TORONTO (Sep. 13) — The loudest voices in town are calling for a championship. No fooling.
Two years after finishing dead–last in the National Hockey League, and three years after the most disgraceful showing of the post–Harold Ballard era, the Stanley Cup is on the lips (and lap–tops) of media giants. The Toronto Maple Leafs, according to more than a few, are no worse than any of 14 opponents in the Eastern Conference. And, perhaps better than most of 16 rivals out west. This is talk we haven’t heard in half–a–century around here; when the NHL had 25 fewer clubs. When Punch Imlach ruled the roost. When Johnny Bower, Dave Keon, Tim Horton and Frank Mahovlich were in the prime of their championship–riddled careers. How long ago was that? Well, consider that today, Bower is nearly 93; Keon 77; Mahovlich 79, and Horton would have been 87 were he still alive. Imlach, also deceased, would turn 100 next March.
Yeah, it’s been awhile.
Are the local denizens getting carried away? I might suggest so. Yes, the 2016–17 Maple Leafs authored a 26–point improvement in the standings. And, never before in the modern history of the club had it debuted such a dazzling trio of forwards as William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. But, the Stanley Cup? Isn’t that for other cities? True, followers of the Chicago Blackhawks were asking the same question for 49 years, until Patrick Kane’s “invisible” overtime goal at Philadelphia on June 9, 2010. The patrons of “new” Madison Square Garden (opened in February 1968) had never seen a Cup until Mark Messier and Gary Bettman gathered at center–ice on June 14, 1994. In St. Louis, they’ve only seen photos of the silver mug.
So, championship babble is strange in places other than Toronto. Just not quite as strange.
DAYS OF YORE: MORE THAN 50 YEARS HAVE PASSED SINCE PEOPLE HERE TALKED STANLEY CUP.
But, really, who knows what to expect? It appears the tall foreheads at 60 Bay St. are also in quasi–Stanley Cup mode; thus the signing of 37–year–old Patrick Marleau and retention of veteran forwards Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk over the summer, when many figured that trading one or both was a certainty. If expiring contracts do not phase Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Co., you know the Maple Leafs are going for it. Should the club be chasing a division or conference title at the trade deadline next March, I suspect Lou will hang onto Bozak and JVR for a potentially–long playoff run. After which, the general manager and elated fans of the hockey team will joyously escort the pair out of town — sans return — to free up a wad of cash. Unloading two–thirds of the club’s most reliable forward unit from last season simply because their contracts are up next July 1 is nonsensical. And, would more than offset the eyebrow–raising acquisition of Marleau from San Jose. Only, in my view, if the Leafs prove a disappointment — and, heaven knows, we’ve seen it before — will Bozak and JVR be shipped asunder before the NHL shopping embargo.
Of course, you need not be a octogenarian to recall when the Leafs were alive in late–May. In fact, it’s happened four times in the past 25 years; but not since 2002. So, neither can you be a teenager. When it last occurred, the club featured such elite names as Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts and Curtis Joseph. There were fewer elite names on that club than on the current outfit — Nylander, Marner, Matthews, Marleau, Nazem Kadri and, perhaps, Frederik Andersen ranking in such a category. So, maybe the Stanley Cup chatter isn’t off base. You will notice, however, that none of the aforementioned plays defense. Which is hardly immaterial, regardless of what the Pittsburgh Penguins accomplished three months ago. Until an incumbent blue–liner steps into elite company, or such a commodity is developed/acquired, the NHL’s longest championship drought is likely to continue.
Of virtually no debate: The 2017–18 season is among the most widely anticipated by hockey fans around here. And, it gets underway this week with training camp in Niagara Falls, Ont.
PILOTE DESERVED BETTER
He was the best NHL defenseman of the 1960’s, prior to Bobby Orr. And, he became an honored member of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975. Yet, Pierre Pilote, who died on Saturday after a lengthy illness, is oft–remembered for how unjustly his career ended with the Chicago Black Hawks and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Through much of the 60’s, Pilote helped form the nucleus of a talented Chicago team that never attained expectation after winning the Stanley Cup in 1961. With Pilote on the back end as the game’s premier rushing defenseman; forwards Stan Mikta and Bobby Hull, and splendid goalie Glenn Hall, the Blackhawks were gifted enough to fashion a dynasty. In the playoffs, however, they often encountered Montreal and Toronto — teams that were better at grinding it out defensively. A Game 7 loss to the Canadiens in the 1965 Stanley Cup final was the closest that Chicago outfit would come to winning another championship. When the first–place Black Hawks (94 points) were stunned by the third–place Maple Leafs (75 points) in the 1967 Cup semifinals, massive change was on the horizon. Indirectly and incidentally, Pilote found himself victimized by two of the worst trades of the decade; one of them, arguably, the worst of all time in the NHL.
