Trying to get over “it”

Whatever you want to call “it”, a choke, meltdown, collapse, disaster, blowing it, hitting the wall, running out of gas, whatever — we’ve all come to deal with the Game 7 loss to the Bruins in our own way.

But tonight, it will be those same Bruins facing off against the New York Rangers in the second round of the playoffs — and not the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And that sucks.

That sinking feeling: Leafs fan sits coping with the Game 7 loss against Boston that shocked Leaf nation.

That sinking feeling: Leafs fan sits coping with the Game 7 loss against Boston that shocked Leaf nation.

I suppose I find myself somewhere in between the anger and depression stages of loss, having had a couple of days for the denial to lose it’s grip. Every Leafs fan deals with it their own way. Some will be philosophic and look at the good things that were accomplished and to a brighter future. Others might be sad and withdrawn, still unable to fully cope with what happened Monday night. And there will be those who will be angry — some for a very long time — looking for someone or something to blame.

There’s no doubt when you climb close enough to the summit to see it, to feel it, yet fail to make it to the top — it really stings. For a brief while, a whole world of possibilities opened up and then in 18 minutes, was shockingly snatched away.

So, so close to what might have been. To get a chance to face the Rangers — a team many suggest Toronto matches up against better than the Bruins. At least there’s none of that psychology of dominance by the Bruins the Leafs had to overcome — and they so nearly did — to have a chance.

But now that we’re on the outside looking in (though we’ll try not to dwell on it), there’s a number of things we’ll sorely miss not being in the playoffs.

We’ll miss the trips to Broadway and play in Madison Square Gardens — even if it is via the TV screen.

We’ll miss the exposure, the buzz and the excitement a Toronto-New York series would have meant to the city, fans and TV executives.

We’ll miss having even greater insight into the heart of this Leafs team by going another round; seeing if those players with momentum could have maintained it or for those largely forgotten, a fresh chance to become new heroes.

We’ll miss the camaraderie and high spirits in the bars and places we gather to cheer on the Leafs.

We’ll miss seeing the endless sea of blue and white gathered by the thousands in Maple Leafs Square, showing the pride of Leafs Nation.

And we’ll miss the post-mortems of games with all their talking points because we were engaged, we were invested and looked forward with anticipation to the next game, the next adventure and do it all again.

Only now, we won’t as much. Sure there will be some great hockey played as these playoffs go deeper.

But as I sat down out of habit to watch Game 1 of the Pittsburgh-Ottawa series to see how Canada’s only remaining team does, can’t say I was all that engaged after the emotional letdown from the night before. With stars like Sydney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Erik Karlsson and others, there’s no doubt this series will have it’s entertaining moments. But the whole game I just felt blah. Didn’t care about the outcome at all.

Of course I’ll certainly watch but it won’t be appointment viewing. The playoffs going forward won’t be a good enough reason to get together to watch at a bar and share that sense of community as we hung on every play of every game, caught up in the excitement, joy and possibilities.

That’s gone. And so will be the surge in business at Toronto’s bars who’ll feel the pain too as their establishments won’t be packed with thirsty Leafs supporters.

There’s still a long road of good playoff hockey ahead and those moments fans live for will no doubt come as they always do. For eight years, that’s what Leafs fans had to settle for: you rooted for someone else as a fan of the sport since your own team stunk.

But now that we’ve had a taste of what it’s like to be invited to the party, it just feels like it’s not enough anymore. At least right now. Maybe in three weeks if something remarkable or crazy happens, check back.

But for now, the playoffs feel like watching re-runs. Seen it already. I’d rather have some new, original programming, thanks.

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A Game 7 collapse for the ages

As Toronto coach Randy Carlyle put it following the unfathomable Game 7 loss last night, “Losing the way we did… There’s nothing you can say to explain how and why it happened.”

But oh boy, it happened alright.

An utter collapse that beggared belief to all those who watched it unfold.

Fans react in disbelief to the Leafs Game 7 third period collapse in Boston. The Bruins roared back from a 3-goal deficit to win 5-4 in overtime to eliminate the Leafs.

Fans react in disbelief to the Leafs Game 7 third period collapse in Boston. The Bruins roared back from a 3-goal deficit to win 5-4 in overtime to eliminate the Leafs.

The Leafs, outplaying the Bruins as they had much of this series, were leading 4-1 with half a period to go. Sure there was nervousness. But no one in their most pessimistic of outlooks, could envision a 3-goal  comeback by the Bruins to tie it, their third and fourth goals coming just 31 seconds apart with their goalie pulled. It was just too much to absorb, too much to process this turn of events. The overtime dagger just six minutes in by Patrice Bergeron sealed it for the Bruins. And it was over. Season done for the Leafs.

Had it been just a loss or a like the 5-0 slam of the Washington Capitals by the New York Rangers in the evening’s other Game 7, it would’ve been preferable to what the Leafs experienced last night.

It wasn’t just losing; the Leafs made losing history. They created a new benchmark for Game 7 meltdowns, as in, never before seen. For that reason it is the bitterest of defeats to absorb and will live on in infamy — somewhat akin to the Bill Buckner ground ball in the 1986 World Series. A reference point for all hockey collapses and burgeoning collapses from this point on — an unforgettable event for all the wrong reasons.

A decade from now or even beyond, whenever a team with a lead starts to falter in a third period, particularly in a Game 7, conversations everywhere will start, “Remember when the Leafs blew that three-goal lead to Boston in a Game 7?”

About the only silver lining is that it didn’t happen in the Stanley Cup finals.

But it’s more unwanted baggage for this snake-bitten franchise. No Stanley Cup since ’67 and now there’s this unpleasant playoff memory, leaving a sour taste in a playoff series that delighted and entertained if you’re a Leafs fan.

Ah well.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some upside to these first playoffs for Toronto in nine years. If the glass is flipped the other way, a young, inexperienced Leafs team gave the heavily favoured Bruins everything they could handle, pushing them to the brink of a Game 7. Had it gone the Leafs way, it would be the Bruins and their management facing the tough questions after what would have been consecutive first-round exits after winning the Cup in 2011.

The hometown team gave us a spring fling to remember. Leafs Nation experienced its most jubilant two weeks in a decade. The cheering thousands packed into Maple Leafs Square nightly gave pride to every Leafs fan whether in Toronto, across the country or beyond. It was a joyful spectacle. And for once, it was our spectacle; our fans caught up in the exuberance of the playoffs.

The lengthy series also provided a prolonged look at who the Leafs really are against a very tough opponent — what we have as a team and what we don’t.

The insertion of Jake Gardiner early into the series gave the youngster some great experience while he gave us as fans, glimpses of what might be with his brilliant skating and deft puck handling — the worst of which should be weeded out by experience and maturity.

Nazem Kadri, with a goal and an assist last night, was as expected, inconsistent in his first NHL playoffs. Phil Kessel finally shook the Boston monkey off his back, scoring 4 goals and may forever have silenced comparisons to Tyler Seguin who, with just one assist, was a non-factor.

Other Leafs like Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and the ailing Tyler Bozak whose faceoff abilities were sorely missed last night, had solid series as well.

But others like captain Dion Phaneuf raised more questions than answers. Questions about his health (was he injured?); his abilities, his on-ice decisions and his leadership. He remains an ongoing topic of concern in Leafland but if this meltdown showed anything, it was Toronto needs to get meaner and more skilled on the blue line.

Finally, we wouldn’t even be talking about a Game 7 if it weren’t for James Reimer who outplayed a pretty damn good goalie in Tuukka Rask in Games 4 and 5 especially. He’s still a work in progress but most are willing to grant that this series has shown he is a bonafide #1 that requires some work on elements of his game. We know what we have in Reimer now and that’s important information moving forward for this team.

A bewildering finish to an inspired playoff run. Let’s hope the experience becomes more of an asterisk in the franchise’s future and not some palm-sweating memory that haunts them for years.

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All on the line tonight in Game 7 showdown

Game 6: Leafs 2, Bruins 1

Maybe in our wildest dreams we were willing to go there but didn’t dare to given the way things started with that beating in Beantown.

But here we are: Game 7. Tonight. Boston.

Win and the Leafs advance to the second round — completely uncharted territory in their recent history and a chance to continue this spring adventure.

Lose, and it’s a valuable learning experience — nothing more than an opened up window to see what this team was really made of under such an intense microscope. Of course, cynics will deem a loss as a choke — that the Leafs with the door kicked open once again couldn’t walk through it. There’s no pleasing some in Leafs Nation but to hang onto that as one’s final impression of this wildly exciting, entertaining series would be a shame.

Who'll win this bruising match-up in tonight's Game 7 showdown in Boston?

Who’ll win this bruising match-up in tonight’s Game 7 showdown in Boston?

Toronto was not supposed to be in this spot. Toronto wasn’t expected to show this kind of fight, have this kind of speed and skill and compete level that’s stretched the Bruins to the limit. Toronto was supposed to be merely a jumpable hurdle to be cleared enroute to a long Stanley Cup run for a core of Bruins players only two years removed from being champions.

But Toronto has proven to be much more than that.

How they managed to get there — the character, toughness, talent and compete level — has opened the eyes of even the staunchest Leaf disbelievers. It has been a remarkable spring of possibilities and we are growing and learning along with this squad as much as they are under the steady and cunning hand of Randy Carlyle.

It was only fitting that Game 6’s heroes were a chance for two of the Leafs favourite fan targets to come through. Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel each scored while the recently under-performing Nazem Kadri assisted on Phaneuf’s goal which broke a scoreless, tense game in the opening minutes of the third.

Of the three, Kessel was likely feeling the least pressure ever since having been released from purgatory following his performance in Game 2’s 4-2 win in enemy territory. His confidence, indeed his efforts have flourished since then and that’s not just good to see but may be key in tonight’s winner-take-all game. A free-flowing and confident Phil Kessel is a good thing for this hockey club.

For frequently beleaguered captain Phaneuf — who still appears bothered by some ailment — it’s more complicated. Phaneuf took the bullet for Game 4’s overtime loss citing his decision to pinch was the wrong one. Since then he’s been smeared, doubted and positively lambasted in the media and by fans as a no-good, risk-taking, turnover machine who doesn’t really care and we should just strip the “C” off him right now.

If you pay attention to any of  the between-game chatter that fills the airwaves and social media it is truly depressing to hear and read the over-the-top criticism being directed at him. Some criticism may have been merited in such an emotional loss as happened in Game 4 but really people, get a grip.

His goal last night — just the tiniest of a stick deflection to fool Tuukka Rask — was obviously a huge relief for him judging by his triumphant celebration. He won something back in himself with that goal; something that again may come in handy for tonight’s game. But the critics will be back in full voice if he does anything even remotely connected that may result in a loss, especially in a game of such high stakes.

Like I said, it’s complicated with Phaneuf.

Kadri has also been hearing the whispers about the apparent loss of his scoring touch, his level of engagement in these post-season games.  Still, he gets a hall pass because it’s all new to him but most allow he has disappeared a bit too much for their liking during his first NHL playoffs. Game 6 was probably Kadri’s best game of the series with him laying on the body a few times, creating some scoring chances and of course, assisting on Phaneuf’s goal with a shot from the point.

A Game 7 win will of course require strong performances from these three. But we’ve also seen enough evidence that contributions have come from all parts of this squad. That, combined with James Reimer playing at the same level he has for the last three games, and this dream just might continue.

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Reimer finally steals one in Game 5 classic

They came to play these Maple Leafs did.

Anything to extend the series to keep the magic going and bring it back home to T.O. and their fans for at least one more dance with the Bruins.

They competed. They sacrificed. They entertained. But most importantly, astonishingly, they won. A 2-1 score that could have been inflated by several goals were it not for the superb goaltending on both ends of the rink. One thing is certain though: James Reimer has shown he can be a big game goalie, bending but not breaking. He turned back 18 of 19 shots in the third period when the ice seemed tilted as the Leafs could manage only four.

Tyler Bozak scores on a breakaway giving the Leafs a 1-0 lead in Game 5 of their best of 7 series vs Boston. Toronto hung on for a 2-1 win to force a Game 6.

Tyler Bozak scores on a breakaway giving the Leafs a 1-0 lead in Game 5 of their best of 7 series vs Boston. Toronto hung on for a 2-1 win to force a Game 6.

The Leafs forced a Game 6 here Sunday night showing decisively they’re not going to be pushed around by these bruising — though not as bruising two years ago –Bruins. The pressure has now shifted to the favoured Bruins to get this thing done and move on. But the Leafs will have something to say about that.

The game started off like a five-alarm fire that had the Bruins swarming the Leafs in an all out attack for what seemed a lot longer than the nearly two minutes it was. It looked like it would just be seconds before they put one behind Reimer and throw the first shovels of dirt in burying the Leafs.

The Leafs withstood that onslaught then proceeded to put their own foot on the accelerator, creating some wild scoring chances from Lupul, Van Riemsdyk and Grabovski who continues to misfire, unable to bury it in close on a diving Tuukka Rask. Still, after the initial Bruins assault, it was the Leafs best period of the series so far as they bombarded the Bruins, firing 19 shots on Rask who turned all of them away.

