TORONTO (Apr. 25) — Consecutive victories by the Maple Leafs in Winnipeg this week not only enabled tormented fans to step back from the figurative edge, but virtually locked up first place for only the second time since 1962–63. As of today, the Leafs have an eight–point lead on the second–place Jets in the all–Canadian North Division — Toronto with eight games left on the schedule; Winnipeg, nine. But, only a monumental collapse would prevent the Leafs from claiming top spot and hosting the fourth–place finisher (Montreal, now, by four points over Calgary) in the best–of–seven opening round. We’ll contain thoughts of an “18–wheeler” until, or if, warranted.
The 1962–63 Maple Leafs are considered the best of the four Stanley Cup teams coached by Punch Imlach. Toronto finished a point up on second–place Chicago and only five ahead of fourth–place Detroit in the tight playoff race. But, the Leafs flaunted their power in the Cup tournament, taking out the Canadiens and Red Wings in five to win the NHL title by two games over the minimum. Not until 1999–2000, under Pat Quinn, would the Leafs again place on top, winning the Northeast Division with their first–ever 100–point season (by five points over Ottawa). Finishing third in the Eastern Conference, the Leafs squared off with the sixth–place Senators in the opening playoff round, prevailing in six games. Then came the eventual–champion New Jersey Devils, with whom the Leafs hung in for another six games before an embarrassing elimination at the Meadowlands. Toronto set a dubious playoff record with only six shots on goal in the 3–0 loss. New Jersey beat Dallas in the Stanley Cup final.
NICK FOLIGNO AND MITCH MARNER OF THE MAPLE LEAFS CELEBRATE A GOAL DURING SATURDAY NIGHT’S 4–1 VICTORY AT WINNIPEG. JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS
The current season has yielded only a pair of downturns for the Maple Leafs: a 1–6–0 tumble from Mar. 4–19… and the more–recent 0–3–2 slide that prompted innumerable followers to throw in the towel on the 2021 club.
Suddenly, after winning 11 consecutive starts, a grievous flaw in goalie Jack Campbell had been detected by “sharper eyes.” The entire roster, and those who constructed it, were clods. But, two Campbell triumphs in three nights over Winnipeg… and the Leafs are “priming for the playoffs.” As oft–mentioned in this corner, there is no grey area among those that watch and cover the Blue and White. One can barely comprehend the furor and submission were the Leafs to drop their first playoff match, at home, to the Canadiens. Then, the ecstasy and assuredness after a win in Game 2. Right now, it’s defenseman Rasmus Sandin being described as “phenomenal” after two decent games. Wait ’til he struggles once. A smidgen of balance, now and then, would be so welcomed.
THE 45–YEAR STING
It was exactly 4½ decades ago tonight — Sunday, Apr. 25, 1976 — that the Maple Leafs were finally subdued by the two–time defending Stanley Cup champion. Game 7 of the playoff quarterfinals at the Philadelphia Spectrum ended lopsidedly in favor of the Flyers, 7–3. But, the series is still fondly remembered by those of vintage here in Toronto for a young, aggressive Maple Leafs team that refused to buckle under against the Broad Street Bullies.
Games 3 and 6, at the stifling–hot Maple Leaf Gardens (as I can easily recall from being there), were 3½–hour marathons punctuated by fights and brawls. Leafs captain Darryl Sittler scored a record–tying five goals on ex–teammate Bernie Parent in the sixth match, an 8–5 win for the home side, which provided momentum going back to Philadelphia for Game 7. It was Jack Valiquette of the Maple Leafs who opened the scoring just 1:24 after puck drop… and Bob Neely who restored a Toronto lead at 18:56 of the first period. But, the visitors were too thin on the back end after defenseman Claire Alexander departed with a heal injury. Brian Glennie was also sidelined.
Philly took full advantage in the second period, scoring four goals on Wayne Thomas in a 3:16 span to break open the match. The defending champs, as evidenced by the headline to Jim Proudfoot’s Monday column in the Toronto Star (bottom–right), were happy to escape a series they entered as a heavy favorite. Philadelphia then upended Boston and made it to the Stanley Cup final for the third consecutive spring. But, the Flyers were swept by Montreal — the Canadiens, under Scotty Bowman, beginning their dynasty of four consecutive NHL titles.
PRIME TIME SPORTS HISTORY
When Rogers Communications purchased The FAN–590 from Telemedia Inc. in the summer of 2002, a large box of old cassette tapes sat next to a dumpster. Ready for disposal. The box contained roughly 200 cassette recordings of Prime Time Sports dating to the second year of the program initially hosted by Bob McCown and Bill Watters (with myself as producer). The magazine show ran for nearly 30 years (October 1989 to June 2019). During most of my 17 seasons covering the Leafs (1994–2011) for the radio station, I lugged a tape recorder around North America with these cassettes. Prior to the digital era, we recorded every Prime Time episode in a studio console… on either cassette or reel–to–reel tape. The latter items were perched on shelves at 1 Mount Pleasant Rd. (Rogers’ headquarters) when I got dumped in June 2011. The cassettes, as mentioned, were bound for an incinerator before I rescued them. Most feature McCown with either Watters or the late Jim (Shakey) Hunt.
Since being let go by The FAN, I’ve had no device on which to listen to the tapes. Last week, however, a lovely purchase from Amazon (bottom–left) arrived at my condo. It ranks with the best $34.00 I’ve ever spent.
