TORONTO (Nov. 2) — It began, rather predictably, one month ago tonight: a 5–3 conquest of the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Arena. The big gun, Auston Matthews, scoring twice; the big acquisition, Tyson Barrie, assisting twice. Frederik Andersen recording the victory in goal. Then came a 4–1 road spanking of the depleted Columbus Blue Jackets — Mitch Marner with a pair; Morgan Rielly with three helpers; Andersen earning his second win. Kinda ho hum for a skilled Maple Leafs team with Stanley Cup aspiration.
Since Game 2 of the schedule? Mostly underachievement. A 4–5–3 record in 12 starts and a work–ethic, from top to bottom, that has raised questions about commitment from the players and a disconnect with coach Mike Babcock. That the Leafs sit ninth in the Eastern Conference, beyond playoff territory, made newspaper headlines on Friday… understandably so. Such a position is hardly calamitous in the first week of November, but it accurately reflects the opening month of the 2019–20 National Hockey League season. The Leafs have been flat… and stunningly uninspired. Their big–money leaders — Matthews, Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares (sidelined the past six games with a broken finger) — aren’t yet showing the way. Andersen, as per October each year, has been ordinary on a mediocre defensive club that requires extraordinary goal–keeping. Injuries are a factor: Tavares still out, not returning (as expected) for tonight’s road match against the Flyers; Jake Muzzin (leg muscle spasms) not in Philadelphia; Travis Dermott just back after off–season shoulder surgery; Zach Hyman not yet in the line–up after a torn ACL in the playoffs against Boston.
The big picture? Rather demoralizing for fans of the Blue and White.
ALEX OVECHKIN, NO SURPRISE, UPENDED THE LEAFS WITH AN OVERTIME GOAL ON TUESDAY. HANS DERYK THE CANADIAN PRESS
Fairly or otherwise, the heat is on Babcock to lift the club from its haze. Which may be a challenge. Predictably, the Leafs can be pushed around by an aggressive opponent — that club often requiring just a single player (such as Tom Wilson of the Capitals) to disrupt energy and flow. Rival teams understand they can target Matthews and Marner without concern of retaliation. That Frederick Gauthier threw a couple of “purse–jabs” at Wilson on Tuesday night was, apparently, worthy of acclaim. The TSN trio of Dave Poulin, Jeff O’Neill and Jamie McLennan breathlessly lauded the Maple Leafs for their “push–back” against the Capitals (Bob McKenzie, notably, refused to offer such sentiment). If a 4–3 overtime loss — during which the club was physically manhandled — is grounds for celebration, the Leafs are legitimately in trouble.
One can envision the temperature rising with another somnolent performance tonight at the Wells Fargo Center. Having not played since Tuesday, the Leafs are rested. The Flyers are also ordinary at 6–5–1 (though 4–1 at home) and are coming off a 4–3 shootout win at New Jersey last night (which followed a 7–1 thumping at Pittsburgh). Hence, Philly is on the back end of consecutive–night games — oddly billed as an unconquerable challenge by so many in the hockey media. After tonight is a home encounter, Tuesday, against lowly Los Angeles (4–9–0, 30th in the NHL). Opportunity therefore presents itself for the Maple Leafs to begin November on a bit of an upswing. If the team can properly motivate itself.
A FOND FRIDAY: The Maple Leafs ended the work week, rather significantly, by adding Doug Gilmour to their posse of former captains as a Community Representative. Gilmour joins Darryl Sittler and Wendel Clark in that capacity. He leaves the Ontario Hockey League Kingston Frontenacs after 11 seasons as coach, general manager and team president. “I’m thrilled to be returning to Toronto in a formal capacity at a time when there is so much excitement for a team stacked with incredible talent,” Gilmour wrote in The Athletic. Ol’ No. 93 still holds the Leaf single–season record for assists (95) and points (127), accrued in 1992–93.
Also on Friday… a milestone birthday: Tie Domi turned 50. Happy, happy to Max’s dad.
MINNESOTA NORTH STARS
Joining the NHL in the Great Expansion of 1967–68, when the league doubled to 12 teams, the Minnesota North Stars are best–remembered for — 1) Bill Masterton: The Denver University product that scored the first goal in franchise history and died on Jan. 15, 1968 as a result of a head injury incurred two nights earlier in a game against the Oakland Seals. Masterton remains the lone NHL player to perish as the result of an on–ice incident. 2) The Merger: In an unprecedented move, the North Stars and Cleveland Barons amalgamated for the 1978–79 season, producing a strong club that advanced to the 1981 Stanley Cup final (losing to the New York Islanders. 3) The Move: After 26 seasons in Bloomington, Minnesota, the franchise re–located to Dallas for 1993–94, becoming the Dallas Stars. 4) The Stanley Cup: Led by future Hall–of–Famers Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Ed Belfour and Sergei Zubov, the Stars won their lone Stanley Cup in 1999, defeating Buffalo on Hull’s much–disputed “toe–in–the–crease” goal in triple–overtime of Game 6.
From my hockey collection…
Covers of the first (1967–68) and last (1992–93) media guides from the franchise years in Minnesota. Former Maple Leaf Gardens publicist Stan Obodiac gave me a number of these items before he died of cancer in 1984. As such, his name appears on the inaugural North Stars guide (top–left).