That was the rhythm of this see-saw, super-charged game in a nutshell: each team  in turns produced multiple scoring chances to blow this thing wide open. It could easily have been a 6-5 or 5-4 barn-burner. The Bruins outshot the Leafs in the final two frames, 19-4 in the third, but it was the Leafs who held the daggers this night on a breakaway goal by Tyler Bozak in the second and Clarke MacArthur swooped in from the left wing early in the third and backhanded a beauty behind a sprawling Rask that turned out to be the winner. Both of those raised the roof if you were a Leafs fan and for a time you had to think, “We can do this. We can beat these guys.”

Well they did. And did it with the kind of character, talent and grit that would make the most seasoned of playoff teams proud. With this kind of hard-won victory Toronto is showing with this young squad they can play with that kind of poise and intensity in a hostile environment.

They’ve brought it back home still down 3-2 in the series. Only now the daunting long-shot odds before last night’s game just got shorter.

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Cheer up, things just might be better in Boston

No doubt about it, the Maple Leafs find themselves facing a daunting task to stay alive in their best of seven quarter-finals against the Boston Bruins after a crushing 4-3 overtime defeat in Game 4.

Things would look so much brighter going into Boston tonight for Game 5 with the series knotted up 2-2.

But the unfortunate reality, as well as history strongly favours the Bruins who are 15-2 when leading a series 3-1. Toronto’s futility mirrors those numbers winning only once in 14 playoff series where they were down 3-1 — and that was in 1942. So no recent successes in that department.

Leafs faithful are hoping the party continues as the team tries to stave off elimination tonight down 3-1 in their quarter-final series to Boston.

Leafs faithful are hoping the party continues as the team tries to stave off elimination tonight down 3-1 in their quarter-final series to Boston.

The one shaft of statistical light beaming through the gloom is that the Leafs are actually better on the road than home this year, going 13-8-3. Lest we forget, they also beat the Bruins last Saturday to tie the series 1-1 after that shellacking they took in the opening. They can beat the Bruins at home and the players now know it.

To be frank, despite the stirring crowds and support the Leafs got during the playoff homestand, they might be happy to leave town.  The incessant fault-finding and nit-picking chatter follows this franchise around like stink on a hockey bag.

The moment by moment breakdown of the OT goal scored by David Krejci which now, through expert sportswriter analysis, has ballooned to not one error by Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, but FOUR. Four disastrous mistakes! On one single shift. At that level of incompetence, it’s a wonder the Leafs can find their way to the rink, let alone give the Bruins a run for their money.

It’s the first playoffs for Toronto in nearly a decade and things can get a little overheated. But does it really serve much purpose to micro-analyse plays to such a degree in attempting to point out it was all the fault of Leafs players and Boston was superior in every regard on a single shift?

Decisions, or more accurately instincts from players, happen in the blink of an eye. What is more remarkable is that for all those so-called “mistakes” to happen in that sequence shows Boston just plain got lucky things unfolded as they did and often do in hockey.

To also blame it on James Reimer who stopped 41 of 45 shots, is cheap. To suggest further that management should have picked up a fading Mikka Kirpusoff who had no  interest in coming here, nevermind his 3.44 GAA and .882 save percentage that placed him 44th among 45 starters. James Reimer? He was tied for fifth. How in heaven’s name would that have been an upgrade?

There also continues to be calls for Reimer to “steal” a game. To have his Tim Thomas-Patrick Roy-Ken Dryden moment and keep the Leafs in this thing. Maybe he’s not a goalie capable of that kind of legendary performance but with a .912 save percentage in these playoffs, he’s been solid — just not quite as solid as the guy at other end which is no crime.

However, for the Leafs to continue, Reimer does have to be at his best. That, plus get more scoring from players who’s names aren’t Lupul or Kessel. Hello, Nazem Kadri. Hint to shooters: Keep it away from Tuukka Rask’s glove. He’s gobbling up everything.

One thing’s for sure: At least the negative natterings from the Phaneuf-haters and others great at cataloguing the team’s deficiencies, will fortunately fade to the background as they head into hostile territory which, all things considered, could be a welcome reprieve.

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Elimination looms as Leafs lose thriller in OT

There was a point in the third period last night where I said to the guy next to me (I was at a sports bar) “Isn’t this great?”

You wouldn’t have a pulse if you weren’t glued to this game. Every time the Kessel line was on the ice they looked dangerous. Mikhail Grabovski though scoreless yet again, was a dervish highlighted by a head-long rush to the net where he was spun around like wide receiver after a hit. Also of note the play of Jake Gardiner who chews up probably three times the ice of the average defenceman, making Randy Carlyle cringe sometimes but also creating an offensive attack the Leafs simply don’t have without him.

And although the Leafs took a dagger for the game and series with a 4-3 overtime loss, the game was wildly entertaining. The kind of game that give coaches potential heart attacks but for fans, the end-to-end rushes, a healthy dose of hits and numerous close chances for both sides made the game a thriller in my humble opinion.

Leafs flying by the seat of their pants now as they face elimination Friday down 3-1 in their series against Boston.

Leafs flying by the seat of their pants now as they face elimination Friday down 3-1 in their series against Boston.

Unfortunately it wasn’t an outstanding game for Dion Phaneuf who again becomes the whipping boy for pinching and trying to take off Nathan Horton’s head which led to an odd man rush that ended with David Krejci completing a hat trick.  Game over.

It never ceases to amaze me the vitriol spewed by the fan base directed at Phaneuf.  If he were at a Leafs celebrity carnival he’d be that guy who’d Leaf fans most like to dunk.

I’ll admit Phaneuf isn’t the easiest guy to like with his occasionally risky play, his uninspiring, clichéd-filled interviews and hey, let’s throw in his celebrity wife of his too while we’re at it. Phaneuf might not be the best choice as captain but his salary, his contract always get hauled out whenever he does something that seems to backfire like last night. They don’t get on Grabovski’s lack of productivity for his $5.2 million salary.

Fans should take a breather on the anti-Phaneuf diatribe. He probably erred in going for the hit on Horton instead of backing off. But you can argue that defenceman Ryan O’Byrne was too deep on Krejci and Reimer would probably admit that was a stoppable shot.

There’s also some speculation that Phaneuf is injured or sick. He does appear a step slow and atypically passed up several chances to blast shots at the net. We’ll find out if all is well with him or not if the series ends in the next few days.

But there’s at least one more game to play and the Leafs again find themselves in the pressure-packed situation of bouncing back from an emotional loss. Only this time there is no second chance as they face elimination Friday in Boston.

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Some thoughts on the playoffs show in town

Leafs and Bruins get set to battle it out tonight in Game 4 in Toronto. Bruins lead the series 2-1.

Leafs and Bruins get set to battle it out tonight in Game 4 in Toronto. Bruins lead the series 2-1.

Time now for a quick inventory of some small trends and observations as we get set for a crucial Game 4 tonight at the ACC. Of course every game going forward will no doubt qualify as the biggest of the season but let’s get real: if the Leafs go down 3-1 tonight, the chances of them winning the series goes from slim to virtually none. Tie it up on the other hand and it becomes a best of three where the odds aren’t overwhelmingly in favour of the team with home ice advantage. So just win baby!

Observation 1:  Boston’s David Krejci is not Sydney Crosby as some of the sports media is making him out to be. Yes he has amassed a quiet eight points and with linemates Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton give the Bruins a legitimately strong first line. But let’s put things in perspective: these guys disappeared for long stretches during the regular season and we know it’s the playoffs and Boston’s apparently found that magical switch that suddenly turns everyone into super hockey players. Here’s betting they won’t quite be as productive tonight. Hey, if David Krejci is that great, we would’ve have heard more about him by now.

Observation 2: Let’s just say ditto for Jaromir Jagr. C’mon, the guy’s 41. Anyone can string together a good game or two at that age but so much ink is being spilled on this apparent ageless wonder you might be convinced he’s found the fountain of youth when he and Mario were tearing up the NHL. He’s not. At his age, expect the occasional strong game as in Game 3; for him to deliver consistently at that level is unrealistic.

Observation 3: My newest jargony term I’ve grown to loathe in these playoffs is “puck management.” A very professional, business-like buzzword used to describe the functioning of large organizations now being applied to who has possession of a hockey puck. Good grief. I wonder if there will be “upper puck management” or maybe “middle puck management” as the layers of coach-speak infiltrate the game. It’s a puck, guys. It’s small, moves blindingly fast at times and is subject to strange deflections, bounces and ice imperfections, not to mention the frequent unintentional wiffs by players — all of which make said management of the disc inherently difficult to manage. In a typical game, a puck changes hands more frequently than Madonna changes concert outfits. Who knows? Puck management may one day occupy the same revered status as “active sticks.” We can only hope.

Observation 4: It was great to see Leafs fans gather by the thousands in Maple Leafs Square and form a true “nation.” No doubt the momentum and excitement will be there again for Game 4 tonight. If there was only a way to transport that enthusiasm inside the ACC where it’s really needed. Oh wait, tickets are going for $1,000 you say? Never mind. The paying customer — and we do mean paying — is entitled to do what he or she wants.

But win or lose, let’s keep it good natured and not let things descend into some kind of hooligan stupidity like what happened to our friends on the west coast. Toronto desperately needs the good vibe of this playoff buzz. It doesn’t need another reason to stain its reputation.

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Bruins spoil Leafs playoff party

Isn’t it always the way. You wait nine years, bursting with anticipation and your team lets you down.

The Leafs put in a strong effort overall. As coach Randy Carlyle keeps harping on, it was turnovers that really were the difference in this game — two to be precise. A smart play by 41-year old Jaromir Jagr who stole the puck off Ryan O’Byrne and quickly fed it to Rich Peverley gave the Bruins a 2-0 lead. But the real back-breaker was Kessel’s giveaway in the second at the Leafs blueline that Daniel Paille beat James Reimer on for a short-handed goal left the Leafs trailing 4-1, taking the buzz out of the hometown crowd.

Thousands of Leafs fans gathered in Maple Leafs Square for the first home playoff game in nine years.

Thousands of Leafs fans gathered in Maple Leafs Square for the first home playoff game in nine years.

To anyone watching the game, it wasn’t a repeat of the Leafs hapless 4-1 opening loss to the Bruins despite the 5-2 outcome. It was a couple of miscues that Boston pounced on and made the Leafs pay. Hey, sometimes you get the breaks, sometimes you don’t. Not that Tuukka Rask played anything less than stellar but he should’ve thanked the two goal posts the Leafs hit that harmlessly deflected the rubber the right way for him. A game of inches as they say.

Surprisingly, Toronto outshot the Bruins 47-38 — a season high — and it came during a playoff game against the Boston Bruins for pete’s sake. In the third down three, Toronto got 18 pucks on net to the Bruins six. So while they didn’t manage to capitalize, it’s a good sign. The Bruins have that vaunted depth so talked about where they can roll out four lines and it’s making life tough for the Toronto defence. Their offence is also rounding into form, especially David Krejci who quietly already has eight points in this series. Milan Lucic also seems to be shaking off a season-long slump while Jagr is displaying flashes of his old self with masterful puck control in the Leafs end.

But back to the underlying story — the pre-game atmosphere around the Air Canada Centre was giddy, a festival atmosphere with several thousand turning Maple Leafs Square into a sea of Blue and White . The mixture of sun, celebration and anticipation came through loud and clear on the gigantic video board and on the HNIC broadcast. It was reminiscent of the 2011 Vancouver fan frenzy during their playoff run.

Most fans were just happy to be there and be part of the first playoff game in nine years in Toronto. Winning a game at home would just be a bonus to the experience of coming together as Leafs Nation when it really matters. They were disappointed the home side didn’t prevail but they get at least one more chance Wednesday in Game 4 to perhaps supply that X-factor and get back in this thing.

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Playoff fever returns to Toronto

Toronto mayor Rob Ford declared Monday Blue and White day in honour of the Maple Leafs return to the post-season.

Personally I don’t care what His Doofus declares since he does so on a regular basis and often incoherently.

City official endorsements aside, there is much anticipation in the air, fuelled by the multiple channels of media that only the Centre of the Hockey Universe can muster. The Leafs “pre-game” show began at the crack of dawn with wall-to-wall coverage to feed the public every tiny morsel of Leafs news.

Then there’s my little blog here to add to the already full pile but we like to think it’s a most pleasant read.

At any rate, it’s the first Leafs playoff game in the city in nine years. Many of us may think back to what we were doing back in May 2004. The general feeling is that its been a really, really long time between playoff games in these parts though for me it’s always “Where the hell did the time go?”

Giddy Leafs fans excited to see the team back in a playoff game after a nine-year drought.

Giddy Leafs fans excited to see the team back in a playoff game after a nine-year drought.

Year after year of watching the playoffs my thoughts drifted occasionally into how fantastic it would be to be part of this. It seemed a bit surreal, at least highly improbable. Our team, our city, was decidedly a city of losers. We couldn’t even win for all our losing and secure a lottery draft pick.

Meantime, other burgs took their appearance in the playoffs practically as a given — Detroit, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Boston, Pittsburgh, San Jose — even Phoenix managed a few post-season berths over these nine years for crying out loud. We couldn’t even compete with Phoenix! A city so undeserving of an NHL franchise by reasons of geography and outright disinterest — even they did better playoff-wise than the iconic Maple Leafs.

