By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 30) — Please do not consider this a swipe at the Toronto Star or hockey columnist (and my friend) Dave Feschuk. It is neither. But, clearly, the headline above Dave’s front–page composition in the Sports section today was written late Thursday night by a desk–man (or woman) in mid–yawn. It is pictured here for all to see:
Not yet into the second month of 2015, the eight words, above, have comprised a hearty bid for sports understatement–of–the–year. Good luck to any newspaper challenge between February and December. Saying the Toronto Maple Leafs can “pretty much kiss [the] playoffs goodbye” is akin to suggesting that the American green–back and Canadian loonie may not be at par when we crawl out of bed tomorrow.
Or that Marshawn Lynch is an idiot.
Bottom line is, we are all running out of ways to discuss the bleak and forlorn dressed in local National Hockey League colors. And, I’m alluding to narration from merely the past month. Heaven be with those, like yours truly, that have written, chatted about or followed the Maple Leafs for close to half–a–century. It’s like trying to find a word without a vowel.
If you and the person you are most physically attracted to were the only individuals alive, your kiss still wouldn’t contend with the playoff smooch intimated by the Toronto Star. You could neither be sustained by Viagra nor a dozen cartons of ChapStick. This lippy rendezvous began and ended in California roughly 2½ weeks ago when impotence prevailed. Had the Maple Leafs been invited into the Playboy Mansion by Hugh Hefner, himself, none would have scored. The scene was enacted, metaphorically, at the Staples and Honda Centers in Los Angeles and Anaheim when the visitors were blanked by the Kings and Ducks.
(Resistance to Viagra… shooting blanks… impotence. The pain of it all. But, like I said, hockey angles have become sparse around here.)
The fate of the Maple Leafs was determined by that road trip from hell. L.A., Anaheim, San Jose, St. Louis. 0–4–0. Three shutouts. One goal scored (by a defenseman). Plummeting toward double–digits beneath wildcard territory in the Eastern Conference. Nothing since that four–game debacle has mattered; nor will any subsequent portion of the 2014–15 schedule. The humiliation of a three–goal, third–period collapse at home against the inept Arizona Coyotes on Thursday was merely another layer of icing. More layers will follow in this desolate campaign with still 32 events on the calendar.
BEGINNING OF THE END: JAMES van RIEMSDYK AND THE LEAFS ARE BLANKED 2–0 BY THE LOS ANGELES KINGS AT STAPLES CENTER, JAN. 12. HARRY HOW GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
As such, this could become, arguably, the most difficult, unpleasant stretch of all time for Leaf zealots. Call that an exaggeration but know that even in the darkest hours of the franchise — the vacuum of the 1980’s under Harold Ballard — games mattered in late–January. The club, from top to bottom, was utterly hopeless yet still viable in an era when 16 of 21 teams qualified for the Stanley Cup tournament. Imagine, for a moment, the Maple Leafs going into the final weekend of the schedule needing one victory to make the playoffs (I know it’s difficult, but try). That was the situation on Apr. 1 and 2 of 1988. And, the club prevailed — splitting a home–and–home set with Detroit; defeating the Red Wings, 5-2, at Maple Leaf Gardens on the last night of the season. Leafs were in the Cup chase… with a colossal 52 points. That’s all it took in the 21–team NHL — a frightful record of 21–49–10.
To put it in perspective — though absurdly — the Maple Leafs today would need just five more points to clinch a playoff spot.
Instead, fans either watching on TV or graced with the opulence of season’s tickets will have to endure more than two months of exhibitions. Back in the early–90’s, when the Toronto Blue Jays were motoring toward consecutive World Series championships, I often wondered what it was like to be a fan of the worst Major League teams. At the time, only four clubs — winners of the National and American League East and West divisions — made the playoffs. There were no wildcard entries. A bad team would find itself beyond reasonable hope by the end of May, with four full months of games left on the schedule. Imagine rooting for the 1993 San Diego Padres — an appalling 61–101 and 43 massive games out of playoff contention by season’s end.
Such is the comparative misfortune of Maple Leaf fans. The current 3–15–1 nosedive since Dec. 18 has destroyed any hope of ending the decade–long hunt for a playoff berth in a full 82–game schedule. Not that it’s a foreign concept around here. Irrelevance has come early and often for the Maple Leafs in the post–2005 lockout era. It’s difficult to recall that final Sunday of the 2006–07 season when the Leafs — having edged Montreal, 6-5, at Air Canada Centre the previous night — needed the Devils to beat the Islanders in a matinee at the old Continental Airlines Arena. A shootout win crafted by still–legendary Wade Dubielewicz in the Islanders goal eliminated Leafs from the Stanley Cup tournament.
Now that was truly a kiss goodbye.
JUST THE FACTS: Allow me to clean up a bit of media guess–work after Thursday night’s alarming goal from the defensive blue line by Oliver Ekman–Larsson of the Coyotes. To review: Leafs began the third period with a powerplay, still leading Arizona 1–0 on Phil Kessel’s 20th goal of the season at 16:33 of the opening frame. Lauri Korpikoski won the third–period face–off back to Ekman–Larsson who routinely lofted the puck 115 feet toward Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier. Somehow, it dipped beneath Bernier’s catching glove at 0:05 seconds for the fastest shorthanded goal to start a period in the history of the NHL.
