TORONTO (Feb. 10) — Give the Toronto Maple Leafs credit (or blame).
With several recent chances to fall into sole possession of 30th place in the National Hockey League, the club has managed to stray from the cellar, rocketing as high as 26th in the standings last week. Often, it has been the result of a rival team — Buffalo, Edmonton, Columbus — suffering an inconvenient loss.
But, all of this could change on Thursday night at Rexall Place.
Toronto’s 51st and final visit to the arena opened in 1973 as the Northlands Coliseum (and later immortalized by Wayne Gretzky) has watershed potential. Only a regulation–time victory will enable the visitors to avoid becoming the NHL’s worst team. Last Sunday, in Santa Clara, Calif., we had the (not–so) Super Bowl between Denver and Carolina. Thursday night, hockey fans in northern Alberta will attend the Basement Bowl. Next time the clubs face off in Edmonton, it will be in the city’s new arena, Rogers Place, scheduled to open before the 2016–17 season; inevitably to be called the “house that McDavid built.”
ROGERS PLACE UNDER CONSTRUCTION (ABOVE) IN DOWNTOWN EDMONTON. NEW HOME OF THE HOCKEY OILERS WILL OPEN FOR NEXT NHL SEASON. ARTIST’S DEPICTION, BELOW.
Toronto and Edmonton currently bring up the rear in the NHL with 47 points. Both lost in regulation time Tuesday — the Oilers at New Jersey; Leafs at Calgary. Toronto technically remains 29th in the standings by virtue of accumulating its point–total in three fewer games (55–52). Ultimately, however, the first tie–breaker in the standings belongs to the Oilers, as the Leafs have the fewest ROW’s (victories gained in regulation or overtime, excluding the shootout): 14. Edmonton has 17. So, the “race” is about to heat up.
The Leafs have a 19–24–7 lifetime road record against the Oilers, who often embarrassed them during the Gretzky years. Edmonton joined the NHL in 1979–80 as part of the dissolution agreement with the World Hockey Association. It was the Leafs, however, who prevailed in the first meeting between the clubs — on a Sunday afternoon (Nov. 11, 1979) at Northlands Coliseum. The Toronto area, that weekend, was dominated by news of a toxic train derailment in Mississauga which prompted the largest peace–time evacuation in Canadian history. So, Gretzky’s first career point against the Maple Leafs was heavily overshadowed:
MISSISSAUGA, WEST OF TORONTO, WAS A VIRTUAL GHOST–TOWN ON THE DAY THE LEAFS AND OILERS FIRST MET. WAYNE GRETZKY RECORDED HIS INITIAL POINT AGAINST THE BLUE–AND–WHITE MIDWAY THROUGH THE SECOND PERIOD — ASSISTING ON A GOAL BY EX–LEAF STAN WEIR. BY THAT TIME, HOWEVER, THE VISITORS HAD A COMMANDING 4–0 LEAD EN ROUTE TO A 6–3 VICTORY.
DARRYL SITTLER WAS WELL INTO HIS SEASON–LONG FEUD WITH HAROLD BALLARD AND PUNCH IMLACH WHEN THE LEAFS BEAT THE OILERS — IMAGES, ABOVE, FROM THE NOV. 12, 1979 TORONTO STAR.
AND, FROM THE NOV. 12, 1979 GLOBE AND MAIL.
ODE TO PHANEUF
Dion Phaneuf’s tenure as captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs (February 2010–February 2016) will not be remembered fondly, as the team lost many more games than it won. He will, however, be recalled warmly and endearingly by the children whose days he brightened during hospital visits (most un-publicized) and by the parents of children who did not survive illness. Nothing Phaneuf strove for on the ice can compare to the extracurricular time he put in while wearing the ‘C’. It should neither be underplayed nor forgotten.
Not surprisingly, the nine–player trade that sent Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday was all the rage in Toronto newspapers today:
HARTLEY WRONG: I’m not sure what the alternative should be for disciplining players, but I am strongly against a coach doing so by scratching them from a home game. That was Bob Hartley’s decision with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Lance Bouma for Tuesday night’s match against the Maple Leafs. Calgary still managed to prevail, 4–3, but that’s beside the point. Suite holders at the Saddledome pay up to $875 to see a game. They deserve to watch the Flames’ best players, whenever healthy. Gaudreau is Calgary’s leading scorer; Monahan its No. 1 center. Arbitrarily scratching such talent from the line–up as the result of an internal issue is abjectly unfair to ticket buyers — no matter where they sit or how much they pay. The Leafs have always been a huge draw in western Canada and most tickets are purchased far in advance for Toronto’s lone visit of the schedule. Admission is rated as “premium” for the match, earning the Flames top dollar in all sections of the arena. There is also the matter of a young child having an opportunity to see his only live game of the season. Any such fan of the Flames would be excited about watching Gaudreau and Monahan. He or she shouldn’t be deprived of the opportunity. Given how genuinely Flames president Brian Burke considered ticket buyers during his years running the Leafs, I’m surprised he sanctioned Hartley’s move. Gaudreau, Monahan and Bouma did not show in time for a team meeting on Monday, after the club was given Super Bowl Sunday off. This negligence was undoubtedly subject to discipline. Perhaps a stiff fine would have sent the message. Otherwise, I’m not sure what is accomplished by taking out internal matters on the paying public. Also, I think it is fair to wonder if Hartley would have made the same moves for a home game against rival Edmonton, or against such a superior opponent as Chicago. That, too, is immaterial. Ticket buyers must have the opportunity to watch a team’s best players. To be deprived of that privilege — with or without warning — is nothing shy of a rip–off.
CALGARY BEAT THE LEAFS, 4–3, TUESDAY NIGHT BUT FANS AT THE SADDLEDOME WERE NOT ABLE TO WATCH PREMIER ATTRACTIONS JOHNNY GAUDREAU AND SEAN MONAHAN. CALGARY HERALD PHOTO