Yet here we are in the centre of the hockey universe and year after year we never even managed to creep into the lowest seed. Always on the outside. Always failure. Just plain losers.

And now here we are. For real.

I think many fans are still tentative after living with the loser mentality for so long. Yes we’re extremely happy that we’ve made it but it still feels a bit foreign and strange. Like a new pair of shoes that need a break-in period.

But now that it’s Game 3, those shoes need to do full-time duty. The Leafs are returning confident and rejuvenated after an inspired bounce-back game Saturday in Boston. We know now that the team belongs in these playoffs after a shaky start and on a given night, with them firing on all cylinders, they can beat the best of them.

However, for the playoff juices to really get flowing in this town, this series is still looking for that dominating storyline to fixate on and focus the attention. Some magical, egregious, outstanding or controversial incident that would set the tongue-wagging into overdrive. Something preferably that would incite revenge, that turns a series into one of those legendary battles that completely enthralls us and lives on in our memories.

Remember the Darcy Tucker hit on Mike Peca in the 2002 Islanders series? How that became a defining moment of the series? Or the Tie Domi suspension on New Jersey’s Scott Niedermayer in ’01. And to those who were around, who could forget the ’93 playoff run for the ages with Doug Gilmour as the ferocious leader of a team that captured a city. And of course any playoff series against the Sens who always managed to make the Leafs look good no matter where they finished in the regular season.

Speaking of which, take the Ottawa-Montreal series. It’s now escalated into a spat between coaches after a fight-filled Game 3 following the controversial Eric Gryba hit on Lars Eller in the opener that set everything off.

The Leafs-Boston series is still searching for that compelling storyline or issue. It doesn’t need to involve blood, violence or fights either. It could be a controversial call, a terrible or outstanding play, trash-talking, Tweeting… whatever. If we truly want that delicious playoff drama hockey fans and pundits crave at this time of year, we need the Hockey Gods to work their magic. That said, we should be careful what we ask for as it could come back to bite us.

Enjoy your Blue and White day and do your thing to celebrate and support this team.

It may not come around again for a long time.

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Carlyle and Leafs make strong statement with comeback win

Whether the Toronto Maple Leafs win another game in this series or go deep into the playoffs, Saturday’s 4-2 victory over the Boston Bruins has to go down as one of the best team accomplishments of the season.

If the Leafs do fail to win another game, at least we’ll have that one Saturday night in May where reputations were formed, and demons exorcised against a team that’s owned them.

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The Toronto Maple Leafs bounced back with a strong performance in Game 2 vs the Boston Bruins, tying their series 1-1 with a 4-2 victory.

That Phil Kessell finally scored what proved to be the winner against the Boston Bruins at even strength on an electrifying breakaway from the stick of Nazem Kadri was alone worth the price of admission if you’re a Leaf’s fan. Kessel’s joyful smile and celebration on the bench was the manifestation of one huge monkey slipping off the back the Leafs’ sniper and bodes well going forward. It gave them a 3-1 lead early in the third and energized them the rest of the way. From a Leafs standpoint, the biggest goal of the series both symbolically and in terms of a momentum shift. As Leafs’ play-by-play man Joe Bowen bellowed as only he can, “Thank-you Kessel!” a shot back at the relentless taunting by the Bruins’ faithful at their former player.

While Kessel’s goal was the emotional high point of the game from a Leafs’ standpoint, their bounce-back performance was definitely a total team effort that saw skill and grit on this night.

Joffrey Lupul alertly and skillfully scored the first two goals from the rough areas while James Van Riemsdyk artfully corralled the puck behind him while off balance, banking it off Tuukka Rask for an insurance goal. Nice stuff.

But much of the credit for the rebound, as Toronto Sun sports columnist Steve Simmons points out, belonged to Randy Carlyle.  With the help of his staff, he took a whipped bunch of mostly playoff virgins and gave them the confidence to execute a game plan that rose to the matchup challenge the Bruins pose. He’s managed to do it for much of the year with the exception of the last three weeks of the regular season where the team couldn’t seem to find that extra gear. But they found it again last night.

The insertion of four fresh bodies in the lineup by Carlyle paid dividends with three of them, Jake Gardiner, Matt Frattin and Ryan Hamilton scoring points. But as part of his strategy, Carlyle exercised patience as well.  Instead of nailing Gardiner to the bench after he coughed up a blatant giveaway which James Reimer bailed him out on, Carlyle kept using him and Gardiner played a solid game the rest of the way. If he continues on that track, his speed will give the Bruins some headaches.

Matt Frattin also returned and his impact while not spectacular, was noticeable making each shift count doing all the so-called little things to thwart the Bruins and provide some offence from the third line.

But where Carlyle deserves most credit was his creative use of Phil Kessel, inserting him on different lines and taking him out of his comfort zone, playing him at times on left wing to avoid his nemesis, the Giant — Zdeno Chara. (my topic for Friday’s column).

Carlyle’s tinkering and strategies seemed to catch Bruins’ coach Claude Julien a little off guard, maybe even exasperate him a bit.

Now Julien and the Bruins find themselves with a challenge on their hands: A seasoned, strategic coach to match wits with and a rejuvenated squad that as Game 2 showed, is capable of carrying out his game plan.

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Long wait between games could benefit Leafs

With the Canadiens tying their series with Ottawa after an inspirational 3-1 win following the ugliness of the Lars Eller incident, it got me thinking: Was it better to play another game the next night and plough straight ahead despite the controversy and ensuing fallout?

Had there been a three-day break between games as there is in the Leafs-Boston series, the Ellers fallout may have been blown up to much more volatile proportions in a hockey hothouse like Montreal.

But the NHL’s two-game suspension handed down by Brendan Shanahan to Ottawa defenceman Eric Gryba, helped kicked the legs out from under the issue. From an optics standpoint, justice appears to have been done, surprising many hockey commentators who thought the hit a legitimate hockey play that wouldn’t result in supplementary discipline. At any rate, a good hockey game was played and any apparent hostilities and shenanigans were kept to a minimum.

For some strange scheduling reason, the Canadiens-Sens series has had the only back-to-back games out of all the playoff matchups and for the reasons cited, the timing proved propitious.

By contrast, does having a longer break between games benefit the Leafs’ fortunes? Will having an extra day distance them from their sad Game 1 effort while at the same time taking some air out of the Bruins’ momentum?

The Maple Leafs hope to adopt a better game plan for Game 2 of the opening playoff series against the Bruins.

The Maple Leafs hope to adopt a better game plan for Game 2 of the opening playoff series against the Bruins.

As far as I can tell, there aren’t many statistics kept of how this favours teams positively or negatively whether you’re following a great performance or trying to re-group from a bad one.

Obviously a longer break would be an advantage in helping heal players’ bumps and bruises as in the case for Cody Franzen who suffered a bruised foot. It won’t really do much for Mike Kosta’s broken finger that will likely turn into a season-ending injury for him.

Of course those injuries open the door for one or both of Jake Gardiner and Ryan O’Byrne to be in the line-up. Despite his much publicized defensive deficiencies in his own zone, there’s no denying Gardiner’s skating and his ability to get it out of his own zone once he’s given some room — was something sorely lacking in Game 1. O’Byrne provides size, toughness and is more of a stay-at-home type so Carlyle should just pick one from column A and one from column B and get over it. The Leafs are fortunate to have those options.

Roster diversions aside, the extra day should help the Leafs. It’s more difficult to keep great momentum going after a break; it’s just plain harder to raise your game to an extremely high level not to mention have some bounces go your way.

The Leafs meantime have nowhere to go but up from their Game 1 performance. To the credit of the team’s coaching staff, the gloom of Wednesday’s defeat appears to have hung fairly lightly on their shoulders because to a player, they all know they are capable of more.

Prediction:  Expect a much closer, competitive game from the Leafs. Even a one-goal loss in Game 2 will serve as a good character-builder as they head home for Game 3 on Monday.

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Somebody help Kessel – please!

You have to feel for Phil Kessel.

The reluctant star finds himself thrust into the limelight as these playoffs progress. The bright lights and inquiring media minds who want to know only make his eyes squint and mouth utter those now familiarly bland, monotone answers to his breathless questioners.

With the Maple Leafs finding themselves a game down to a rejuvenated Bruins squad, the calls for Kessel to step it up as the Leafs premier scorer are growing. For Kessel, there’s no better time to cement his reputation as a clutch guy among Toronto fans and media than right now. It’s when the men are separated from the boys and all that stuff.

Trouble is, Phil Kessel really is more of a boy. A boy who happens to have a few extraordinary gifts of speed and a snap shot to die for.

There's got to be a better way: Zdeno Chara presents a huge matchup problem for Leafs' best scorer Phil Kessel.

There’s got to be a better way: Zdeno Chara presents a huge matchup problem for Leafs’ best scorer Phil Kessel.

But what he doesn’t have is the heart of a lion nor the courage of Richard III.

For Kessel, talented as he is, to suddenly overcome his arch enemy, giant Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara, is frankly too much of an ask. In Kessel’s psyche, Chara might as well be seven-foot-nine instead of the 6′-9″ he actually is given the lack of success Kessel’s had against him.

As the evidence has painfully shown, Kessel’s been a flop at trying to slay the Giant. The  amped up intensity of the playoffs isn’t going to change this fact. Demanding that the Leafs’ sniper find a novel way of beating his Boston nemesis — well I wouldn’t hang my hat on it. As the expression goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.

Of course it’s not insane to keep trying — what else is there? But maybe here’s where his teammates and coach can get creative and try a couple of things to get the Giant off his game to help the Leafs top scorer.

Now would be the time for someone else to rise to the challenge and try to mess with the Giant. How about a Kulemin or Komorov or maybe Fraser McLaren to distract the beast, throw him off his game a bit, soften him up so he’s not so brutal on Kessel. The Leafs have a couple of strong, capable wingers and if it means some switching to overcome an unfair matchup problem, why not try that? Could the results be worse than the past? Chara plays 30+ minutes a night. Do more things to make him feel every minute of it. Make him skate, make him bodycheck, send more bodies to his zone. Even Giants can be brought down or gotten the better of. If the Leafs can do that at least in part, then other dominoes may fall.

Sure the home team gets the last change but it may still be worth a try.

Speaking of switches, what about moving Kessel to the left wing, switching with Van Riemsdyk, just to get him away from the immediate vicinity of Chara? Kessel plays the left side on the power play effectively using that move off the half boards and firing a quick snapshot. Why not try it at even strength?

Granted, these armchair strategies are a bit radical to suggest being the playoffs and all. Zdeno Chara is only one part of a tough Bruins team who give the Leafs matchup headaches. But it may be time to throw a curve to at least give your best player some relief from a nemesis who’s owned him over the years. Such a move may be interpreted as Carlyle throwing up the white flag in the Kessel-Chara matchup but trying such an approach might just pay some rewards.

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Leafs pounded in playoff debut

After a nine-year wait, it wasn’t a very auspicious start to the playoffs for the Leafs.

The Leafs went down 4-1 to the Bruins who outplayed, outmuscled and mercilessly pounded the youthful upstarts, supplying a stark reality check. Mikhail Grabovski in particular had a rough night suffering an Andrew Ference elbow to the head and was woozy after being plastered into the glass late in the game by Johnny Boychuk. Ference faces a hearing later today as a result of his questionable hit. But it’s really more of a statement that the Bruins came to play hard; something the Leafs had no answers to. Kessel pulled his usual disappearing act facing his old team while #2 scorer Nazem Kadri looked completely overmatched.

The Bruins celebrate a goal in dominant 4-1 win over the Maple Leafs in game one of their playoff series.

The Bruins celebrate a goal in dominant 4-1 win over the Maple Leafs in game one of their playoff series.

Toronto now has to re-group for game two Saturday and return with a much improved game plan or this series could be done in a week. The Leafs have shown this season they are resilient and have often followed ugly losses with strong efforts.

We’ll see.

Maybe it was opening night jitters and the piled up expectations of a pent-up hockey market after such a long playoff drought that contributed to the overall ugliness of their effort.

The flaws that have hampered the Leafs of late were even more exposed by the Bruins’ aggressive play. The month-long trend of being outshot by the opposition continued with the home team outshooting the Leafs 40-20. The two-to-one margin allowed the Bruins some alarmingly wide open shots and scoring chances on frequent turnovers — you could almost see the steam coming out of Randy Carlyle’s ears. The book on Reimer was obviously read by the Bruins — shoot high glove as Johnny Boychuk demonstrated for the fourth Boston goal, a save Reimer needed to make to stave off the nail-in-the-coffin goal.

Expect some changes on the defensive end as Mike Kostka in particular appeared not quite ready for playoff paced hockey. To be fair, so did most of this young Leafs team, 11 of whom got their first taste of the post season last night. Experience for this group is extremely thin compared with a playoff-hardened Bruins squad still living on the vapours of their Stanley Cup win two years ago.

