TORONTO (Jan. 25) — I have never played the game, so I will bow to my friend, Glenn Healy.
As the Toronto Maple Leafs lollygagged about the ice at Air Canada Centre during the first period of Saturday’s encounter with Montreal, Healy — from his familiar perch between the benches — spoke to a nationwide audience on Hockey Night In Canada: “You’ve just honored three of the greatest names in franchise history… and this is how you play?” The inference was unmistakable: A pre–game ceremony that featured 75–year–old Dave Keon waving to the crowd in person should have inspired his Maple Leaf ancestors to bolt from the gate like an angry cobra. Instead, a form of somnolence prevailed.
Healy played goal in the National Hockey League with Los Angeles, the Islanders, Rangers and Leafs from 1986 to 2001 — 474 games in all. As a reporter for The FAN–590 here in Toronto, I covered his 66 appearances in a Maple Leafs uniform. And, I treasured each one. Glenn backed up Curtis Joseph and performed sparingly. Win or lose, however, he always offered words of substance to a radio microphone. He quickly became a natural for the position he holds today. So, again, I will defer to the old stopper.
MY 2012 PHOTO OF GLENN HEALY (RIGHT) ENJOYING A LAUGH WITH THEN–TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS PRESIDENT AND GENERAL MANAGER BRIAN BURKE AT THE BELL CENTRE IN MONTREAL.
As an observer, though, I have never comprehended the correlation between pre–game festivity and drop of the puck. Having skated in the warm–up for 20 minutes, players retreat to the dressing room and prepare for the climactic opening face–off. Instead of bounding into action, they are compelled to sit or stand for 15 extra minutes as champions from yesteryear are paraded to center–ice. Certainly, the pattern here in Toronto offers sufficient proof that pre–game ceremonies inhibit performance by the home team. This may result partly from the Leafs being the Leafs, but the evidence in recent years is powerful:
FEB. 13, 1999 — Prior to the final NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens, Harold (Mush) March and Red Horner (both now deceased) participate in a ceremonial face–off between Mats Sundin and former Leafs teammate Doug Gilmour of the Chicago Blackhawks. March had scored the first goal at the Gardens (for Chicago) on Nov. 12, 1931 and Horner had played defense for the Maple Leafs. On arguably the grandest, most emotional night in Toronto hockey annals, the Leafs get annihilated, 6–2, by Gilmour and Co.
OCT. 3, 2001 — It is Opening Night of a season in which the Leafs will advance to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup semifinals before bowing to the Carolina Hurricanes; the midst of the Pat Quinn era, during which the Blue and White compiled 100 points in a season on three occasions. The “Big M” — Frank Mahovlich — is at center–ice to have his No. 27 banner raised in the Air Canada Centre. Darryl Sittler, later to wear No. 27, is supposed to be with Mahovlich but, instead, is at the bed–side of his wife, Wendy, who would die of cancer three days later. Emotion is thick. The Leafs lose, 5–4, to the Ottawa Senators.
OCT. 6, 2006 — Another opening–night crowd at Air Canada Centre is enchanted by a pre–game ceremony that includes club legends Borje Salming, Red Kelly and the family of the late Hap Day. Salming’s No. 21 banner and the No. 4 banner shared by Kelly and Day are elevated to the girders of the arena. It’s the first game of a new season and the audience is pumped. The Maple Leafs get demolished, 4–1, by Ottawa.
NOV. 22, 2008 — Wendel Clark is back in the house. Arguably the most popular Maple Leafs player of the post–1967 era watches close to tears as his No. 17 banner joins the others at Air Canada Centre. The home team honors its three–time warrior by losing, 5–4, in overtime to Chicago.
FEB. 11, 2012 — On this night, the leading scorer in franchise history makes an emotional plea for current players to perform proudly and gallantly while wearing the Maple Leaf logo. The crowd looks on in wonderment as Mats Sundin’s No. 13 banner rises to the rafters. Montreal is in town — the perfect setting for a noble effort by the home team. Instead, the languid Leafs play one of their worst games (among many) in the post–2005 lockout era and are dismantled, 5–0, by the Canadiens.
JAN. 23, 2016 — Dave Keon, considered the greatest of all Maple Leafs, comes home, agreeing to be immortalized in Legends Row outside the ACC. He is joined in a pre–game ceremony by family members of Turk Broda and Keon’s long–time former teammate, Tim Horton. In a classy move, the Montreal Canadiens watch from the visitors’ bench — standing with the crowd to applaud the participants. It is Saturday night. Leafs and Habs on national TV across Canada. The home team allows the first 11 shots on goal and falls behind, 2–0, in the first period, eventually losing to the Canadiens in a shootout. Glenn Healy snarls.
I WAS AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE ON FEB. 11, 2012 WHEN MATS SUNDIN DROPPED A CEREMONIAL PUCK BETWEEN DION PHANEUF AND EX–TEAMMATE TOMAS KABERLE OF THE CANADIENS. MOMENTS EARLIER, SUNDIN’S NO. 13 BANNER ASCENDED TO THE ACC RAFTERS. MOMENTS LATER, HIS FORMER TEAM BEGAN TO STINK OUT THE JOINT — EVENTUALLY GETTING BLASTED, 5–0.
