TORONTO (Apr. 29) — The Calgary Flames have sent their Irish good–luck charm to our town in an arcane attempt to wrest the 2016 National Hockey League draft lottery from the “favored” Toronto Maple Leafs.
His name? Brian Burke. And, you’ve probably heard of him.
CBC will televise the lottery results tomorrow beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern.
The silvery–haired president of the Calgarians has spent considerable time since the end of the regular season brushing up on the paranormal. An Ouija board rests on the night–stand next to his bed and Burke is convinced to have seen the words “LEAFS ARE DOOMED” in the scramble of letters. A local palm–reader claimed that a wrinkle inside Burke’s left hand travels the same degree of latitude as an aircraft flying between Calgary and Buffalo — the site of this year’s NHL draft. A psychiatrist hired by the Flames to study Burke injected a light dose of Sodium Pentothal (known as the “truth serum”) into the long–time hockey executive. With Burke slightly under, yet still conscious, the doctor asked, “Where would you most like to travel?” After a few moments of incoherent mumbling, Burke repeatedly said, “Austin… Austin… Austin” — as in the state capital of Texas. Auston Matthews, of course, is the consensus No. 1 prospect in the draft.
BRIAN BURKE, STILL A BIT PINK AND GROGGY FROM BEING SEDATED, EXPLAINS TO REPORTERS THE DRAMATIC COINCIDENCE BETWEEN HIS TRAVEL ANSWER AND THE 2016 TOP DRAFT PROSPECT.
Given that Calgary finished 26th in the NHL and carries just an 8.5% chance of winning the draft lottery, you might think the Maple Leafs — with the best odds of 20% — would hardly be concerned about Burke. However, that isn’t the case. “You don’t fool around with Irish luck,” said a highly–placed source at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. “Once we found out what Brian was up to, we made immediate plans to send our own Irishman for a paranormal evaluation.” That, of course, would be president Brendan Shanahan.
But, it didn’t work out as planned.
“I couldn’t go — I’m afraid of needles,” said the Hall–of–Fame winger. “There’s no way I’d consent to the ‘truth serum’ test. I checked with [general manager] Lou Lamoriello and he agreed to take part.”
Sadly for the Leafs, Lamoriello’s involvement proved futile.
Every night for a week, an MLSE staffer showed up at Lamoriello’s house before the GM went to bed. Wearing pajamas and a stocking–cap, Lamoriello carefully ran his fingers over the Ouija board, hoping to offset Burke’s harrowing message. But, the letters kept spelling “NO COMMENT.”
“You cannot believe how frustrating that was,” said Shanahan.
Lamoriello then flew to Calgary for a session with the palm–reader that studied Burke. Surely, a wrinkle on Lou’s hand would travel the brief, longitudinal distance between Toronto and Buffalo. But, the GM wouldn’t cooperate. Three times, the fortune–teller gently grabbed Lou’s left arm and tried to view his palm. On each occasion, Lamoriello jerked it away. “As an organization, we never show our hand,” he insisted.
Looking for a final message of hope, the Leafs sent Lamoriello to the psychiatrist.
Lou took the needle like a man and lapsed into semi–consciousness. As he did with Burke, the doctor asked, “Where would you most like to travel?” Whereas Burke had babbled for a moment or two, Lamoriello remained dead–silent. The doctor repeated: “Where would you most like to travel?” After another disconcerting pause, Lamoriello replied, “I’m sorry, as a hockey club, we don’t divulge information.”
The doctor quickly called Shanahan in Toronto with the news.
“Give him more Pentothal,” said the Leafs president.
A second vial of truth serum was injected into Lamoriello, who had quickly begun to awaken from the initial dose. Within seconds, his eyes rolled back and his head fell to the pillow. “Okay, this should work,” said the doctor. “Mr. Lamoriello, where would you most like to travel?” Nothing.
He tried again: “Mr. Lamoriello, where would you most like to travel?”
“As an organization, we never talk about our plans,” replied the near–comatose GM.
HAVING RECOVERED FROM TWO VIALS OF SODIUM PENTOTHAL, AN ECSTATIC LOU LAMORIELLO GREETS REPORTERS. “TRUTH SERUM, SHMOOTH SERUM,” HE SAID, IN EERIE SIMILARITY TO A FORMER LEAFS GM. “NO BOARD–GAME; NO DRUG; NO HEAD–SHRINKER CAN FOOL WITH OUR ORGANIZATION.”
