The Leafs Dilemma… and Bob Cole

TORONTO (Apr. 26) — It’s been said that numbers do not lie. And, a trio of numerals representing the Maple Leafs absolutely must change or the club will never challenge for the Stanley Cup; not this year or in the foreseeable future. They are 1, 7 and 8. As in the Leafs have one victory in their past seven playoff games on home ice. And, Auston Matthews has one goal in his past eight post–season matches, equating to an 11–goal pace throughout the regular schedule. Look no farther as to why the Leafs are trailing Boston, 2–1, in their opening–round playoff clash. We can toss Brad Marchand into the equation as well, even if we knew the Toronto tormentor wouldn’t stay quiet for long. He finally imposed his will on the series late in Game 3 and the Maple Leafs had no answer.

It brings us to Game 4, tomorrow night, and an elementary premise: If the Leafs do not prevail, their season (with all the Matthews 70–goal noise) could be over by Tuesday. Yes, that quickly. That suddenly. Few observers will like the odds of the Maple Leafs going into TD Garden, facing elimination, after losing consecutive home matches.

So, really, the eighth attempt in as many years by the Core–4 to carve some actual ground in the Stanley Cup tournament comes down to Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena. Win, and possibilities flourish. Lose, and expect an implosion at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. It’s that simple. The Leafs cannot escape a five or six–game elimination by the Bruins without sweeping change off the ice. On the ice, as we know, it’s a different matter, with Matthews and William Nylander secured by long, expensive deals that kick in next season. Prolonging his career playoff pattern, Matthews failed to show in Game 3 at SBA after being the dominant figure at TD Garden two nights earlier. It is approaching the point where Maple Leaf observers can no longer expect Matthews to carry momentum from one playoff game to the next… let alone from the regular season to the post season. One and done will never suffice for the National Hockey League’s highest–paid player. It rarely happens to him between October and April; then almost–always happens starting in mid–April. And, it’s just not good enough. Not even close.

As for the umbrella issue, how does a team with so much top–end talent lose six of seven playoff games on home ice? That may well be the epitaph of the Core–4 Leafs: Unable to bring it under the pressure and spotlight of performing at home when the stakes elevate. It’s right there. The Leafs have been eliminated on home ice in five of the seven years with Matthews — 2017 vs. Washington; 2020 vs. Columbus; 2021 vs. Montreal; 2022 vs. Tampa Bay; 2023 vs. Florida. The other two losses (2018, 2019) occurred in Games 7 at Boston. They all declared regression once the Stanley Cup chase began. And, how do you fix that if you are Keith Pelley, the Chief Executive Officer of MLSE? It’s a question the Maple Leafs will be smacked with if they cannot jettison the Bruins.

Having projected his gills for more than four decades as voice of the Leafs, Joe Bowen grew exasperated by the pervasive tranquility at Scotiabank Arena. After the 4–2 loss in Game 3, Bowensy posted this on Twitter (or X):

The idea of going
To any sporting event
To support the home team is to
Give the team energy when they need it. Not sitting down waiting to be REACTIVE.
The players can’t say it but I will: Tonight’s crowd was VERY DISAPPOINTING.

— Joe Bowen (@Bonsie1951)

Which indicates, to me, that times have changed in Leafs Land. Dating to the years (1976–83) in which I had season tickets at Maple Leaf Gardens, prior to my radio career, the playoff crowds were altogether different than those in the regular season. I remember in 1980, when a terrible Leafs team stepped onto the ice at the Gardens, facing elimination, in a best–of–five preliminary round against Minnesota. The North Stars had breezed to victory in the first two encounters at the old Met Center: 6–3 and 7–2. Toronto goalie Jiri Crha was seen flopping on the dressing room floor in a conniption after the first game, in which the home team blasted more than 60 pucks his way. It may have been the most lop–sided start to any playoff round in modern franchise history (rivaled by the following year against the Islanders). That Minnesota would destroy the Leafs for a third time was a foregone conclusion. Still, there I was among the usual 16,485 lambs on Carlton Street, showering our heroes with a pre–game standing ovation (the Leafs were eliminated, but not until Dino Ciccarelli scored in overtime for the North Stars).