Among the earliest Prime Time episodes I have is from Apr. 11, 1990 (bottom–right), the day Leafs owner Harold Ballard died. I was sitting on a plane at Pearson Airport during that show, en route to Detroit for a connection to St. Louis, and Game 5 of the Maple Leafs–Blues opening round playoff series. Ballard’s team, somewhat fittingly, expired a night after his final breath. Prior to becoming Canada’s first all–sports radio station on Sep. 2, 1992, we aired Prime Time over 50 minutes (6:10 to 7 p.m.), Monday to Friday, and only here in Toronto. It eventually went across Canada on radio; then as a TV simulcast (4–7 p.m.) in the final decade before Rogers fired McCown (June 19, 2019). I look forward to perusing these tapes. They represent the early history of all–sports radio in our land.
SHI IS THE GUY: There are few reporters I admire as much as Shi Davidi, the veteran provider of Toronto Blue Jays information for Sportsnet and the parent company, Rogers Communications. He is simply among the best at his craft in North America. Though Davidi is aware of the people that butter his bread, he is exceptional at walking the tightrope between partiality and journalism. Sportsnet is gifted with another–such asset in studio host Joe Siddall. But, Davidi, the former Canadian Press scribe, travels with the Blue Jays during non–pandemic years and is Ground Zero for breaking news about the ball club. He delivers the goods in a thoroughly professional manner… and evenly, whether the Blue Jays are winning or losing. The best TV journalists communicate with balance, to the exclusion of elation or despair. They avoid getting swept aloft in the “home team” vortex that is so common among play callers and analysts. Though Buck Martinez, Pat Tabler and the young broadcasters on Sports Central are generally flag–wavers, Rogers and the Blue Jays are fortunate to have equanimity in all three facets of the game telecast with Dan Shulman, Siddall and Davidi. I always learn something when watching Shi on camera. He is poised, telegenic and illuminating. Also, a wonderful chap. No matter if the Blue Jays are soaring or struggling, baseball fans across Canada come out on top with his reports. Rogers should ensure that he is well looked after.
HEALS AND GRETZ: Viewers of Hockey Night In Canada remember Glenn Healy from his years between the benches as an analyst with the No. 1 broadcast crew of Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson. But, Glenn found himself in the “spotlight” long beforehand. Earlier this week, I watched a video that I’d purchased at the Los Angeles Forum while attending a Kings–Maple Leafs game in March 1992. It was the 25th Anniversary of the Kings and the tape featured highlights dating to the club’s inception in 1967. Among the video moments was the night of Oct. 6, 1988, when Wayne Gretzky made his debut at the Forum after being traded, two months earlier, from the Edmonton Oilers. As the spotlight followed Gretzky during the pre–game introductions, he stopped (at center–ice) next to good ol’ Heals (below) — wearing No. 35 for the Kings and backing up No. 1 goalie Roland Melanson. TSN televised the game across Canada; ESPN nationally in the United States. Gretzky, as one could have predicted, led the Kings to an 8–2 rout of the Detroit Red Wings, scoring the first Los Angeles goal and assisting on three others. Luc Robitaille had three goals for the Kings. Heals watched from the best seat in the house.
NHL MEDIA GUIDES
GAINING IN VALUE
“Hang onto them. We aren’t there, yet, but in another four or five years, they’ll become the price of gold in the industry.” So I was advised by a hockey memorabilia guru this week about the roughly 1,500 NHL media guides in my collection, of which which most teams halted production more than a decade ago (moving to digital). They date from 1960 to 2017 and feature every team in the league during that time — the pre-expansion six: (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York Rangers, Toronto) and all clubs since added (franchise relocation in brackets): California (Cleveland), Minnesota North Stars (Dallas), Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Buffalo, Vancouver, Atlanta Flames (Calgary), New York Islanders, Kansas City (Colorado Rockies, New Jersey), Washington, Edmonton, Hartford (Carolina), Quebec (Colorado Avalanche), Winnipeg (Arizona), San Jose, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Florida, Nashville, Atlanta Thrashers (Winnipeg), Columbus, Minnesota Wild, Vegas.
Here is a selection of Los Angeles Kings guides:
THE INAUGURAL LOS ANGLES KINGS MEDIA GUIDE (TOP–LEFT) FROM THE EXPANSION SEASON OF 1967–68. MIDDLE PHOTO IS THAT OF TERRY SAWCHUK, WHO HAD BACKSTOPPED THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS TO THEIR MOST–RECENT STANLEY CUP, FIVE MONTHS EARLIER. AND, MY LAST KINGS GUIDE (TOP–RIGHT), 40 YEARS LATER.
THE KINGS WERE BIG ON ANIMATION FOR MEDIA GUIDE COVERS IN THEIR EARLY YEARS. THESE ISSUES (ABOVE AND BELOW) DATE FROM THE CLUB’S SECOND SEASON, 1968–69, TO THE FIRST GUIDE (BOTTOM–RIGHT) OF THE 1980’s.
MY FAVORITE KINGS MEDIA GUIDE COVER (TOP–LEFT): COACH PAT QUINN AND GENERAL MANAGER ROGIE VACHON — CIGARS IN HAND — OUTSIDE THE LOS ANGELES FORUM. IN 1988–89 (TOP–RIGHT), THE KINGS WELCOMED WAYNE GRETZKY FROM THE EDMONTON OILERS. ALSO ON THE COVER IS KINGS LEGEND LUC ROBITAILLE.
A MILESTONE MEDIA GUIDE (TOP–LEFT). AND, THE AUTUMN AFTER THE KINGS DEFEATED THE MAPLE LEAFS (TOP–RIGHT) IN GAME 7 OF THE 1993 STANLEY CUP SEMIFINALS. GRETZKY WITH A HATTRICK AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS .