TORONTO (Feb. 13) — The bitch–and–moan meter is off the charts around here with news that Los Angeles and Chicago — during the Maple Leafs 100th anniversary season next year — have been awarded two of the most–coveted National Hockey League events. The Staples Center will host its second All–Star game (to go with 2002) and L.A.’s third–such experience, as the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. (original home of the Kings) held the match in 1981. And, late this week, it was announced that the United Center, home of the defending Stanley Cup–champion Chicago Blackhawks, will host the NHL Draft in 2017 for the first time.
In an understatement, this is not sitting well with Toronto rooters, who spent much time absorbing the verbiage of past Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment executives Brian Burke and Tim Leiweke — both of whom lobbied hard for the All–Star game; the Draft and the Bridgestone Winter Classic outdoor match on New Year’s Day. No city has been given all the events in the same season and it wasn’t going to happen here. But, long–suffering fans of the Leafs contended they were in line for two of the three. With word that the NHL’s American broadcast partner, NBC, opposed a New York Rangers at Toronto Bridgestone Classic at BMO Field — that affair evidently now headed to St. Louis — it appears the Leafs will be granted a not–as–prestigious Heritage game (against Detroit, according to Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night In Canada).
There are several ways to view what people in this town are calling the “centenary snub.”
FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE IT BEGAN ALTERNATING ITS DRAFT LOCATION IN THE LATE–80’s, THE NHL HAS AWARDED THE EVENT TO CHICAGO — AND THE UNITED CENTER — FOR 2017.
Some reflect on 2008–09, when the Canadiens — in their 100th anniversary season — were awarded the All–Star game and the Draft (Wrigley Field in Chicago hosted the Winter Classic, between the Blackhawks and Detroit). It must be remembered, however, that the Leafs centenary coincides with the 50th anniversary of the NHL’s “Great Expansion” in 1967 — the only time a professional sports league has doubled in size (from six to 12 teams). As such, the four remaining clubs from that historic process (Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues) need to be considered for NHL events.
It also cannot be understated how lavishly the NHL courts NBC and its prime television sponsors. Hockey fans north of the border can scream all they want about the sport being more popular up here. Hardly a bulletin. As such, the league kowtows to its American TV partner while trying to promote the game where it is not an automatic sell. That’s why we have Saturday matinees during the playoffs, rather than traditional night telecasts for CBC and Rogers here in Canada. An objective observer would see this as prudent marketing by the NHL. Many Canadians consider it futile to try and “coax” hockey viewership.
Still, the NHL, according to many good sources, wanted our city to host the Bridgestone Winter Classic next January. BMO Field, at the Canadian National Exhibition, will be expanded to more than 40,000 seats for the 2016 Grey Cup game. Just more than a month later — with the temporary bleachers still in place — the Leafs and Rangers would face off in the annual New Year’s Day match. Though New York is a coveted TV market, NBC apparently disapproved of its flagship hockey telecast originating from an obscure venue in a “foreign” country. Not good for sponsors, it argued. As such, the event is now targeted for Busch Stadium in St. Louis — home of the baseball Cardinals — between the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.
St. Louis warrants the Winter Classic as part of its 50th year in the NHL. But, why the Blackhawks as an opponent and not Pittsburgh or Philadelphia — also celebrating golden hockey anniversaries? You guessed it. Sponsorship. Chicago is a bigger TV market and in the midst of a mini NHL dynasty. More people across the United States are likely to watch the Blackhawks than either the Penguins or Flyers.
IT APPEARS THE 2017 BRIDGESTONE WINTER CLASSIC IS HEADED FOR BUSCH STADIUM IN ST. LOUIS.
Thrash and bellow all you want, but NBC is calling the shots for these NHL marketing tools.
The league is therefore comfortable awarding Toronto the World Cup of Hockey tournament in September and a Heritage Classic game at BMO Field in January. Though our city misses out on the Big Three events, the Leafs 100th anniversary is still recognized. That isn’t the feeling among fans around here, who contend that international hockey tournaments pale when compared to the NHL’s involvement in the Winter Olympics. And that a Toronto–Detroit Heritage game — though surely to be welcomed by ticket–buyers at BMO Field and TV viewers across Canada — is “consolation” for having the Bridgestone Winter Classic yanked by NBC.
The moral of this story is rather common. The NHL cannot keep everyone happy, with three mega–events and five of its teams celebrating significant anniversaries. It must therefore do its best juggling act to maintain balance… and to serve is American broadcast partner.
If Toronto feels snubbed by the process, so be it.
LEAFS ON FLAT PAVEMENT
We the South!
How coincidental — or tragically ironic, depending on your point of view — is it that the Toronto Maple Leafs have hit rock–bottom just in time for the National Basketball Association All–Star weekend here in town? In a city where the NBA Raptors proudly coined the playoff slogan “We the North!” the hockey Leafs have arrived at the Antarctic Circle. ESPN would call it “30 for 30.” As an added bonus, Mother Nature is welcoming the hoopsters with a frigid blast of air this weekend: Overnight, Friday into Saturday, the temperature outside felt like minus–36 Celsius (minus–32.8 Fahrenheit for our American visitors).
