Smoke and Mirrors Around Here

TORONTO (May 8) — Perhaps never in the professional sports annals of this city has a pair of clubs — 12 nights apart — rendered the six–month–long regular season so thoroughly pointless.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors, after setting a multitude of team records between October and April, were dismissed in the playoffs… the former rather quickly and more easily than a seven–game round would suggest; the latter with shocking humiliation. Whatever euphoria prevailed for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment after the Toronto Argonauts and Toronto F.C. won league championships was obliterated by the denizens of the Air Canada Centre. All you have to know is that the Raptors, on Monday night, became the first No. 1 seed in National Basketball Association playoff history to lose by 35 points in an elimination game. Cleveland cavorted to a 128–93 victory, taking our boys to the wood–shed yet again. LeBron James was as prolific in the four–game rout as Toronto’s two best players — DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. And, you may remember how Auston Matthews was nearly invisible in the Maple Leafs opening–round defeat against Boston. So, all of those glitzy, regular–season records in the winter, it turns out, were elaborate window–dressing. Once the bright lights came on in spring, the Leafs and Raptors quailed.


All the stuff that ultimately mattered not was flashed, nationwide, by TSN (top–left) late in Monday night’s blowout at Quicken Loans Arena. Broadcasters Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong, left to “fill” for the entire fourth quarter with the Raptors being annihilated, went heavy on the “what a great season it was” angle while trying to soften the eulogy. But, really, what else could they do? Here in Toronto, the teams; the TV networks and all employees draw paychecks from the same source. It is an inescapable conflict–of–interest that sandbags the viewer every night… with every sport… on every channel. And, it isn’t going to change.

To the chagrin of hockey watchers around here, the Stanley Cup playoffs are not the purview of home–team broadcasters. As such, Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson — the No. 1 play–calling tandem of Hockey Night In Canada — are often branded as Leaf “haters” by providing largely objective commentary. When the visitors, therefore, were getting abused by Boston in the third period of Game 7, there was a dearth of melancholy and condolence. Hughson may have mentioned that the Leafs established regular–season marks with 48 wins, 29 home wins and 105 points, but it wasn’t central to the obituary. In that regard, hockey viewers are better–served in this country than their basketball counterparts. Flag–waving is comparatively absent.

Until the Raptors find a dominant big man to occasionally neutralize the LeBron’s of the opposition, they will continue to post fluff during the regular season. Same with the Maple Leafs until Matthews shows he can step up among the elite between April and June; and until Frederik Andersen does likewise in goal.

AHEM… from my blog in this space on Apr. 26: Call me kooky, but I think this is finally the year Washington overcomes the Pittsburgh playoff gorilla.” I chose the Capitals to beat the Penguins in 7. Not 6. Sorry.



It took no time at all for Bob McCown to invite Brian Burke on Prime Time Sports. The signature, late–afternoon show (since 1989) featured Burke as part of last Friday’s round–table on Sportsnet–360 and The FAN Radio Network. Neither did the former National Hockey League executive disappoint. Though it was widely known in NHL circles that Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas interviewed for the Colorado Avalanche manager’s position last summer, Burke revealed that Dubas was offered the job, only to be reeled back in my the Blue and White. According to Burke, the Leafs refused to let Dubas get away with the promise he would follow Lou Lamoriello to the big chair on Bay Street. Though Leafs president Brendan Shanahan inferred, last week, that his decision to replace Lamoriello had been made just then, Burke said the outcome was “common knowledge throughout the NHL for the past three months.” This is, presumably, why Rogers spirited Burke to town after the long–time exec annulled with the Calgary Flames. Though the league office may not be thrilled its Canadian “broadcast partner” has acquired a true insider that is unafraid to speak his mind — and divulge secrets — Sportsnet viewers benefit immeasurably. Burke is the best thing that has happened to the largely bromidic (though authoritative) presentation of hockey on TV in Canada.

       Leafs vs. Atlanta Flames: Feb. 9, 1977

In my collection, a program from February of the 1976–77 season at Maple Leaf Gardens, with the Atlanta (now Calgary) Flames in town. You have to be nearing your 60’s, or quite a follower of Leafs’ history, to recognize the player that graced the magazine’s cover. Defenseman Claire Alexander, known as the “Milkman” for a prior occupation in his hometown of Orillia, Ont., appeared in 123 games with the Blue and White between 1974 and 1977, accruing 10 goals and 29 assists. In the middle–70’s, cigarette ads (top–right) were not–yet illegal. As such, this promo comprised the back–cover of the magazine.