OLIVER EKMAN–LARSSON (23) CAN HARDLY CONTAIN HIMSELF ON “FLY–BY” OF ARIZONA COYOTES BENCH THURSDAY NIGHT AFTER HIS FLUKY GOAL AGAINST JONATHAN BERNIER TO START THE THIRD PERIOD AT AIR CANADA CENTRE. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
It brought to mind a moment of infamy involving then–Toronto goalie Felix Potvin at Maple Leaf Gardens — described in one report as happening “in 1999 in overtime” against St. Louis. In fact, it occurred on Nov. 17, 1997 when future Hall–of–Fame defenseman Al MacInnis of the Blues fired a harmless shot toward Potvin from center–ice in the dying seconds of regulation. The puck bounced over Potvin’s stick and left pad at 19:58 of the third period, giving St. Louis a 3–2 triumph. On the down–slope of a respectable career, Potvin was never the same. He lost the confidence of teammates and first–year management, headed by Hall–of–Fame goalie Ken Dryden. Urged on stoutly by agent Don Meehan, the Leafs and Dryden opted to sign Curtis Joseph in July 1998 and Potvin was later dealt to the New York Islanders for defenseman Bryan Berard.
ALGER IN GOOD SPIRITS: Al Arbour, still second to Scotty Bowman in all–time NHL coaching victories, is struggling with dementia and balance issues at 82 years of age. Arbour lives in a retirement facility in Florida and was visited earlier this week by close friends Ken (Jiggs) McDonald and Eddie Westfall. McDonald was TV voice of the New York Islanders when Arbour guided the club to four consecutive Stanley Cup titles between 1980 and 1983. Westfall was an original Islander in 1972–73, coming over from the Boston Bruins in the expansion draft. Both men have remained tight with Arbour through the years.
McDonald sent me the above photo of Arbour in a wheelchair between himself (top–left) and Westfall. I posted it on my Facebook page Thursday afternoon and it went kind of viral. My personal record for Facebook “shares” of an item was 71 — from a blog (http://bit.ly/1CnF5ar) written in mid–October about the funeral of Ralph Platner, the famed program seller at Toronto Blue Jays games (and noted Bar Mitzvah “crasher” of the 1970’s). As of late this afternoon, the Arbour photo had 113 “shares” — many among long–time fans of the Islanders. Accompanying the photo was this message from Jiggs:
Thanks for doing this, Howard. I think many of the NHL oldtimers will want to know about Al, who has had health issues for about ten years. More recently, a combination of early dementia and Parkinson’s has taken quite a toll. Eddie Westfall and I found Al in pretty good spirits. After all the updates I’ve been receiving and passing along, I was a little surprised at how well he was doing. But, the nurse said he was having a second good day in a row. He was “verbalizing” and it seems that some days he doesn’t talk much if at all. Sometimes, his speech was good; at other times, it was hard to understand — almost as if he’d had a stroke. He’s recovering from his most recent episode: five stitches over the right eyebrow suffered when he fell about a week ago. His balance is a concern. If he stands or gets up too quickly, a fall is going to be the result. Eddie got him laughing and he was thrilled the [Islanders] were in first place in the Eastern Conference and [Metropolitan] Division. Al said, “They’re playing great. Good for them.” He had great interest, as we talked, about the move next year from Uniondale to Brooklyn and [wondered] how many of the former players were being honored this season. We are very fortunate that an Islanders season–ticket holder from way back is a Board member at the facility in which Al lives. She sees him at least twice a week and takes him pictures of the old Islander days; he really lights up and smiles when she talks with him about the “glory years” of the franchise. She has fed him ice cream a few times and he enjoys that; he even blew her a kiss today. She has kept me updated on his health and I’ll continue to pass that along. I took him an Islanders hoodie and he seemed to be thrilled. Anyone wishing to send him a card would really be appreciated. None of the other patients know who he is or what he’s achieved. But, any link to the Islanders or his NHL playing career would brighten his day. The address is: Al Arbour, The Pines (The Garden), 1501 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota, Fla. 34236.
AL ARBOUR AS CAPTAIN OF THE EXPANSION ST. LOUIS BLUES IN 1967–68.
THOUGHTS WITH QUINN FAMILY: Pat Quinn would have been 72 years old on Thursday had he not succumbed to illness more than two months ago (Nov. 24). It must have been a difficult day for his family. My thoughts and those of all hockey fans are with Pat’s widow, Sandra, and his daughters, Valerie and Kalli. I found this wonderful piece of art (below) on the Internet — Quinn battling Gordie Howe in his playing days with the Toronto Maple Leafs (1968–70) and looking proud after coaching Team Canada to gold at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. I was privileged to cover that event for The FAN–590 as Canada broke a 50–year championship drought in men’s hockey.
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [HUMBER COLLEGE]
LINKEDIN: HOWARD BERGER [BROADCAST MEDIA]