TORONTO (June 15) — In recent years, lots of stuff has happened for the first time in awhile on the local sports scene… or the first time ever, such as Thursday night’s monumental basketball triumph in Oakland.
The Maple Leafs had the initial selection in the National Hockey League draft for the first time in 31 years and took Auston Matthews to begin the 2016 lottery. Matthews subsequently became the first Leaf to win a major NHL award — the Calder Trophy as rookie–of–the–year — since Alex Mogilny earned the Lady Byng Trophy in 2003. Some would argue the Byng isn’t quite as “major” as the Calder, Hart, Norris or Art Ross… and for those people, Matthews copped a big prize for the first time since Brit Selby won the Calder in 1965. Last summer, the Maple Leafs landed the plumb of the NHL free agent market (John Tavares) for the first time since luring Curtis Joseph from Edmonton in 1998. And, during the hockey season just concluded, a Leafs defenseman (Morgan Rielly) accumulated 70 points for the first time since Borje Salming in 1979–80.
In the autumn of 2015, the Blue Jays made the playoffs for the first time since winning their second World Series title in 1993; then followed with another post–season appearance in 2016. In each year, they advanced to the American League Championship Series — the first time, consecutively, since 1992 and ’93. Third–baseman Josh Donaldson was named American League most valuable player for the 2015 season; the first–such honor for a Blue Jay since George Bell in 1987. Toronto F.C. became the first Canadian entry to win the Major League Soccer title (in 2017) and the Marlies, one year later, were the first Toronto team to win the Calder Cup as American Hockey League champion. So, yeah, ol’ Loserville has been trending northward.
With respect to Groundhog Day, the Leafs remain our flag–bearer: 15 years without advancing beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs; 52 years since their last visit to (and triumph in) the Cup final. When St. Louis won the NHL crown on Wednesday night, it brought to 13 the number of expansion teams that have prevailed since Toronto’s victory in 1967; 22 of 26 teams that were not yet in existence on May 2, 1967 have made at least one trip to the championship round. All the pre–expansion teams (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York Rangers) except Toronto have raised the Stanley Cup at least once. Now, that’s consistency. It doesn’t quite match the local standard of futility — the Argonauts failing to appear in the Grey Cup game for 31 years (1952–71) in the nine–team Canadian Football League — but it’s gettin’ there.
Owner of the longest current Stanley Cup drought, the Leafs are also razor–close to the lengthiest hockey famine of all time — a 54–year interval by the New York Rangers (1940–94). Toronto can equal that mark as early as the spring of 2021. What it means is simple: the Raptors, after conquering Golden State, have copyrighted “We the North” and “We the Champions” as slogans among Toronto sports teams. The Leafs are now in sole possession of “We the Longest”. For exactly how much longer, no one can predict.
STARING AT US… THE MORNING AFTER
There wasn’t much debate, early Friday, over front–page content among Toronto newspapers:
THANK YOU OAKLAND… AGAIN
The Oakland Alameda–County Coliseum complex is now the site of the two most–seminal moments in the modern history of Toronto professional sport. The Raptors closed out Oracle Arena (originally the Oakland Coliseum–Arena) by defeating the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night to win their first NBA title. It happened roughly 26½ years after Roberto Alomar — in the adjacent Oakland Coliseum stadium — smacked the most–important home run in Toronto Blue Jays history.
THE OAKLAND COLISEUM COMPLEX AS IT APPEARED IN THE EARLY–1970’s DURING A RAIDERS PRE–SEASON FOOTBALL GAME. ORACLE ARENA — NOW FORMER HOME OF THE GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS AND THE NHL’s CALIFORNIA/OAKLAND SEALS (1967–76) — IS ON THE LEFT.
Alomar’s game–tying shot to right–field off ace–reliever Dennis Eckersley (Oct. 11, 1992) saved Game 4 of the American League Championship Series (Toronto and Oakland newspaper–fronts, below). It brought the Blue Jays all the way back from a 6–1 deficit; sparked elimination of the A’s in Game 6 at SkyDome and ultimately put Toronto in the World Series for the first time. The Jays then took out the Atlanta Braves to become the first baseball champ from north of the border. Two moments. Across from one another. Unforgettable.
