Everyone Missed The Point

TORONTO (Feb. 13) — The cheerleaders and apologists in the Toronto hockey media were out in full force, predictably bargaining on behalf of Morgan Rielly and the Maple Leafs since the international incident on Saturday in Ottawa. As I’ve written numerous times, this is the easiest hockey market in which to lose, or underperform. The Leafs literally own the media: Rogers and Bell, or Sportsnet and TSN, controlling 75 percent of the parent company, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Balanced reporting or commentary cannot be expected from those who are, unwittingly, part of the biggest conflict–of–interest in Canadian media annals. Even by that standard, however, the pleading for Rielly was over the top, diminishing the voices we’ve come to trust through the years.

From the absurd claim by TSN’s Jeff O’Neill that Rielly’s crosscheck to the face of Ridly Greig deserved no more than a two–game suspension… to Steve Simmons and Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun playing character witness in support of the Maple Leafs defenseman, the 72–hour coverage did not reflect well on our media market. We can now anticipate many of these same pundits and scribes leading a full–frontal assault on George Parros, the National Hockey League’s director of player safety, and clearly the easiest target of any person beneath commissioner Gary Bettman. If a decision from Parros doesn’t bode well for the “home team”, the NHL must pay. Never mind that Parros went light on Rielly with a five–game sentence that could have easily been ten games. And, it isn’t remotely related to Morgan being an absolute darling. We know he had a clean record in the NHL before today; that he’s among the classiest and most–forthright players on the team, and that he ranks amid the top five Leaf blueliners of the post–expansion era, with Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull, Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle.

All of that is fact. None of it excuses Rielly, or any player, for thrusting the shaft of his stick into the neck and face of an opponent; in this case Greig, who showed up the Maple Leafs with a frivolous slapshot into the empty net.

Lady Byng, herself, would have been responsible for the use of a hockey stick. Same applies to Rielly, who cannot hide behind irrefutable evidence from the Rogers/CBC television feed. So many of those in the local and national media came across as bush league in heralding Rielly for his “response”. My God, are the Leafs so marshmallow–soft that a player momentarily taking leave of his senses is a good thing? Never mind that Rielly, playing the game so cleanly, is not altogether helpful to the Leafs, who sorely lack a big, physical presence among their top four defensemen. Though he can elevate performance in the Stanley Cup chase — unlike his overpaid teammates up front — Morgan is the embodiment of what ails the Maple Leafs when the stakes begin to rise.

Then there was the gibberish (mostly from TSN) about Rielly’s heroism “galvanizing the team”. Give me a break. A Leaf player being murdered at Yonge and Bloor in broad daylight wouldn’t bring together this group of individual stars, all of whom (except Rielly) took management to the cleaners, selfishly hoarding every available penny of the flat salary cap. The imbalance it created is largely why the Leafs cannot compete for the Stanley Cup.

Many in the Toronto media are openly fearing the Leafs could be in “big trouble” without Rielly, even though Toronto boasted a 12–2–1 record in the 15 games he missed last season. Of course, that was mostly in November, when the Maple Leafs always play for the Stanley Cup. With crunch time in the regular season and the playoffs on the horizon, we suspect the club will not fare quite as well in Morgan’s absence this time around.

Rielly is eligible to return, as of now, for the Feb. 22 match in Las Vegas between the Leafs and Golden Knights.

Obviously, the Toronto brass will appeal the five–game ban. And, without success.

Far better to concentrate on improving the worst Maple Leafs team of the Core–4 era.

at Maple Leaf Gardens

For those of us that attended and covered the event, it is unfathomable that a quarter–century has passed since the final National Hockey League game at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks closed out the arena on this date in 1999 — a Saturday night — thus ending more than 68 years on the corner of Church and Carlton for the Blue and White. Among Leaf fans, everything but the game is memorable, as Chicago romped to a 6–2 victory. Ex–Toronto captain Doug Gilmour scored for the Blackhawks early in the second period; the visitors building a 3–0 lead. Derek King recorded the Leafs’ final goal at the Gardens (8:14 of the middle frame) while the late Bob Probert notched the last tally for all players at 11:05 of the third.

I had the privilege of covering the game in my role as Leafs beat–reporter for The FAN–590, Canada’s first all–sports radio station. I held that job from 1994 to 2011 and have terrific memories of my time around such franchise legends as Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Pat Burns, Mats Sundin and Pat Quinn. Though beat–reporters were furnished with a season–long pass in October, the considerable demand for credentials to cover the historic match of Feb. 13, 1999 necessitated that individual–game passes (top–left) be distributed. Also handed out to reporters was a 178–page program (cover, top–right) from the event. As always, my seat in the Gardens press box was reserved with a media card (bottom–left). The final hockey season on Carlton St. required a logo (bottom–right) which is still adorned on a banner that hangs in Scotiabank Arena.

On the cover of the media notes package (top–left) was the Toronto and Chicago line–ups. Gilmour wore his familiar No. 93 for the Blackhawks. Sundin donned the No. 13 Leafs jersey on his 28th birthday (yes, the franchise scoring leader is 53 today). Also handed out, in the days before on–line distribution, was the 16–page NHL THIS WEEK booklet (top–right), which featured the closing of the Gardens and opening (the following Saturday) of the Air Canada Centre.

NABBING ANOTHER SOUVENIR As I was leaving the press box, 25 years ago tonight, I removed a copy of the seating plan taped to a wall. I was perched in Chair 67 next to my FAN–590 colleague, Barry Davis, who would go on to bigger and better as a reporter for Sportsnet on Toronto Blue Jays telecasts. You will notice media names that are far–more–legendary than mine.

It was a privilege to work amid all of them.


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