Same applied to whichever playoff season I covered the Maple Leafs for The FAN–590. As Bowen well remembers, the zealots at MLG were wild throughout that unanticipated march, in 1993, to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals. If you’d like a second opinion, ask Doug Gilmour. Or, Wendel Clark. The Pat Quinn era during the early years at the Air Canada Centre also resonates with loud, vociferous gatherings that propelled the Maple Leafs to final four appearances in 1999 and 2002. Of course, I’ve watched from afar, in my post–radio career, the Brendan Shanahan era. Bowensy, on the other hand, has called every Leafs home playoff game since 1983. So, I’ll bow to his position that the SBA audience, on Saturday night, was somehow different from anything that I remember.

A caveat, of course, is that Marchand and the Bruins could take the joy out of an orgasm.

Especially among Leaf followers.

At no point in the decade–long Shanahan administration have the Leafs figured out their ancient division foe.

When I was growing up, if asked which rivalry meant the most to me as a hockey fan in Toronto, the automatic reply would have been “Leafs vs. Canadiens”. But, no more. Except for that pandemic debacle in 2021, when the Leafs coughed up a 3–1 playoff–series lead to the Habs, young fans today have little concept of the history between Toronto and Montreal. Conversely, there isn’t an avid Leaf zealot who wouldn’t cherish the opportunity to wrap his (or her) fingers around the throat of Marchand, the poster child for Boston’s oppression of the Leafs since 2013. So, try to not kick yourself if you weren’t awash in dopamine when the clock wound down on Saturday.

No one poops on a party around here better than Brad and the boys.

BOB COLE: 1933–2024

The last time I spoke to Bob Cole was in March 2021, during the teeth of the COVID–19 pandemic, as he left for a vaccine shot. He talked from his home in St. John’s, Nfld., where Cole was God. Even then, nearly two years since his last appearance on Hockey Night In Canada, he missed the booth. My blog…

I spent a day with Bob in St. John’s for The FAN–590 during the NHL season (2004–05) lost to labor strife. As we walked about the harbor and downtown area, Bob must have said hello, by name, to 150 people. Everyone in the city knew its favorite son. My most–vivid recollection of Cole, however, is one that occurred in Los Angeles after the Maple Leafs–Kings opener to the lockout–abbreviated schedule of January to May 1995. Another followed, nearly 11 years later, during a rental–car ride in Ottawa. As posted in an earlier blog:

It was January 20, 1995. The Maple Leafs and Kings had just played to a 3–3 tie at the Los Angeles Forum in the season opener for both clubs. Back in the day, reporters and broadcasters were permitted to travel on the team bus for rides to and from airports and arenas. No–such luxury exists today. On this occasion, given a large media contingent for the season opener, the Maple Leafs had ordered a separate bus. The players and coaches were heading to Los Angeles International Airport on one vehicle; the media, directly behind them. We were to meet up at the aviation terminal of L–A–X for a charter flight north to Oakland (and a game, the following night, against the San Jose Sharks). That was the plan, anyway. Among the occupants of the media coach were myself, Bob Cole, Harry Neale and Mark Askin, who produced Maple Leafs telecasts.

Post–game traffic along Prairie Ave., adjacent to the Forum, was still rather heavy and our driver kept in radio contact with the Leaf bus, about a block ahead. Then, two blocks ahead. Then, three blocks… and, before we knew it, out of sight. There was no particular concern; how could a professional coach driver not find Los Angeles Airport from Inglewood? Well, our man either wasn’t professional… or had never–before driven in the L.A. area.

Within moments, it was clear the poor sap had not a clue.