When apprised of the failed Toronto study, Burke wouldn’t take the bait. “I have nothing to say about the Leafs,” he grumbled. “All I know is that when I got fired [in January 2014], they had a playoff team.”
So, it appears the Maple Leafs are on their own for tomorrow night. The Edmonton Oilers, with the second–best lottery odds (13.5%), chose to not partake in the paranormal activity. “Pffff, all we have to do is play 82 games and we’re guaranteed a lottery win,” scoffed president Bob Nicholson. “Let the other clubs waste all that money. We prefer to pick first… and then lose for six months. It’s a proven strategy.
“Show me another team that buggers up like we do?”
Similarly, the Vancouver Canucks, with third–best odds at 11.5%, did not participate. General manager Jim Benning, however, took the opportunity to vent 35 years worth of frustration toward the Leafs.
“Someone made me a stuffed Harold Ballard doll and I spent all of last Monday jamming pins into it,” said Benning, a defenseman the Leafs drafted sixth overall from Portland of the Western Hockey League in 1981… and then rushed into the NHL with fellow neophyte blue–liners Bob McGill and Fred Boimistruck. The results were predictably disastrous. “The old coot — he and [GM Gerry] McNamara. They bloody–well destroyed my career. Sure, I couldn’t skate, but what the hell? Where’s that Ballard doll?”
Columbus, the lone American–based team with top–six odds at 9.5%, wanted to send coach John Tortorella here for the draft lottery, but Sportsnet management kiboshed the idea.
“We don’t want anyone wrecking our studio,” said Rick Brace, president of Rogers Media.
ONE DAY LATE: Continuing with the esoteric theme, it’s unfortunate for the Leafs the draft lottery couldn’t be held tonight. Apr. 29 has been rather generous to the Blue and White. On this date 49 years ago — in 1967 — Leafs defeated the Canadiens, 4–1, in the pivotal fifth game of the Stanley Cup final at the Montreal Forum. Three nights later, Punch Imlach’s crew would win its most–recent NHL championship. That very same day, a boy named Curtis Joseph was born in Keswick, Ont. — 44 miles northeast of Toronto. Thirty–one years later, he would sign as a free agent with the Leafs and become the club’s best goalie since Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk combined to win the Stanley Cup in his third day of life. Cujo, as he is known, twice backstopped the Toronto teams of Pat Quinn to the Eastern Conference final — in 1999 and 2002.
Also on this date — 38 years ago — came the crowning achievement of Ballard’s ownership reign. On Apr. 29, 1978, Lanny McDonald scored one of the most famous goals in post–1967 Leafs history, beating Glenn Resch of the New York Islanders with a low shot at 4:13 of overtime at the Nassau Coliseum. It provided Leafs a Game 7 victory over their heavily–favored opponent; Toronto rebounding from 2–0 and 3–2 series deficits under rookie coach Roger Neilson. McDonald’s goal put the Leafs into the Stanley Cup semifinals for the first time since 1967, whereupon Montreal cruised to a four–game sweep. But, no team of that era could beat Scotty Bowman’s Canadiens, who won their third of four consecutive NHL titles in ’78.
WHAT ABOUT TOMORROW? Yet another sign points to a 50/50 chance of the Leafs winning the draft lottery. Toronto has split four Stanley Cup playoff games on Apr. 30. In 1986, at the old St. Louis Arena, the Leafs lost a heart–breaker in Game 7 of the second round. After a stunning, three–game sweep of Chicago under coach Dan Maloney in the best–of–five preliminary series, Toronto went the distance with St. Louis, only to fall, 2–1, in the deciding match. The next two encounters on Apr. 30 provided much joy for Leaf fans. In the 1999 opening round, center Yanic Perreault scored at 11:51 of overtime at the Air Canada Centre to break a 2–2 series deadlock with the Flyers. Three nights later, in Philadelphia, winger Sergei Berezin counted the lone marker, on the powerplay, with 58 seconds left in regulation time and the Leafs moved on with a controversial, 1–0 victory. Referee Terry Gregson had sent off the Flyers’ John LeClair for elbowing and Berezin broke the scoreless draw. Afterward, Philadelphia owner Ed Snider, who passed away 18 days ago, unleashed a dressing–room tirade against Gregson that I was fortunate to have spawned by asking for an opinion of the goal. Snider’s conniption received lengthy play on The FAN–590 that night and the next day.