Despite the Bruins drift into the post-season, they’ve obviously found the reset button turning up fierce and ready for the playoffs. Last night they looked a lot more like the 17-3-3 team that began the season, rather than the 2-7 one down the stretch. If it’s the former version, these Maple Leafs can congratulate themselves on being invited to the dance but unfortunately won’t be staying very long.

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Let the show begin: Leafs Nation ready to rock

A warm hello to all the readers who’ve stumbled upon my little blog where I put in my two cents worth about hockey, mostly Leafs. This is a special time of course for die-hard Leafs’ fans as they are in the playoffs for the first time in nine years. I will be chronicling their fortunes, following the storylines and hopefully adding colour and humour to what’s sure to be a roller-coaster of a ride for all hockey fans. Whether the beloved Buds go down in four straight or make an implausibly long playoff run, check this space for a refreshing spin on all things Leafs.

— Rolf

Game One — May 1. Leafs vs Bruins in Boston.

What a great day it is to be a Leafs fan. The calendar has flipped to May, a gorgeous day in Southern Ontario and the Leafs, finally, finally! take the ice tonight in their first playoff game since 2004. About as good as it gets. You could make the argument that facing the Canadiens in the first round would have been even sweeter but let’s not split hairs: The Leafs are in the post-season and that fact is almost so surreal that it’s barely sunk in.

Amid all this sweet anticipation is also a little anxiety. Past season series against the Bruins have not gone well for the Leafs but this season Boston, just two years removed from a formidable Stanley Cup win, do not look as scary. Toronto posted a 1-2-1 record this season vs the Bruins, losing in a shootout in one of the losses.  Under Randy Carlyle, they’ve closed the competitive gap and refuse to be pushed around by anyone including the bruising Bruins who just aren’t as intimidating as they were a short time ago. That said, most give the physical edge to Boston but only slightly. We all know the stats — how the Leafs led the league in fighting majors and tough guys Colton Orr, Fraser McLaren and Mark Fraser aren’t afraid to drop the gloves with anyone. Whether Orr or McLaren will be in the line-up regularly — given fighting takes a back seat in the playoffs to productivity — remains to be seen. But you never know with Carlyle, a coach who believes teams need a mean streak to be successful.

There are of course many other questions and storylines that will unfold over the course of the series.

Will Phil Kessel finally build on his 52-point season and step out of the shadow cast by Zdeno Chara who has owned him in head-to-head match-ups? Or will he once again disappear and continue to frustrate Leafs’ fans?

Will James Reimer pass the test of being a legitimate #1 goaltender against these Bruins?

Does Nazem Kadri find his scoring touch again after cooling off this month?

Will the defence manage to cut down on turnovers? Will Mikhail Grabovski be a player or non-factor as he’s mostly been all season? Will Tyler Bozak’s injury reduce his effectiveness? Can Joffrey Lupul find his scorching scoring touch he had in between injuries and suspensions?

So many intriguing questions that will be answered in one form or another. It all begins tonight. Welcome to the Stanley Cup playoffs Leafs fans. Settle in for a wild ride.

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A few clouds darken upbeat Leafs

By Rolf Sturm

Being the eternal realist sort, part of me can’t buy into the general glee surrounding the Maple Leafs current success.

Rounding the quarter pole in this lockout-shortened season, the local team is on a four-game win streak, pounding their last two opponents (Canadiens and Flyers) 11-2 for good measure. A small sample size to be sure but at 8-5 — good enough for 5th in the east, right there with the Penguins. Strange, it doesn’t even look right when reading it.

But as any long-suffering Leafs fan knows even smallish concerns can be elevated to a full-blown crisis in the blink of a Kessel snapshot.

Just the way this market works. We’re snake-bitten and cynical. It’s hard to fight for most blue & white fans for whom the glass mostly appears half empty, anything else appearing to be a cruel mirage.

As for the dreamers and parade route planners, we’ll leave that for another day. I heard one Mickey Rooney type on the airwaves who was so pleased, he predicted a berth in the finals. Fella, get a grip.

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Leafs hoping James Reimer will make a quick and full recovery from recent knee injury.

Matt Frattin’s knee tune-up notwithstanding, my disquiet stems from James Reimer’s injury during the Flyers’ game. Anything to do with knees – especially in a butterfly-style goalie – is concerning. The official line is a week for recovery, though that seems optimistic for a strained MCL.

Once he’s cleared to play, will he hesitate or have the same effectiveness kicking those pads out? Will re-injuring it cross his mind?

The play leading to the injury was innocuous but Reimer’s reaction was anything but. He laid there for what seemed a minute and couldn’t get off the ice without help. The look on GM Dave Nonis’ face captured by the cameras said it all: He was stunned, just as many Leafs fans were too. With Reimer back on top of his game playing like he did during January 2011, this was a blow.

Reimer is a player you want to cheer for, an aw-shucks sports personality you can’t help but like. We want to see him do well for himself and the team. His recovery and remarkable return to form highlighted by a triumphant 6-0 shutout in his return to Montreal while boasting a .929 save percentage (7th overall) has been nothing less than a thrilling development. But without those kind of numbers in net to prop up their other deficiencies, the team is primed for a fall.

The uneasy fact is Reimer appears to be vulnerable to getting hurt. Is he, as has been speculated, rigorous enough for a long-term a NHL starting goalie? Three fairly serious injuries in 100 games are not confidence inspiring. The questions will begin in earnest: Does he have the chops to play 65 games at a high level in a normal season, let alone the remainder of this one?

It’ll be a tough test for back-up Ben Scrivens in the next 3-4 starts as he takes over the crease from Reimer.

If he falters, expect the Leafs’ outlook go from sunny to stormy in a hurry.

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Three thoughts after three Leafs games in 300 words

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James van Riemsdyk celebrates one of his two goals in 5-2 win over Penguins Wednesday.

Notwithstanding the broken forearm suffered by Joffrey Lupul who took a Dion Phaneuf shot in the Penguins game that will keep him out for six weeks, it’s been a pretty good week for the Leafs with some encouraging early signs.

1.  The Randy Carlyle message is starting to get through.

After watching the first three games of this short season there’s no question the Leafs (2-1)are becoming more defensively minded, allowing only five goals. Even their 5-2 win over the Stanley Cup favourite Penguins were kept to two goals on home ice. Carlyle’s shuffling of lines hasn’t affected the bottom line for forwards: Everybody backchecks baby. It’s a lot of work for forwards still finding their legs but it’s paying off as the Leafs’ shaky defence is asked to do a little less and that’s is a good thing.

2. Scrivens and Reimer: So far, so good

The Roberto Luongo trade rumour-du-jour hasn’t adversely affected the play of the goaltenders Toronto does have.  Now that James Reimer has a win under his belt, everyone’s breathing a little easier. Both have had shaky moments but came up with saves at key times. Playing time will take a deft hand but Carlyle seems to have the answer so far. Will it be a “win and you’re in” approach or go with more of a gut feeling or based on match-up history?

3. Players starting to show up

There’s no way to put a positive spin on the loss of Joffrey Lupul for up to six weeks. He was expected to be big part of an offence that needs all the scoring it can get. That said, Nazem Kadri with three points in three games is getting the chance to show what he can do. James van Riemsdyk is also now on the scoresheet with two goals. Grabovski and Kuleman are making solid contributions. Kessel remains the obvious choice to pick up the scoring slack but will he?

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Firing should have been no surprise to Burke

By Rolf Sturm

The time between Brian Burke’s introduction as the Leafs’ new sheriff in 2008 to his farewell this month was four years and two months, give or take.

That sounds about right as far as an expiry date goes for the Leafs’ former president and GM. The media, fans and more importantly, the new ownership at MLSE had about all it could take of Mr. Burke and his argumentative, abrasive defences of his underwhelming hockey club. His act had grown stale and the goodwill and confidence once bestowed on him by the hockey-loving multitudes had all but dried up.bburke1

True to form, he came out as he came in: Truculent and unapologetic, saying the only reason it had come to this was because his hockey club didn’t win enough games.

Well yes and no.

Had the Leafs made the playoffs under his watch and were headed there again, he most certainly would’ve hung onto his job in this rump of an NHL season.  But all bets would be off if the Leafs got off to a lousy start, lost again in the wilderness and being led by the blustery, proud general who’d fend off all attacks against his troops.  It just wouldn’t work.

Only shepherding a perennial contender would allow Brian Burke to be Brian Burke; anything less and the folks in the expensive suits, not to mention fans and media would ask, “Remind me again why we’re putting up with this angry guy who hasn’t gotten us in the playoffs yet?”

Had he shown an inkling of contrition to soften his defence of his lousy record and sometimes controversial deals, perhaps the new ownership group could’ve allowed him to remain at wheel for the 48-game season. Of course there was no guarantee but Belligerent Burkie made it easier for them to pull the plug.

It was obvious from the presser that Burke didn’t know or care how far out of favour he’d fallen with his new bosses. In hindsight, it seems obvious they were desperate for a fresh face and message; not wanting another season of a GM and President at war with the hockey media and a thin skin that couldn’t contain his contempt for critics. It just wasn’t going to be part of the game plan going forward.

Many question the timing of his firing — just days before the season began. To the ”Why Now?” questioners, maybe we’ll never really know as Burke himself didn’t appear to grasp the exact reasoning for his sudden redundancy.

That lack of personal insight is often the Achilles Heel of the Great Man (GM). But having a GM for a GM – as Toronto found out — may not be all it’s cracked up to be.  They’re often at a loss to see the error of their ways until it’s too late. History is littered, both good and bad with such individuals. What is so plain to others seems to escape the Great Man out of denial or hubris. He thinks himself too big to be brought down by something so middling as personality.bburke2

And Brian Burke is kind of a Great  Man.– one of the few larger than life individuals remaining in the sport today. But we’re in era where men like that are being phased out. The ever-changing management culture and tightening political correctness has put a straight-jacket on these fellows. They’ve become the Mad Men of yesterday – movers and shakers whose outstanding abilities as executives are under fire because people no longer like the packaging. It makes it nearly impossible to separate the all-important message and branding from the messenger. As colourful as Burke was, most had tuned him out — and that’s never a good thing.

For BB not to see how his approach was an immense image problem for his media bosses was a fatal oversight of his own self-knowledge. Or maybe he just didn’t give a crap; too old a dog to learn new tricks in a changing reality.  You could just picture it in the boardroom: “Boss, I am what I am, take it or leave it. If you don’t like it, you can shove it up your Armani boxers where the sun don’t shine. No one’s going to tell me how to run my hockey club.” Or something like that.

He remains with the Leafs as a Minister without portfolio; a hockey consultant for the team who’s bosses say he won’t have anything to do with hockey operations. In other words, no-man’s land. He’d really do himself a favour by stepping away and take a break rather than hang around in a job that technically doesn’t exist.

One thing’s for sure. It just shows how quickly things can change when ownership decides that the face of a franchise needs a total makeover and you’re the face.

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Fans can’t stay away in NHL’s return

In a season that looked seriously like no NHL games would be played, it was with a measure of relief to see the return of hockey to arenas and screens.

Despite all the threats and hullaballoo over protests and payback over the shoddy way fans were treated during the lockout, they came back in droves. NBC — fresh off signing a 10-year contract with the league — reported a record audience for their inaugural broadcast Saturday. Not much of a statement for fans vowing to quit cold turkey — and that’s in the States.

Up here, we’re hopeless. When Gary Bettman crows about how hockey fans are the best in all of sports there’s a bit of a dark underbelly to that. We’re somewhat addicted to the NHL habit. If Bettman knew there was any chance we wouldn’t be back, the lockout would have been much shorter.

As we know, habits are hard to break. Heck, as long as it wasn’t in the middle of summer, Canadian hockey fans would likely have tuned in for a 10-game season.

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HNIC is back for its 60th season with an expanded panel of hockey experts.

Feeding that addiction of course is the beast of television. NHL hockey and TV is a marriage made in high-def heaven. Along with the action on the ice there are the folks we love  — and others love to hate — who bring us the games. And the king of that hill is the venerable institution of HNIC on CBC which celebrates it’s 60th season.   

About the best way to sum things up is that it felt “normal.” Hockey Night In Canada was back Saturday night with all the usual suspects plus a couple of new faces. The show’s producers pulled out all stops, rolling out the truncated season with a triple-header in Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver. The pre-game lead-in to the main Toronto vs Montreal game featured a thoughtful piece by writer/musician Dave Bidini that celebrated HNIC’s 60th season. The item featured many of those now iconic NHL images stitched together with a personal but not over-the-top love letter on hockey’s impact on the Canadian psyche. HNIC host Ron MacLean positively gushed about Bidini’s knack for creating “art” yet still be so damn informative. Well, okay. Though sometimes a “nicely done” or saying as little as possible is the way to go.

HNIC_2

HNIC’s hockey gabfest mimics the NFL shows with five talking heads to analyze all things hockey.

Speaking of which the HNIC talking heads panel has expanded to five, copying the trend these days to cram as many opiners around a desk as possible.  Still haven’t decided whether this is a good thing for HNIC. In my estimation the show always held itself to a higher standard being on the national broadcaster and should beware of becoming just another sports “yell-talk” show.

