Leafs Will Battle Only Themselves

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Feb. 25) — Truth be known, and despite popular opinion, our city has long provided the most amenable climate in which to build a contending team in the National Hockey League. It’s those entrusted the chore that have been unwilling and/or unable to properly assemble components on behalf of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The impact of such external forces as fans and media is perpetually overrated and far too often deployed as an alibi.

This will be proven once a competitive team emerges — perhaps under neophyte Brendan Shanahan, who appears to favor a concept foreign to decades of Leaf rooters. It recently came to light as a result of intrepid reporting by Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun and Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail, both of whom detailed the apparently brave, new world of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. It’s been said that Board members of the umbrella company that owns the hockey club are content to be bored for however long it takes to traditionally construct the Blue and White. Barring a miracle, we aren’t talking about a couple or three years of tedium and composure. If executed thoroughly with a compilation of draft prospects, trade revisions and free agent arrivals, one–half decade will elapse before legitimate progress is recognized.

Which begs a pair of questions: Is management, as constructed, capable of accomplishing the feat? And, will ownership indefinitely sanction the nights of darkness in April and May at Air Canada Centre? The white noise that ensues between today and contention for the Maple Leafs cannot become a factor. Fans will bitch, moan and protest — but never with wallets. Media will begin a simultaneous countdown toward the 50th anniversary of the last Toronto Stanley Cup and the 100th anniversary of the NHL (in 2016–17). As noise intensifies and lucrative playoff dates are sacrificed, the resolve of MLSE will surely be tested.

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CAN BRENDAN SHANAHAN ACCOMPLISH HERE IN TORONTO WHAT BRIAN BURKE COULD NOT? AND, WILL MAPLE LEAFS OWNERSHIP ACCORD HIM THE TIME TO GET IT RIGHT?

In the Toronto Star, Damien Cox recently wondered if Maple Leafs ownership — given the lack of modern–day precedent — can “stomach” such a climate. Impatience and ineptitude have governed the Blue and White for as long as most can remember. From Harold Ballard’s destructive meddling in the 1970’s and 80’s to the budgetary restraint of Steve Stavro in the 90’s and the financial guardianship of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, there has rarely existed an environment conducive to long–term success in the NHL. Only now — with the Maple Leafs apparently (but, who knows for sure?) hitting rock–bottom in the throes of a 5–22–2 meltdown — is there finally talk of surrender.

And, make no mistake, it would be a surrender. With both arms raised. The notion that this NHL market could not “withstand” a tear–down and re–build is absolute gibberish, yet so frequently postulated through the years as to be scripture. In fact, no place in the hockey universe presents such a benign hazard as Toronto — with its unconditional following — and no place is more acutely in need of a competent managerial blueprint. Bargain–basement hopefulls have come and gone. Expensive saviors have come and gone. Hall–of–Famers have been resurrected. And, lack of results have been consistent — for all to see.

Now, with the Maple Leafs remarkably — unfathomably — to miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season of 82 games, there appears to be a plan. And, it’s the right plan. The only conceivable plan in a salary cap system. Will it be permitted to evolve? Or will ego and impetuosity — as in so many years past — undermine the effort?

The Leafs must answer to only themselves.

WHEN THERE WAS HOPE (TEMPORARILY)

It remains my contention that the 2001–02 Maple Leafs — if reasonably intact — stood the best chance of ending the post–1967 Stanley Cup famine in this city. And that includes the 1992–93 club of Pat Burns, Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark that came closest to vying for the silver mug, but would likely have fallen prey to the wizardry — that spring — of Patrick Roy. In May of 2002, it appeared the planets had aligned for the Blue and White. Having prevailed in a seven–game war with the New York Islanders (the home team winning all matches), Toronto rebounded from near–extinction against Ottawa in Round 2. Trailing the Senators 3–2 in a best–of–seven affair, the Leafs — on the road and facing elimination — quickly fell behind, 2–0, in Game 6 only to recover and win, 4–3; then blank their provincial rival, 3–0, in the deciding clash at Air Canada Centre. Next up, in the Conference final, was the eminently beatable Carolina Hurricanes. Beatable, that is, with a full roster. Instead, Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Gary Roberts and Curtis Joseph — the Leafs most indispensable components — were either missing or not fully recovered from previous injury. Still, Toronto won the series opener in Raleigh and went into overtime in Game 2. Alyn McCauley hit the goalpost behind Arturs Irbe. If McCauley scores, the visitors sweep the first two matches and we’re still talking, today, about a Toronto–Detroit ’02 Stanley Cup final. Instead, Niclas Wallin (you’re not alone if asking “who?”) beat Joseph and the healthier Hurricanes prevailed in six.

While puttering around in my apartment locker the other day, I found a scrapbook of Toronto Sun articles prior to the Leafs–Islanders opening–round series. Here’s how the Sun scribes looked at the ’02 Maple Leafs:

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AL STRACHAN COLUMN. ??

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GEORGE GROSS COLUMN. ??

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STEVE SIMMONS COLUMN. ??

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