PIERRE PILOTE FINISHED HIS HALL–OF–FAME CAREER WITH THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS IN 1968–69.
On May 15, 1967, Chicago sent Phil Esposito to Boston in a multi–player swap. Esposito had seasons of 76, 68, 66 and 61 goals for the Bruins and today stands sixth all time in that category with 717, behind only Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Brett Hull and Marcel Dionne. Largely as a result of the trade, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972. Though he appeared in all 74 games for Chicago during the expansion season of 1967–68, Pilote had clearly lost a step. Still annoyed at the semifinal playoff upset by the Leafs — and appalled at the early results of the Esposito trade — fans at Chicago Stadium were ornery. They took out their frustration on Pilote, then 36, by booing him when he touched the puck; dreadful treatment for a defenseman that had won the Norris Trophy three consecutive times beginning in 1963.
PILOTE STARRED WITH THE BLACKHAWKS FOR A DECADE, BEGINNING IN 1956. HE LED ALL PLAYOFF SCORERS WITH 12 ASSISTS AND 15 POINTS IN 1961, AS CHICAGO WON THE STANLEY CUP.
Here in Toronto, the Leafs, after winning the 1967 Stanley Cup, stumbled the following year and missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Among the established clubs, only Toronto had a sub–.500 record against the six expansion entrants in 1967–68. General manager and coach Punch Imlach, forever and fatally smitten by veteran players on their last legs, made arguably the worst trade of his career. On May 23, 1968, he dealt winger Jim Pappin to Chicago for Pilote, hoping the veteran defenseman could reclaim his preeminence. For Toronto, the trade never stood a chance. Pilote had nothing left, while Pappin went on to seasons of 41, 36, 32 and 30 goals with the Black Hawks; playing in the 1971 and 1973 Stanley Cup final.
A shell of his former self, Pilote appeared in 69 games with the Leafs during the 1968–69 schedule. With much irony, he retired after Boston routed Toronto in four playoff matches; the lop–sided series ending with Imlach being fired by president Stafford Smythe minutes after Game 4 at Maple Leaf Gardens (Apr. 6, 1969).
Without question, Pilote should be pardoned for the way his otherwise–brilliant career ended.
A Hall–of–Fame player and person, he’ll be sorely missed by the hockey community.
HAVING WORN JERSEY NO. 3 DURING HIS ALL–STAR YEARS IN CHICAGO, PILOTE WAS GIVEN NO. 2 UPON BEING TRADED TO THE LEAFS; THE LINE–UPS, HERE, FROM A HOME GAME AGAINST MINNESOTA.
BY THE TIME PILOTE’S OLD TEAM ARRIVED AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS FOR A GAME IN LATE–FEBRUARY 1969, THE IMBALANCE OF THE TRADE WITH CHICAGO WAS EVIDENT. THE VETERAN BLUE–LINER HAD A MERE 18 POINTS. PAPPIN, MEANWHILE, HAD 26 GOALS AND 55 POINTS FOR THE BLACK HAWKS. ONLY NORM ULLMAN’S NUMBERS WERE BETTER AMONG MAPLE LEAF PLAYERS.
PROGRAM–INSERT FROM PILOTE’S FINAL NIGHT IN THE NHL: GAME 4 OF THE STANLEY CUP QUARTERFINALS AGAINST BOSTON AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS, APR. 6, 1969. PUNCH IMLACH WAS FIRED MINUTES AFTER THE MATCH. PIERRE RETIRED A FEW WEEKS LATER.
MY PHOTO OF PIERRE PILOTE PRIOR TO THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME INDUCTION CEREMONY ON NOV. 12, 2012. HE WAS 80 YEARS OF AGE AND HAD BEEN A MEMBER OF THE HALL FOR 37 YEARS.
There’s something missing at the ol’ ball park here in Toronto — a malady that baseball fans long to incur: pennant fever. It gripped an entirely new generation of Blue Jays followers in each of the past two Septembers; their club advancing to the American League Championship Series after missing the playoffs every year since 1993. This season is a throwback to the 22–year drought which followed Joe Carter’s legendary walk–off home run against Philadelphia that provided Toronto its second consecutive Major League championship. A miserable start of 2–11; then 6–17 took the Blue Jays out of playoff contention from the very outset and though Toronto leads the American League in average attendance, weeknight crowds at the Rogers Centre have plummeted when compared to September of 2015 and 2016.
This was evident on Monday, when the Baltimore Orioles arrived for the first of a three–game series. The Blue Jays listed the paid attendance as 28,401 — a figure in which many teams would revel, yet one likely inflated by 8,000, and roughly 25,000 shy of the crowds that pored into the Dome during pennant chases of the past two seasons. Missing altogether — though unsurprisingly — was the buzz and excitement of a playoff drive; particularly one that embraced people for the very first time. The overwhelming majority of those enchanted by Jose Bautista’s bat–flip in 2015 and Edwin Encarnacion’s walk–off home run in the A.L. wild card game last year were either unborn or too young to recall the World Series triumphs of 1992–93.
