TORONTO (Mar. 12) — The playoff season in professional sport is often unpredictable and promises can rarely be kept. If form prevails, however, this spring could be like none other in our city’s history.
The weekend past provided yet another indication, and louder than ever, that the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs are legitimate championship contenders. The Raptors, Friday night, defeated Houston at the Air Canada Centre, ending the Rockets’ season–high 17–game win streak in the National Basketball Association. Many believe that Houston is capable of interrupting Golden State’s hold on the Western Conference. On Saturday night, though unimpressive, the Maple Leafs dumped the Pittsburgh Penguins, 5–2, also at the ACC. Coming into the match, the two–time defending champs were 19–6–1 in 26 games since Jan. 4 — with Evgeni Malkin the best player on Earth. So, yet another statement win for the home side.
During the past four months, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment — a laughingstock for many years — has become, unquestionably, the most dynamic conglomerate in North American professional sport. Two of its teams, the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and Toronto F.C. of Major League Soccer, are defending champions. The Raptors (49–17) own the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference and third–best in the league, behind Houston (52–14) and Golden State (51–16). The Maple Leafs (40–22–7 for 87 points) are solidly third in the Atlantic Division (behind Tampa Bay and Boston) with a playoff spot never in doubt this season. They need five wins in their final 13 games to equal the franchise record for most in one season. With 16 of 26 available points, the club will equal the mark (103) set by Pat Quinn’s Leafs of 2003–04.
At no time have four Toronto sports teams been, simultaneously, of championship caliber.
LEAFS CENTER NAZEM KADRI CELEBRATES HIS GOAL AT 19:13 OF THE FIRST PERIOD SATURDAY NIGHT. KADRI SCORED TWICE IN THE 5–2 VICTORY OVER PITTSBURGH AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE. HE NOW HAS 26 GOALS ON THE SEASON. MARK BLINCH GETTY IMAGES/TORONTO STAR
As such — and remembering, again, that playoffs are never a guarantee — this spring offers potential to be among the most exciting in the sports annals of our city. Which is rather coincidental given it’s the 25th anniversary of the unexpected playoff journey that people 35 years of age and beyond here in Toronto treasure most: Pat Burns, Doug Gilmour and Co. taking it all the way To Game 7 of the 1993 Stanley Cup semifinals before bowing out. The greatest epoch in modern Toronto sports history (post–1967) began Oct. 12, 1992 and ended Nov. 4, 1993. During that span of 12 months and 23 days, the Toronto Blue Jays won consecutive World Series titles; the Leafs nearly made it to the Stanley Cup final, losing the aforementioned Game 7 at Maple Leaf Gardens to Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings before winning a record 10 games to start the 1993–94 schedule, and the Raptors were established — to begin play in the 1995–96 NBA season. I chose Oct. 12, 1992 as a starting point for it being the date of the most important moment in Toronto baseball history: Roberto Alomar’s now–legendary home run off Dennis Eckersley at the Oakland Coliseum that ultimately enabled the Blue Jays to upend the A’s; make it to the World Series, and defeat the Atlanta Braves — therefore becoming the first Canadian–based Major League champion.
DOUG GLMOUR’S UNFORGETTABLE WRAP–AROUND GOAL IN ’93 AGAINST ST. LOUIS AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS.
Given all of that, the upcoming spring would need to blow the lid off sports in this city. But, the possibilities are endless. One can verily imagine the Leafs knocking off Boston and Tampa Bay to advance beyond their divisional playoff foes and into the Eastern Conference final before taking out the two–time defending champs from Pittsburgh. A Toronto–Nashville Stanley Cup final would ensue, stopping our city in its tracks. At the same time, the Raptors would breeze through the early NBA rounds and knock off Boston in the Eastern Conference final. As in 1989 and 1992, with baseball, a Toronto–Oakland playoff series would take center–stage: the Raptors and Golden State Warriors clashing for the NBA title between May 31 and June 17.
Is it conceivable that all four of MLSE’s major professional teams — the Argos, F.C., Raptors and Leafs — could win championships in the same year? Not sure I’d put money on it… but, yes, it is entirely conceivable.
Considering the Blue Jays advanced to the American League Championship Series in 2015 and 2016 (losing to Kansas City and Cleveland), this could rank as the most eventful and wondrous time in Toronto sports history. I anticipate many front–page stories involving the Raptors and Leafs in April, May and June.
Hold onto your hats, sports fans.
I “REST” MY CASE: Funny, isn’t it, that Frederik Andersen came up with his best goaltending performance in a couple of weeks during Saturday night’s victory over Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins? After nearly five days away from the chore of being the NHL’s busiest ‘keeper? If that didn’t prove to Mike Babcock the necessity of pulling back on Andersen during the final four weeks of the regular season, nothing apparently will. In today’s Toronto Star, a column by Dave Feschuk is entitled THE CASE FOR ANDERSEN AS LEAFS’ MVP. It would have to rank among the easiest arguments Dave has ever put forth — in print or in person. Andersen is, by many lengths, the most important and valuable player on the Blue and White. As he goes this spring, so will the team. If he’s tired, the team will go quickly. If smartly deployed by Babcock in the final 13 games, the Maple Leafs could stick around for quite awhile. Over to you, coach.