On the upside, it cuts down on the dull moments when too many words are spent on rumours and hockey minutae. It also means less hot air from Glenn Healy who always sounds like he wants to fire someone. The downside with five of them blathering on, and helpless to stop themselves from interrupting (which regretfully is the way of most sports talk shows) it becomes the conversational equivalent of ping-pong. A testosterone-fuelled competition to get a word in edge-wise. We’ll see how it plays out during the season.

On the radio, The Fan 590 (Rogers) and TSN Radio 1050 — the media behemoths that own equal parts of MLSE — were going full bore with their own talkfests. The Fan promises the best pre and post-game shows with the return of former FAN stalwart Gord Stellick teamed with colour analyst and ex-Leaf Ric Nattress.

HNIC_3cherry

Don Cherry and Coach’s Corner are back on HNIC. He seems more chipper now that a certain two Americans are no longer with his favourite team.

Meantime TSN Radio 1050 (“the official broadcaster of the Toronto Maple Leafs”) hosts the before and aft with Jim Tatti and Scott MacArthur. Thankfully the thundering-holy-mackinaw! voice of veteran Leaf broadcaster Joe Bowen is still on board along with affable sidekick Jim Ralph. These guys have great on-air chemistry and Ralph likes injecting some much-needed humour into things when they get a little serious. And good on him:  It’s a game and it’s entertainment, not a hostage taking. When Bowen’s not on the mic and doing Leafs TV, Dan Dunleavy will do the play-by-play.

As expected opening night displayed plenty of pent-up hockey talk by broadcasters that finally had an escape valve. Everyone wanted to make a splash on the airwaves after such a long delay.

For the vast majority of fans this is the way they’ve always gotten their hockey fix.  If  Saturday’s start was any indication, the dial on all media platforms will remain turned up for this lockout shortened season.

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All the goalie talk making me Luongo for lockout

By Rolf Sturm

This was predictable.

The ink has yet to dry on the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement and already the noise needle has swung with lightning speed from HRR and contract talk to trade speculation, particularly about a Vancouver goaltender who’s apparently bound to play for anyone other than the Canucks.

Roberto Luongo, whose ridiculous contract and cap hit makes him a risky commodity, has been on the lips of full-time hockey talkers since last year’s playoff exit by the Canucks. Florida, Chicago, Philadelphia and of course Toronto have all been in the mix of potential landing spots. It’s only in T.O. where the media provides much of the oxygen for the Leafs and all things NHL, where the noise can get so loud and ridiculous it’s best to tune it out.Luongo_2

Don’t get me wrong; speculation and opinions about actual hockey is much better than listening to bored reporters and hockey pundits cite mind-numbing CBA jargon about HRR, compliance and the like. Yet  mere hours after a tentative deal was struck January 6, the background noise around here instantly turned to the Leafs’ goaltending situation.

Will somebody please give James Reimer and Ben Scrivens each a pair of noise-cancelling headphones? Then again, it is T.O. and there is pent up demand that’s just been recently unleashed with the NHL’s return.

At any rate, here’s my two cents worth about a potential Luongo deal.

luongo_1

This would be a bad deal for several reasons, any of which could potentially make a GM nervous.

Luongo’s too old, let alone in 2021 when his ridiculous contract expires.
He is not worth it at $5.3M per season in a cap obsessed world.
He is no longer a top 10 goalie.
He will not on his own, qualify the Leafs for the playoffs.
He is not worth giving up anything better than a fourth liner.
He’s not a winner in the truest sense of that word.
He’s a bit of a head case.
He is not Toronto’s first choice nor are the Leafs his. He just looks like a choice right now.

Any three of these arguments should dissuade a GM from picking up the phone. Heck, even two would seriously make you reconsider. But if you agree with most of this, we’ll never see the likes of Bobby Lou at the ACC in this truncated season. And that would better for all concerned both in the long and short term.

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Leafs open doors to hockey starved fans

By Rolf Sturm

Whenever the word “free” is followed by anything having to do with MLSE, take note: It’s a situation that doesn’t come up very often for Leafs’ fans.

In a somewhat surprising gesture, MLSE threw open the doors to an NHL hockey-starved public on Thursday.

Yes it was just a training camp practice. But as an olive branch to fans whose patience was sorely tested by the draining, soul-destroying lockout that only lawyers could love, it was at least something. They also threw in free coffee, hot chocolate and popcorn (who eats popcorn at 10 AM?) plus a few giveaways in the hopes of rebuilding some of the goodwill lost during the 113-day lockout whose PR damage has yet to be determined on the eve of a 48-game season.

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At the ACC during the Leafs free practice on January 17. A vantage point like this at an actual game – if I could get tickets – are way out of my price range.

With the Leafs’ marketing department giddy with largesse, they continue to roll out the freebies.  Season ticket holders get to go to Monday’s home opener for free while another 1,000 tickets will be handed out around town and through the media. MLSE wants to take advantage of the warm, glowy feelings and give something back while the mood is bright and happy in anticipation of the NHL’s return. But honeymoons end and if the Leafs go 1-7 out of the chute, the suits may need to work a bit harder to keep up interest.

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Leafs need James Reimer to return to his pre-injury form to have a shot at the playoffs. Photo by Scott Appelman

The freebie gestures may not be enough to bring back supporters but it’s at least a step in the right direction in appeasing the league’s largest and longest suffering fan base.

Now the open house wasn’t the sell-out many predicted with some media saying it would draw as much as 10,000. In fact more than ½ the lower bowl was empty with a crowd of about 3,500 giving ample room to migrate to the best seats in the house – a treat most fans wouldn’t come within yelling distance of at  game prices.

I happened to be in a location where the media hoards had gathered and though it was only a practice, I counted at least a dozen cameras.  No surprise really. It’s Toronto and it’s been months since anyone’s seen NHL hockey.

The entertainment factor while not riveting was however, interesting. Coach Randy Carlyle lived up to every ounce of his reputation as a stern task-master putting players through a series of up-tempo drills that left some panting. This was training camp after all and the idea partly at least is to determine who is, and isn’t, in shape.

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Coach Randy Carlyle goes over some drills as team looks on. Photo by Scott Appelman.

To my eyes, they all looked pretty swift and competent but I don’t go to many NHL practices as a rule. As your hockey-playing scribe notes, being this close brings an appreciation for the incredible athletes they truly are. The speed, power and skill that were on display nearly wiped from my mind the fact no pundits picked the Leafs to finish higher than 11th in the east. But that’s a story for another day.

Today was a day to enjoy watching some elite athletes get put through their paces. I was impressed.  A few that caught my eye were Nazem Kadri (who’s since made the team. This is it, Naz. It’s now or never – don’t blow it.)

Also first-round draft pick Morgan Rielly looked composed and confident at just an astonishing 18 years old. Wisely he was sent back to the juniors; there’s really no need at the moment to wreck another prospect’s potential ala Luke Schenn again. His time will come.

Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel looked like they’re ready to pick up where they left off before Lupul got hurt. They were sharp and quick and though it was only practice, man can those boys snipe.

Off-season acquisition James van Riemsdyk is still recovering from a bruised foot so wasn’t in top form. The lanky JVR should be a decent addition on wing to the second or third line depending on what Carlyle does with match-ups.

As for goaltenders James Reimer and Ben Scrivens, while looking OK at practice, fans and coaches will have to cross their fingers they’ll bring their A-game every single night or the Leafs will be in deep trouble before Valentine’s Day. Or until Dave Nonis pulls the trigger on Roberto Luongo.

Stay tuned. The fun’s just beginning.

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Despite injuries, Sabres finally catch some breaks: Will it be enough?

If the Buffalo Sabres make it to the post-season, there’s a few folks they should thank and none wear a Sabres uniform.

In a series of events that can only be described as serendipitous, the Sabres still find themselves knocking on the door for the playoffs. They sit in 9th spot, though tied for 8th with Washington with 88 points. Both teams have 2 games remaining, with the Sabres drawing the toughest task – they’re on the road against Philly and Boston while the  Caps play the Panthers at home and the Rangers at MSG. Edge: Washington.

Will Ryan Miller and Sabres be left out in the cold come playoff time?

Simply put, there’s no room for error here if you’re Buffalo: It’ll be the Capitals who get to the dance if both teams are tied after 82 games because Washington has one more win.

Prior to last Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Leafs, the Buffaloes had only lost twice in regulation in their last 19 games. That’s as good a run as any NHL team has had all season. It also demonstrates that you’ve got to be lights out fantastic in order to move up the standings once you slip out of contention in the 3-point system – and it still might not be enough. Despite that success, they’re not in it by any means and now injuries to top defencemen Christian Erhoff and Tyler Myers threaten to scuttle their impressive rise.

With all that hard work, the Sabres deserve a break or two. They may just have gotten a couple.

NHL's leading scorer Steven Stamkos helped Buffalo's cause scoring goals 57 and 58 against the Capitals Monday, denying them crucial points.

Break #1 – Steven Stamkos scores his 57th and an empty-netter for his 58th with TWO SECONDS remaining to beat the Washington Capitals, denying the Caps a crucial 2 points to pull ahead of the Sabres. (Will Stamkos get 59 and 60 Thursday night in his hometown as the Lightning visit T.O. for the Leafs final home game?)

Break #2 — The Sabres took advantage with a win Tuesday night against the Leafs in a thriller that ultimately denied Toronto’s attempt at the spoiler role. They should thank the Leafs for playing to type, coughing up a 3-0 lead after the first period. Fortunately for them, playing in their barn has been a black hole for the Leafs but it this one, it was the the Sabres who needed a little black magic to win it 6-5 which leads us to…

Break #3 — Sabres fans would never admit it but for a good 10 seconds, the refs swallowed the whistle during a late-game scramble where the puck was nowhere to be seen, bodies splayed everywhere in and around the crease.

Most insiders and experts I’ve heard and read agree play should have been stopped but magically the puck came free and voila! the Sabres get a tip-in to send the game to overtime 5-5. The Sabres ultimately went on to win in OT with a PP goal.

Huge relief for the Sabres and their fans, just another meaningless loss for Toronto.

Top Sabres' defenceman Christian Ehrhoff out with knee injury.

In the end, maybe that’s better for all concerned: The Sabres keep their playoff hopes alive while Toronto salvages a point in a moral victory yet doesn’t completely blow their chances at a lottery pick.

Really, a win-win all round.

The Sabres have worked hard to get where they are but at this stage of the season nearly every team sorely needs a break or two.

Just hope for Buffalo’s sake they haven’t used all theirs up.

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Disenchanted Leafs’ fans need to move on

Apparently  there’s a lot of anger in Leafland.

Of course it’s understandable since there won’t be any playoff buzz around town this spring for the seventh straight year — eight with the lockout. Piled on top of the decades of failure, it’s all getting to be a little much for some and there are signs things are beginning to crack.

Post mortems on the season have started early with some media foaming at the mouth of the alleged catastrophic state of the organization. It’s being dissected so very publicly and in such minute detail that the outrage itself has almost become a parody.

Fire Burke! Trade Kessel! Phaneuf’s a terrible captain!

Putting a paper bag over your head at Leaf home games doesn't seem to be much of a protest. It only makes the view worse and at $300 a ticket, who's coming out on the short end of the stick?

Toronto’s local tabloid is typically in fine fettle on this matter and enjoys being the straw that stirs the drink of discontent, not just with the Leafs but practically any topic you care to name.

Screeching headlines of “Epidemic!” festooned with crime scene tape on how Burke has failed to eradicate “Blue and White disease”was on the Friday cover of the sports section. It also showed a couple of Leafs laughing during practice, like they’re mocking, mocking! the fed up fans as they blithely go about their business not caring a whit for the suffering fans as their season has fallen into the abyss. Wasn’t it mere weeks ago when he hired Carlyle that Brian Burke said hockey isn’t supposed to fun? So, wipe that smile off your face you losers! How dare you!  There’s no laughing allowed. You’re a Maple Leaf, son. You have to scowl constantly like me if you want to play for this organization!

Yet  the fan outrage about all this strikes me as a bit muted for a team and organization that has disappointed so many for so long.

Outside of some fans booing, “Fire Wilson/Fire Burke” chants and a few of them wearing paper bags over their heads, it all seems a bit half-hearted. Now the “Let’s go Blue Jays” chant during the 7-1 thrashing by the Flyers Thursday was rather inspired. A clever insult that had to get under the brass’s skin.Yet a win  Saturday against an injury-hobbled Sabres team that broke a 55-day, 11-game losing streak on home ice was enough to pacify the paying customers for a night. It was a gigantic relief to get that gorilla off their backs – at least for a night.

What it also shows is how fickle the fed-up fan base really is; give ’em a win at home and nearly all is forgiven. It’s like having a troublesome teenager who, just when you think they never do or listen to anything you say, they do something that just melts your heart — and you’ve got to them credit. So it is with the Leafs and their fans, “Damn! I want to hate you but you had to go and win a game and play with passion. It’s so confusing.  I want you to tank for a great draft pick but love you guys when you win.”

And so it is with the Leafs and other established franchises who’ve developed complex, nuanced relationships with their fans over decades sharing the ups and downs with them.

Think of the Cubs. The Bills. The Golden State Warriors. There are many more teams out there where failure is everywhere and success, fleeting.

