NOTE: My dearth of blogging in the past week is owed to a battle with a kidney stone, which has prevailed over me on several occasions. It is said that the pain of renal colic is akin to child–birth. And, though I cannot possess such a point of reference, my heart sincerely goes out to all women that have naturally multiplied.
TORONTO (Dec. 8) — At the one–third mark of a season that was expected to be sharply defined, the Toronto Maple Leafs are a tad blurry. Yes, the club stands 28th in the National Hockey League with 23 points (one point from the cellar) while posting the fewest regulation–time victories (9). But, there’s something about Mike Babcock’s crew that tells me it will not go away and hibernate for the winter.
Perhaps this was to be anticipated, given Babcock’s coaching resume and his burning desire to win — even with pluggers. Yet, the Toronto line–up does not convey any form of a threat, which may seem odd to the apparently–elite St. Louis Blues after a 4–1 road conquest by the Leafs on Saturday. This is what I’m getting at. Even while swapping goalies with their American Hockey League affiliate and absorbing a thorough pounding at Winnipeg last Wednesday that made to you believe the sink–hole was inescapable, Babcock’s boys rebounded and performed effectively against tougher opposition (Minnesota and St. Louis).
As such, maybe there is some method to the madness.
Rather than bottoming out completely, perhaps the mere taste of an upset victory now and then is invaluable for such longer–term components as Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Jake Gardiner, Dion Phaneuf, James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov. Forgetting how to win altogether couldn’t possibly benefit this nucleus of players — possibly to be joined, next season, the the club’s top two prospects: Mitch Marner and William Nylander. The Leafs, as deliberately composed, aren’t talented enough to venture above the bottom six teams in the NHL. And, there’s still plenty of time for a “constructive” death–spiral.
In the interim, those that factor in plans beyond the current season will come to know that losing is not an accepted part of Maple Leafs’ culture; it will be incrementally frowned upon by Babcock. It may cost the team a draft–lottery ball or two, but a palate for victory must always be part of the equation in professional sport. Such is the balancing act that Babcock has pulled off rather impressively through 27 games.
CONNOR McMARNER? During a casual telephone chat on Monday afternoon, a Western Conference NHL scout told me that Leafs’ top prospect, Mitch Marner, “is doing things with the puck in Junior this season that only Connor McDavid did last year.” Of course, Marner is a year older than he and McDavid were last year and McDavid — as universally expected — made the Edmonton Oilers and was playing exceptionally well before his collarbone fracture at the start of November. Still, this scout was among the few that accurately predicted Rielly would make the Leafs out of training camp at the start of last season. He’s been around the game a long time. “I think the Leafs have a bona fide superstar on their hands,” he said. “I wasn’t thoroughly convinced of that going into the draft last summer, but the kid has taken another huge step this season with London. I suspect he’ll shine for Canada at the World Junior tournament.”
Marner has 58 points in 25 games and is tied atop the Ontario Hockey League scoring race with teammate Christian Dvorak (drafted in the second round, 58th overall, by Arizona). He is coming off consecutive–game hat–tricks on the weekend against the Windsor Spitfires and Ottawa 67’s.
The World Junior Hockey Championship runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Helsinki.
MATS REDUX: I spent a few moments on Monday night looking at video I shot in Stockholm while covering the Leafs training camp in September 2003 for The FAN–590 and The National Post. The club spent eight days of camp in Scandinavia — playing exhibition games against Djurgardens, Farjestads (Sweden) and Jokerit (Finland). Mats Sundin was naturally the star of the trip, having grown up in the Stockholm borough of Bromma. One afternoon, in a lovely park setting across from the Maple Leafs hotel, the captain — hanging on to his diminishing crown–feathers — gathered with members of the Toronto media.
Here are several images from the video:
MATS, AT HEAD OF THE PICNIC TABLE, IS SURROUNDED BY (CLOCKWISE) MIKE ZEISBERGER OF THE TORONTO SUN; ROSIE DiMANNO OF THE TORONTO STAR; DAVID SHOALTS OF THE GLOBE AND MAIL, AND PAUL HUNTER OF THE STAR. IT WAS A PERFECT AUTUMN AFTERNOON IN DOWNTOWN STOCKHOLM.
BIG–TIME STREAKS: Charlotte and Oakland are separated by 2,706 miles and three time zones, yet they remain intrinsically woven through professional sport. The Carolina Panthers and Golden State Warriors are all the rage with current winning streaks that fluctuate between impressive and surreal.
In the National Football League, the Panthers are the lone undefeated team in 2015 (11–0)… and in the past calendar year, having won 15 consecutive games dating to Dec. 7 of last season. Quarterback Cam Newton is making a serious bid to become only the second African–American quarterback to win the NFL’s most valuable player award (the late Steve McNair of Tennessee was the Associated Press MVP in 2003).
Meanwhile, the Warriors of the National Basketball Association have obliterated the best previous start to a pro sports schedule in North America with a 22–0 record. The club has won 26 consecutively dating to Apr. 9 of last season and is a mind–boggling 43–3 in its past 46 regular–season games. Point guard Steph Curry has likely pulled ahead of Lebron James as the most gifted basketball player on Earth; his effortless shooting and unprecedented accuracy will demolish all NBA records from three–point range.
The Warriors are one victory shy of the second–longest win streak in NBA history: 27, by the Miami Heat, from Feb. 3 to Mar. 27, 2013. Golden State can equal that mark by prevailing tonight at Indiana. The all–time NBA standard is 33 consecutive victories, by the Los Angeles Lakers, from Nov. 5, 1971 to Jan. 9, 1972. The Warriors still need to win seven more games and can match the record on Christmas Day in a nationally–televised clash from Oakland against… Lebron and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Golden State’s schedule between now and then: TONIGHT: at Indiana / DEC. 11 at Boston / DEC. 12 at Milwaukee / DEC. 16 PHOENIX / DEC. 18 MILWAUKEE / DEC. 23 UTAH / DEC. 25 CLEVELAND (home games in CAPS).