Now, the Maple Leafs haven’t lost every game after a ceremony, but the above evidence presents enough of an argument, in my view, to invalidate the connection. At least, here in the Big Smoke. Given the home team, in particular, is expected to get a charge from pre–game hoopla, I’m inclined to believe it plays havoc with the body–clock of an athlete. But, that’s just my take. Besides, I’ve never won a squabble with Healy.
KEON STILL AN ENIGMA: If all it really took was one phone call from Brendan Shanahan to obtain Dave Keon’s approval for Legends Row, then times have sure changed for the Leafs great center of the 1960’s.
“I told Brendan I was honored and if there was anything I could do to help the ceremonies I’d be happy to participate,” Keon said during a Saturday press conference at the Air Canada Centre. This, of course, is the same man that resolutely and stubbornly rejected appeals from former Stanley Cup teammates to attend the final NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens. Nearly 16 years have passed since that night of Feb. 13, 1999 and perhaps — as I speculated in a blog on the weekend — Keon has mellowed while nearing his 76th birthday. He appeared far–more at ease on Saturday than during his much–ballyhooed first return to the Leafs for a February 2007 commemoration of the 1967 Stanley Cup team. On that occasion, he was jittery in front of reporters and left the impression he’d rather be anyplace else. This time was altogether different.
Toronto Sun Photo
It also puzzles me that Keon claims to be “dumbfounded” by the enduring affection toward him from Toronto hockey fans. This is an intelligent man that spent more–than enough time in our city to comprehend the unconditional love of the Maple Leafs. Given that he is widely considered the greatest player in team history, I find Keon’s contention astounding. I don’t remember, as an example, Joe DiMaggio requiring an explanation why fans at Yankee Stadium accorded him a long standing ovation for every Oldtimers’ Day he attended after his playing career. Toward the end of his life, nearly half–a–century had passed since Joltin’ Joe’s last swing of the bat. Likely 80 percent of those at the Stadium in the Bronx were born after his retirement. Yet, everyone stood and roared for the legendary Yankee Clipper.
Why shouldn’t the same principle apply to Keon with hockey fans here in Toronto? Particularly when you consider that Keon may be the Babe Ruth of Maple Leaf legends… let alone Joe DiMaggio.
In any event, it was good to see him back in the fold on Saturday. At some point, the Leafs and Keon will find a way to have his No. 14 banner raised in the arena. The cycle won’t be complete until that happens.
CLOSING THOUGHTS: Carolina will face a more difficult challenge against Denver’s swarming defense in Super Bowl 50 than it did in Sunday’s NFC Championship romp over Arizona. Still, the Broncos have virtually no chance of defeating the National Football League’s best team all season. Cam Newton and Co. will win the Golden Super Bowl, 31–17… Turns out that a botched convert by “Mr. Automatic” — Stephen Gostkowski — was the difference between New England going to overtime in the AFC Championship and losing to the Broncos, 20–18. I don’t remember a group of linebackers so discombobulating Tom Brady. That said, Denver could not put away the Patriots until the dying seconds, despite repeatedly stopping fourth–down conversion attempts by Brady in the final quarter. And, is there a more “money” player in football than Rob Gronkowski? Every person watching the last drive of Sunday’s game knew that Brady would try to connect with his prolific tight end for the potential tying score. Which, of course, he did. Expecting it to happen again on the two–point convert attempt was asking a bit much, even from that duo… Hard to comprehend the Maple Leafs finishing their Legends Row project without a statue of Doug Gilmour, though it may not happen for a few years. Gilmour did not win a Stanley Cup here in town but for two seasons — 1992–93 and 1993–94 — he was the greatest player in franchise history… In this tumultuous newspaper era, a couple of Toronto Sun legends have left of their own volition. Baseball writer Mike Rutsey and motor–racing scribe Dean McNulty recently retired. Both served their readers splendidly… The game–of–the–year in the National Basketball Association goes Monday night in Oakland when the Golden State Warriors (40–4) host the San Antonio Spurs (38–6). San Antonio has won 13 straight yet remains two games behind the Warriors in the Western Conference. The Spurs are 20–1 since losing, 97–94, to the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre, Dec. 9… And, how about those Raptors? If Toronto were more of a basketball city, this place would be going nuts right about now. The Raps have won eight in a row and have pulled to within two games of Cleveland atop the Eastern Conference… The San Antonio at Golden State game will be televised here in Canada by Sportsnet–Ontario and Sportsnet–1 beginning at 10:30 p.m. Eastern… One aspect of Mike Babcock’s coaching has not–yet rubbed off on the Maple Leafs, who repeatedly go offside while entering the attacking zone. It is careless and undisciplined, and it must drive Babcock crazy… Hockey fans in south Florida are starting to show some passion for the Atlantic Division–leading Panthers. Since Dec. 29, four of five games at the beautiful BB&T Center in Sunrise have attracted more than 19,000 spectators. It’ll be interesting to see how the Maple Leafs draw when they visit Florida on Tuesday night… Birthday wishes on Monday to NHLers Chris Chelios (54), Esa Tikkanen (51) and Noah Hanifin (19).
GRONK AND BRADY NEARLY GOT IT DONE AGAIN ON SUNDAY, BUT NOT QUITE — FALLING ONE PLAY AND TWO POINTS SHY OF DENVER IN THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP. CBS/CTV