In the Maple Leaf Gardens program of Jan. 7, 1967 (5–2 win over Boston) appeared a story on the progress of the Minnesota expansion club to begin play the following season… written by Dick Dillman of the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press, who would soon leave to become the North Stars first publicity director.
The North Stars played at the Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington, near Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport and equidistant from the Twin Cities. The photo, top–left, shows the Met Center (bottom structure) under construction in 1967. It sat across the parking lot from old Metropolitan Stadium (top structure), home of the Minnesota Twins and Vikings from 1961 to 1981. The stadium was demolished in January 1985 and is now site of the giant Mall of America, which opened Aug. 11, 1992. The hockey arena closed in April 1993, after the North Stars moved to Dallas. It was demolished in December 1984. The photo, top–right, shows Bill Goldsworthy of the North Stars scoring the first goal at the Met Center (Oct. 21, 1967) in a 3–1 victory over the California Seals. Charlie Hodge was the California goalie. Bill Hicke (9) of the Seals arrived too late, as did captain Bob Baun (upper–right), a Maple Leafs defense stalwart before expansion.
Making their first appearance in Toronto on Nov. 22, 1967 (four years to the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in the club’s future city, Dallas), the North Stars were blanked, 3–0, at Maple Leaf Gardens; Bruce Gamble recording the shutout. A water–color of Johnny Bower (top–left) graced the cover of the program. The losing netminder was Cesare Maniago (bottom–left), chosen from New York in the 1967 expansion draft. Maniago, now 80, played for Minnesota through the 1975–76 NHL season. Right–winger Wayne Connelly, bottom–right, led the 1967–68 North Stars with 35 goals. He’ll turn 80 in December.
Program line–ups (above and below). For Minnesota, defenseman Elmer Vasko (4) had been a mainstay with Chicago before expansion. The ill–fated Bill Masterton wore No. 19. For the Leafs, Peter Stemkowski (12), Garry Unger (17, mis–spelled) and Frank Mahovlich (not in uniform that night) would, stunningly, be dealt to Detroit on Mar. 3, 1968 for forwards Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith.
Toronto Star photo (above) from the Nov. 22, 1967 game between the Maple Leafs and North Stars. Stemkowski had a close–in chance on Maniago with Unger watching from behind.
There aren’t many photos of Bill Masterton in the NHL. This one appeared in the old Toronto Telegram the day after the Leafs’ second visit to the Met Center — a 1–1 tie on Dec. 6, 1967. It shows Masterton following the puck after a save by Johnny Bower. The Minnesota forward had just more than one month to live.
Masterton had been dead for five days when the North Stars made their second visit to the Gardens (Jan. 20, 1968) — one week to the night of his fatal accident against Oakland at the Met Center. Ron Ellis (top–left) smiled from the cover of the program while Toronto Telegram hockey writer George Gross penned an article (below) on the late Minnesota forward. The Leafs prevailed, 5–1, with Frank Mahovlich scoring twice.
The North Stars third visit to Toronto (above and below) occurred at the end of November 1968 — in their second NHL season. Jean–Paul Parise scored twice for Minnesota in a 3–3 tie. Jim Dorey, Rickey Ley and Pat Quinn (line–ups, below) were rookie defensemen with the Leafs, adding muscle to an otherwise soft team.
Somehow, the 1969–70 North Stars made the playoffs in the weak West Division, despite a 1–21–12 record between Dec. 13, 1969 and Feb. 28, 1970. That’s right, Minnesota prevailed only once in a 34–game span. Included, was a 20–game winless streak (0–15–5) from Jan. 17 to Feb. 28. That spiral ended, rather spectacularly, on Mar. 1, 1970 during a Sunday–afternoon game televised nationally in the United States by CBS. Final score at the Met Center: Minnesota 8, Toronto 0. A 9–5–4 recovery in their last 18 matches left the Stars third in the West. They were eliminated in six by St. Louis in the first playoff round. The ’69-70 North Stars media guide (above) did celebrate an accomplishment. Forward Danny Grant became the first player in the expansion division to win a major award — the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie–of–the–year in 1968–69.
The North Stars media guide (top–left) from their second NHL season, with goalie Cesare Maniago on the cover. And, media guides (top–right) that recall the amalgamation — in 1978–79 — of the North Stars and Cleveland Barons. The Barons played two seasons (1976–77 and 1977–78) amid sparse gatherings in Richfield, Ohio, having moved there from Oakland (as the California Seals) after 1975–76. The franchise merger provided the North Stars several talented players, including goalie Gilles Meloche and forward Al MacAdam. The club lost the 1981 Stanley Cup final in five games to the New York Islanders.
Midway through their fourth NHL season (on Jan. 6, 1971), the North Stars visited Maple Leaf Gardens for a Wednesday night game (above and below), playing to a 4–4 tie with Toronto. The two oldest netminders were in town that night: Lorne (Gump) Worsley of the North Stars and Jacques Plante of the Leafs, each 41. Rookie Darryl Sittler (27) of Toronto played left wing before his shift, a year later, to center, where he’d enjoy a Hall of Fame career. The Leafs’ general manager was Jim Gregory, who passed away this week at 83.
North Stars media guides from Years 4 and 5 in the National Hockey League.