Increasingly fearful radio calls to the Leaf bus went unanswered. Several blocks later, he pulled off the main road and we found ourselves in a remote parking area beneath an overpass of the Century Freeway. The Leaf bus finally answered his frantic calls and he was told to look for the “guard gate.” When the driver replied, “which guard gate… and where”, we knew we were in trouble. This feeling intensified when he made a right turn into the Korean Airlines cargo terminal. “Boy, what a road trip — Los Angeles tonight; Seoul tomorrow,” came a zinger from the back of the bus. It was now painfully evident that our trusty chauffeur had lost direction… and his morale. Sensing this, Cole left his perch beside Neale and moved up to a vacant seat, across from me, at the front of the vehicle.

Bob then did his level–best to keep the poor driver from breaking down.

“Come on now, we should be able to find the guard gate; you know this city,” he offered in his familiar cadence.

Apparently enjoying his broadcast partner’s angst, Neale maintained a stream of wisecracks. Backing out of the Korean Airlines lot, the driver pulled up to another gate and made a desperate call to the Leaf bus. No reply. While sitting there, we had a great view, through the night–time rainstorm, of the south runway and main terminals at L–A–X. Suddenly, an Airbus lifted off, right to left, no more than 500 feet in front of us.

“Whup, there she goes!” cried out Neale, implying the Maple Leafs charter had left for Oakland.

“Pay no attention to these people,” Cole stressed. “You can get us to the plane. We have confidence in you.”


The driver turned around and began heading toward yet another gate. As we passed through, his waffling became more pronounced. He inched the bus forward and stopped… inched forward and stopped. “Another hundred or so lurches and we should be there,” offered Askin, which brought a death–stare from Cole and a howl of laughter from Neale. Unexpectedly, the long–lost Maple Leafs vehicle re–established radio contact, informing our driver to “keep going and look for the last building on your right.” Neale, still in full clown–mode, replied “he’ll probably drop us at the the first building on our left.” To which Cole answered, “hey, you’re doing alright. Forget all the blather behind you. You’ll get us there. I know it.”

Finally, we pulled up to a fourth gate that led to a Northwest Airlines DC–9 with a bus parked next to it.

“That’s the one,” radioed the Leaf driver and our odyssey was over.

“You mean, we’re here already?” mocked Neale, as we got up to leave. “Stop it, Harry,” replied Cole, who gave the driver a pat on the shoulder. “Good job. It’s tough out there tonight, with the weather,” he praised. Neale also greeted the disheveled coachman. “Just tryin’ to keep you loose. Thanks for the drive.”

A POSTSCRIPT TO this story occurred just more than 11 years later. Cole and I were on the same evening flight from Toronto to Ottawa, April 20, 2006, for the start (the following night) of an opening–round playoff series between the Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning. I was covering for The FAN–590; Bob would call the games for Hockey Night In Canada. As always, I stayed at a Holiday Inn Select hotel off the highway in Kanata, close to what is now the Canadian Tire Centre. Bob was at the more–luxurious Brookstreet Hotel, several miles north.

As we awaited our luggage at the airport, I told Bob I was renting a car and would drop him off at the Brookstreet. He thanked me and said, “you know where it is, right?” I answered affirmatively, though I wasn’t certain which local street led to the property. I did know to get off the westbound Queensway (417) at the “March Rd./Ottawa Regional Rd. 49” exit. Unfortunately, that’s all I knew.

Roughly 45 minutes later, Bob and I were driving around, aimlessly, in pitch darkness.

“Hang in there, Coley, I’ll find the place,” I assured without a smidgen of confidence. I pulled over to the side of the road and made a call on my cellphone. “Alright, Bob, I’ve got it now.”

Twenty minutes later… more darkness.

I wasn’t sure we were still in Ontario, let alone near Kanata.

Through the entire wayward trip, Cole sat quietly, while wishing, I’m certain, he had hopped into a taxi at Ottawa Airport. At one point, he said, “y’know, Howard, this is starting to remind me of that bus ride in Los Angeles way back when.” Though still uncertain of my whereabouts, I burst out laughing. Thankfully, we soon came upon a directional sign to the Brookstreet and I dropped off the Hall–of–Fame broadcaster a few minutes later.

“See, Coley, I told you I knew where it was.”

“G’night, Howard,” he replied.

“G’night, Bob.”


I was privileged to know Bob Cole. May he rest in peace.


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