In 2003, the Cubs’ finally seemed to have fortune in their favour only to once again have it cruelly snatched away and miss the World Series yet again, thanks in part to an overzealous fan. The now infamous Steve Bartman incident practically led to his lynching after he interfered with the Cubs’ left-fielder for a catchable ball that would have ended the eighth inning with a lead. Instead it sparked one of the freakiest unravelings in sports history and made Bartman a pariah in Chicago.

Still, fans got over it and some took it in stride. One long-suffering supporter summed it up. “If they didn’t break our hearts, they wouldn’t be the Cubs.”

Maybe there’s a lesson there for fed-up Leafs’ fans. It’s been a terrible season for this team, made even harder to swallow after looking so promising just two months ago. But it is just a season and there’ll be another one next year. Maybe it’s time to just take a deep breath, dial down the toxic emotions around this club and get a little perspective.

After all, the Leafs still have 67 years of futility to match the championship drought of the Cubs.

There’s still lots of time.

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Time for Leafs’ thinktank to think tank

“The Toronto Maple Leafs select for the second overall pick, Really Big Good Centre And Potential Franchise Player from Somewhere Familiar, Ontario.”

If only that could happen this June at the 2012 entry draft.

But the crazy thing is, it actually could — with a little luck.

I say it’s time to beat the drums for Tank Nation!

Graphic by Rolf Sturm

There is absolutely nothing salvageable in this disastrous year during the last five games that would result in this team smelling any better when it’s all said and done.

Would ending the season on a five-game win streak with 85 points and finishing 10th or 11th do them any good? It’ll be Nazem Kadri and Luke Schenn all over again. A high, very high draft pick gets them in the game again with a real asset that could be developed or packaged for one of their glaring needs — and we all know what they are.

Forget the baloney about players auditioning for next year’s jobs or ending the season on a high note. It’s too little, too late for that. Besides, what responsible coach would make critical assessments of players based on such a small sample of meaningless games? It’s just PR spin by the GM and coach who have to say it so season ticket holders and the league are satisfied management hasn’t thrown in the towel which is generally not good for business.

As of March 29 with five games remaining, the Leafs are tied for 5th worst in the league at 75 points with the Islanders. All they need to do is to get slightly worse than they already are. But even that might not be necessary. I mean, who would notice?  After all they went 0-10-1 under Wilson’s final days and have just 5 wins in their last 24 games so if they go 0-5 to play out the string, how would anyone know it’s tank job?

This really is a bit of a silver lining. Momentum is finally swinging in their favour for a change because they can tank just by being themselves – there’s no stealth required. James Reimer’s sudden injury which is rumoured to be related to his concussion, allows this scenario to unfold without stacking the deck.  Let Charlie Brown aka Jonas Gustavsson or Ben Scrivens work the crease the rest of the way. Things will take care of themselves.

Now’s not the time for late-season heroics, boys. You have a lottery pick within your grasps. Don’t blow it. Just be your usual uninspired, defeated selves and everything will be fine. Who cares if Kessel scores 40? It’s only going to make his agent happy anyway.

Remember, as George Costanza on Seinfeld once said: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

And it’s not cheating if you’re really trying.

Keep your eyes on the bigger prize, fellas. Think lottery pick.

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Stick a fork in it, Leafs officially done

When the official end finally arrived with a gutless 3-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, Leafs’ fans could barely muster enough contempt to rain down a strong chorus of boos.

It was more apathy than anything else.

Maybe they’re so used to the team not making the playoffs (8 years and counting) that it seems like a useless protest because things don’t ever seem to change. Except of course, in one of the greatest business paradoxes around, MLSE grows richer as its teams get crappier.

Maple Leafs' GM Brian Burke's chances to turn around the failing team are fading.

The Toronto Maple Leafs signed off on any mathematical (whenever that term is mentioned, you know it’s over)  playoff chance on Tuesday. But anyone with more than a child’s optimism knew this flaming wreckage of a season was over a month ago, about the time Randy Carlyle took over from Ron Wilson. So much for the “dead cat bounce” of what a coaching change might do to revive their playoff hopes.

In the end, the Leafs went down like the lambs they are. Without a fight, without urgency, without seeming really to care. They are just… done.

It was of course the usual suspects on this much maligned lineup that were no-shows when it came to competing. Lead goal-getter Phil Kessel recorded exactly zero shots on net, making it quite difficult to score for sure. The power play registered zilch and Gustavsson, in yet another vintage Charlie Brown-type performance, allowed three rather soft goals on 12 shots. It took the fight out of them faster than a first-round Mike Tyson uppercut to the jaw.

Gustavsson got the hook seconds into the middle frame after softie #3 in favour of emergency call-up Jussi Rynnas who puck-stopped the rest of the game to record a shutout in his NHL debut. Well, for two periods anyway. Keep the scorecard for a souvenier, Jussi.

As for Gustavsson – will it be his last game as a Leaf with five more remaining? Likely not since James Reimer succumbed to a mysterious upper-body injury on game day. But does it really matter?

These Leafs are as listless and defeated a group that’s worn the blue and white possibly in decades. That’s saying quite a bit. When it comes to the never-ending rebuild-athon, they should keep a couple psychologists on the payroll. There’s more here that needs rebuilding beyond X’s and O’s.

Next Thursday we have the Leafs final home game against Tampa Bay. It will be interesting to see fan reaction at game’s end whether the team does that cliched stick salute to fans as a “thanks for your support” gesture.

The brass might want to think about that moment and maybe come up with something a little more apropos for this season. Something that says both “thanks” and “we’re really sorry about this bloody mess and we’ll make it up to you somehow.”

God knows what that might be but it would be a start.

Then again, they might get booed anyway.

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The Kadri conundrum

Back in November I wrote a blogpost about whether Nazem Kadri’s latest call-up to the big club would be his last.

During that 16 game stint, Kadri scored three in the first four games, then petered out with just 2 points in the last dozen.  Towards the end of January, his impact was minimal and he was all but forgotten. Another opportunity burned.

Maple Leafs management must decide whether gifted offensive 2009 draft pick Nazem Kadri will ever overcome his deficiencies.

Some will argue that his minutes diminished as he was shifted everywhere from the first line to the fourth and ex-coach Ron Wilson didn’t use his high-end though limited skill set to advantage. Yet another example of how the Leafs’ organization can’t develop young talent is how it was framed by Kadri supporters.

Now under a new coach and new system, he was again recalled March 16 along with Marlies’ captain Ryan Hamilton, as an emergency replacement for injured players Clark McArthur and Matt Frattin. With those two cleared for play, Kadri and Hamilton have been shipped back to the Marlies to join their minor league teammates for what is hoped will be a long playoff run.

As Kadri reflects on his latest NHL cameo on his bus ride to Peoria, he can take some comfort in the movie no doubt playing in his head about his weekend with the Maple Leafs.

Now two games is nothing to go by but Kadri played out his usual script. He made another impressive splash with a regulation goal and highlight reel shootout winner against Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur which netted the Leafs a rare, heck, a win, road or otherwise. Had he been invited to stick around and play out the string, I’d be shocked if he continued to make a meaningful contribution. At this stage of his development — nearly three years after being drafted 7th — the frustrating fact is he still isn’t there.

Still, it was as uplifting a moment as you could hope for in a season that’s had precious few for these Toronto Maple Leafs.

But that’s really the crux of it: Kadri is a player of moments. Sometimes, really big moments. Unfortunately there’s far too much time between those displays that’s filled with ordinary if not invisible play; “safe” minutes as Randy Carlyle likes to call them.

And that’s what’s so aggravating about him: How someone with such a scoring touch and gifted hands can’t nail down a roster spot even on a mediocre NHL team. It’s a conundrum to be sure.

The worst of that mediocre play is when he hurts the team with his penchant for turnovers when he tries to do too much himself through the neutral zone. He may deke or split the D in the minors for a flashy goal but those moves generally don’t fly in the big league. It’s basically the reason behind his repeated return trips to Ricoh Coliseum. That and the fact he’s still weak on the puck along the boards, loses too many battles and frankly, just isn’t a threat when he doesn’t have oodles of space and time to work with. When he does, look out — he’s a bonafide sniper.

The question is will that talent ever be allowed to shine in the NHL where opponents are on top of you almost immediately in a game that punishes smaller players. This is still a league for big men.

The challenge is, and has always been, whether he has the desire and fortitude to fight the odds that are stacked against small NHLers. Players like Martin St. Louis, Steve Sullivan and Ben Ennis have in them something special to overcome the the size disadvantage and still shine compared to their larger NHL counterparts.

Does Kadri?

So far, it seems not though progress in developing players is usually incremental, not experienced in leaps and bounds.

As Marlies coach Dallas Eakins says, he has high-end offensive NHL talent that you’d expect from a top draft pick.

He’s only 21. Next year will be his fourth of NHL eligibility. He hasn’t yet found a permanent spot on a team likely to finish in the bottom five.

The six players picked before Kadri in the 2009 draft are all now established NHLers, making major contributions to their clubs on a nightly basis.

It’s time for Kadri to step up or he may have to step aside. There’s lots of talk he could be packaged in a trade for something the Leafs need more: A forward who can stick with the big club and makes a consistent contribution, even if it’s less flashy than one of Kadri’s moments.

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The distressed state of Toronto’s sports psyche

As any Toronto sports fan will tell you, this is definitely not a city of winners but of whiners.

And before anyone goes on the attack, it’s my hometown. I know how pathetic it’s been.

No one — not the Leafs, Jays, Raptors, Argos and TFC — has stepped up and even had a whiff of success in a decade. In the Leafs’ case, try 45 years.

It grates on people. All this losing, losing, losing. Can’t at least ONE of our professional teams do anything right to at least save us from ourselves?

The hapless Argos are practically irrelevant. The Raptors an afterthought. The Jays perennial also-rans. TFC: 5 years, zero playoff games, ’nuff said. Only the Leafs franchise is bullet-proof. It still gets the lion’s share of attention — and shameful gobs of cash — despite their dismal failure over the decades. When it comes to them, we’re masochists or just plain suckers.

And the athletes? Is there any sports figure on the Toronto scene to get pumped about?  To develop some kind of Vin/Lin/Dougie sanity or mania?

Hardly.

Toronto’s losing teams are led by as bland a crop of athletes as there ever was in this town. Kessel. Phaneuf. Barnagni. DeRozan. Bautista (slightly less bland). Lawrie (here’s hoping.)

The years of constant failure have adversely affected the social psychological landscape of sports and success in this town. The losing has turned us into a bunch of cranky, toxic whiners resulting in an overwhelmingly negative background noise that plays itself out on our multitude of media outlets.  The ceaseless drone of which (insert Toronto team or player here) sucks at the moment creates a deeply felt downward spiral. It’s been so unrelenting and gone on for so long that even the concept of winning feels alien; like it’s temporary, as in a dream — until we snap out of it and reality hits us like another soft Gustavsson goal.  

Every season it seems the Leafs find new ways to separate themselves from the pack, only in the wrong direction. This year, a cranky, unpopular coach lost his job and was practically run out of town due to a slump of epic proportions. The blowhard GM faces the fans’ wrath daily; the players, even the so-called “stars” are constantly discussed merely as trade bait. Not signs of a team on the upswing.

And so it goes. Another season down the toilet with now the very real hope/possibility that the Maples may go down to the wire with the equally disastrous Canadiens over which team is worse thus qualifying for a lottery pick. So, something to look forward to for all the tank-nation types.  A prize for being the biggest loser.

The Raptors are barely worth a mention but losing, and lots of it, was expected. The occasional time they do show some grit hanging in games under coach Wayne Casey’s  direction. Things may get a little more interesting next year with a good 2012 draft pick and the debut of their 2011 first round pick Jonas Valanciunas who’s now in Lithuania.

The Jays have had an incredible spring training as hope always springs eternal at the start of baseball season. Let’s see where they are in August. It’s been 19 years since they’ve had a taste of the post-season but with two extra teams now able to qualify for a shot at the playoffs, a faint hope perhaps.

Finally, there’s TFC who began their fifth season with an embarrassing loss. This after the country’s largest paper sang their many praises in a splashy season primer, saying this will finally be the year they make the playoffs for the first time.

It may happen.

But the toxic cloud of bad luck and bad karma hanging over Toronto’s sports scene could have something to say about it.

It’s gone beyond players, coaches, managers and organizations, this losing curse. It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry, after trying everything, can’t get rid of a putrid smell that’s invaded his car.

“Don’t you understand what I’m saying to you? This … THING isn’t just an odour. You need a priest to get rid of this thing!”

Maybe T.O.’s sports teams do too.

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A return to Tuesdays on ice

Last Tuesday was a good day.

The kind of day that makes you realize why you still play this damn game in spite of all the reasons you can find not to.

To back up a bit, I used to play with a group of teachers in Mississauga on Tuesdays at a time in the afternoon that is convenient only for them, freelancers, the self-employed and the unemployed. In other words, a time to play hockey 9-to-5ers can only dream about.

Finding myself at times in the freelance/self-employed/unemployed category, I could nicely fit this into my schedule — and did for more than a decade.

Our dressing room looks exactly like this. Really.