ON CBS — 50 YEARS AGO
For five years (1967–68 to 1971–72), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) carried a Game–of–the–Week in the NHL, mostly on Sundays after the NFL season and Super Bowl. Fifty years ago this weekend (Mar. 10, 1968), the Maple Leafs and Black Hawks squared off at old Chicago Stadium beginning at 2 p.m. EST. It was the first full season in which NHL games were telecast in color. The Black Hawks prevailed, 4–0, as goalie Jack Norris recorded a shutout — preserved when he stopped Toronto’s leading scorer Mike Walton on a third–period penalty shot. Here are several images from the match, called by Jim Gordon and Bill Mazur:
JOHNNY BOWER (d. Dec. 26, 2017) PLAYED GOAL FOR THE LEAFS AND WAS HELPED IN COVERING THE PUCK BY DEFENSEMAN ALLAN STANLEY (d. Oct. 18, 2013). IT WAS THE FIRST ROAD GAME FOR PAUL HENDERSON (19) IN A TORONTO JERSEY AFTER BEING ACQUIRED IN A MULTI–PLAYER DEAL WITH DETROIT FOR FRANK MAHOVLICH ONE WEEK EARLIER. HERE, HENDERSON WAS SHOWN SKATING AWAY FROM CHICAGO CAPTAIN PIERRE PILOTE (d. Sep. 9, 2017).
HOCKEY’S MOST DYNAMIC PLAYER WAS BOBBY HULL (9) OF CHICAGO. HERE, HE LINED UP (LEFT) FOR A FACE–OFF WITH TEAMMATE PIT MARTIN (d. Nov. 30, 2008). DURING THE 1960’s, UNDER PUNCH IMLACH, DEFENSEMEN TOOK DEFENSIVE–ZONE FACE–OFFS. AT RIGHT, TIM HORTON (d. Feb. 21, 1974) SQUARES OFF AGAINST BLACK HAWKS STAR STAN MIKITA (21).
THE 1967–68 CBS LINE–UP: The NHL Game–of–the–Week in the expansion season 50 years ago began with a matinee (4:15 p.m. EST) from Los Angeles on Dec. 30, 1967, as the Kings and Philadelphia Flyers opened the new Forum in Inglewood, Calif. Built by Hamilton, Ont. native Jack Kent Cooke, the Forum served as home to the Kings through 1998–99. Here was the remainder of the CBS hockey schedule for 1967–68:
JAN. 6 (Sat.) New York at Montreal / JAN. 13 (Sat.) Pittsburgh at Toronto / JAN. 28 (Sun.) Detroit at Minnesota / FEB. 4 (Sun.) Oakland at Minnesota / FEB. 11 (Sun.) Montreal at Chicago / FEB. 18 (Sun.) Detroit at Chicago / FEB. 25 (Sun.) Toronto at New York / MAR. 3 (Sun.) Oakland vs. Philadelphia @Madison Square Garden* / MAR. 10 (Sun.) Toronto at Chicago / MAR. 17 (Sun.) Toronto vs. Philadelphia @Le Colisee in Quebec City* / MAR. 24 (Sun.) Minnesota at Pittsburgh / MAR. 31 (Sun.) Montreal at New York.
* FLYERS HOME GAMES AFTER WIND DAMAGE TO ROOF CLOSED THE PHILADELPHIA SPECTRUM
PHOTOS FROM MAPLE LEAF GARDENS DURING THE EXPANSION SEASON OF 1967–68. ABOVE: LEAFS CAPTAIN GEORGE ARMSTRONG TRIES TO ELUDE BILL McCREARY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES. BOTTOM: REAL LEMIEUX (9) OF THE LOS ANGELES KINGS GETS IN THE FACE OF JOHNNY BOWER. LEAFS DEFENSEMAN ALLAN STANLEY (26) IS CLOSE BY. HOWIE MENARD IS THE L.A. PLAYER IN THE CORNER.
LEAFS AT THE NEW GARDEN
Sunday, Feb. 25, 1968
In just the third NHL game played at the new (and current) Madison Square Garden, the Rangers and Maple Leafs hooked up for a CBS Sunday–afternoon telecast. New York prevailed, 3–1. The Garden had opened the previous Sunday (Feb. 18, 1968) for a game between the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. The Leafs were in a profound slump (1–11–1 between Jan. 30 and Feb. 29, 1968) that cost them a playoff spot in the new East Division. Here are contents from the Toronto at New York program of Feb. 25, 1968: