Breaking News And Botching Up

TORONTO (Jan. 6) — I once told our radio audience at The FAN–590 that the Maple Leafs were going to sign defenseman Adrian Aucoin as a free agent. I was wrong. Never happened. Even worse, I scrambled out of Bob Stellick’s office one day in 1997 as he was in mid–sentence, informing the media that Bob Gainey had spurned an advance from former Montreal teammate, Ken Dryden, to be general manager. Stellick was the Leafs publicity director; Dryden, the president. As soon as I heard Stellick mention Gainey’s name, I tore out to a pay–phone (remember them?) in the lobby of Maple Leaf Gardens and and breathlessly confirmed speculation that — yes — Gainey was coming to Toronto, from Dallas, to manage the Blue and White.

Oy vey.

That one stung, but I should have known better. Even if radio, in the pre–Internet era, was the lone platform for immediacy, there was no rush to break a story. I wrote in a previous blog (here: about the godsend of informing listeners that Mats Sundin had been traded to the Leafs for Wendel Clark. In that instance, a player agent — standing before me in the Hartford Civic Center prior to the 1994 National Hockey League draft — guaranteed details of the Toronto–Quebec swap. Even then, I was dying a thousand deaths while reading the note he passed to me, live on the air, to Dan Shulman and the late Jim (Shakey) Hunt. For the sake of my career at The FAN–590, the agent was 100 percent accurate. What a re–Leaf.

The following year, at the ’95 draft in Edmonton, I was chatting on the way to a bathroom break at Northlands Coliseum with Al Arbour, legendary coach of the New York Islanders. Alger and I had sat together, two days earlier, on the nearly four–hour flight from Toronto. Before disappearing into the men’s room, I asked Arbour if he had any news. “I think the Leafs have traded with Pittsburgh for Larry Murphy,” he replied. “You should check with Cliff.” He was referring to Cliff Fletcher, the Toronto GM. At that point, I bumped into Les Binkley, the one–time Pittsburgh Penguins goalie, then scouting for the Winnipeg Jets. I ran the speculation past him and he replied, “yeah, it’s happened… for [Dmitri] Mironov.” That’s all I needed.


I immediately called the radio station and told of the Leafs–Penguins trade. Not three minutes later, Fletcher was live on TSN chatting with floor–reporter Gord Miller about the swap. In the Toronto Sun on Monday, Rob Longley wrote “score a big win for The FAN–590’s Howard Berger, who broke news of the Murphy–for–Mironov trade.” Of course, if my old pal Rob had known how the deal would turn out, he might have written something else. Murphy, the future Hall–of–Famer, got booed out of Toronto and was traded to Detroit. Paired with the incomparable Nicklas Lidstrom, he added Stanley Cup titles in 1997 and 1998 to the pair he’d won (in 1991 and 1992) with the Penguins. Evidently, reporters aren’t the only people that make mistakes.

Less than a year after my boneheaded blunder involving Gainey, I was chatting on the phone with Maple Leaf Gardens director Brian Bellmore, the counsel for owner Steve Stavro. At the time, Stavro hated my guts. He couldn’t look at me without sneering. Why, I didn’t know. All I had done is call him a miserable cheapskate on the air a few times. No reason to be sensitive, right? Anyhow, Bellmore and I talked, now and then, surely without Stavro’s knowledge. As for imparting information, Brian wouldn’t confirm there was sand in the desert. But, we always spoke amicably. On this occasion, he appeared mildly upset after I had told our radio audience that Stavro wouldn’t spend a plug–nickel on any free agent in the summer of 1998.

“Young man, you may be eating your words in the very near future,” he said.

Which was way more of a clue than Brian typically provided.

“Care to elaborate, my friend?” I asked, rhetorically.

“Nope,” he replied. “Just keep those breakfast utensils handy.”

Obviously, I wasn’t going to leave the potential news hanging.

For some reason, I decided to call Alan Adams, who covered the Maple Leafs, at the time, for the Toronto Star after a long, productive tenure as a hockey writer at The Canadian Press. While I punched in Alan’s number, I asked myself “why are you calling one of your competitors for Leafs information?” It seemed ridiculous. But, Alan’s a good guy. He had broken numerous stories at C–P and the job wasn’t his entire life.

“Al, I just got off the phone with Brian Bellmore, who hinted that something was up with the Leafs.”

“Yeah, they’ve signed Curtis Joseph,” Adams replied, matter of factly. “I’m writing about it now.”

I was shocked. “Why are you telling me this?” I laughed.

“Aw, someone will have it before the paper comes out tomorrow; I’m glad it’s you. Just don’t use my name.”

Again, this was prior to the Internet, when electronic media was the lone platform for immediate news.

I looked at the clock and realized, to my incredible fortune, it was just prior to 5 p.m. — a prime afternoon slot with people in their cars driving home from work. I called the radio station and arranged to come on off the top of the 5 o’clock sportscast. My old colleague, Tim Haffey, introduced me and I was able to break the news of Cujo leaving Edmonton to sign with the Leafs. The club held a press conference the following day in the dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens; its new goaltender decked out in his familiar No. 31 jersey.


When the National Post started up in 1999, Adams became its first hockey reporter. The newspaper did not intend on traveling with the Leafs, so Alan recommended to sports editor, Graham Parley, that I handle the road games. I pulled double–duty for the next 10 years, covering the team away from home for the radio station and the Post. It was akin to having a second salary… and I always got a rush out of seeing my by–line on the front sports page while flying home the next morning. Did I tell you that Alan was a good guy?

