TORONTO (Jan. 6) — A contributing and largely–ignored factor in the strong performance of the Toronto Maple Leafs could be the club’s schedule the past month. Tonight in Anaheim, the Leafs will appear in just their tenth game since Dec. 8. That’s ten games in 31 nights — a rare and exceptionally comfortable pace during the 82–game National Hockey League calendar. Much more typical is the up–coming slate for the Blue and White: Ten games in the next 21 nights before the All–Star break in Nashville, Jan. 30–31.
February offers a grueling 13 games in 27 nights.
March is even busier: 16 games in 29 nights.
So, the Leafs have enjoyed a comparative vacation since early–December. It began with a full week’s respite between the 8th and 15th — only the second time in memory the club has been idle for such a length that didn’t involve the All–Star Game or Winter Olympics (the other being Oct. 17–24, 2009). Then came a five–day break over Christmas (Dec. 22–27) and the four–day visit to southern–California that began Sunday and will end with tonight’s match at the Honda Center (Sportsnet, 10:00 p.m. EST). Leafs play in Los Angeles tomorrow, and then have a late–afternoon (4 p.m. PST) game against the Sharks in San Jose on Saturday.
Whatever aches and pains the Maple Leafs accumulated early in the season must have been helped by the languid schedule of the past month. Most curious is the recurring groin injury of goalie James Reimer, who has twice been hurried into action. Setbacks occurred after a game at Minnesota (Dec. 3), and a third–period mop–up in relief of Jonathan Bernier against the New York Islanders last Wednesday at Air Canada Centre. With minor–league stopper Antoine Bibeau on the California trip, it remains a mystery whether Reimer will see action — or even dress — for any of the next three games. Were Reimer fit to return, he would almost certainly play tonight in Anaheim, thus allowing Bernier to once again encounter his former team tomorrow at the Staples Center. Bernier blanked the Los Angeles Kings, 5–0, in Toronto on Dec. 19.
Instead, it’ll be Bernier tonight against the Ducks… and “either Reimer or Bibeau” up in Los Angeles, according to coach Mike Babcock. Which is also curious. What does it say about Babcock’s apparently growing confidence in Bernier that he won’t allow him to start on consecutive nights after such a tepid playing schedule in the past month? Clearly, Bernier can’t be tired, nor can anyone else on the hockey club.
Another factor is the embarrassment Babcock and the Leafs’ medical staff will incur should Reimer play and re–injure himself for a third time. There is nothing more perplexing and interminable than a groin ailment in hockey, especially among goalies. If Babcock wants Reimer to have any chance of appearing regularly in the second half of the schedule, he might exercise extreme caution in the next few nights.
Bibeau, should he play in California, would become the 63rd man to tend goal for the Maple Leafs since their last Stanley Cup triumph in 1967.
THE WEDNESDAY (Ron Wicks) VAULT
Nearly 30 years since retirement, he is still the longest–serving on–ice official in NHL history. And, he’s become a terrific friend. I used to boo my lungs out at Ron Wicks (and all his partners–in–crime) from the south mezzanine Blues at Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1970’s, but even then I recognized how well he controlled the game. Wicks began as a linesman in 1960–61 and retired as a long–respected referee after the 1985–86 season. Incredibly, and despite 26 years in the NHL, he is not yet among the 16 members of the referees/linesmen section in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Which is a ghastly oversight.
Ron’s career spanned the final portion of the six–team NHL and the expansions of 1967–70–72–74 and 1979. He officiated in games involving the greatest players of all time — from Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito to Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, Bobby Clarke, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux. Today, at a robust 75, he remains active, bright and optimistic, despite an on–going battle with liver cancer. With his long–time NHL officiating pal, Bruce Hood, he attends the monthly hockey alumni lunch at Shopsy’s in Markham, north of Toronto.
Prior to the event, this past Monday, Ron emailed to say he’d be bringing along a box of old NHL magazines and programs for yours truly (he follows the memorabilia element of my blog). On a frigid, minus–15–C afternoon, I walked to Ron’s car and conveniently had my son, Shane, carry the box to my automobile.
THAT’S ME (ABOVE) BETWEEN RON WICKS (LEFT) AND BRUCE HOOD ON MONDAY AFTERNOON — SQUINTING INTO THE SUN — BEFORE GATHERING A BOX FULL OF OLD HOCKEY PROGRAMS FROM RON’S CAR. WICKS, PICTURED BELOW–LEFT IN 1962, WROTE A BOOK (BOTTOM–RIGHT) ABOUT HIS CAREER IN 2009. THE COVER PHOTO IS OF RON DROPPING THE PUCK BETWEEN WAYNE GRETZKY AND MARIO LEMIEUX DURING THE 1986 NHL ALL–STAR GAME IN HARTFORD.
The box of old magazines given to me by Ron included programs from games he had refereed. I was delighted to discover items from now–defunct NHL teams the Minnesota North Stars, Atlanta Flames, Cleveland Barons and Colorado Rockies. As a tribute to Ron, I present this series of The Vault — beginning, here, with a program from the Atlanta at Cleveland game of Oct. 13, 1976 at the Richfield Coliseum.
The Cleveland Barons were part of the NHL for only two seasons: 1976–77 and 1977–78. The franchise re–located from Oakland, where it had been known as the California Golden Seals (part of the six–team expansion of 1967–68). Pictured, below, is the Barons’ first–year media guide and the cover of the Atlanta/Cleveland program from Oct. 13, 1976. It was the Barons fourth NHL game; the club having debuted at home against Los Angeles and Washington before playing its first road game, in Boston.
Given it was so early in the schedule, photos of Cleveland players in action are from the 1975–76 season in Oakland. The Barons struggled on the ice and at the gate, drawing crowds of 4,000 and 5,000 to the mammoth, 18,544-seat Richfield Coliseum — located in farmland off Interstate–77, 28 miles south of downtown Cleveland. The arena was closer to the city of Akron. After two inglorious years, the Barons merged with the Minnesota North Stars for the 1978–79 season.