WHERE TO RANK? The Warriors 22–0 record this season should stand alongside any team accomplishment in the history of North American professional sport. But, there are other contenders… chief among them, the Lakers’ 33–game win streak in 1971–72. Then, again, how can you discount the now–legendary perfect season of the Miami Dolphins, who went 14–0 in the 1972 schedule and then defeated Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Washington in the playoffs to win Super Bowl VII? Tom Brady and the New England Patriots won an NFL–record 21 consecutive games (three in the playoffs) between Oct. 5, 2003 and Oct. 24, 2004, including Super Bowl XXXVIII (Feb. 1, 2004) over Carolina. How could any team in the current NHL come close to equaling the record 35–game undefeated streak of the Philadelphia Flyers (coached by Pat Quinn) between Oct. 14, 1979 and Jan. 6, 1980? That club won 25 and tied 10. With Mario Lemieux fresh off cancer treatment, the Pittsburgh Penguins won an NHL–record 17 consecutive games from Mar. 9 to Apr. 10, 1993. The Toronto Blue Jays had moved into contention for the first time in 1984, but had no chance of making the playoffs after the Detroit Tigers burst from the gate with a remarkable 35–5 record. Only the Division winners advanced beyond the regular season; there weren’t yet any Wild Card teams. Detroit upended San Diego to win the ’84 World Series. In baseball’s modern era, the Oakland A’s hold the mark for consecutive regular–season victories with 20 between Aug. 13 and Sep. 5, 2002. But, Oakland lost the American League Division Series to Minnesota in five games. The 2001 Seattle Mariners finished 116–46 for a .716 win percentage — sixth–best in MLB history — but famously lost the American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees. Joe Torre’s Yankees had been 114–48 in 1998 (.704 — 10th best in history) en route to a World Series triumph over San Diego. From a championship perspective, no team will ever match the Boston Celtics’ incredible run of 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons (1959–68), which included a record eight in a row (1959–66). The Montreal Canadiens went 60–8–12 in 1976–77; then 12–2 in the playoffs to win their second of four consecutive Stanley Cup titles under Scotty Bowman.
COACH DON SHULA (RIGHT) AND QUARTERBACK BOB GRIESE OF THE 1972 MIAMI DOLPHINS FLANK U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA AT A WHITE HOUSE RECEPTION, AUG. 20, 2013. THE ’72 MIAMI CLUB REMAINS THE LONE ENTITY IN THE FOUR MAJOR NORTH AMERICAN PRO SPORTS TO GO UNDEFEATED THROUGH AN ENTIRE SEASON AND PLAYOFFS.
THE TUESDAY VAULT
In this week’s edition of The Vault, we look at Maple Leaf Gardens hockey programs from the 1970–71 season. This was a significant year for the Leafs and the National Hockey League, which added its seventh and eighth expansion teams: the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks.
For a balance of seven teams per division, Chicago was shifted from East to West, joining California, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Buffalo and Vancouver were placed in the East with pre–expansion teams Boston, Detroit, Montreal, New York Rangers and Toronto.
After missing the playoffs for the second time in three years — 1969–70 being the first under general manager Jim Gregory and coach John McLellan — Leafs drafted Darryl Sittler from London of the Ontario Hockey Association and purchased goalie Jacques Plante from St. Louis. The club re–designed its uniform to coincide with a policy that enforced teams to wear predominantly white at home and solid jerseys on the road — a change, for the proliferation of color TV, that would last 33 years, until the end of 2002–03.
Four–page, cardboard fold–outs vs. Minnesota and Chicago:
One week after the Vancouver game, it was the Buffalo Sabres’ turn to debut at the Gardens. This was a monumental occasion, as it marked the return of George (Punch) Imlach to Toronto as GM and coach of Buffalo. Having guided the Leafs to four Stanley Cup titles in six years beginning in 1962, Imlach was fired by owner Stafford Smythe after a 1969 first–round playoff sweep at the hands of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and the Boston Bruins. The Sabres, in a still–legendary performance, destroyed the Leafs, 7–2, for one of the most satisfying victories of Imlach’s career.
Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard personally autographed the front of my program from the Detroit/Toronto game of Nov. 28, 1970 (above). Rookie Darryl Sittler was on the cover and he scored his first of 484 career goals that night in a 9–4 romp over the Red Wings.
St. Louis came to town on my 12th birthday (6–2 Toronto), two nights after Leafs GM Jim Gregory pulled off a stunning trade with Philadelphia (below) for future Hall–of–Fame goalie Bernie Parent. Had Ballard not been a skin–flint, Parent may have helped Toronto end its then half–decade Stanley Cup drought. Instead, the owner dared Parent to accept a lucrative offer from Miami of the World Hockey Association. Parent took the dare; returned to the NHL in 1973 and refused to play for Ballard. Gregory had no choice but to trade him back to the Flyers, with whom the goalie won consecutive Cups in 1974 and 1975. It ranks among the most inglorious moments in Leafs history.
The Maple Leafs and New York Rangers squared off in a best–of–seven quarterfinal that featured a wild, third–period brawl during Game 2 at Madison Square Garden (often replayed today on LEAFS TV). During the melee, Vic Hadfield of New York grabbed Bernie Parent’s mask and famously tossed it into the Garden seats. Jacques Plante had to finish up the 4–1 Toronto victory. Ultimately, the Rangers prevailed in Game 6 at Maple Leaf Gardens on an overtime goal by former Leafs winger Bob Nevin. This is a program from Game 4 — a 4–2 Rangers victory.