By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (May 17) — Forget Mike Babcock. What the Maple Leafs need is a leader on the ice. A real horse. Someone with killer instinct who can play in all conditions and has no fear of being whipped by whomever is standing behind the bench. A warrior that can explode from the starting gate; keep his team ahead down the stretch and carry it triumphantly to the finish line. One who stares the burden of expectation in both eyes.
A quick glance at the Collective Bargaining Agreement in the National Hockey League reveals no stipulation that players have to be human. As such, I think the Leafs should make a determined bid to sign American Pharoah — the Bob Baffert–trained colt that has won the Kentucky Derby; the Preakness, and will vie for the Triple Crown of horse racing, June 6, at Belmont Park in New York. True, Pharoah is 15 years beneath the NHL’s minimum draft age, but he exhibits a level of maturity that few three–year–olds can match. He works out hard between games and in the off–season, therefore presenting a fundamental challenge to Phil Kessel. And scouts insist he could easily surpass the team–leading 23:43 of average ice–time compiled last season by captain Dion Phaneuf.
AMERICAN PHAROAH ROMPS TO VICTORY IN THE SLOP AT PIMLICO. IMAGINE WHAT HE COULD DO ON SOFT ICE LATE IN THE NHL SEASON. NBC IMAGE
During an interview Saturday at his Baltimore hotel, Baffert emphasized that American Pharoah would be a reporter’s dream in Toronto. “He’s much better–spoken than Phil Kessel and more inclined to engage the media,” Baffert said. “Pharoah has all of his original teeth and a beautiful smile; the women love him. He eats like a horse so his appetite can be an issue, but there’s no salary cap in the NHL with respect to food. And he’s a driven, dedicated worker. God help any teammate that slacks off… I can already see the boot–marks on Kessel’s rump.”
Former Leaf Ed Olczyk worked the Preakness for NBC and he, too, was asked about American Pharoah. “Facially, he reminds me a bit of Jim Korn,” said Olczyk about the Leafs forward/defenseman of the early–80’s. “Same high cheekbone and prominent front teeth. But, I think Pharoah would do a better job defensively in front of the net. Playing against Jimmy, as I recall, was no problem early in my career. The Leafs thought he’d be a horse, not a mule. Pharoah, in my view, is right out of the Conn Smythe mold: If you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you can’t beat ’em on the track. I agree that Brendan Shanahan should sign him.”
JIM KORN AND AMERICAN PHAROAH: SEPARATED AT BIRTH?
Critics of the move, including Kessel, suggest that American Pharoah could make an even bigger mess of the Leafs. “You know what those animals drop all over the place, don’t you?” asked the Toronto forward, indignantly. “Who wants to be skating around in that stench.” When reached at his off–season home, former Maple Leafs coach Peter Horachek agreed with Kessel. “Phil would know — he was pinchin’ off the stuff every night with me behind the bench. The maintenance workers at Air Canada Centre would be nauseous with Phil and Pharoah on the ice. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about it.”
Others contend the colt would have terrible difficulty following the instructions of whoever is named the next coach of the Blue And White. But, Randy Carlyle isn’t among them. “You think he would be any different than Nazem Kadri?” asked Carlyle. “I wish I could have put a saddle on that kid. And, ridden him even harder. Having talked at length with Bob Baffert, I’m convinced American Pharoah would respond better than just about every horse’s ass that got me fired in January.”
Leafs representatives will be in New York while Pharoah is training for the Belmont. “I don’t remember how to deal with an athlete that can win three in a row, but I’ll try,” said assistant GM Kyle Dubas. “He’s sure an impressive figure. His Corsi numbers are up and down but being a horse, he probably has a good shooting percentage. We’ll watch him closely.”
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