TORONTO (June 18) — With less than a week remaining before the most anticipated draft in Toronto hockey history, local fear–mongers are still emailing about an imminent trade of the No. 1 pick. These people have no concept of relaxation, but I’ll try again here: Please… take a deep breath. Then another.
There is no chance the Leafs will jettison the prize they worked so diligently to land throughout last season (save for two puzzling weeks in March). Not only is Auston Matthews the nucleus of construction work that includes arguably the best 19–year–old prospect on the planet (Mitch Marner), he represents — symbolically — everything the Leafs advocate under Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello. To deny their infinite swell of followers the thrill of that No. 1 announcement in Buffalo next Friday isn’t part of the plan.
AUSTON MATTHEWS WILL BE WEARING LOTS MORE BLUE AND WHITE IN THE NHL.
Without question, Lamoriello will be teased silly by the Arizona Coyotes over the next six days. Given the Desert Dogs’ perennial financial conundrum, the acquisition of Scottsdale native Matthews could be a franchise liberator. If a proposal from the Coyotes includes Marner’s junior line–mate, Christian Dvorak; the No. 7 overall pick… and front–line defenseman Oliver Ekman–Larsson, Lamoriello may need a sedative.
But, he will not bite.
The Maple Leafs will draft Matthews and make a killing off his No. 34 jersey (the new primary uniform is to be unveiled in Buffalo; up to half–a–dozen vintage jerseys will also be part of the club’s Centennial commemoration in 2016–17). Then, Lamoriello will consider dealing the No. 30 or 31 selection as part of a package to land a blue–liner. After unloading the anvil–contracts of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf in the past 12 months, the Leafs have more than enough salary–cap leverage to be creative this summer.
So, give it a rest, all you Nervous Nellies. By this time next week, your team will have — from Day 1 — the franchise center it has lacked since Darryl Sittler came aboard in 1970.
NEW BEAT REPORTER: TSN has hired Waterloo, Ont. native Kristen Shilton to cover the Maple Leafs on all of its platforms (TV, radio, website) beginning with the draft in Buffalo. Shilton returns to her native country from working as a digital sports producer and hockey writer for USA Today. Prior to her time at the newspaper, she spent nearly two years with the Chicago Wolves — the Vancouver Canucks’ American Hockey League affiliate — as a communications assistant and the team’s digital media coordinator. This corner wishes Kristen all the best. She can be followed on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kristen_shilton.
TSN MAPLE LEAFS REPORTER KRISTEN SHILTON.
BERNIE NICHOLLS: “NHL IN VEGAS WILL THRIVE”
He spends the winter months in Summerlin, Nevada — 20 minutes west of the famed Las Vegas Strip — and he is one of only eight players in NHL history to score 70 goals in a season. As such, I figured Bernie Nicholls would be a fair spokesperson for the league’s newest expansion club.
Widely rumored to be named the Las Vegas Black Knights, the NHL’s 31st team (and first new entry since the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild came aboard in 2000) will be officially unveiled by the league after a Board of Governors’ meeting next Wednesday. It is expected the team will begin play in the 2017–18 season; it’s home, the 17,500–seat T–Mobile Arena — one block west of the Strip and one block north of Tropicana Blvd. For those familiar with the Strip, the arena stands adjacent to the New York New York Hotel & Casino, and across Las Vegas Blvd. from the MGM Grand. Just south of the arena is the venerable Tropicana Hotel (opened April 1957) and the Medieval-themed Exclaibur Hotel & Casino.
“The NHL is going to thrive here,” said Nicholls over the phone on Friday. “Apart from all the regular excitement of the arena being next to the Strip, this is the city’s first major professional team. College sport is massive around here; UNLV (the University of Las Vegas/Nevada) has been legendary for basketball since the 80’s. Minor–pro teams have also done reasonably well, but hockey is the first of the big four leagues to set up in this city. And, I think football is not too–far down the road. There’s too much money in this market for the NFL to ignore. It will ultimately see how well the NHL does here as a pioneering investment.”
AN UNOFFICIAL INTERNET CONCEPT OF THE LAS VEGAS BLACK KNIGHTS UNIFORM DESIGN.
While playing with Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in 1988–89, Nicholls enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in NHL history — 70 goals, 80 assists and 150 points. Gretzky, Brett Hull, Mario Lemieux, Teemu Selanne, Phil Esposito, Alexander Mogilny and Jari Kurri are the only others to score 70 or more in a single year. Only Gretzky, Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Esposito have registered more than 150 points in a season. Nicholls, now 54, appeared in 1,127 NHL games with L.A., New York Rangers, Edmonton, New Jersey, Chicago and San Jose. He scored 475 goals; his 1,209 points ranks 45th among all–time players.
