The Leafs At the Quarter–Pole

TORONTO (Nov. 24) — Over–achievement? Moderate achievement? And, does it really matter?

These are questions that come to mind with respect to the Toronto Maple Leafs after 20 games of the 2016–17 National Hockey League season. Clearly, the team is better than last year’s edition. The fact me; you and any 15 of our neighbors could have challenged that club is immaterial. It yielded Auston Matthews and put the Leafs on a different path. No longer is this movie The Titanic, though the “disaster” theme lingers. Until the club learns how to play with a lead — and without the puck — all manner of calamity is possible.

Still, and for the first time since 2004, the Maple Leafs are fun to watch — with a full one–third of the roster comprised of rookies. Entertaining teams are rarely predictable. They can be precision at one moment; Curly, Larry and Moe in the next. The Leafs haven’t often performed like stooges in the first quarter of the schedule, yet a 3–0 lead at whatever time of the game may as well be a 5–0 deficit. Again on Wednesday, this time in Newark, the club frittered away an advantage that competent teams find rather delightful. The game had “youth” and “immaturity” written all over it, though Mike Babcock is surely becoming exasperated behind the bench. At some point, he likely expects that his sophomoric club will learn from experience how not to spit up a comfortable margin. It hasn’t happened yet… and it may not happen at all this season.

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AUSTON MATTHEWS (34) BROKE OUT OF A PROLONGED SLUMP BY SCORING TWICE AT NEW JERSEY ON WEDNESDAY, BUT THE LEAFS COUGHED UP A 3–0 LEAD AND LOST IN A SHOOTOUT. JULIO CORTEZ A.P.

That said, the Leafs have become middling. Which is a lot better than atrocious. In NHL math, the club sits at .500 with an 8–8–4 record for 20 points. Legitimately, the Leafs are 8–12. This is more than enough for the “P”–word to be circulating in media dispatches. Though the Leafs are 10th in the Eastern Conference, they stand a paltry three points out of Wild Card playoff territory. Should the club remain at .500, it will accumulate 82 points, an impressive 13–point improvement over last season. Yet, based on the 2015–16 Wild Card terminator, a full 14 points shy of the Stanley Cup tournament. So, let’s not get carried away.

Logic and reason would suggest that neither president Brendan Shanahan nor general manager Lou Lamoriello are concerned about making the playoffs in Year 1 of the construction phase. Paramount, instead, is evidence of a learning–curve; of trending toward proficiency in the defensive zone. And, of prevailing more frequently in extra time. With Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, the Leafs have more than enough skill to overwhelm most opponents during five minutes of 3–on–3… and, one would surmise, in the shootout. Yet, the club is 1–4 thus far when playing beyond regulation — the lone triumph resulting from a quick overtime goal by Kadri against Edmonton at the Air Canada Centre. Significantly, the Leafs did not yield a single odd–man rush to the Devils in OT Wednesday night. Yet, a 3–0 first–period lead became a 5–4 shootout loss.

So, the “pain” that Babcock legendarily referred to in his introductory news conference a year ago May — though not as acute — is still rather chronic. And, the coach will earn his top NHL salary by further alleviating the discomfort. It is clear from watching the Leafs that intrinsic elements abound. You cannot teach the art and aptitude possessed by Marner, Matthews, Nylander et al. But, skill is no match for poise. And, the youthful Leafs are monstrously susceptible at the key juncture of a close match. To make a difference, Babcock must find a way to reverse that trend without smothering his talented workers.

It will require delicate balance with lots of coaching savvy in practice and during games. And, without question, some change in personnel. But, really, the Leafs are just getting started.

20 YEARS AGO TODAY

It was the best Grey Cup in the absolute worst conditions.

Sunday, Nov. 24, 1996. Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton. Twenty years ago this evening.

And, where does time go?

Not much was expected from the ’96 Canadian Football League championship, given that a blizzard enveloped Hamilton during the afternoon. By game time at 6:30 p.m. — and despite a Herculean effort by the grounds crew — the field was covered in a thickening layer of snow. It was cold. And, it was windy. How could football be played even adequately in such conditions? Three hours; 80 points and 866 combined offensive yards later, we had our answer. The Toronto Argonauts, led by nonpareil quarterback Doug Flutie, out–gunned the Edmonton Eskimos, 43–37. There were kick–return touchdowns; shoe–top–reception touchdowns; long–bomb touchdowns; interception touchdowns… and the artistry one might expect from a dry, sunny afternoon in late–summer. Two decades later, it blazes among legendary moments in CFL history.

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FRONT OF THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR THE MORNING AFTER A REMARKABLE GREY CUP GAME.

Yes, there was controversy. Flutie, as evidenced by slow–motion replay, fumbled the ball on an exchange from center late in the fourth quarter. The Eskimos recovered. But, Toronto kept the ball. In the years before coaching challenges and “war rooms”, officiating mistakes occasionally helped determine the outcome of a game. This may have been one–such occasion. Yet, there was only mild grousing in Edmonton. It was clear to all that the best team in the 1996 CFL season (15–3 record) raised the championship trophy.

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EARLY AND LATE–EDITION COVERS OF THE TORONTO SUN.

