TORONTO (Apr. 6) — Once the Maple Leafs finish their National Hockey League schedule on Saturday in New Jersey, many eyes around here will focus on the American Hockey League Toronto Marlies.
Freshly re–stocked with returning players from the NHL, the Marlies will be among favorites to win the Calder Cup as AHL champion, having resided atop the standings virtually all season. That the team maintained its league–leading clip in the absence of No. 1 goalie Garret Sparks and, intermittently, its entire nucleus — William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Mark Arcobello, Connor Carrick, Brandon Leipsic, Viktor Loov, T.J. Brennan, Rinat Valiev, Fredrik Gauthier and Kasperi Kapanen — is a credit to first–year coach Sheldon Keefe and his core of full–time AHL personnel.
The future Leafs performed commendably in an exhibition–like environment devoid of team and playoff pressure — one that coach Mike Babcock and general manager Lou Lamoriello cautioned was far different than that encountered by a Stanley Cup contender. Emphasizing such a distinction showed terrific leadership. It would have been easy for both men to imply a “what–you–see–is–what–you–get” scenario for next season and beyond. This was commonplace among prior Leaf executives in the post–2005 lockout era and it proved deceptive; the team hasn’t made the playoffs in a full 82–game schedule since 2003–04. It is possible, of course, that first impressions of the past month were accurate, but Babcock and Lamoriello — each with a championship pedigree — have wisely chosen to remain guarded in their assessment.
THE TORONTO MARLIES WILL BE LOOKING FOR LEADERSHIP FROM ZACH HYMAN — SHOWN HERE AGAINST THE MINNESOTA WILD AT AIR CANADA CENTRE ON MAR. 3 OF THIS SEASON.
Soon, the NHL–auditioned players will need to ramp up enthusiasm for the Calder Cup tournament. Having appeared on the big stage, it will be interesting to note how they sustain performance in the American League. There is nothing insignificant about an AHL title; the Calder Cup has been competed for since 1936. But, the level of engagement is far beneath that in the NHL and it’s open to question whether those returning from their Maple Leafs experience — Nylander, in particular — can retain competitive zeal.
It has been 35 years since a Leafs farm team won the AHL championship. The 1981–82 New Brunswick Hawks — a shared affiliate between Toronto and Chicago; coached by Orval Tessier — defeated the Binghamton Whalers 4–1 in a best–of–seven final. The club re–located from Moncton to St. Catharines, Ont. the following season. The Leafs owned and operated the Rochester Americans prior to NHL expansion in 1967. The Amerks (and scrappy rearguard Don Cherry) won AHL titles in 1964–65, 1965–66 and 1967–68.
THIRST FOR 30th: With four nights left in the 2015–16 season, the Leafs are assured of finishing no higher than 28th (or third–from–last) in the overall standings. Toronto can still place ahead of Edmonton and Columbus, which puts a rather intriguing spin on tonight’s encounter with the Blue Jackets at Air Canada Centre. A Columbus victory in regulation time would consign the Leafs to 29th or 30th and a minimum 13.5% chance of winning the draft lottery. Leafs have never promoted a “guaranteed–loss” night, but there’s a first time for everything. The Oilers, tied in points with 67 and leading by four in the first tie–breaker (ROW’s, regulation or overtime wins), finish their schedule with consecutive clashes against Vancouver — tonight, in the final NHL game at Rexall Place; then on Saturday at Rogers Arena. The 30th–place team gets a 20% chance of winning the Apr. 30 draft lottery and a guaranteed top–four selection.
ALONG CARLTON STREET: With some errands to run downtown, I parked under Maple Leaf Gardens last week and encountered the usual nostalgia. From the outside, the Gardens looks virtually identical to its years (1931–1999) as home of the Leafs. The Loblaws shopping center on the main floor is among the largest and best in the country. While stopped at a red light along westbound Carlton St. (at Church St.), I pointed by trusty NIKON out the driver’s–side window and captured this image of the yellow–brick arena built 85 years ago by Conn Smythe (“RU” stands for Ryerson University, the Gardens’ co–tenant):
GARDENS’ BRICKS UP CLOSE AND FORMER GOLD ARENA SEATS IN LOBLAW’S.
FOSTER’S SEARCH: Those familiar with the history of Maple Leaf Gardens will know that Foster Hewitt — when asked, in 1931, to gauge the proper height for his soon–to–be–famous broadcast gondola — wandered over to the Eaton’s building one block away. He went from floor to floor and looked down at people walking along College St. before settling on the fifth level. The gondola was therefore suspended from a support–beam at approximately the same height from the ice. Opened on Oct. 30, 1930 and located on the southwest corner of Yonge and College St., it is currently known as College Park — a shopping mall, residential and office complex. This is my photo of the Art Deco building in which Hewitt made his choice:
OTHER STUFF: It was a pleasure catching up with my friend Art Hindle (below) on Monday afternoon at the monthly gathering of NHL alumni in Markham, northeast of Toronto. Art is best known among hockey fans for playing the role of Billy Duke in the 1971 Canadian production of Faceoff. The legendary movie incorporates scenes from a Maple Leafs road trip to Oakland and Los Angeles in which Art traveled late in the 1970–71 schedule. Fight scenes for the movie were filmed at Maple Leaf Gardens on Victoria Day Monday in ’71 — I was among 6,000 or so fans that gathered on the west side of the arena to watch the staged battles involving actual NHL players in their jerseys–of–the–day. Another of Hindle’s prime acting roles occurred in 1981 as good–guy cop Ted Jarvis in the cult–movie classic Porky’s. Art starred as Mark Fennell in the Canadian TV drama–series E.N.G. — televised by the CTV network between 1990 and 1994.