“Las Vegas is going to be a really cool place for a hockey team,” Nicholls said. “The ownership group (led by billionaire William Foley) has more than 13,000 season–ticket deposits and the people that live in this region will make it successful. Tourism is obviously the big industry here and hockey will become part of the action along the Strip. Imagine walking out of that beautiful arena and directly into the Vegas night–life.
“That’s why the location is so important. T–Mobile is smack in the middle of all the bright lights.”
BERNIE NICHOLLS REGISTERED 150 POINTS WITH THE 1988–89 LOS ANGELES KINGS.
Las Vegas can also provide many reasons to not attend a hockey game and that’s why Nicholls believes the natives will make the club successful. “It will be their team, and their only big–league sports team,” he emphasized. “Maybe that gets overlooked in all the talk about tourism and gambling. Sure, there are options galore along the Strip. But, I think hockey will become part of the fabric of this city. The big hotels will get their corporate sponsors involved with the new team. Between the locals and visitors — many of whom are from Canada — there should be no issue in selling out the arena. Lots more revenue will come from the uniform and logo, as with other NHL cities. It’s going to be big–time stuff around here.”
Of course, not everyone shares Nicholls’ opinion. A rather scathing viewpoint was penned this week by Postmedia sports columnist Scott Stinson. It can be read here: http://bit.ly/1YysAHr.
Las Vegas is certainly large enough to support an NHL team. According to the 2013 United States Census estimates, it had a core population of 603,488 (29th in the country). The Las Vegas Metropolitan Area can draw from 2,027,828 residents. Compare that, for example, to the Nashville Metropolitan Area, which was estimated at 1,830,345 in 2015. Even Greater Pittsburgh — 2,360,733 — compares favorably to Las Vegas.
And, there could be more of a draw toward hockey in the future.
LOCATED JUST OFF THE FAMED LAS VEGAS STRIP, T–MOBILE ARENA — AT FAR–LEFT IN THIS PHOTO — IS PERFECTLY SITUATED TO BECOME A PART OF THE CITY’S NIGHT–LIFE. HOCKEY FANS WILL HAVE UNLIMITED OPTIONS BEFORE AND AFTER GAMES. BUT, THE PEOPLE THAT LIVE IN LAS VEGAS, YEAR–ROUND, WILL ULTIMATELY DETERMINE WHETHER THE NHL’s EXPANSION VENTURE IS A SUCCESS.
“I have no information about this, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Wayne Gretzky got involved with the new team here,” said Nicholls, who played 126 games with the Great One at Los Angeles in 1988–89 and 1989–90. “I know that Wayne and Mr. Foley are friends and it makes no sense for Wayne to not be involved in the NHL. I have always been a huge Gretzky fan and I think he’d be a natural for the new Vegas club.”
The NHL hasn’t expanded to the Pacific time zone since 1993, when Anaheim joined (along with Florida). The Arizona Coyotes re–located from Winnipeg to begin the 1996–97 season. Las Vegas would provide the league six teams in the far–west of North America — Vancouver, Los Angeles and San Jose being the others. It is a five–to–six–hour drive from both L.A. and Anaheim (a 50–minute flight), which could spark a rivalry or two down the road. The Black Knights will also help balance the NHL Conferences, with 15 teams in the West and 16 in the East. “Visiting media will fight for this road trip,” understated Nicholls.
A PANORAMIC VIEW OF THE T–MOBILE ARENA INTERIOR.
TWO FOR NO–CAL
For a second consecutive Sunday, a major sports championship will be claimed in Northern California. Last weekend, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in San Jose. This week, the National Basketball Association’s Larry O’Brien Trophy is up for grabs in Oakland as the Golden State Warriors host the Cleveland Cavaliers in a decisive Game 7 (Oracle Arena, Sunday, 8 p.m. Eastern: ABC/TSN).
THIS WAS NOT A GRAPHICS ERROR BY ESPN LATE IN THE FIRST QUARTER OF GAME 6 ON THURSDAY. CLEVELAND WAS ACTUALLY LIMITING THE NBA’s HIGHEST–SCORING TEAM TO SINGLE DIGITS.
The series has taken a remarkable turn in the past two games — Cleveland scrambling back from a 3–1 hole with a 15–point romp in Oakland and a lop–sided 14–point decision at home. LeBron James has boldly assumed command at both ends of the floor from Steph Curry, whose late–game outburst on Thursday night (he angrily tossed his well–chewed mouth–guard) cost the Warriors a technical foul and the reigning MVP a $25,000 fine. Curry has to regain composure and the Warriors need to somehow thwart King James in order to prevent a total collapse in the wake of an all–time best 73–9 regular season.
