TORONTO (Nov. 21) — Happy six–month anniversary, Mike Babcock.
It was back on May 21 that you peered into a bevy of cameras at 40 Bay St. and promised “pain.” You delivered — for about five weeks. Now, the discomfort has been assuaged by massive milligrams of Opium. Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are on a euphoric high not experienced since roughly a year ago at this time. On the one–year anniversary of “Salute–gate,” your charges played possum against a Carolina team that couldn’t score in a brothel. All it took was Nazem Kadri’s first goal since childhood; Joffrey Lupul’s tally on Cam Ward in Round 5 of the shootout, below (Gregg Forewerck Getty Images/NHL.com) and the Hurricanes were toast. Riding a 6–2–2 streak, you now go into Boston — the place where Toronto hockey dreams flourish… and then die. If there’s more pain–avoidance tonight, no one will ever take your word.
It was on Nov. 20 of last season that the Leafs beat Tampa Bay at Air Canada Centre and slithered off the ice with a collective middle–finger. Or, at least “forgot” to wave bye–bye to their adoring minions. The snub made international headlines and became known as “Salute–gate.” Which gets me thinking: Had Nixon’s henchmen not creepy–crawled the Watergate office complex in 1972, what would modern–day scandals be known as? In sports, alone, we’ve had Spy–gate; Trip–gate; Deflate–gate; FIFA–gate; Bounty–gate and others.
What if the break–in had occurred at the Galleass office complex?
Spy–ass and Salute–ass?
But, yes, it was a year ago last night the Leafs caused a furor by leaving the rink without acknowledging ticket–buyers — an infantile reaction to the patrons’ cat–calls two nights earlier in an 8–2 debacle against Nashville. When the Leafs beat Detroit in their next home encounter, veteran Stephane Robidas was shown on TV clearly arguing with captain Dion Phaneuf. Seconds later, the boys in blue glided to center–ice and offered a half–ass (there’s that suffix again) “thanks for coming” to the delighted audience. Little did we realize, at the time, the Leafs were beginning a remarkable and wholly deceptive streak of 10 wins and an extra–time loss in 12 games, while vaulting past all rivals to the top of the National Hockey League in goals scored. Sidewalks along Bay St. from Union Station to City Hall were being measured for barricades.
Alas, we Torontonians watched, for the 48th consecutive spring, as another city held a Stanley Cup parade. Need I remind you that after 10–1–1 came 11–35–5. This is not to denote that a similar mail–in will arise in January of the current schedule. Babcock will keep his grunts engaged in a manner that neither Randy Carlyle nor Peter Horachek could. Simple logic, however, indicates that the plucky Leaf roster of November 2015 cannot sustain itself. It is devoid of anything that resembles an All–Star appointee — as dictated by the off–season “Shanaplan.” That an all–world master roams behind the bench may level the playing field to some extend, but even Babcock snickers at the playoff prattle in the the dressing room and beyond.
What the Leafs do have is an ability to skate, and a semi–conscious goalie.
James Reimer is predominant right now for the third time in his sporadic NHL career. When he’s “on”, Optimus Reim has a bit of Dominik Hasek in him. He swims, glides and stumbles, but somehow keeps the puck out. When beaten, it’s often from beside or behind the net. Occasionally, he pops eyeballs. A dazzling glove stop in the shootout at Raleigh Friday night enabled Lupul to score the game winner. Mr. Reims is full value for the current Toronto streak. And, it couldn’t be happening to a finer gentleman.
Neither does it take a lot to get Leafs Nation in dream mode. Chat–rooms and message boards are full of glee and madcap extrapolation. I would enjoy the unanticipated power move, but hold off on playoff scenarios ’til March and April. If the second half of last season didn’t provide a lesson, nothing ever will.
THE SATURDAY VAULT
In this edition of The Vault, I take you back to 1970–71, the first season of the Vancouver Canucks. And, specifically, to a program from a Saturday–night game (Nov. 7, 1970) at the old Pacific Coliseum with the Toronto Maple Leafs in town. It was Vancouver’s eighth home game and first repeat visit by an opponent. A 5 p.m. start locally, the game appeared live on Hockey Night In Canada from British Columbia to Ontario.
Buffalo at Montreal was seen in Quebec and the Maritimes.
The Leafs had been clobbered, 8–4, in Oakland the night before with Bruce Gamble in net. Jacques Plante started the Vancouver game but took himself out with an injury, forcing Gamble back between the pipes. For the second time in 27 days, Toronto lost to the expansion Canucks, this time 3–2.
Some years ago, at a collectors’ show here in town, I bought a stack of programs from the ’70–71 Canucks season. Several covers are shown, below, along with contents of the Nov. 7 edition:
THIS IS A PHOTO FROM THE CANUCKS SECOND NHL GAME, AND FIRST–EVER AGAINST THE MAPLE LEAFS: OCT. 11, 1970 AT PACIFIC COLISEUM (1 p.m. LOCAL START). IT WAS VANCOUVER’S FIRST WIN IN THE NHL (5–3) AFTER LOSING ITS OPENER AT HOME, TWO NIGHTS EARLIER, TO LOS ANGELES. NO. 20 FOR THE LEAFS IS GARRY MONAHAN. HE ASSUMED THE NUMBER AFTER BEING TRADED TO TORONTO BY THE KINGS FOR BOB PULFORD, WHO HAD WORN IT THROUGHOUT THE LEAFS STANLEY CUP DYNASTY OF THE 60’s. FOR ROAD GAMES EARLY IN THE ’70–71 SEASON, TORONTO WAS STILL ADORNED IN ITS BLUE UNIFORM FROM 1969–70. THE NHL SWITCHED TO TEAMS WEARING WHITE AT HOME AND THE LEAFS’ RE–DESIGNED BLUE VERSION (BELOW, COURTESY NHLUNIFORMS.COM) WASN’T AVAILABLE ‘TIL A NOV. 15 ROAD GAME AGAINST THE NEW YORK RANGERS.
BY 1970, WAYNE MAKI HAD BECOME A REVILED FIGURE IN HOCKEY FOR HIS NOW–LEGENDARY INCIDENT WITH BOSTON DEFENCEMAN TED GREEN THE PREVIOUS YEAR. DURING AN EXHIBITION GAME IN OTTAWA, MAKI — THEN PLAYING FOR ST. LOUIS — CRACKED HIS STICK OVER GREEN’S HEAD IN A BRIEF SKIRMISH. GREEN SUFFERED A FRACTURED SKULL AND NEARLY DIED (MISSING THE BRUINS’ STANLEY CUP SEASON OF 1969–70 BEFORE GALLANTLY RETURNING IN ’70–71). MAKI WENT TO VANCOUVER IN THE EXPANSION DRAFT. IT WAS WITH TRAGIC IRONY THAT HE DEVELOPED A BRAIN TUMOR (DIAGNOSED IN DECEMBER 1972) THAT TOOK HIS LIFE AT AGE 29 ON MAY 12, 1974. WAYNE’S OLDER BROTHER, RONALD (CHICO) MAKI, PLAYED FOR CHICAGO FROM 1960 TO 1975. CHICO, 76, DIED ON AUG. 24 OF THIS YEAR. WAYNE BORE A STRIKING RESEMBLANCE TO EX–NHL COACH RON WILSON.