It was the first alumni gathering since the death, last week, of former NHL referee Ron Wicks… and he was missed. Art and I both talked on Monday. I had the privilege of telling the audience the rather uplifting story of Ron’s final hours at Brampton Civic Hospital, as relayed to me by his daughter, Lisa. Toronto Blue Jays radio voice Jerry Howarth — in a phone conversation with Ron last Tuesday (Mar. 29) — said he would say hello to the Wicks family off the top of Friday night’s Toronto–Boston exhibition game broadcast from Olympic Stadium in Montreal. Lisa had informed me of Ron requesting to be detached from intravenous fluids and oxygen early on Friday, thus allowing nature to run its course in his battle with liver cancer. As such, I figured there was no way Ron and Lisa would be tuned into Sportsnet–590 at 7:15 p.m. I was wrong.
Lisa told me she held up the radio to her father’s ear. And though Ron was no longer able to speak, his eyes lit up when he heard Howarth’s greeting. Less than 90 minutes later, my friend passed away.
YOURS TRULY AND ART HINDLE TALKING TO NHL ALUMNI IN MARKHAM ON MONDAY.
THE RON WICKS SCRAPBOOK
— a tribute to my late friend
The National Hockey League’s longest–serving referee died last week of liver cancer, but Ron Wicks will continue to live prominently in news–print. Specifically, in the pages of THE HOCKEY NEWS, which published (though indiscriminately) full line–ups and officials’ names in its summaries until the end of the 1967–68 season. My large collection of the hockey “bible” dates to midway through the 1963–64 schedule. I sat down early this week and combed each issue for Ron’s name — first as a linesman in the NHL; then as a referee.
I came upon 17 such examples from regular–season and playoff matches between Jan. 29, 1964 and Mar. 27, 1968 — during the infant portion of Ron’s 26–year career. There were many others in this time span, particularly throughout the ’67–68 season when the NHL doubled in size to 12 teams and promoted — from the minor leagues — a half–dozen young referees (Ron among them). Why THE HOCKEY NEWS printed line–ups so randomly; and then stopped altogether at the start of the 1968–69 season, will likely remain a mystery, as its founding fathers — Ken McKenzie, Will Cote and Len Bramson — are deceased.
Here, then, are 17 summaries from games that my late friend worked at the start of his NHL career. I have posted corresponding covers of THE HOCKEY NEWS:
1963–64 REGULAR SEASON
1964 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
Though he worked his first NHL game (at New York’s Madison Square Garden) just after his 20th birthday in October 1960, Wicks remained mostly in the American, Central and Western hockey leagues. He received his first big break when officiating supervisor Carl Voss promoted him for the 1964 Stanley Cup playoffs.
While perusing these pages, I learned that Ron appeared as a linesman in two of the most memorable matches involving the Toronto Maple Leafs: Game 7 of the ’64 semifinals at the Montreal Forum — Dave Keon’s hattrick powering the Leafs past the Canadiens. And, Game 6 of the Cup final round at the Detroit Olympia — legendary, still, for the overtime winning–goal scored by Toronto defenseman Bob Baun while skating on a fractured foot. I rather regret not discovering these two assignments while Ron was still alive.
With a memory like an elephant, his stories would have been vivid and alluring.
1966–67 REGULAR SEASON
Ron’s first game as a referee in the NHL — and his lone NHL assignment of the 1966–67 season — occurred on the final day of November at Chicago Stadium. He called his first penalty against future Hall–of–Fame defenseman Harry Howell of the New York Rangers only 1:26 after the opening face–off.
1967–68 NHL EXPANSION
Except for its inaugural season of 1917–18, this was the most historic year in NHL history, as the league added six new teams and formed two divisions. Joining pre–expansion clubs Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York and Toronto were the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues. The schedule increased from 70 to 74 games. Given the advent of coast–to–coast travel, the NHL promoted a group of referees, including Ron Wicks, Bruce Hood, Wally Harris, Bryan Lewis, Dave Newell, Bob Sloan, Lloyd Gilmour, Tom Smith and John McCauley. Incumbent referees were Vern Buffey, John Ashley, Bill Friday and Art Skov.
Los Angeles at Oakland — Jan. 7, 1968 / St. Louis at Los Angeles — Jan. 11, 1968.
Philadelphia at Minnesota — Jan. 18, 1968.
Pittsburgh at Minnesota — Jan. 21, 1968.
Minnesota at Los Angeles — Mar. 27, 1968.