Over the past few years however, I moved further away and no longer had a car. To anyone who hauls around a big-assed hockey bag to arenas, this is no small inconvenience.

I missed these games, sometimes more than I’d admit to myself.

I missed the fast-pace, the competitiveness, the good skills on display. The stuff that stokes your fire and drives you to continue to play the game.

But most of all, as many often do as long-term players, you miss the guys. Okay, at least most of the guys (there’s always a few you can do without in any group but the good hockey spirit eases the sharp edges).

Sure there were disagreements over the years, some built-up animosity, some questionable aggressiveness but they were the exception, not the rule.

So it was then this last week where I got the chance of a reunion with my Tuesday guys.

As it turned out, it also marked the last game of their season – so my timing was lucky.

I’d get to reacquaint with some guys I haven’t seen in a couple of years and be introduced to some new faces. There would of course be the traditional post-game, post-season reflections on how another year on the ice was over too soon.

This is more like it, minus the coach.

As any rec player knows, these sessions can be quiet jovial and boisterous. Between jokes and holding court, things can sometimes tilt towards the philosophic because at our ages we don’t take anything for granted; we quietly acknowledge every season completed  is a gift at this point in our lives. This of course is fortified with a couple of refreshing beverages for all our hard on-ice work just freshly completed.

Anyway, the game was good, the familiarity reassuring. I seemed to pick up where I left off which at least isn’t a decline. I suppose a bit of good news.

I don’t know if competition fuels the camaraderie or it’s the other way around. Whichever way it is, men take away something good from all this.

Like a bunch of middle-aged hockey pundits, we always indulge in a post-game analysis with healthy doses of ribbing and one-liners. It washes over me like good medicine. The sweet reward after spending an hour toiling alongside your ice comrades, trying to best theirs. What beats that?

Yes, last Tuesday was a good day.

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Mats Sundin: A worthy hockey leader

Right off the bat I’m gonna say I always liked Mats.

Mats Sundin during February 11 ACC ceremony honouring the former Maple Leafs captain by raising his #13 jersey to the rafters.

I know there are many who don’t feel the same about the former Leafs’ captain but you have to respect his NHL career and being captain of the Maple Leafs for 11 years, an accomplishment honoured Saturday in Toronto.

There are those who contend he was the wrong guy as Leafs’ captain. I am not among them. He was the closest thing to hockey greatness they had during his era.

He wasn’t Dougie or Wendel but outlasted them as a leader far and away.  Yes, those two had the type of grit in their game that Sundin never did though their rote words in front of a microphone were every bit as dull as his (come to think of it maybe that’s a tradition with the job because Dion Phaneuf seems equally monotone.)

Maybe he was just a bit too Swedish. Too taciturn when he should have been fiery. Too placid when he should have injected more mojo.

He was just too damn calm — and nice — for many fans liking.

But you don’t get to be captain and hang onto that role on the NHL’s biggest franchise if you’re just another schmuck, Swedish or not.

Some choice Sundin moments: His 500th career goal in OT; he’s still tied for most regular season OT goal with 15; he holds the record for most 30-goal seasons (10) and 20-goal seasons (13) and of course the all-time Maple Leaf scoring leader with 420 goals, 567 assists and 987 points in his 13 years as a Leaf, 11 as captain.

Quite a legacy. And let’s not forget that when Mats lit it up, he did so twice on each occasion. No hockey player beamed as much as he did after scoring — often after assisting too. That smile lit up Leaf nation on many nights.  Clearly, he shared his successes with other teammates and delighted in celebrating theirs.

Though for all the happy moments, Sundin could not lead the franchise out of the hockey wilderness and cement his status as a Leaf legend.

Sure, there was Dougie and company in the 1993 & 1994 runs. Sundin-led teams under Pat Quinn also got to the Eastern conference finals in 1999 & 2002. But mostly there was more drought in between and a creeping tiredness afterwards by fans and media that the same faces with a free agent added here and there, were not going to get it done. And Mats was at the helm for all of that.

Had they managed to climb the mountain and win a Stanley Cup with Sundin, we’d probably be talking about retiring number 13, not just honouring it.

Of course it all came to a head in 2008 when he wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause to be a rent-a-player for a Cup contender in exchange for a high draft pick. He seemed stubborn and resolute as pressure built, still believing the Leafs had a shot at the post-season and it would be unthinkable as captain to bail on his team in the midst of a late-season surge.

But that was Sundin in a nutshell. A loyal soldier to a fault. His decision – or lack of one – left a cloud hanging over his looming departure, tainting an otherwise impressive legacy as Leaf captain. He took a lot of heat for it. A portion of this frustrated fan base still won’t forgive him as many believe it set the Leafs’ rebuild back another season by missing out on at the very least, a top pick.

I doubt if all the hand wringing and chatter over it ever made him think twice about that decision. He did what he felt was right for him and the team and if you ask me, that’s a sign of a good leader — one who doesn’t change his standards and give in to whatever ill winds may be swirling about.

His exit from the Leafs’ stage may have been on the minds of some on Saturday but surrounded by family and friends, Sundin basked in his moment, content and happy in the knowledge that for more than a decade around here, he was the man.

No argument there.

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Princely sum could have Tigers paying heavy price

To some restless Jays’ fans, this off season has been yet another test of their patience and loyalty.

To them, it feels like the organization went Christmas shopping but left the credit card at home.

Sure they’ve beefed up the bullpen with closer Sergio Santos and a few other reliable arms. But most would concede that’s not nearly enough to get them over the hump and into the post-season.

Frankly, it’s been a bit of a disappointment. First, No Yu Darvish. And now, no Prince Fielder (if the ever secretive Alex Anthopoulos was even in the running — perhaps we’ll never know.)

The fact no sexy big free agent will be in a Jays’ uniform this spring has been a buzzkill for impatient fans and media. In baseball terms, it feels like a blown save.

Or was it?

All smiles now: Prince Fielder with Detroit Tigers' owner Mike Illitch. Fielder signed a nine-year $214 million dollar deal this week.

Prince Fielder will be taking his talents as they say to the Detroit Tigers. The big slugger got everything baby but mostly, Cecil’s son got a long-term deal that should keep generations of Fielders in designer labels. The fresh Prince of Detroit will rake in a monumental $214 million dollars over nine years.

But would he have been a good acquisition for the Jays — assuming they were even in the bidding. Given Roger’s aversion to tossing around cash, it’s unlikely. None the less, it should be a hot topic at the annual meet & greet with fans and brass this week.

Another leisurely home run trot by Prince Fielder who hit 38 last season for the Milwaukee Brewers.

There has been much analysis about this signing.  The overall take-away seems to be that the Tigers are going to regret this mega-deal. It’s a bit sore now to some that the Jays didn’t land the slugger but in 3-4 years time there might be much relief they didn’t jump in on this one.

Here’s a quick look at some of Fielder’s numbers:  He’s averaged 40 home runs and 113 RBI over the last five years, hitting .282 with a .390 on base percentage and a .540 slugging pct. At 27, that’s about as attractive an offensive package you could ask for in the majors. He should fetch top dollar for those numbers.

No question adding the beefy slugger would make for a formidable lineup with him and Bautista  in the 3-4 slot. Facing those two 8-10 times every game would definitely be a concern to opponents, no question.

Still, many baseball number crunchers say even with that additional power in the lineup,  Fielder’s addition wouldn’t pave the road to the playoffs.

Fielder joins Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols as only the third player in baseball's $200 million dollar club.

Fielder’s WAR (wins above replacement) is projected at about 5.5 in 2012. All things being equal, that would equate to another 5-6 wins this season. Of course there are many factors (Fielder hasn’t yet faced AL pitching for instance) but even with 6 wins, it would still be well shy to have a shot at the wild card.

The Jays need at least 10 more wins this year to equal Tampa Bay’s 91 which clinched the wild card. Crazy as it sounds, spending $24 million a season still wouldn’t get it done. The Jays still have too many holes and questions on their roster. In short, as good and promising as they are, they’re just not there yet.

The one thing GMs were wary about in this deal was the term.  It must chafe some of them that Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, who seems blessed with the Midas touch, got his client exactly what he wanted. Some were speculating Fielder missed the boat in holding out but Boras’ victory in this volatile market must have other agents buying him drinks to learn his secrets.  The gamble paid off big time.

Leave it to an impatient, elderly owner in the Tigers’ Mike Illitch to step up to the plate. Illitch, owner of the popular Red Wings and a pizza conglomerate obviously has very deep pockets. One thing he doesn’t have a lot of is time:  At 82, he dearly wants to see his beloved Tigers win a World Series title before going off to that big pizza parlour in the sky. He doesn’t have the luxury of six or seven years to take his shot (well maybe he does but who knows at 82?) He wants a World Series win NOW.

Had Fielder asked for a four or five year deal at $25 million per, teams likely would’ve been lining up at the door including the Jays. Even at the astronomical salary, the deal makes a lot of sense. But a 9-year contract?

Most project GMs and scouts are forecasting very diminished returns as Fielder enters into the meat of the deal.

And here’s basically why: At 27, Fielder is listed as 5′-11″, 275 lbs. He’s listed at that weight but some like the Wall Street Journal’s Mark Futterman believes that number might be closer to 300 lbs. Do you really want to tie your fortunes to a player with the bod of a hot-dog eating champion?

The stats on such types and their durability are not good and should serve as a warning.

Mo Vaughn, Kent Hrbek most significantly Prince’s father and ex-Jay Cecil, rocked the joint for some sterling years but then broke down and dropped out of sight.

Big, barrel-chested, overweight players don’t tend to gradually lose their offensive impact; they fall off the chart. Few teams have the resources or stomach to fork out $24 million a year for a DH should Son-of-Cecil no longer to able to play first base, which, incidentally, to all you upset Jays’ fans — he kind of stinks at.

There’s even speculation he may not even be able to play in the majors in his final 2-3 years of his contract should his weight continue to increase unabated.

Even in the nutty baseball salary universe, that’s $65-$75 million down the drain that could be cash much more wisely spent elsewhere.  Does anyone see the Jays on board with that? Not with the organization’s come-and-then-we’ll- build-it approach to spending. Not a chance.

But some fans don’t look at it that way — they just don’t care. Winning is winning.   Salaries, budgets and all that stuff is just bookkeeping.

Some free advice to the Tigers: Hire the best personal trainer and nutritionist you can find for your $200-million dollar man.

It’ll be very interesting to see if the Tigers get a good return for their hefty investment or be literally weighed down by it.

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Tim Thomas: Was it worth snubbing Obama and your teammates?

Like many who follow the sometimes entertaining shenanigans of the NHL, I was caught off guard by the whole Tim Thomas affair.

It’s not every day an ordinary hockey player, albeit a professional one, gives the finger to the President of the United States.

Way to go Timmy. You’ve made front page news from CNN to the CBC and managed to alienate your Bruin teammates and the man who signs your paycheques. All because you wanted to make a political statement.

Here’s Thomas’ explanation on his Facebook page:

“I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People. This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government,” he wrote on Monday night.

“Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.”

Bruins' goaltender Tim Thomas' creates controversy by snubbing White House celebration of Boston's Stanley Cup win. Thomas posted a political protest on Facebook.

Far be it from us here at MHL to criticize anyone’s right to express their political views, even if they happen to be a bit on the extreme side. Democracy is the governing style of choice in good old North America so hey, fill your boots with whatever Tea Party tripe you want to express.

But dude, don’t expect your team and the public to warmly embrace your viewpoint. This is hockey – the epitome of a team game and yes, all hockey players suffer from groupthink to a certain extent. If one of the flock strays off on his own well, that’s his business.

But remember this: The only reason you were invited to this charming tradition of being feted by the President in his White House digs was because you are a member of the Boston Bruins. The reigning Stanley Cup champs – an achievement you were no small part of but that your fellow Bruins warriors also sacrificed alot, fighting tooth and nail to get. It was a team effort as the boys are prone to say.  

Bruins’ GM Peter Chiarelli said you have the right to your opinions and attendance at this particular team function wasn’t mandatory. You won’t be fined for skipping out on an afternoon of festivities hosted by Barack Obama. Wish I were so lucky.

At any rate you’ve shown yourself to be a man of principle. It must take some kinda staunch faith in your beliefs to pass up an invite like that.

That’s what a lot of people don’t get: Why couldn’t you set aside your political opinions for this special day and bask in the warm celebratory glow of your  teammates, bosses and the Prez? I mean, it sounds so… nice. Or maybe that was the point – having a big stage and all to air your views.  

It’s all so disappointing, Timmy.

Heck, even your ex-Bruin teammate Tomas Kaberle, who managed to contribute less to winning the cup than your nailed-to-the bench back-up, made the trip from Montreal on a day pass from the asylum.

Sheesh.

I thought you were such a nice, affable guy. You speak and interview so well. A player with a great story of determination in realizing his late-blooming talent. The kind of guy you’d love to invite to a barbeque who’d play with your kids and dog.

Now, all I can think of is your silly Facebook words and ill-advised snub. It makes you appear a bit like one of those weirdos in a commando suit holed up in some Texas farmhouse, cursing the government. Sorry. Actions have consequences.   As a professional athlete playing on a team sport, the optics on this just don’t look that great.  

