Imlach — last man to guide a Stanley Cup team in our city — was jettisoned by owner Stafford Smythe. Forty–five years and nine months ago tonight. After a playoff loss to the Bruins at Maple Leaf Gardens I watched in person as a curious 10–year–old.
I’ll be 56 next month. And, nothing has changed.
Dither… drag feet… award contract extension… fire coach… start over. This is apparently the new method of madness in Leafs Land. Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle have been so bequeathed: Asked to stay on; then told to get lost — with quite the golden handshake. Ancestral coaching names since 1969 are largely familiar. Chronologically: John McLellan, Red Kelly, Roger Neilson, Floyd Smith, Joe Crozier, Mike Nykoluk, Dan Maloney, John Brophy, George Armstrong, Doug Carpenter, Tom Watt, Pat Burns, Nick Beverley, Mike Murphy, Pat Quinn, Paul Maurice. With Dick Duff and King Clancy subbing for the ill and injured. Does it perhaps dawn on you that coaching may not be the albatross here in town?
Or that it may, in fact, have been a solution?
GEORGE (PUNCH) IMLACH WAS FIRED BY THE MAPLE LEAFS 45 YEARS AND NINE MONTHS AGO TONIGHT. IN THE INTERIM, NOT MUCH HAS CHANGED.
There are many good hockey names on the aforementioned list; many fewer good names among those that have owned and/or managed the Leafs since that ethereal night of May 2, 1967: Smythe drinking himself to death before charges of theft and income tax evasion would land him in jail. Harold Ballard — Smythe’s co–conspirator — serving time at Millhaven before running the team into the ground with frugality, rancor and dementia. Steve Stavro cutting corners to salvage personal wherewithal after his Knob Hill Farms grocery chain foundered. The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan exercising its fiduciary obligation to engorge a multi–billion–dollar fund. Rogers Communications and Bell Canada Enterprises — bitterest of rivals — somehow trying to make due.
And, always, another coach.
In the realm of inevitability, Randy Carlyle had no chance. There was a nuclear disconnect between coach and player through most of last season, culminating in a death–spiral for the ages. The path of least resistance — and that of inevitability — should have resulted in change behind the bench before the end of April. Instead, a new president was hired; the incumbent general manager diminished and the old coach extended. More dithering… more foot–dragging… more indecision. And, likely, more confusion. Such as a comment from David Nonis to reporters at the Air Canada Centre moments after Carlyle was fired:
“We expect our players to understand right now what we need going forward. It shouldn’t take anything more than what’s happened today.”
Yeah right. I’m sure this will have a devastating effect on Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, David Clarkson, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak — all of whom were party to last season’s collapse and are secured lucratively through the end of the 2017–18 season. How many more coaches might be sacrificed before Nonis, Brendan Shanahan or someone else altogether is able to break through such a contractual fortress and assemble the proper balance of character and skill?
Keeping an eye on perspective — and as I mentioned in my previous blog (bit.ly/1Fc8TO4) — the Leafs aren’t yet over and done with. The 10–1–1 outburst in November and December, during which Carlyle appeared to be a coach–of–the–year candidate, has the club still (though tenuously) in Wild Card playoff territory with half the season ahead. And — in my opinion — with a particularly sound coaching candidate in Steve Spott, who flaunted much potential in junior with the Kitchener Rangers and in the American Hockey League last season with the Toronto Marlies. I’m far from alone in thinking that Steve can make his mark in the NHL and he’ll get that “interim” opportunity — alongside Peter Horacek — beginning tomorrow night when the Leafs host the Washington Capitals.
But, the big picture — as always — is more befuddling. Who, for instance, is calling the shots right now? Though Dave Nonis is a gentleman and a good hockey mind, it is difficult not to envision puppet–strings extending from beneath Shanahan. And there isn’t a speck of evidence that Shanahan — though a Hall–of–Fame player and capable league executive — can build, or turn around, a doddering NHL team. The prospect of any venture begins at the top, where the Maple Leafs have conflicting ownership; inexperienced and indecisive leadership.
Does a 19th coach in 45 years really stand a chance?
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