MR. HOCKEY’S LAST STAND
HOWE IN HARTFORD — PART 1
Gordie Howe will always be remembered as a star for the Detroit Red Wings, with whom he became the NHL’s all–time leader in goals and points between 1946 and 1971. Every bit as remarkable, however, was Howe’s final year of professional hockey with the Hartford Whalers in 1979–80. At 51 years of age (he turned 52 on Mar. 31), Mr. Hockey played in all 80 regular–season games, recording 15 goals and 41 points. He added a goal and an assist in three playoff matches, as Hartford fell to Montreal in a first–round sweep.
The Whalers joined the NHL in the summer of ’79 (along with Edmonton, Quebec and Winnipeg) from the remnants of the World Hockey Association, wearing green road jerseys with blue and white trim. During that first year, Howe played with future Hall–of–Famers (and long–time rivals) Dave Keon and Bobby Hull.
As a tribute to Mr. Hockey, who died in his 89th year on June 10, I have searched through issues of THE HOCKEY NEWS from 1979–80 to find pertinent items from his lone season in Hartford.
I present them to you here in the first of a three–part series:
THE SEASON BEGAN WITH A FULL–PAGE FEATURE ON HOWE IN THE OCT. 12, 1979 ISSUE.
HOWE AND WAYNE GRETZKY WILL ALWAYS BE INTERTWINED FOR THEIR SPLENDID CAREERS — AND FOR 1979–80 BEING THE LONE NHL SEASON IN WHICH THEY PLAYED AGAINST ONE ANOTHER. GRETZKY WAS A ROOKIE (THOUGH INELIGIBLE FOR THE CALDER TROPHY) WITH EDMONTON. THE OCT. 19, 1979 ISSUE LISTED STARTING TEAM LINE–UPS FOR THE OILERS AND WHALERS.
HOWE DID NOT FIGURE IN THE WHALERS FIRST NHL GAME — A 4–1 LOSS TO THE NORTH STARS IN BLOOMINGTON, MINNESOTA ON OCT. 11, 1979. BUT, TWO NIGHTS LATER, HE SCORED HIS FIRST GOAL FOR HARTFORD (ASSISTED BY AL SIMS AND MIKE ANTONOVICH) IN A 3–3 DRAW AT PITTSBURGH. CURRENT MAPLE LEAFS TELEVISION ANALYST GREG MILLEN PLAYED IN NET FOR THE PENGUINS.
BOTH HOWE AND KEON MESMERIZED A NOSTALGIC, APPRECIATIVE AUDIENCE AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS ON OCT. 30, 1979, EACH SCORING (ABOVE) AGAINST MIKE PALMATEER IN A 4–2 HARTFORD VICTORY. TWO NIGHTS LATER — AT THE SPRINGFIELD CIVIC CENTER (THE WHALERS’ TEMPORARY HOME) — HOWE HAD TWO GOALS AND AN ASSIST IN A 5–3 WIN (BELOW).
APPEARING ON THE NOV. 23, 1979 COVER OF THE HOCKEY NEWS, HOWE AND SON, MARK, WERE FEATURED IN A FULL–PAGE SPREAD (ABOVE AND BELOW).
IT WAS ALL HARTFORD IN THE FIRST MEETING BETWEEN THE WHALERS AND EDMONTON, AT SPRINGFIELD, NOV. 17, 1979 — BOTH HOWE’S ASSISTING ON MIKE ROGERS’ GOAL EARLY IN THE SECOND PERIOD OF A 4–0 WIN. THE LATE AL SMITH RECORDED A 23–SAVE SHUTOUT.
THE OILERS TURNED THE TABLE ON DEC. 9, 1979 IN EDMONTON — BLANKING HARTFORD, 3–0, BEHIND GOALIE EDDIE MIO. GRETZKY SCORED AND HAD AN ASSIST.
THE JAN. 11, 1980 ISSUE FEATURED MIKE PALMATEER ON THE COVER AND THE LEAFS TRADING LANNY McDONALD TO THE COLORADO ROCKIES. ALSO INSIDE (ABOVE AND BELOW), WAS A COLUMN BY LOS ANGELES WRITER BILL LIBBY ON THE HOWE FAMILY IN HARTFORD.
And, we finish today with this throwback to 1980:
LEFT–TO–RIGHT: PAUL COFFEY, WAYNE GRETZKY, MARK MESSIER.