Centers of Attention

Busted flat in Baton Rouge; waiting for a train…
And I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans.

TORONTO (May 7) — I was cruising along a highway north of the city the other night when Janis Joplin’s 1971 anthem, Me and Bobby McGee, came on the radio. The song always takes me back to a game at Maple Leaf Gardens (I still have the program) on the final Saturday of the 1970–71 National Hockey League season.

In town were the incomparable Boston Bruins of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito — a club just more than 24 hours removed from finishing with the most points (121) and goals–scored (399) to that time in NHL history. How I remember some of these things, I’ll never know. But, I still have vivid recollection of going to the game with my cousin, Brian Gold, who grew up in Orillia, Ont., but was then living in Toronto; not more than a stone’s–throw from the Gardens (Brian, in his early–70’s, is today in Ottawa). I was only 12, so my older cousin schlepped north to pick me up in Downsview. We then turned around and went back for the game. During the half–hour car rides to and from the Gardens, Me and Bobby McGee — among the most popular rock numbers — played repeatedly on venerable 1050–CHUM. Thus the nostalgic connection.

The hockey connection involves Darryl Sittler — a 20–year–old rookie playing left wing for the Leafs that night; later to become one of the top half–dozen centers in franchise history. A junior phenom with the London Nationals (today the Knights), Sittler joined the Leafs at No. 8 in the first universal draft of 1970.

Given reasonable criteria, we can look back today and conclude that the St. Jacobs, Ont. native was the last homegrown center of the Blue–and–White to achieve and maintain superstar billing with the club.

Which is, to say the least, quite remarkable.

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JANIS JOPLIN SANG ME AND BOBBY McGEE IN DARRYL SITTLER’S ROOKIE NHL SEASON.

Forty–six years and no Stanley Cups later, this may finally be changing.

Having already drafted William Nylander and Mitch Marner, the Leafs are on the verge of adding what many scouts contend is a franchise–caliber center in Auston Matthews. Which is similar to the tag Sittler carried into the NHL in 1970; largely dis–similar to that of any pivot drafted by the club in the interim.

Obviously, there have been other star center–men here in Toronto since 1971; even a star draft pick that played the position. Most, however, were acquired by trade, and the one that came via the draft languished on mediocre teams before being off–loaded, himself. These players can be counted on less than two hands. To make the grade, here, each had to compile at least 70 points over a minimum two seasons in a Toronto jersey. As such, the post–1967 list includes Dave Keon, Norm Ullman, Sittler, Bill Derlago, Vincent Damphousse, Ed Olczyk, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin. That’s it… for nearly half–a–century.

Keon, widely considered the best player in franchise history, continued with the Leafs for eight seasons after expansion but is remembered, primarily, for his leading role in the Stanley Cup dynasty between 1962 and 1967. Ullman, Derlago, Olczyk, Gilmour and Sundin were acquired by trade. Damphousse arrived sixth overall in the 1986 NHL draft (three spots ahead of Brian Leetch) and was dealt to Edmonton as part of Cliff Fletcher’s multi–player swap in September 1991 that brought Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson to Toronto. Given that Fuhr was later flipped to Buffalo for Dave Andreychuk; that Andreychuk and Gilmour formed one of the most prolific duos in team history, and that all three (Anderson included) contributed to the Leafs magical playoff ride of 1993, it was a prudent transaction by the Hall–of–Fame general manager.

Looking at the Big–8 Leaf centers individually:

DAVE KEON: Points were easier to come by after the 1967 expansion, when the NHL doubled in size to 12 teams and unavoidably diluted its product. As such, Keon’s career–best 76 points in 1970–71 and second–best 73 in 1972–73 were likely not as impressive as his 61 and 60–point efforts in the early–1960’s. Still, he was quite productive, even when flanked by such–middling linemates as Garry Monahan and Billy MacMillan. A product of the St. Michael’s College hockey program, Keon won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie–of–the–year in 1960–61. If he’s widely considered the best player in franchise history, he is accordingly the Leafs best–ever homegrown product at any position. Keon, now 76, resides in Florida.

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IN A 1963 PHOTO, FROM BOSTON, DAVE KEON FLIPS PUCK AT FUTURE LEAFS TEAMMATE ED JOHNSTON WHILE VETERAN BRUINS DEFENSEMAN TOM JOHNSON LOOKS ON, APPARENTLY HORRIFIED.

NORM ULLMAN: Another terrific pre–expansion player came to the Leafs as part of an unpopular trade with Detroit in March 1968 that sent iconic Frank Mahovlich to the Red Wings. Ullman led the NHL with 42 goals for Detroit in 1964–65 and he performed splendidly here between 1968 and 1975. A clever play–maker and relentless forechecker, Ullman had seasons of 85, 77 and 73 points in Toronto. For most of his seven–plus years, he centered a good scoring line with Ron Ellis and Paul Henderson. Leafs owner Harold Ballard unceremoniously dumped both Ullman and Keon after the 1974–75 season. Normy is now 80 years old.

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DETERMINED NORM ULLMAN DURING A 1969 GAME AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS.

DARRYL SITTLER: The first Leaf to record 100 points in a season and one of only two to accumulate triple figures. Sittler accomplished the feat in 1975–76 (45 goals, 55 assists) while centering a potent scoring line with Lanny McDonald (37 goals) and Errol Thompson (43 goals). He then enjoyed his best NHL season two years later under rookie coach Roger Neilson — a 117–point eruption (45 goals, 72 assists) which still ranks second in franchise history. In a nine–season span between 1972–73 and 1980–81, Sittler never recorded less than 77 points. During the ’80–81 schedule, he overtook Keon as the Leafs all–time points leader and finished with 919; holding the rein until 2007–08. No one comes close to Sittler among Leaf centers drafted and developed in the post–expansion era. Now 65, he remains a team community representative.

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DARRYL SITTLER IS CHECKED BY MONTREAL DEFENSEMAN BRIAN ENGBLOM DURING THE 1978 STANLEY CUP SEMIFINALS AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS. THE HABS SWEPT TORONTO IN FOUR.

BILL DERLAGO: May not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of Maple Leaf centers since 1967, but the man known as Billy D. here in Toronto from 1980 to 1985 had phenomenal puck skill. He came from Vancouver in the only worthwhile trade of Punch Imlach’s largely–disastrous second term as GM of the Leafs. In February 1980, Imlach sent Dave (Tiger) Williams and Jerry Butler to the Canucks for Derlago and winger Rick Vaive. Derlago was the set–up man in 1981–82 when Vaive became the first Toronto player to score 50 goals in a season (he finished with 54 — still a team record). Skating between Vaive and left–winger John Anderson, Derlago had seasons of 74 and 84 points with the Blue and White. Now 57, Billy D. lives north of the city, in Concord, and operates a Chrysler dealership.

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BILL DERLAGO, IN THIS FINAL SEASON WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS, 1984–85.

VINCENT DAMPHOUSSE: Another exceptional talent shrouded by the swirl of chaos enveloping the Leafs late in Harold Ballard’s life. In 1989–90, Damphousse enjoyed a remarkable season of 94 points, which equals the best total of Mats Sundin’s Toronto career. His 61 assists contributed mightily toward Gary Leeman becoming the second Leaf player to surpass the 50–goal mark (with 51). Damphousse followed with 73 points in 1990–91 prior to the trade that sent him to Edmonton for Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson. In 1992–93, he had a career–best 97 points for the Stanley Cup–champion Montreal Canadiens. Second to Sittler among centers drafted by Leafs in the post–1967 era. Now 48, Vincent lives in Montreal.

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VINCENT DAMPHOUSSE DURING HIS 94–POINT SEASON WITH THE LEAFS IN 1989–90.