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EARLIER THIS WEEK…

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AS IF PAYING HOMAGE TO THE 1996 GREY CUP, A CFL PLAYOFF GAME IN OTTAWA ON SUNDAY TOOK PLACE IN BLIZZARD–LIKE CONDITIONS… AND, AGAIN, INVOLVED EDMONTON. THE ESKIMOS CROSSED OVER FOR THE EASTERN FINAL AND WERE DEFEATED BY THE OTTAWA REDBLACKS. TSN IMAGES

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THE FIRST COLOR

As Christmas approached in 1969, the most spectacular book to that point in hockey history appeared in stores. It was a coffee–table–sized (12.5 x 10.5 inches) production with 96 pages of glossy, full-color photos from the Harold Barkley collection. Entitled, simply, HOCKEY, it sold for $6.95. A similar item today would retail for $50.00. It was the first book to feature all–color photography — still quite rare. Two years earlier, the NHL had doubled in size to 12 teams, adding the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues. The expansion teams introduced such colors as purple, green, orange and light–blue to the NHL uniform mix. The winter of 1969–70 was therefore the perfect time to release a book of this nature.

Noted sports columnist Trent Frayne provided several pages of text.

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My copy (above — I was 10 years old) is a tad disheveled on the outside, but the contents are pristine. I’m featuring the book as a tribute to hockey author Mike Leonetti, who died of complications from a heart attack at 57 last weekend; his funeral is on Friday northwest of Toronto. In the late–80’s, he and a friend purchased the vast Barkley collection of color hockey photos from 1960’s. Mike turned the investment into nearly a dozen photo–books of his own. A current production was launched just prior to Mike suffering the heart attack in late–October. CAPTAIN — My Life and Career (below) was written with Maple Leafs legend Darryl Sittler, whom I emailed a few days ago to speak about his late co–author.

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Sittler replied: Hi Howie. Yes… so sad about Mike.  He was such a wonderful man and a very easy guy to work with… I truly appreciate Mike encouraging me to do the book and I’m  so HAPPY and PROUD of it.  Mike LOVED the Leafs and I know how pleased he was to see his childhood idol, Dave Keon, get  voted #1 All Time Leaf and then finally have his number 14 retired and also become a member on Legends Row. I feel so sorry for Maria and David’s loss. He was a great husband and father! I will miss him a lot and will always think of him when I see our book “Captain”. Sincerely.  Darryl

The first book of Barkley’s photographs screamed of the era, with a quasi–psychedelic appearance. Pastel colors formed the background to pages, some of which (as you’ll see) were 80–to–90 percent barren. It was hardly the most economical use of expensive color re–production, yet it provided the book its uniqueness:

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WHILE THIS BOOK WAS IN STORES, JOHNNY BOWER — ON DEC. 10, 1969 — PLAYED HIS FINAL NHL GAME FOR THE LEAFS, AT THE MONTREAL FORUM. HE WOULD OFFICIALLY RETIRE THREE MONTHS LATER AT 45 YEARS OF AGE. WHO BETTER, THEN, TO PROVIDE THE BOOK’S INTRODUCTION (BELOW)?

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LEGENDARY MONTREAL COACH TOE BLAKE WAS PICTURED (TOP–LEFT) CHATTING WITH RALPH BACKSTROM AND JOHN FERGUSON (RED JERSEYS); JEAN BELIVEAU AND CAPTAIN MAURICE RICHARD.

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BACKGROUNDS OF CORRESPONDING COLOR MADE THIS BOOK UNIQUE.

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TOP–LEFT: MIKE WALTON (TORONTO) AND JIM ROBERTS (ST. LOUIS). TOP–RIGHT: WALLY BOYER (TORONTO); DOUG BARKLEY (5), JIM WATSON AND GOALIE ROGER CROZIER (DETROIT).

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THIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN MY FAVORITE PHOTO–SPREAD IN THE BOOK: FROM THE EXPANSION SEASON OF 1967–68. PITTSBURGH AT TORONTO. GEORGE ARMSTRONG OF THE MAPLE LEAFS; NOEL PRICE, GEORGE KONIK (18) AND GOALIE LES BINKLEY OF THE PENGUINS.

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LIKE I SAID: LOTS OF EMPTY SPACE ON SOME PAGES. BEST EXAMPLE, ABOVE. FOUR SMALL IMAGES AND A SEA OF GREEN. PHOTO 21 IS FROM A MINNESOTA/TORONTO GAME AT THE GARDENS. CLAUDE LAROSE OF THE NORTH STARS IN ALONE ON GOALIE BRUCE GAMBLE.

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MY FIRST HOCKEY HERO: GOALIE TERRY SAWCHUK OF THE MAPLE LEAFS.

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TOP–LEFT: EDDIE SHACK OF THE LEAFS; DEFENSEMEN TED GREEN (WEARING THE ‘A’) AND JOE WATSON OF THE BOSTON BRUINS. TOP–RIGHT: THE ‘BIG M’ — FRANK MAHOVLICH — AFTER THE MAPLE LEAFS TRADED HIM TO DETROIT IN MARCH 1968.

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FIGHT–NIGHT AT THE GARDENS. LEAFS vs. NEW YORK. TORONTO PLAYERS (LEFT–TO–RIGHT): BOB BAUN (21), SAWCHUK, RON STEWART, CARL BREWER, BOB PULFORD (20) AND JIM PAPPIN (18). RANGERS: DICK DUFF (BEHIND SAWCHUK). BOB NEVIN (8) AND HARRY HOWELL (3). DUFF AND NEVIN HAD BEEN TRADED BY TORONTO TO NEW YORK (IN FEBRUARY 1964) FOR ANDY BATHGATE.

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GORDIE HOWE (TOP–LEFT) IN THE 1964 NHL ALL-STAR GAME. AND, A YOUNG BOBBY ORR.

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LAST PAGE OF THE BOOK. RATHER APROPOS.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

One comment on “The Leafs At the Quarter–Pole

  1. Very cool Howard, I too have that book. A great reminder of hockey past. Thanks for posting.

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