TORONTO (Nov. 2) — Early Thursday morning, in the Houston Chronicle, baseball writer Jake Kaplan penned the opening paragraphs to his lead story about the 2017 World Series champion:
LOS ANGELES — Six years ago, Jeff Luhnow pitched Astros owner Jim Crane his vision to build a team primed to contend not only for a few years but for an extended period of time.
It would be painful, and the Astros would have to be patient and disciplined while enduring as drastic a tear–down and rebuild the sport has witnessed. But when the time was right, and enough elite prospects procured through the draft had matriculated from their farm system, they would compete for championships annually.
Through the years of losing and high draft picks emerged the roster that delivered Houston its first World Series championship. At 8:59 p.m. P.T. Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, the Astros capped their franchise’s 56th season with a 5–1 victory in Game 7 of the Fall Classic. The vision of Luhnow, their sixth–year general manager, was realized.
If you’re a fan or observer of the Toronto Maple Leafs, does this not sound extraordinarily familiar? With words that are perhaps even verbatim? Were we to change the name of Jeff Lunhow to Brendan Shanahan, and Jim Crane to the Bell–Rogers conglomerate, isn’t this precisely what the new hockey president “pitched” to the Board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in April 2014? And, might it not be unfolding similarly?
ASTROS OWNER JIM CRANE HOISTS THE WORLD SERIES TROPHY ON WEDNESDAY AT DODGER STADIUM. HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Substitute Astro stalwarts Dallas Keuchel, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and World Series MVP George Springer (all drafted by the club) for Leaf cornerstones Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. Offset pitcher Justin Verlander against forward Patrick Marleau — classy vets acquired as “finishing” pieces. Neither is it overly difficult to fathom the Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup six years after Shanahan’s appeal to Bell–Rogers and the MLSE Board… in the 1919–20 season. That would be 53 years after the 1967 championship, rather than Houston’s first–ever baseball title in 56 years. Close enough.
The inter–sport parallels are definitely there. Right down to the word “pain(ful)” — as written by Jake Kaplan. The Astros endured much more agony than did the Leafs after Mike Babcock’s legendary “promise” in May 2015. Beginning with the 2011 Major League season, Houston rang up (consecutively) 106, 107, 111 and 92 losses. As with the Leafs in 2015–16, the Astros finished dead–last in the 2013 overall baseball standings.
The Astros were known initially as the Colt 45’s; the Leafs as the Arenas and St. Pats.
Okay, I’m stretching it a little. But, you get the picture.
DOUGIE WAS MORE THAN A LEAF
As you can plainly see, below and to the left, the front–jacket of Doug Gilmour’s new autobiography features the Hall–of–Fame center wearing his No. 93 jersey with the Maple Leafs. This is primarily because the marketing gurus at HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. recognize where their bread is buttered. In this case, the densely–populated Golden Horseshoe region of southern Ontario that includes the cities of Toronto, Mississauga and Hamilton. Were Gilmour, given his NHL path, to be represented most fittingly, he’d be in the uniform of the Calgary Flames, with which he enjoyed the pinnacle of his career — winning the 1989 Stanley Cup. But, southern Alberta simply cannot move as many “units” as southern Ontario (though I’m mildly surprised the book does not have a Calgary cover for sales in western Canada. If there is one, as there probably should be, I haven’t been able to find it anywhere on the Internet).
Still, there’s an underlying lesson in the book for Toronto hockey zealots that figure Gilmour is their’s, and their’s alone. Yes, the Kingston, Ont. native put up, statistically, the two best seasons of his career while wearing a Leafs jersey: 127 points (including 95 assists) in 1992–93 and 111 points in 1993–94. He also, and memorably, hauled an overachieving Toronto club to within minutes of appearing in the 1993 Stanley Cup final, only to have Wayne Gretzky get in the way. So, clearly, Doug’s time here in Toronto should be featured prominently in any of his career narratives. That said, Calgary is where it really happened for him.
Long before the now–mythical 21 playoff games in 42 nights with the Leafs in ’93, there were incomparable battles of similar length between Alberta rivals Calgary and Edmonton. Between the Flames and Los Angeles in the immediate years after Edmonton traded Gretzky to the Kings. And ultimately, the night of May 25, 1989, when Gilmour and his Calgary teammates became the first (and only) visiting club to parade the Stanley Cup about the hallowed ice at the Montreal Forum. So, by the time No. 39 of the Flames pulled on No. 93 with the Leafs (at old Joe Louis Arena, Jan. 4, 1992), Gilmour was a grizzled veteran of playoff warfare.
Around here, and among those old enough to remember, it still feels as if he made his post–season breakthrough in a Toronto jersey; so bereft were the Leafs of playoff prosperity in the early–90’s. The astonishing near–miss against Detroit, St. Louis and L.A. 25 springs ago came out of left field, given Toronto had missed the playoffs altogether the previous two years and had staggered to a humiliating mark of 12–30–5 after 47 games in 1991–92. Had a person, at that moment, wagered on the Leafs playing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals the following year, he would have been locked up well before the riches arrived.
As such, the ’93 post–season run — with all of its twists and turns (in the book, Gilmour vividly recalls the “Kerry Fraser” game at the Los Angeles Forum) — is remembered around here with such clarity and affection. It will remain the high–water mark for the Toronto franchise, post–1967, until the Leafs ultimately win their next NHL championship. And, No. 93 showed the way in ’93… from start to finish.
MORE FROM KILLER: MY LIFE IN HOCKEY IN MY NEXT BLOG.