Leafs owner Harold Ballard turned 74 during the 1976–77 season. Of the mostly–familiar people surrounding him in this team directory, general manager Jim Gregory (82 years old); coach Red Kelly (90, the second–oldest surviving Leafs player, behind Howie Meeker, 94) and scout Gerry McNamara (83) are still alive. Ballard died in April 1990; King Clancy died in November 1986; John McLellan in October 1979; Stan Obodiac in November 1984; Bob Davidson in September 1996 and Johnny Bower this past December.

In 1976–77, NHL teams included the Colorado Rockies (formerly the Kansas City Scouts; now the New Jersey Devils); Cleveland Barons (formerly the California/Oakland Seals) and Minnesota North Stars (now the Dallas Stars). The Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary for the 1980–81 NHL season.

Automobiles in 1977 still had metal bumpers on front and rear. Former Leafs’ GM/coach Punch Imlach (top–right) appeared in a TV ad, wearing his familiar hat.

As per the line–ups (above and below), Atlanta GM Cliff Fletcher would hold the same title with the Maple Leafs on two occasions (1991–97 and 2008–09). Defenseman Pat Quinn (3) began his career on the Toronto blue line (1968–70) and would coach the club from 1998 to 2006. For the Leafs, Ian Turnbull (2) would establish a team–record in ’76–77 that still exists with 79 points, most by a defenseman in one season. Lanny McDonald (7) would score 46 goals. Bruce Boudreau (17) is today coach of the Minnesota Wild.

Scott Young (1918–2005) was a widely–read sports columnist in the 60’s and 70’s at the old Toronto Telegram and the Globe and Mail. He was the father of Canadian rock star Neil Young.


5 comments on “Smoke and Mirrors Around Here

  1. My god. When Burke was the Toronto GM he OPENLY despised the Toronto media. He expressed how difficult it is to win in such an environment. He voiced these opinions openly right up to his farewell press conference. You, Howard, and others like you couldn’t railroad him out of town fast enough. Now here you are gushing about the guy because it suits what has become of your “career” to do so. Now here’s Burke suddenly wanting to be taken seriously in a job field he has openly despised and here’s Howard suddenly becoming a member of the Burke fan club. I virtually have no idea how you can write the utter crap you write and STILL get defensive when anyone calls you out on it. That is ego and undoubtedly a complex that borders on psychopathy. You have zero integrity and unlimited ego. You wouldn’t know analytics or a leftwing lock from a pastrami sandwich. How do you look at yourself in the mirror every morning?

      1. The only person who railroaded Burke out of town was Burke. He came in with a lofty resume to turn the leafs around and win the Stanley Cup but fell short. My recollection was all of Toronto (including the press corps) were giddy when BB got hired. Please give Burke credit as swung for the fences – Had his plan worked the blue-collar-hillybilly/leaf-diehards (myself included) would have built a statue of Burke & ducktaped it to roof of my SUV and driven up and down Yonge Street Hi-Fiving passerbys. No doubt many of the those on the street would be members of Toronto’s Media who would be equally euphoric with Lord Stanley’s chalice coming back to Toronto. In fact I surmise I might even bump into&high-five a weepy-eyed writer/journalist/historian named Howard on Yonge Street ……. I digress…… I think the Toronto media was more than fair with BB during his time with the leafs and they are being more than fair with him as he tries his hand at a new craft which allows him to be closer to his young kids. I also think that Burke is really, really, really smart and enjoys having a testy relationship with the media as it keep things interesting. Think of it as a professional wrestling story-line. I’ve never met BB but I heard through friends that he’s a thoughful, kind and engaging man who’s got one hell of a great sense of humour – Truth be told that sums up Howard Berger too. Howard please keep writing because there is nobody else that squeezes vocabulary out of a pen like you! I’m just angry that I can’t listen to You, BobCat, & Pat on the radio while Don Landry does dumb impressions when I’m stuck in traffic. Those were the days …….

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