Kessel Was Full Value, But…

TORONTO (June 14) — Fans of the Maple Leafs should not begrudge Phil Kessel for raising the Stanley Cup.

Kessel was hardly a passenger in the 2016 playoffs, leading Pittsburgh in scoring with 10 goals and 22 points. It proved how valuable he can be when fully engaged and deploying his immense skill.

It does not, however, excuse his shameful performance with the Leafs in the latter half of the 2014–15 season. Truth be known, it magnifies just how blatantly he folded the tent after the club granted him an eight–year, $64–million contract extension. His nonchalance while the Leafs were being humiliated under Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek richly earned Kessel a one–way ticket out of town. He then contributed to a third coaching casualty in Pittsburgh (Mike Johnston) before buckling down to earn his hefty stipend.

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Mike Babcock does not have a criminal record. But, his finger–prints may have been on Kessel’s neck at training camp last September. That’s why an unspoken clause in Babcock’s record deal with the Blue and White insisted he not coach the malingering forward. Kessel was shipped to the Penguins even before Lou Lamoriello joined the Leafs — the deed falling on acting GM’s Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas.

Undoubtedly, Kessel is snickering today at all who vilified him for quitting on the Leafs between January and April 2015. He is likely concerned about Toronto and its fans as much as he cared for the blue–and–white jersey during that appalling stretch. He had previously offered the team all it could ask for with respect to creativity and goal–scoring. Why he grew lethargic after signing his big–money contract remains a mystery.

So, good on Phil for a splendid playoff performance this spring. And for hoisting Lord Stanley’s mug.

But, shame on him — now and forever — for stealing half–a–year’s salary.

RUTHERFORD HALL–OF–FAME WORTHY

When I was a little kid, I watched Jim Rutherford play goal for the Hamilton Red Wings.

Every Thursday night on CHCH–TV, Channel 11 — with a repeat Sunday morning.

Norm Marshall called the play; Sandy Hoyt the color, and Joe Watkins of the Hamilton Spectator provided intermission analysis. The Red Wings were a Major Junior team in the Ontario Hockey Association (now, the Ontario Hockey League) and played their home games on Barton St., in the Hamilton Forum (below).

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This would have been 1968–69, when Rutherford, turning 20 years of age, appeared in 45 games and posted a 3.36 goals–against average. He eventually became a decent stopper in the National Hockey League (from 1970 to 1982) with a plethora of mediocre teams in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Los Angeles. Today — 47 years after his TV debut in Hamilton — Rutherford is a two–time winner of the Stanley Cup as general manager. First, with the Carolina Hurricanes of 2005–06. And now, with the Pittsburgh Penguins of Sidney Crosby, Matt Murray and Kessel. In my view, this allows the 67–year–old native of Beeton, Ont. (88.5 kilometers northwest of Toronto) passage into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a Builder.

When Rutherford “resigned” as GM of the Hurricanes on Apr. 28, 2014 to make room for NHL legend Ron Francis, it appeared his days as a front–line executive in the NHL were over. Just more than five weeks later, though, came the surprising news that he would replace Ray Shero as GM of the Penguins. Jim fired coach Dan Bylsma and brought in Mike Johnston, who had enjoyed success while running Portland of the Western Hockey League. A lop–sided victory by the New York Rangers in the opening round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs, and a lethargic first half of the 2015–16 regular season, led to a second coaching move — Johnston being replaced (Dec. 12) after just 28 games by Mike Sullivan of the Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes–Barre/Scranton. Rutherford and Sullivan became the front–office battery of a champion, as Pittsburgh defeated San Jose in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final on Sunday night.

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A HAPPY JIM RUTHERFORD ON THE ICE AT THE S–A–P CENTER IN SAN JOSE, MOMENTS AFTER HIS PITTSBURGH PENGUINS WON THE STANLEY CUP WITH A 3–1 CONQUEST OF THE SHARKS IN GAME 6.

Rutherford came into an enviable situation, with two mega–stars up front (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin) and a Norris Trophy candidate on defense (Kris Letang). Still, the Penguins had been a perennial playoff underachiever for half–a–decade and were nowhere near championship caliber until their veteran GM put his stamp on the team. As it turned out, Rutherford made his two most important acquisitions last July.

Knowing the Maple Leafs were intent on unloading Kessel before Babcock’s first training camp skate, Rutherford adroitly out–maneuvered several Eastern Conference rivals (including Philadelphia) for the high–scoring winger. He then plucked unheralded center Nick Bonino from Vancouver for Brandon Sutter. Rutherford saw big–time playoff potential in Carl Hagelin, who had performed very well for the New York Rangers in the spring of 2014 (the Rangers lost to L.A. in the Stanley Cup final). New York traded Hagelin to Anaheim just before unrestricted free agency last summer, but the Swedish–born winger foundered with the Ducks. On Jan. 16 of this year, Rutherford dealt veteran David Perron for Hagelin.

