TORONTO (Nov. 27) — If you leave a slice of bread on the kitchen counter for more than an hour, it will begin to grow stale. If you leave the same players together on a National Hockey League team that flops and flails every spring, they, too, will become musty. Which is finally — predictably — happening with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Sure, the big–money boys are putting up points, which they could accomplish in their sleep. It allows, occasionally, for seven or eight minutes of concerted effort to overcome a weaker opponent. Big deal. Even the most die–hard of Toronto hockey rooters will confess that the first quarter of the 2023–24 season has emitted major warning signs from the Blue and White. Damien Cox called the Leafs “careless” in today’s Toronto Star. Though accurate, it was an understatement. I prefer “indifferent”. The aforementioned “stale”. Or, most alarmingly, “resigned”.
Yes, the Leafs are playing as if they know what awaits them in April.
It matters not what the elite skaters are accomplishing today. Or, not accomplishing. As we’ve been telling you in this corner for ages, the prime malady on the hockey club is unresolvable — Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly understanding reluctantly, yet clearly, that nothing of consequence can be achieved while they remain part of the same group. It is no longer a legitimate argument; hasn’t been, really, since the playoff humiliation against Montreal in 2021. In another hockey market, with ownership and top–level management committed to challenging for the Stanley Cup, the Corpse–4 would have been disassembled after blowing that 3–1 series lead to the Canadiens. But, not here in the Big Smoke. Not with fat and lazy Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment rolling in dough and running the team for its two national sports networks.
And, not without Brendan Shanahan losing complete sight of what works in the chase for hockey’s biggest prize.
THE LEAFS ARE PLAYING, MOST NIGHTS THIS SEASON, AS IF THEY KNOW THE LONG FACES OF SPRINGS PAST WILL RETURN. WHY WOULD ANYTHING BE DIFFERENT THIS TIME AROUND?
The Toronto market, though becoming increasingly agitated, is still one of pretense and fantasy: that somehow — even with, arguably, the most–inept blue line in recent club annals, and amid unproven goaltending — the Leafs will eventually prevail on the hot sticks of the Corpse–4. Hasn’t yet happened in seven years. What is it about this team that conjures expectation for an eighth attempt? And, where else in the civilized world would a professional sports club be allowed to stand pat for eons with a demonstrated playoff loser? These questions have been cast aside by MLSE and Shanahan in a puzzling attempt to try and change without making change. Which never works; never will, with the Leafs, until the failed Core–4 is dismantled. And, how do you start accomplishing that?
Instead, it appears the path of least resistance will again prevail at Bay and Lakeshore… that the Leafs will move forward into the next decade with Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Rielly at the controls. Damn the results after mid–April. Tavares has only next season remaining on his pact. By then, hockey fans east of Manitoba will be salivating over Connor McDavid’s pending free–agency switch from Edmonton to everyone’s dream team in Toronto. Resources will be cut elsewhere on the already thin periphery of the roster. Heck, it’s the Maple Leafs way.
As for the moment, there is pending gloom amid Leafs Nation, which surely recognizes that no improvements were made to last year’s team. I’m told the Leaf brass was spooked over the glaring incompetence of free agent defenseman John Klingberg; that no person in the organization could fathom how terribly he performed. Apparent (and convenient) injury aside, I suspect we’ll not again see Mr. Klingberg wearing the blue and white jersey. The remainder of the blue line is status quo: Rielly… and five guys named Moe. Any five will do, it appears, in the half–century–long search for a franchise defenseman. The annual off–season hunt for roster–filling bargains — even if some arrive with more familiar names than others — cannot provide adequate support for the Big 4 up front.
It’s an old and stale narrative that seems particularly shopworn in the first quarter of this season.
The leading–role players on the Leafs cannot sustain any form of enthusiasm. Sure, they get excited when they score, but the overall sense is that there’s nothing to gain… or to be gained. In other words, the Core–4 players can sense, in their bones, the detestable deja vu: that there has been no fundamental change to the roster. In fact, it has likely regressed from a year ago. Putting up big, regular–season numbers is satisfying, but… been there, done that. Over and over. Once, with 60 goals from Matthews. Fancy figures, but no more. Sure, it’s difficult to get jacked for midweek games in the dead of winter against Nashville and Arizona. Especially when every strand of your DNA is telling you that nothing can possibly change once the regular season ends. It’s a quizzical dynamic: a quartet of men so desperately wanting to “stay together”, yet having to know it cannot achieve, as a group, anything significant. If you wonder why the Maple Leafs appear so blasé and spiritless, there’s your likely answer.
40 YEARS AGO TODAY, IN VANCOUVER
It was the professional sports drought that would never end. Until it did… on Nov. 27, 1983. And, I was there.
Among the clearest memories of my life is being at B.C. Place Stadium in Vancouver, 40 years ago, for the Grey Cup game between the Toronto Argonauts and the B.C. Lions. Throughout my boyhood, when Toronto was a two–sport town (hockey and football), the Argonauts were akin to a Chinese water–drip torture. Beginning with Leon McQuay’s infamous fumble late in the 1971 Grey Cup (also at Vancouver), the Argonauts embarked on a decade of futility — much as the Maple Leafs would throughout the 1980’s. The unquestioned low point occurred Nov. 1, 1975, when the Boatmen went into Hamilton on the final afternoon of the regular season with an Eastern playoff spot guaranteed, providing they won, tied… or lost by fewer than 16 points. The Tiger–Cats prevailed, 26–10.
You can’t make that up.
And, it’s the reason I walked about B.C. Place Stadium in a daze after the Argos finally ended their 31–year title drought. Think about that: it required more than three decades in a nine–team league to win a single championship. The lengthy failure was nearly more impressive than the eventual triumph (as with the Leafs and their 57–year absence from the Stanley Cup final). But, it DID happen for the Double Blue. I saw it with my own eyes — quarterback Joe Barnes flipping a short pass to running back Cedric Minter with 2:44 left on the clock, enabling the Argos to overcome a 17–7 halftime deficit for an 18–17 victory. I actually hugged general manager Ralph Sazio, the Canadian football legend, outside the Toronto dressing room. Honestly, I did. And, he hugged back.
Here are photos and artifacts from a scrapbook I kept:
FRONT SPORTS PAGE OF THE NOV. 28, 1983 TORONTO STAR, AFTER THE LONG–OVERDUE TRIUMPH.
I REPRESENTED THE COMPANY THAT PUBLISHED GAME PROGRAMS THROUGHOUT THE CFL.
EARLY AND FINAL FRONT PAGES OF THE TORONTO SUN AFTER THE ARGOS’ LONG–SOUGHT WIN.
FRONT AND REAR COVERS OF THE VANCOUVER PROVINCE ON NOV. 28, 1983.
FRONT PAGE OF CANADA’S NATIONAL NEWSPAPER HAILED THE END OF THE DROUGHT.