Another cryptic message led to news about about a popular, veteran Leafs player. It was during the 2006 Stanley Cup final: Edmonton against Carolina. On an off-day between games, I walked past Harry Neale near the Zamboni entrance at the Northlands Coliseum. We waved to one another.

“Hey, how are you, Harry,” I said.

“What’s up, jockstrap?” he replied. “I hear the Leafs are buying out No. 28. You better check on it.”

I stopped in my tracks. The Leafs buying out the remaining year of Tie Domi’s contract?

Once back at the hotel, 20 minutes later, I called the radio station to see if any such news was making the rounds. It was the first anyone had heard of it. I told my colleagues to stand by. In this instance, I went directly to the source. I had known Tie for more than a decade, since his 1995 trade from Winnipeg to Toronto, and we had a good relationship. But, a phone call to his home went over like a lead balloon. “Where are you hearing that sh** from?” he asked, loudly. As I tried to stammer out a reply, Domi told me to “go fu**” and slammed down the receiver. Okay… that didn’t go particularly well, I said to myself. The next call was to a player agent I knew, for sure, would have the answer. “Yeah, you can’t attribute it to me, but it’s happening. Probably in the next week.” That was good enough. I called the radio station and reported the info on the air. Not happily, I might add, because I knew Tie wanted to keep playing. But, news is news.

Domi wouldn’t talk to me for awhile. But, typically, he got over it. And, during a press conference at the Air Canada Centre a few months later to announce his retirement, he thanked the media, singling out me and Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun. The guys that had covered him the longest. It was a nice gesture.

NEWSPAPER MILESTONE: Speaking of Hornby, who should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame media wing, he commemorated 40 years at the Sun earlier this week. No one has followed the Maple Leafs, and their storied history, as long and as honorably. Congrats, Lance.


Minnesota at Toronto — Jan. 6, 1971

Fifty years ago tonight, at Maple Leaf Gardens, the Leafs were in the midst of an historic power move up the East Division standings — 13–1–2 between Dec. 9, 1970 and Jan. 10, 1971. Only the 14–0–2 streak under Pat Quinn (Nov. 22 to Dec. 26, 2003) would better the franchise mark over 16 games. Furthermore, it was three nights since the Leafs had erupted for the most lop–sided shutout win in team annals: 13–0 against Detroit at the Gardens. Yet, not a word was written about the destruction of the Red Wings in the Minnesota at Toronto program of Jan. 6, 1971 (covers of the North Stars album from the ’70–71 MLG set, above).

It was the back end of home–and–home games with Minnesota; goals by Billy MacMillan and Ron Ellis — and a perfect, 29–save performance by Jacques Plante — had lifted the Leafs to a 2–0 victory at the Met Center in Bloomington the previous night. On this night, Garry Monahan scored at 9:54 of the third period to provide the Leafs a 4–4 draw with the North Stars and run Toronto’s mark to 11–1–1 in 13 games. Minnesota outshot the Maple Leafs, 38–32, with Lorne (Gump) Worsley and Bruce Gamble between the pipes. The North Stars built a 2–0 lead in the first period on goals by Bill Goldsworthy and Tom Williams. Monahan scored his first of the night, on the powerplay at 16:19, to get the home side on the board. Norm Ullman of the Leafs had the only goal of the middle frame. Ellis put Toronto in front at 1:28 of the third, but the Leafs again fell behind on consecutive North Star tallies by Williams and Bobby Rousseau. Monahan deadlocked the match for good just 53 seconds after Rousseau. It was a physical affair, with a trio of fights: Ted Harris vs. Jim Dorey in the first period; Barry Gibbs vs. Rick Ley and Fred Barrett vs. Jim Harrison in the second.

Referee John Ashley doled out 68 penalty minutes with linesmen George Ashley and Claude Bechard.

Front cover (top–left) of the Maple Leaf Gardens program from 50 years ago tonight.

The North Stars were in their fourth NHL season after coming aboard as part of the Great Expansion in 1967–68, when the league doubled to 12 teams. Though finishing fourth in the West Division this season — behind Chicago St. Louis and Philadelphia with a 28–34–16 record for 72 points — Minnesota upset the Blues in the playoff quarterfinals; then extended Montreal to six games in the semifinals before bowing out. The Canadiens beat Chicago to win the 1971 Stanley Cup. The North Stars roster (below) featured three players that were teammates with the Canadiens on Stanley Cup winners in 1965–66–68–69: goalie Gump Worsley (1), defenseman Ted Harris (4) and right–winger Bobby Rousseau (15).

Left–winger Danny Grant (21) was the runaway leader in goals for the team, two seasons after winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Bill Goldsworthy (8) and Jean–Paul Parise (11) would play for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series against the Russians. Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild is Jean–Paul’s son. Defenseman Lou Nanne (23) would run the North Stars as general manager from 1977–87. Center Murray Oliver had played for the Leafs from 1967–68 to 1969–70, dressing in all 126 regular–season games.

Words about Minnesota (above) from Hockey Night In Canada icon Brian McFarlane.

After 26 games in 1970–71, the Leafs were in the East Division basement, a point beneath the expansion Buffalo Sabres. But, the 9–1–1 hot streak prior to Jan. 4, 1971 had vaulted the club into playoff territory, four points ahead of Vancouver (also an expansion club). Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr of Boston were by themselves atop the NHL points list, with Norm Ullman and Dave Keon of the Leafs solidly in the top ten.

Yvan (not Yvon) Cournoyer of Montreal stood 20th.


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