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NICK BONINO (13) CELEBRATES PITTSBURGH GOAL IN GAME 6 AT SAN JOSE.

Shortly thereafter, Mike Sullivan put Kessel and Hagelin on a line with Bonino — surely not realizing the impact it would have on the 2016 Stanley Cup tournament. Without that trio, however, the Penguins would not have won their championship. Neither would Kessel have found a suitable alignment, as he was a poor match for Crosby. Bonino, Hagelin and Kessel were nothing shy of a revelation between April and June.

For his shrewd decisions, Rutherford should be named the NHL’s executive–of–the–year.

The Penguins moved into a tie for second place with the New York Islanders among post–1967 expansion teams — each with four Stanley Cup titles. Pittsburgh also won in 1991, 1992 and 2009. The Islanders won four consecutive Cups beginning in 1980. Edmonton still leads the way among this group with five championships (1984–85–87–88–90). The New Jersey Devils franchise, which began as the Kansas City Scouts in 1974–75, is third with three titles (1995–2000–2003). Philadelphia, Colorado (beginning as the Quebec Nordiques in 1995–96) and Los Angeles each have two. There is some coincidence with the 2016 Stanley Cup–winning coach. Another man named Sullivan — George (Red) — was first to lead Pittsburgh behind the bench, in 1967–68. He lasted two seasons; replaced in 1969 by Hall–of–Fame player, Red Kelly.

A DIFFERENT TIME (REALLY DIFFERENT)

It hasn’t been all wine and roses in the NHL for Jim Rutherford.

As mentioned, he had the misfortune of playing goal for some patently terrible clubs — most of which contended only for a high draft pick the following year. In fact, when I think of Rutherford’s career between the pipes, the night of Feb. 2, 1977 automatically comes to mind. I was in Maple Leaf Gardens, 24 hours before my 18th birthday, when Rutherford and fellow–veteran Eddie Giacomin of Detroit were demolished by the Leafs, 9–1. As part of the rout, Toronto’s Ian Turnbull scored five goals to establish a single–game mark for defensemen that stands to this day. Rutherford yielded the record–breaking tally at 18:30 of the third period — Turnbull, sent in alone by blue–line partner Borje Salming, fooling the beleaguered netminder with a snap–shot to the glove–hand side (YouTube video here: http://bit.ly/1Yn0a2T).

The joviality of Rutherford’s voice often diminishes when I reflect on that night.

So, I’ll let him enjoy his latest Stanley Cup triumph and offer only these visual reminders:

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I HAD MY CAMERA AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS ON FEB. 2, 1977 WHEN “SHORT” BUT “TALENTED” JIM RUTHERFORD GAVE UP A RECORD–BREAKING GOAL TO IAN TURNBULL. PHOTOS OF RUTHERFORD (ABOVE AND BELOW) WERE SNAPPED DURING THE WARM–UP; THE GARDENS’ SPORT–TIMER AT THE FINAL BELL. NO DEFENSEMAN HAS SINCE MATCHED TURNBULL’S FIVE–GOAL ERUPTION.

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GOOD FOR GRAPES… GOOD FOR US

In this era of cross–pollination between broadcasting giants and professional sports teams, there is a requirement for political correctness in the Canadian media. Particularly here in Toronto, where all four clubs — the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays, Argonauts and F.C. — are partly–governed by Rogers Communications and/or Bell Canada Enterprises. Rogers owns Sportsnet; Bell owns TSN. As such, the entire media landscape is enveloped in a conflict of interest between viewer and employer. The majority of television play–callers and pundits walk this tightrope rather well, while others vehemently pander to the signature on their pay–stub (note the “Rogers/Blue Jays Baseball Partnership” privacy warning on each national telecast).

It was therefore significant that Rogers announced, last week, it had extended Don Cherry’s contract through the 2016–17 NHL season. Cherry embraces political correctness the way a surgeon welcomes a broken hand. It has made him the most polarizing, popular and essential voice in Canadian TV sports over the past generation (not to mention, without a doubt, the most recognizable face in our country).

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DON CHERRY AND RON MacLEAN IN THEIR FINAL TELECAST OF THE 2016 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS — AT THE S–A–P CENTER IN SAN JOSE ON SUNDAY NIGHT. CBC/TSN IMAGES

Cherry’s extension, at age 82, is prominent in another way, according to his friend and long–time sidekick, Ron MacLean. “The closest comparison that I see in Don’s connection to the game and TV in Canada is [the late] Jim McKay — ‘Mr. Olympics’ in the United States and pioneering host of ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” MacLean wrote to me in an email. “As McKay evolved into the elder statesmen among American sports broadcasters, ABC president Dennis Swanson gave him, essentially, a contract for life. In our country, the Rogers/CBC arrangement (also extended by a year last week) has three seasons remaining, so [Hockey Night In Canada] as we know it — let alone, the future of those employed — is a topic for another day.

“For Grapes, however, the [contract extension] is well–deserved. ABC even loaned Jim McKay to NBC for the Salt Lake City [Winter] Olympics in 2002. NBC had asked about the 2000 Sydney [Summer] Games, but the trip wasn’t appealing to Jim. Point is, in the United States, they respect and value such experience and skill.

“So, it’s nice to see us doing the same up here with Don.”

Cherry’s Coach’s Corner has been a staple in the first intermission of Hockey Night In Canada since the 1981–82 NHL season. Dave Hodge (now with TSN) co–hosted for the first five years. MacLean replaced Hodge in 1986–87 and has been with Cherry ever since. All three are Canadian institutions. All should be treasured.

KERNY WAS A PRINCE

I was shocked and saddened to learn, over the weekend, that legendary columnist Jim Kernaghan of the London Free–Press had died suddenly at 76 years of age (on June 5).

Jim was chief among those I became privileged to know early in my career. He backed up Hall–of–Fame writer Frank Orr on the Leafs beat for the Toronto Star in the 1970’s, during the Darryl Sittler–Lanny McDonald–Borje Salming era. Thoroughly devoid of bluster and pretense, Kerny liberally shared his knowledge with a young, jittery beginner (me). He fell in line — personally — with such–other media noblemen as Orr, Jim Proudfoot, Milt Dunnell, Dick Beddoes, Brian Williams, John Iaboni and Dave Perkins; all of whom were so generous with their time and insight. I’m a better person for knowing these gentlemen.

Looking through my Maple Leaf scrapbooks, I came upon a remarkable moment that Kernaghan covered early in the 1976–77 NHL season. That was the year Montreal established a league record with 132 points; winning 60 games and losing only eight. The Habs scored 387 goals — 64 more than any other team. Yet, tiny Mike Palmateer and the upstart Leafs skated to a 1–0 victory over Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Larry Robinson and Co. at Maple Leaf Gardens on Nov. 17, 1976. Palmateer had joined the club three weeks earlier to assuage a goaltending crisis. And, never did he perform as spectacularly as on that Wednesday night nearly 40 years ago. Jim Kernaghan supplied the game story for the Nov. 18 Toronto Star:

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I last heard from Kerny on Jan. 7 of this year; an email response to my blog from earlier in the day (http://bit.ly/1Jx5iwE) wondering how the Leafs — so horrid to begin the season — had suddenly put together an 8–2–2 record in 12 games:

Hey Howard: It probably doesn’t answer your question adequately, but I covered the Red Wings a lot prior to retiring and the current Leafs resemble those Detroit teams in a number of ways — most specifically in sound exits from their own zone; responsible defense and sharp transitional play. The obvious conclusion is that [Mike] Babcock’s grasp of winning hockey has been imbued on the Leafs. Having Jonathan Bernier on his game hasn’t hurt, either.

Hope all is well with you. Retirement is great. It suits a floater like me perfectly.

All the best,

Jim.

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MY OL’ PAL, KERNY. MAY HE REST IN PEACE.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

2 comments on “Kessel Was Full Value, But…

  1. Jim Rutherford was the author of one of the most memorable plays I ever witnessed at a pro hockey game. It was in Buffalo early in the 1971-72 season during Rutherford’s Pittsburgh tenure. Down a goal late in the 3rd, the Pens had pulled Rutherford for an extra attacker. But the puck squirted out over the Sabres’ blueline, and a Buffalo forward scooped up the puck from a brief scramble. A Penguin player then dove back onto the bench and Rutherford hurtled back on the ice. Just as the Sabre puck-carrier shot toward the empty net, Rutherford launched into the air Kevin Pillar-style near Penguins’ blueline and deflected the shot into the corner away from Pittsburgh’s cage. The Sabres held on to win the game, but Rutherford was named 1st star, largely on the strength of that gasp-inducing play. Never seen anything like that since.

  2. I loved those Hamilton Red Wing games. I was only able to attend one game at the Barton Street barn and I still have the program. Peter Mahovlich was playing for the wings. Strangely enough I had Norm Marshall as a teacher at Mohawk years later. Hamilton had some great players, B.Bloom,Bart Crashly, Menard, Martin, Henderson. Kehoe, Hatoum, Peters, the list is endless..great column…..John

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