TORONTO (Jan. 14) — Wow, that didn’t take long.
Here we are in mid–January and the “playoff–bound” Toronto Maple Leafs are suddenly left for dead. An email from an ardent — now inconsolable — fan of the Blue and White arrived early this morning: “Howard, why do the Leafs ALWAYS collapse in the second half of the season? It’s like clockwork with that team.”
Um, the “second half” of the Leafs season doesn’t begin until tomorrow night against Chicago at the Air Canada Centre. And, despite three losses, the club has hardly plummeted. It stood 27th in the National Hockey League after last Wednesday’s 4–0 rout of the Ducks in Anaheim. It is 27th in the standings today.
The only change — as I’ve written here ad infinitum — is that fans and media–boosters were getting carried away with the impressive November/December spurt under Mike Babcock. Though richly earned, it was far–more cosmetic than productive. Leafs have been in the bottom–four throughout the process and aren’t likely to rise beyond 27th the rest of the way. When you stagger through a 1–7–2 October, you cannot afford three consecutive losses at any point of the schedule thereafter. Sidewalk barriers were being erected on Bay St. when the Leafs rose, after the Anaheim win, to within five points of the second Wild Card berth in the Eastern Conference. Forget that five teams were blocking Toronto’s path to that spot; the Leafs were — according to a veteran beat–writer — “on the fringe of Wild Card territory” (sigh).
Today, after defeats against Los Angeles, San Jose and Columbus (ouch), the Maple Leafs are six points behind the next–closest team in the East (Carolina). And, only three points ahead of the 30th–place Blue Jackets. Given its comfortable playing schedule of the past month–and–a–bit, Toronto does have games–in–hand on most every Eastern rival (three on the improving Hurricanes), but that gap will quickly begin to narrow as the Leaf calendar picks up. Moreover, games–in–hand are meaningless if not capitalized on.
What I do not anticipate from this Maple Leaf team is anything that even resembles the flag–waver of a year ago. Though, as mentioned, it is difficult to “collapse” from 27th place, there will be no concession on Babcock’s watch. The Leafs will lose, for the most part, because they aren’t good enough; not through lack of effort. Last year at this time, with the languorous Phil Kessel, the club was losing and throwing in the towel. It won’t happen again. While the Columbus game was a dud, I suspect Babcock’s boys will turn it up in the absence of James van Riemsdyk. This group has overwhelmingly shown pride in performance.
You’ll see more competitive instinct on the weekend against Chicago and Boston.
AMATEURS ECLIPSING THE PROS: Monday night’s college football championship in Glendale, Ariz. may have been the greatest sporting event I’ve ever seen. Alabama edged undefeated Clemson, 45–40, in a three–hour spectacle that produced immaculate entertainment from the opening kick–off to the final gun.
It rivaled what has long–been the most absorbing football game in my lifetime — the 1983 Eastern Conference final at old Exhibition Stadium between the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger–Cats. In a seesaw affair, the Argos came back from 15–1 and 23–8 deficits to subdue the Cats, 41–36, on a last–minute touchdown plunge by running back Cedric Minter. It was the only time that all 54,530 seats were sold at the stadium shared by the Argonauts and Toronto Blue Jays between 1977 and 1988. Toronto won its first Grey Cup in 31 years the following week at Vancouver, over the B.C. Lions. I was privileged to attend both games.
Now, flash back for a moment to the gold medal skirmish, two weeks ago, at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Helsinki between Finland and Russia. I’ve watched and attended countless hockey games in the past half–century but I remember few that were quite–so compelling. You’ll recall that Finland took a 3–2 lead with just 2:09 left in regulation time. The Finnish players and the crowd of 13,479 at Hartwall Arena were beginning to erupt in triumph when a shot by Russian defenseman Ivan Provorov glanced into the net off teammate Andrei Svetkalov with six seconds remaining. Not to despair, Finland won the tournament on a wrap–around goal by Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Kasperi Kapanen at 1:33 of overtime.
Three days earlier, hockey fans in this country had been engrossed in a quarterfinal between Finland and Canada. It, too, was a spectacle, as the host team scored the decisive goal (6–5) with 5:50 left in regulation. Even the disappointed multitudes watching on TSN had to acknowledge the marvelous entertainment.
The common thread between Monday night’s football game and the World Junior hockey tournament was “amateur” performers — soon–to–be professionals that have yet–to–be suffocated by professional coaching. The defensive and special–teams coordinators at Alabama and Clemson may still be in therapy today, as the football traveled up and down the grass at University of Phoenix Stadium throughout the high–scoring match. On the wider, European ice surface, there was no evidence of a “trap” or a “lock”… just a bunch of supremely–talented kids, less than 20 years of age, flaunting their remarkable skill.
Soon enough, the best of these amateurs will begin to earn six and seven–figure salaries; drive fancy cars; live in opulent mansions. They will come under the influence of men whose prime instinct is survival.
The games they play won’t be nearly as dazzling as the games they left behind.
SHHHHHHH: It is very quiet in Leafs land with respect to next season’s uniform re–design and the potential Bridgestone Winter Classic at BMO Field (Jan. 2, 2017) against the New York Rangers. “The Maple Leafs are following direct orders from the NHL office and lips are tight,” said a long–time licensing source on Tuesday. “In Gary Bettman’s world, there are major consequences for leaking information. And, [Leafs president] Brendan Shanahan doesn’t need a lot of convincing to stay quiet. I’m told he has sternly warned his people to button up about these issues until the team is ready to make an announcement.”
The timing remains a mystery, though one source tells me the Leafs and the NHL will make a joint–announcement “after the All–Star game and before mid–February.”
No surprise that I’m hearing, more than ever, the green Toronto St. Pats jersey (as per nhluniforms.com, below) will be prominent among the Centennial versions adopted by the Maple Leafs.