On Apr. 30, 2002, the Leafs eliminated the New York Islanders with a 4–2 victory at Air Canada Centre in Game 7 of the opening round. That series ranks among the most memorable I covered in 23 years at the radio station. It was the apex of the Quinn era and Toronto may have ended its then–35–year Stanley Cup drought if two of its most integral players — Mats Sundin and Darcy Tucker — were healthy. Sundin, however, had a hairline wrist–fracture and Tucker’s spring effectively ended in Game 5 of the following round when Daniel Alfredsson of Ottawa checked him into the side–boards from behind at the ACC. Alfredsson was thereafter booed by Leaf fans during head–to–head matches in Toronto and Ottawa. The Leafs–Islanders series featured seven victories by the home team and a rancorous battle involving such players as Tucker, Shayne Corson, Tie Domi and Wade Belak of Toronto; pesky Steve Webb, Eric Cairns and Dave Scatchard of New York. The Leafs lost in six games to Carolina in the Eastern Conference final.
The last time the Leafs were in action on Apr. 30 was the last spring in which they made the playoffs during a full 82–game schedule (2004). After their customary (yet difficult) series win over Ottawa in the seven–game opening round — veteran goalie Ed Belfour providing an enormous edge over Patrick Lalime of the Senators — the Leafs hooked up with Philadelphia. Having lost the first two games on the road, Toronto evened the best–of–seven with consecutive triumphs at Air Canada Centre — a 3–1 victory in Game 4 on Apr. 30 knotting the series. The Flyers romped, 7–2, at home in Game 5 and then eliminated the Leafs in Game 6 at Toronto on Jeremy Roenick’s goal at 7:39 of overtime.
Legendary Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower is slowly rebounding from a couple of recent falls at his home. After the second incident, doctors prescribed the narcotic Oxycontin for pain and it profoundly sedated the 91–year–old. “It was way too strong a medication for him and he’s off it now, thankfully,” said Bower’s daughter, Cindy Sudeyko. Bower won four Stanley Cups with the Leafs in the 1960’s.
MY PHOTO OF JOHNNY BOWER (LEFT) AND EDDIE SHACK AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS IN 2012.
SHARKS/PREDATORS A COIN–FLIP
It could be the closest series of the 2016 Conference semifinals… and likely one that will yield the fewest goals. San Jose and Nashville face off in Game 1 tonight at the S–A–P Center (10:30 p.m. Eastern, Sportsnet/NBCSN) after the Predators earned arguably their biggest win in franchise history — a Game 7 conquest of the favored Anaheim Ducks Wednesday night in southern–California (the defeat costly to Ducks veteran coach, Bruce Boudreau, who was fired earlier today). Pekka Rinne was phenomenal between the pipes, as Anaheim thoroughly dominated zone–time in the second and third periods. Goals by Colin Wilson and Paul Gaustad in the opening frame stood up; Rinne making 36 saves. Ryan Kesler scored for Anaheim at 1:45 of the third period. It will be the third playoff meeting between the clubs. The Sharks breezed to five–game victories during the opening rounds of 2006 and 2007.
This series will be closer… and lengthier.
BRUCE BOUDREAU (RIGHT) DURING HIS FINAL GAME, WEDNESDAY, AS COACH IN ANAHEIM.
THE FIRST TIME…
For fun, once again, let’s look back (via THE HOCKEY NEWS) at game summaries from the first–ever meetings between combatants in the 2016 Stanley Cup Conference semifinals:
WEDNESDAY, OCT. 11, 1967 — Minnesota at St. Louis
The Dallas–St. Louis series features two of the original expansion teams from 1967–68 — the Stars re–located from Bloomington, Minnesota (formerly the North Stars) for the 1993–94 season. The franchises actually squared off against one another in their first–ever NHL game on the opening night of the ’67–68 schedule at the St. Louis Arena. My pal, Bruce Hood, refereed the match. Bill Masterton, who would die three months later from a head injury suffered while playing against the Oakland Seals, scored the first goal in Minnesota/Dallas history. North Bay, Ont. native Larry Keenan replied for the Blues. The goalies were Garry Bauman for Minnesota and Canadian national team veteran Seth Martin for St. Louis.
SATURDAY, OCT. 16, 1993 — St. Louis at Dallas
SATURDAY, NOV. 16, 1974 — Pittsburgh at Washington
SATURDAY, NOV. 7, 1992 — Tampa Bay at New York Islanders
TUESDAY, NOV. 10, 1998 — Nashville at San Jose