LOST IN THE SHUFFLE: It is always intriguing the way events unfold. Last July 1st, local hockey fans held their breath for hours awaiting word on whether John Tavares would remain with the New York Islanders or defect to the Maple Leafs in free agency. Once the news broke that Tavares had decided to come “home” — just before 1 p.m. — there was no other topic of discussion around town. Sports stations… news stations… weather stations… religious stations… they were all talking Johnny T. Within minutes, it seemed, odds–makers had declared the Maple Leafs the Stanley Cup favorite for 2019. Simultaneously, a footnote emerged from St. Louis: long–time Toronto forward Tyler Bozak had signed with the Blues for three years and $15 million. The same Blues that had missed the playoffs (though with 94 points) last season in the Western Conference. It was a nice reward for a likable, determined player, but probably wouldn’t amount to much beyond a couple of notable meetings in the regular schedule with his former club.
So much for first impressions, huh?
Had any of us predicted, that day, that the Blues would win the Stanley Cup — while Tavares and the Leafs watched the final three rounds of the Cup tournament — wagers would have been offered. Had you or I suggested the same on Jan. 2 of this year, when the Blues stood dead–last in the 31–team NHL, we’d have been locked up. Yet, there was Bozie (pictured above), at the TD Garden late Wednesday, raising Lord Stanley’s mug… a full 50 nights since the Leafs had been eliminated in Game 7 against Boston. The footnote became a foothold for one of the truly good guys with whom I dealt in my 17 years as Leafs reporter at The FAN–590 — Tyler joining ex–Toronto linemate (and best pal) Phil Kessel with Stanley Cup rings.
KEENAN STARTED THE SCORING
Few observers looked on more proudly than Larry Keenan when St. Louis won the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night. From his home in North Bay, Ont., Keenan was awash in nostalgia and vindication as the Blues prevailed in Game 7 at Boston for their first NHL title. A left–winger with the St. Louis expansion team of the late–1960’s (under coach Scotty Bowman), Keenan’s 198 games in blue, gold and white featured a mega–high and a mega–low. It’s the latter that prompted a big smile when the Blues finally raised the Cup.
You see, Larry was on the ice at Boston Garden and played a reluctant role in the sequence that led to Bobby Orr’s famous clinching goal in overtime of the 1970 Stanley Cup final. “Jean–Guy Talbot fired the puck around the boards and I tried to tip it past Orr to Red Berenson, who was breaking away in the neutral zone,” Keenan, now 78, recalled in a telephone conversation on Thursday. “Had it gotten past Orr, Red would have been alone with a great chance to win the game and extend the series [to Game 5]. Instead, the puck bounced up off Bobby’s chest and he started the give–and–go with Derek Sanderson that resulted in him beating [goalie] Glenn Hall for the Cup winner and flying through the air. As a result — and though it took nearly half–a–century — it did my heart proud to see my former team get even with the Bruins… and right in Boston’s rink. You know the old saying ‘better late than never’. It sure applied [Wednesday] night.”
Keenan is more–widely remembered in St. Louis for scoring the first goal in Blues history. It occurred early in the third period on opening night (Oct. 11) of the 1967–68 NHL season at the old St. Louis Arena… and offset a second–period goal by forward Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars. “I was coming up through the middle and Bob Plager had the puck on the [left–wing] boards,” Larry recalled. “Instead of shooting, he fed me and I swept it past Gary Bauman along the ice. To this day, I kid Bob about being smart on that play. His shot couldn’t break a pane of glass.” The Blues and North Stars played to a 2–2 draw that night on Oakland Ave. — Hamilton, Ont. native Wayne Rivers knotting the match for St. Louis with 1:36 left on the clock.
SCORING SUMMARY (LEFT) FROM THE FIRST BLUES’ GAME IN THE NHL: OCT. 11, 1967, vs. MINNESOTA, AT ST. LOUIS ARENA. LARRY KEENAN’S 1969–70 HOCKEY CARD (RIGHT). AND, AS HE APPEARS TODAY (BELOW) AT 78 YEARS OF AGE.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Keenan’s historic goal, the Blues brought he and his family to the Enterprise Center for the Blues’ home–opener of the 2017–18 season — coincidentally, against Dallas. The old North Stars moved to Texas from Bloomington, Minnesota in 1993. “That was so nice; I got such a warm reception from the fans in St. Louis,” recalled Larry of the pre–game festivity in which he dropped the ceremonial first puck. “Just like the original owners, the Salomans, the people running the Blues today are first class. They treated us like gold during that visit. And, I was amazed at how many hockey fans still recognized me there. After all, 50 years is a long time.”