ED OLCZYK: Hockey fans know him today as the lead analyst for NHL games on NBC, working alongside venerable play–caller Mike Emrick. In September 1987 — as a star center in the NHL — Eddie O. was the key figure coming to Toronto in a multi–player swap that sent three–time 50–goal shooter Rick Vaive to the Blackhawks. The Chicago native, with gifted hands, had three outstanding seasons for the Maple Leafs — accumulating point–totals of 75, 90 and 88, while scoring 42, 38 and 32 goals. In 1989–90, when the Leafs struck for 337 goals (still a team record), Olczyk centered a line with Gary Leeman and Mark Osborne. The unit combined for 106 goals (Leeman had 51) and 256 points. Olczyk and Osborne were traded to the Winnipeg Jets on Nov. 10, 1990 for defenseman Dave Ellett and forward Paul Fenton. Eddie will turn 50 this August. He is color–man on Blackhawks’ TV games, working with veteran play–caller Pat Foley.

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EDDIE O. (16) SHARES THE COVER OF THE 1990–91 MAPLE LEAFS MEDIA GUIDE WITH TEAMMATES VINCENT DAMPHOUSSE (TOP) AND GARY LEEMAN.

DOUG GILMOUR: The trade involving the most players in NHL history quickly evolved into the best deal of the post–1967 era for the Maple Leafs. On Jan. 2, 1992, Cliff Fletcher and Calgary GM Doug Risebrough concocted a 10–player swap that (primarily) sent Gilmour to the Leafs and 50–goal shooter Gary Leeman to the Flames. It became a remarkably lop–sided transaction when Gilmour erupted, in 1992–93, for 95 assists and 127 points (still Leaf records); and then carried the club on his back to within minutes of appearing in the Stanley Cup final for the first time since ’67. Alas, it was Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings that prevailed in Game 7 of the Campbell Conference championship at Maple Leaf Gardens on May 29, 1993. Gilmour then rang up 111 points in 1993–94 and, again, the Leafs lost (to Vancouver) in the Conference final. Dougie remains the only Toronto player to record 100 or more points in consecutive seasons. Now a spry 52, he is GM of the much–improved Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League.

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DOUG GILMOUR CELEBRATES A GOAL AGAINST THE MINNESOTA STARS DURING HIS RECORD 127–POINT SEASON IN 1992–93. THE STARS WOULD MOVE TO DALLAS THE FOLLOWING YEAR.

MATS SUNDIN: Cliff Fletcher’s other signature move while managing the Maple Leafs occurred just prior to the 1994 NHL draft at the Hartford Civic Center — a multi–player exchange that sent popular Wendel Clark to the old Quebec Nordiques for the 23–year–old Sundin. In 13 seasons with the Blue and White, the big Swede would become the all–time leading scorer in franchise history (987 points) — leapfrogging Dave Keon and Darryl Sittler in his final two years playing for the Leafs. Always a big producer, yet unable to approach his career–best 114 points in Quebec (1992–93), Sundin never recorded less than 72 points in a full 82–game schedule here in Toronto. A consummate gentleman, he had 80 or more points four times. Now 45, Mats is living in a palatial estate near Stockholm with wife Josephine and their two children.

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THE BIG SWEDE TOPS THE LEAFS ALL–TIME SCORING LIST.
PHOTOS COURTESY THE MIKE LEONETTI/HAROLD BARKLEY COLLECTION

HONORABLE MENTION — MAPLE LEAF CENTERS THAT COMPILED 70 OR MORE POINTS IN ONE SEASON SINCE 1967: Dan Daoust (74 in 1983–84); Tom Fergus (73 in 1985–86); Russ Courtnall (73 in 1986–87).

As you can see, the drafting and development of players at all positions — but, particularly at the key center–ice spot — has been a fundamental deficiency for the Leafs in the post–expansion era. That Darryl Sittler is the lone–such commodity to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame speaks volumes. The club, however, appears to be turning the corner. It has shown commendable patience with Nazem Kadri and will soon add a tantalizing trio of full–time pivots: Nylander, Marner and (presumably) Matthews. This will serve to magnify the futility of the “old” Leafs way — trading prime draft choices for quick–fix remedies to justify the budgeting of playoff dates at Air Canada Centre. Leafs have finally entered the post–salary cap era.

SATURDAY NOTES: Another indication the St. Louis Blues have emerged, at last, from playoff disappointment was a thorough, 4–1 victory at Dallas this afternoon in the pivotal Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal. The Blues can advance to the Stanley Cup semifinals for the first time since 2001 with another triumph on home ice Monday night (St. Louis lost to Colorado in ’01; the Avs then defeated New Jersey to win the NHL championship). After recent goaltending forays that included Jaroslav Halak, Ryan Miller, Chris Mason, Jake Allen and Martin Brodeur (in his last season), the Blues are finally excelling in front of Brian Elliott, who performed solidly again at the American Airlines Center in Game 5. Elliott, of course, is ably supported by a trio of defensive “horses” (as I prefer to call an element currently missing from the Toronto Maple Leafs): Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. This luxury for coach Ken Hitchcock is Stanley Cup–worthy — providing Elliott maintains his performance level the rest of the way…

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BRIAN ELLIOTT (LEFT) CONTINUES TO PERFORM WELL AGAINST DALLAS IN THE WEST PLAYOFFS. NBC

It’s hard to imagine how wacko our city would be right now if Toronto were more of a basketball town. That’s not to diminish what the NBA Raptors are accomplishing, or the fervency of those that follow the club. But, Toronto with basketball is much like Chicago with hockey. When watching home games on TV, you’d think there is nothing of greater importance — and that each sport is an overwhelming staple. In fact, basketball is a distant No. 3 here in Toronto, while hockey in Chicago ranks well beneath the NFL Bears; NBA Bulls and baseball Cubs. I learned this only by covering Stanley Cup playoff games involving the Blackhawks. In our city, the general tone of excitement for the Raptors — now in Round 2 of the playoffs against Miami and leading the best–of–seven series, 2–1 — is nowhere near that which greeted the Blue Jays last autumn in their first playoff appearance since 1993. And, of course, neither would approach the hysteria of a Leafs Stanley Cup run, as foreign as that may sound. Again, this isn’t criticism. Merely observation… As a native of Toronto, and follower of the Blue Jays since Day 1, I’m still trying to figure the criteria for opening the retractable roof at Rogers Centre during baseball games. This afternoon, for example — and though mostly cloudy — was a comfortable 18 degrees Celsius (roughly 66 Fahrenheit) with virtually no wind and a minuscule chance for rain. Still, the stadium was covered throughout a 6–2 conquest of the Blue Jays by Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers. I always thought the money spent for a sliding roof–structure was to ensure that all 81 home dates would be played without weather delay — and that Rogers Centre (originally SkyDome) would remain covered during cold days and nights early in the Major League season. To keep the dome in place on such an afternoon as today was patently ridiculous and done without a smidgen of consideration for the paying customer… Buck Martinez is a good broadcaster and a very nice man. For the love of God, however, he must find a synonym for “terrific”. Buck uses the word to death during the course of a Blue Jays telecast — whether calling the game or analyzing it alongside Dan Shulman. “Terrific” is, well, a fairly terrific word… until you hear it three times in the same sentence. On Friday night, Buck used it nine times in the first three innings of the Toronto–Los Angeles telecast. Obviously, this is something he does unintentionally and it should be pointed out to him — politely, yet firmly — by a Sportsnet producer. Among the alternatives for “terrific” are superb; excellent; wonderful; amazing; splendid; outstanding; great; tremendous; awesome and fabulous. Martinez, by the way, has a book on the market right now, ghost–written by Sportsnet scribe Dan Robson (he of the Pat Quinn autobiography). I haven’t read it yet, but I’m told it’s entertaining and informative — words that mostly define the former Blue Jays catcher on TV.

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BUCK’S NEW BOOK. A “TERRIFIC” READ, I’M TOLD.

CAMERA TRICKS

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NO, MY OL’ PAL LINDY RUFF DOES NOT HAVE LONG, FLOWING LOCKS ON THE BACKSIDE OF HIS HEAD. BUT, A WOMAN WITH SUCH A “DO” WAS SEATED DIRECTLY BEHIND THE DALLAS COACH AT AMERICAN AIRLINES CENTER TODAY, AND NBC’s CAMERA WAS PERFECTLY ALIGNED FOR THE ILLUSION.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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