THERE WAS PLENTY OF ROOM TO STRETCH OUT IN THE UPPER–DECK OF ROGERS CENTRE MONDAY NIGHT, WITH THE BLUE JAYS OUT OF PLAYOFF CONTENTION FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 2014.
What Monday’s half–filled stadium allowed for was yours truly to visit nooks and crannies that would have disturbed large masses of people last September. Far reaches of the ball park (opened in June 1989) that I’ve frequently observed, but never experienced. Places that required abundant exercise in order to reach.
As such, this rather unique (perhaps bizarre) photo compilation from my trusty NIKON:
THE FIRST CLUE THAT THE BALL PARK ENVIRONMENT HAD CHANGED WAS QUICK AND EASY PASSAGE THROUGH SECURITY AT GATE 5, JUST 15 MINUTES BEFORE THE OPENING PITCH. LAST YEAR AT THIS TIME, EACH OF THESE LINES WERE 40 AND 50–DEEP AT 6:50 P.M.
THE C.N. TOWER SOARED ABOVE A SPARSELY–POPULATED UPPER–DECK BEFORE THE GAME.
THE SCENE FROM THE FIRST ROW OF THE TOP DECK (SEC. 528) WHILE THE NATIONAL ANTHEMS WERE SANG ON MONDAY NIGHT. A FAR CRY FROM SEPTEMBERS IN 2015 AND 2016.
TIM BECKHAM OF BALTIMORE GREETED BLUE JAYS CATCHER MIGUEL MONTERO BEFORE LEADING OFF THE BALL GAME. AND, VETERAN BROADCASTER JERRY HOWARTH WAS IN HIS PERCH IN THE SPORTSNET–590 RADIO BOOTH, AS HE’S BEEN FOR VIRTUALLY EVERY GAME SINCE 1982.
TEN MINUTES AFTER THE FIRST PITCH, THERE WAS PLENTY OF ROOM AT THE INN — FROM BOTH THE HOTEL SUITES THAT OVERLOOK THE PLAYING FIELD AND THE BLUE PERCHES BENEATH THEM.
STAR OPPONENTS MANNY MACHADO AND JOSH DONALDSON CONVERSED AT THIRD BASE.
ORIOLES CATCHER WELLINGTON CASTILLO APPEARED TO TAKE A FOUL BALL IN THE NETHER REGIONS OFF THE BAT OF MIGUEL MONTERO. AS CASTILLO SQUIRMED FOR OXYGEN, THE BLUE JAYS CATCHER WONDERED ABOUT HIS HEALTH, FOLLOWED BY THE BALTIMORE TRAINER AND MANAGER BUCK SHOWALTER. CASTILLO FINISHED THE INNING BUT WAS THEN REPLACED BY CALEB JOSEPH.
POINTING MY NIKON DOWNWARD AT FIELD–LEVEL SEATS ALONG THE THIRD BASE LINE.
THE LIGHTS WERE ON BUT NOBODY WAS HOME.
OFF I WANDERED IN THE THIRD INNING TO THE HIGHEST POINT IN THE STADIUM: ROW 37 OF THE UPPER DECK (SEC. 516) ABOVE RIGHT FIELD. THERE WAS NO ONE TO DISTURB ON THE LENGTHY CLIMB.
IT WAS SO DARK (AND QUIET) AT THE TOP THAT I HAD TO OPEN MY CAMERA FLASH–BULB.
TURNING AROUND, THIS WAS THE VIEW OF THE PLAYING FIELD AND CONDOS IN THE BACKGROUND.
THE LIGHT–STANDARD BENEATH ME BLOCKED MOST OF THE JUMBOTRON ABOVE CENTER FIELD.
THE SINGLE CHAIR (TOP–RIGHT) OF SEC. 516, ROW 27, SEAT 101.
NEXT, IT WAS AROUND TO THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE STADIUM: THE VACANT SEATS ABOVE LEFT FIELD AND BENEATH THE WINDOWS OF THE TORONTO RENAISSANCE DOWNTOWN HOTEL.
AGAIN, MY CAMERA–FLASH CAME IN HANDY ATOP SEC. 544.
JUST MORE THAN HALF THE FIELD COULD BE SEEN FROM THE STAIRWELL OF SEC. 544.
LOOKING LEFT FROM ADJACENT SEC. 543 TOWARD THE VAST EXPANSE OF THE OUTFIELD.
ACROSS THE WAY WAS MY PREVIOUS PERCH, MOMENTS EARLIER, AT THE TOP OF SEC. 516.
LEAVING THE BALL PARK AND GAZING UPWARD AT THE ILLUMINATED C.N. TOWER (BELOW).