And, our taxi drivers have promised to remain cranky as hell (see: Uber competition).
At least hockey fans around here can take solace in their team being grounded by the game’s brightest young star. As did Wayne Gretzky more than 36 years ago, Connor McDavid personally slapped down the Maple Leafs in his first TV appearance against the club he grew up worshiping. Gretzky turned in a four–point gem at Maple Leaf Gardens on Nov. 21, 1979 as Edmonton and Toronto played to a 4–4 tie. McDavid went one better on Thursday night at Rexall Place — putting up a five–spot against the Maple Leafs in a 5–2 Oilers victory that officially plunked the Blue–and–White into last place in the NHL standings.
CONNOR McDAVID WAS A BEAST THURSDAY NIGHT IN HIS FIRST GAME AGAINST THE LEAFS. TSN IMAGE
It required four months, four days and 53 games — beginning with a 3–1 loss at home to Montreal, Oct. 7, and ending with a final visit to the arena Gretzky immortalized in the 1980’s. On this Saturday, the Leafs gaze upward from their bottom–perch with a 19–25–9 record for 47 points — two in back of 29th–place Edmonton; 37 behind the league–leading Washington Capitals. Since Dec. 18 of last season, when the meltdown began under Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek, the Leafs are 30–55–14 in 99 games. Or, 30 wins and 69 losses. More than good (or bad) enough to provide a foundation for the rest of the NHL.
NOV. 21, 1979 — MAPLE LEAF GARDENS
As mentioned, there was abundant symmetry between McDavid’s mauling of the Leafs Thursday night in Edmonton and Gretzky’s one–man show at Maple Leaf Gardens more than 36 years ago. In each instance, the young wunderkind of the Oilers was making his first TV appearance against the Blue and White. Nov. 21, 1979 was Gretzky’s second time opposing Toronto; he had recorded two assists in a 6–3 loss at Northlands Coliseum ten days earlier. Under the bright lights of 60 Carlton St., No. 99 took over the game.
I remember the night for a personal milestone — my initial appearance in the press box to watch the Maple Leafs. I was 20 years old and working in my first job… for $170/week as a sports writer at the Etobicoke Guardian community newspaper. The Oilers’ veteran goalie, Dave Dryden, hailed from Etobicoke (a west–Toronto suburb) and Dryden would play for the Oilers that night. My boss at the Guardian — and soon–to–become lifetime pal — Joel Colomby wondered if I’d like to write a story on Dryden. One twist of the arm was all it took and Joel called Gardens’ publicity director Stan Obodiac to arrange for a media credential (Colomby is now assistant sports editor of the Toronto Sun, where he has worked since 1980).
To be honest, I don’t remember a thing about my interview with Dryden (sorry Dave). What I do recall — and what has stood with so many who witnessed the game that night — was Gretzky’s remarkable performance. Having watched Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito and others in my youth, I was skeptical about the hype surrounding No. 99 — then still 18. He couldn’t possibly live up to his advance billing.
Gretzky’s assault on the NHL record book was well underway when he recorded two goals and two assists in a draw with the Maple Leafs. I sat, somewhat nervously, beside the late Toronto Star columnist Milt Dunnell, then 74 and the dean of Canadian sports writers. Milt had seen every great hockey player — from Howie Morenz to Charlie Conacher to Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, Hull, Orr, Esposito, Guy Lafleur… and now, Gretzky. I’ll never forget how he kept turning to a complete stranger (me) and exclaiming “Isn’t that young man marvelous?!” Ol’ Milt was an immediate convert. He would live past his 102nd birthday.
TV IMAGES (ABOVE AND BELOW) OF 18–YEAR–OLD WAYNE GRETZKY DURING HIS DOMINANT FIRST GAME AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS ON NOV. 21, 1979. HE STARRED WITH TWO GOALS AND TWO ASSISTS.
Gretzky brought his entire repertoire to the Gardens in his Toronto NHL premier; all of the tricks we’d grow accustomed to while watching him become — alongside Orr — the greatest player who ever lived. He repeatedly set up in his “office” behind the Maple Leafs net; he powered into the attacking zone along the boards only to stop on a dime and find an open trailer; he revealed his sharp, forehand wrap–around to goalie Paul Harrison; his tape–to–tape saucer–pass over two opposition sticks. And, it all worked.
Unlike Thursday night, however, the Oilers did not win the game. While McDavid’s five points powered Edmonton past the Leafs rather easily, Gretzky’s second goal of the night — with 6:21 left to play — salvaged a 4–4 tie after the visitors had coughed up a 3–1 third–period lead. Still, I remember having the impression that Gretzky could do whatever he wished — whenever he wished. Which proved rather accurate as time passed. McDavid is a faster, more–powerful skater than Gretzky. And, that’s frightening.
The sky appears to be the limit for yet another Oilers phenom.
FROM 99’s FIRST GARDENS VISIT
AND, GUESS WHO TURNS 45 TODAY?
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MATS SUNDIN.