Unfortunately whatever excellent play you exhibit moving forward, I won’t quite be able to think of you in the same terms.

Thanks for wrecking another one of my illusions Timmy. 

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Why is Taylor Hall back so soon after suffering gruesome gash?

Poor Taylor Hall.

His cringe-inducing freak accident during a pre-game skate and its result has reignited debate about whether hemets should be worn during warm-ups.

For those not familiar, the 20-year old former number one draft pick for the Oilers was the victim of a horrific on-ice accident where he suffered a skate blade to the head that required 32 stitches. His handsome young face transformed into a zombie movie character with a ghastly cut snaking down from his hairline to his eyebrow.

The Oiler's Taylor Hall after being cut by a skate during a pre-game warmup. The freak accident has ignited debate over whether players should wear helmets and visors during warm-ups. Courtesy Canadian Press.

Suddenly the face of the franchise has taken an ugly turn for the worse.

Safe to say Hall’s mangled mug won’t be appearing on any Oiler promotional material anytime soon.

Let’s hope the advances of modern medicine can restore him to some sense of normalcy. He deserves that much as a young man in the public eye with his whole hockey career and life before him.

The freak incident has sparked discussion about whether NHLers should wear helmets during pre-game warm-ups. The pre-game skate has traditionally been the one time where, for at least a brief time, players can go “topless” like their fathers’ and grand-fathers’ NHL.  Seeing faces simply creates a better fan connection but somewhat sadly for safety’s sake, that may become a thing of the past.

Would wearing a helmet and visor have spared Hall from this trauma?

Almost certainly — or greatly reduced the severity of it.  Some teams have a policy of wearing head and face protection at all times and others are now considering it. Until now it’s always been the players’ decision. But after the Hall accident that option may be taken out of their hands.

If you’ve ever been to an NHL game, warm-ups are a time when players work out the kinks, take/test shots. This is mostly done on auto-pilot as they prep for the game.

But despite their casual routines, warm-ups can be dangerous places. Pucks flying everywhere and players sometimes take it too casually, not paying particular attention. It’s a place where you really have to keep your head up. Still, no one in their wildest imagination could’ve possibly anticipated what happened to Hall — a perfect storm of bad luck, timing and a questionable decision by his teammate Corey Potter to try to jump over the pile-up instead of stopping or crashing into them. But hindsight is 20-20. Shit happens.

It just goes to show that sometimes the worst injuries can come from your own teammates in the most mundane circumstances. Yet this one in a million accident may do more to change the culture of player safety than a 10-game suspension and hefty fine handed out by the league.

The relative good news is that Hall was back in uniform Saturday night against Calgary. If you ask me, it seems a bit early. With an injury that severe and the Oilers essentially going nowhere this season, what’s the rush? I didn’t like seeing that.

Hockey players and franchises often, despite logic dictating otherwise, adhere to a macho culture that can cause more harm by having an athlete return too soon. For what could have been a life-threatening injury, Hall missed all of one game.

Time and medical science should fully restore Taylor Hall's face after his horrific gash to the forehead.

Haven’t we learned from players being rushed back after concussions only to make things worse for themselves later and ending their careers prematurely? Never ask a player if he’s okay to play — he’ll almost always say yes. An organization needs to take their team’s  medical advice to heart. A player might be “cleared” to play but that’s the minimal acceptable standard. Wouldn’t it be wiser to take a little more time to see if there could be unanticipated complications? And wouldn’t you take extra care with your franchise player?

I question the wisdom of the Oilers management in Hall’s case. This was a traumatic hockey accident suffered by a young star player who was likely on some pain medication, anti-biotics and who knows what else to combat an infection on a still-healing massive gash on his head.  With the Oilers 16 points out of a playoff spot going into the Calgary game and depleted by injuries, they’re in tough. The young team is simply going to have to take its lumps. Why take unnecessary risks with a star player?

CBC announcers admired Hall’s “grit” and “character” for being back so soon. His parents were probably horrified.

Wonder what broadcasters would be saying if, with that freshly stitched up gash, he took another blow to the head? Or if his sutures had ripped apart, exposing him to infection. Would they be praising his character then?

Doubt it.

More like how could the Oilers be so careless with the star of their franchise.

But that’s the way it goes, doesn’t it.

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NHL enforcers becoming an endangered species

So Brian Burke believes the NHL is being taken over by rats.

Leafs' GM Brian Burke felt he had no choice to release Colton Orr and says the NHL is in danger of being taken over by "rats."

The Leafs GM was holding court recently with the media, his trademark bombast at full throttle about how saddened he is that there’s no longer a use for enforcers like Colton Orr whom he had to axe from Toronto’s roster.

Burke paid $4 million over 3 seasons for this unskilled, spare part who’s participated in all of five games this year. He finally had to pull the plug because Orr was a drain on the team’s salary cap and a serious deficiency on the ice. Bottom line, Orr is not good enough to be an NHL player and will live out his playing days on AHL rinks or who knows, maybe the KHL.

Fighting is down by 25% this season in the NHL according to a USA Today article. For teams like St. Louis and San Jose, fisticuffs are down a significant 60% and 50% for Pittsburgh. The Leafs have had 13 fights this season compared with 28 a year ago at this point in the season – a 53% drop. The point, few teams want to pay for much less carry a guy who plays 2-3 minutes a game because players just aren’t dropping the gloves as much.

With NHL sherriff Brendan Shanahan laying down the hammer with more punitive fines and suspensions the game is evolving from players policing themselves to the league.

But that doesn’t satisfy the pro-fighting stance of Mr. Burke who seethes over the chaos and criminality taking place on NHL rinks.

Former Maple Leaf enforcer Colton Orr was waived by GM Brian Burke last week.

Burke contends that it’s a “dangerous time in our game” because ratty little perpetrators are getting away with murder and going unpunished. It apparently turns his stomach to see this.

Yet he also thinks the game is better than its ever been. He must have a bottle of Maalox handy at all times to calm that churning stomach when the rats run rampant.

“Players run around but won’t fight,” Burke says in the article. “Shanny needs six phone lines. Players used to take care of lots of this crap and they aren’t anymore.”

Nothing like over-stating things a bit when you make your argument, eh?

Most of us have long ago learned to turn down the volume when Mr. Burke delivers one of his state of the game lectures.

When he first took over as Toronto’s GM three years back his avowed goal was to make the Leafs truculent and difficult to play against. To that end he signed guys like Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill to fit that philosophy. Problem is, he couldn’t see far enough around the corner to realize post lockout the league was quickly evolving into a speed and skill game and the need for knuckle-draggers like Orr who served no other purpose than rabble-rousing and fighting had become scarce. The heavyweight era was dying, replaced by 3rd and 4th line players with grit, toughness and yes, skill! They contribute in ways other than fighting and taking dumb penalties. The writing was on the wall a couple of years ago about the diminishing role of the enforcer but Burke is only coming to that conclusion now.

Others have weighed into the debate.

Former enforcers Georges Laraque and Colton Orr square off in "better" days for NHL tough guys.

Hall of Fame goaltender and writer of all things profound, Ken Dryden contributed to the discussion in a Globe and Mail piece, What hockey needs is to give up the fighting but keep the fight.

In it, Dryden basically argues that “fight” is not synonymous with two guys dropping the gloves and going at it. Players fight for the puck, fight to get in front of the net, fight pain,  to survive a tough game or series.

He says the time for eliminating fighting in the NHL is near but hockey need not fear that. Toughness, aggression and the “fight” that so characterizes the Canadian approach way won’t be lost in the process.

Knee jerk reactions, retaliation and violent revenge and how these things are achieved are under attack from all sides in today’s game. The best revenge is beating your opponent on the scoreboard, not by trying to beat his brains in.

Some of the so-called hard-liners are beginning to soften their pro-fighting stance. Brian Burke has nothing to worry about. The rats are not taking over. Shanahan’s strong measures are having an effect, placing a “chill” on the volume of fights and arguably violent plays but still very much a work in progress obviously. Gradually the message is starting to sink in as declining fight stats support. You don’t need a designated goon on ice to patrol the welfare of your star players.

Yes, there will always be incidents and liberties taken that shouldn’t. That is aggravating and gets under one’s skin as a player, coach, manager and fan. But in the long run, I have faith that throwing the book (and the pocketbook) at offenders is how it will eventually correct itself. It’s early days yet using this approach. Give it time.

The Brian Burkes, Don Cherrys etc.  of the hockey world won’t be able to turn back the clock to the good old days where the threat of imminent violence was the only answer to players patrolling themselves.

The league and teams are learning there’s other ways of being successful on the ice that doesn’t involved smashing each other in the head on a regular basis.

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Preview: Goon – A not so funny film about a hockey stereotype

For all the attention, passion and discussion devoted to hockey in this country, there haven’t been very many good movies made about the sport. Call me a snob but there just aren’t any Field of Dreams or Bull Durhams in the hockey movie genre.

The most recent Canadian made attempt at depicting hockey on the silver screen isn’t going to do much to change that.

Goon is about misfit from a professional family that happens to have a talent with his fists as a bouncer. Oh hell… why not just let the producers describe the plot:

Labeled an outcast by his brainy family, a bouncer overcomes long odds to lead a team of under performing misfits to semi-pro hockey glory, beating the crap out of everything that stands in his way.

Sounds like a classic.

Goon has lots of scenes like this in it. Lots and lots.

The movie stars Seann William Scott (“Stiffler” in American Pie) as the enforcer. Canadian actor Jay Baruchel, who has been in some big box office flicks like Million Dollar Baby is also in it as a hockey blogger (hello!) and he also wrote the screenplay. It’s directed by another Canadian, Michael Dowse. Eugene Levy and rather surprisingly, Liev Schreiber (Defiance) are also in the cast.  Here’s one of the film’s trailers:

After watching a couple of these, I get it: Smashing people’s faces in and knocking out teeth is evidently very funny shit. Baruchel excitedly boasts Goon has 17 fight scenes and 55 speaking parts (that a Can-Con requirment?)

Anyway, while watching these previews I’m left wondering who the movie is aimed at. Hockey fans? The general movie-going public? It might register a few chuckles from both but here’s the thing: The timing for this film really couldn’t be worse following the tragic deaths last year of real-life enforcers Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard.

Along with the recent epidemic of concussions that has dealt the sport a serious black-eye PR-wise, the viability of fighting itself is being hotly debated at all levels of hockey.

Because of that and more stringent enforcement of rules ala Brendan Shanahan, there’s been a definite shift in sentiment about violence and fighting in the past decade. Even Leafs’ GM Brian Burke lamented last week that the days of the enforcer may be numbered as he could no longer afford to keep a one-dimensional thug on the team’s payroll just to beat up opponents.

This isn’t 1974 with the Hanson Brothers wreaking violent havoc in Slap Shot. That was funny then but so was All In The Family and Happy Days. I think we’ve moved along.

In 2012 smashing someone’s face into a pulp as a laugh-getter … I dunno. Call me a party-pooper but this stuff just isn’t that funny. I know it’s just a movie about hockey but it once again sends a message to American audiences that the sport is ultra-violent where goons are the stars and fights are the draw.

It’s sad in a way that the movie-making world hasn’t moved with the times and wallows in a stereotype of the game that is no longer even valid.

Goon looks like another hockey film you can toss on the already large pile of junk in this genre. It looks destined for a rental or more likely, coming to an On Demand menu near you.

Goon opens next month in theatres.

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Streaky Leafs dealing with inconsistency in net

Funny what a difference a week makes in Leafland.

Last week riding a four-game win streak with The Monster on a roll, the Maples were looking to make it five in a row going into what’s been a graveyard for them in Buffalo on Friday. They were hoping to do what hasn’t been done in ages: That is, win a home-at-home series with the Sabres in Buffalo’s barn. Following that, it was back down the QEW for a Saturday night tilt against the (I’ll still say it) surprising NY Rangers.

If you’re the optimistic sort, you may be excused for thinking the Leafs would’ve copped at least 2 points out of the two game set.

Well we all know what happened.

The Leafs once again stubbed their toes enroute to what would have been a spectacular week. They lost 3-2 to the Sabres Friday and were shoutout 3-0 by the Rangers bringing to an end Jonas Gustavsson’s brief stint at carrying the mantle of Number 1.

Cue James Reimer.

But Reimer didn’t stop the skid either now at 3 games, losing to the Sens 3-2 Tuesday night. Last week’s buoyant optimism has disappeared faster than an extra large with pepperoni and double cheese in front of the Ford brothers.

So what happened?

In the first two losses, Gusty was up to his old tricks by allowing at least one soft goal in each outing letting the air out of  Leafs’ chances. During his four-game win streak Gusty somehow managed to avoid this aggravating little wrinkle in his game. In fact, there was reason to think he had eradicated it and had become a different goalie. A better one.

The usual pundits weighed in saying he was finally the goaltender Brian Burke hoped he was getting and well on his way to becoming a bonafide NHL starter. As the team behind Gusty piled up the wins, even the hard to impress coach W. took off the seatbelt and spoke not just of making the playoffs but securing a 3rd or 4th seed.

Hey, such musings seem entirely possible in the grip of optimism when you’re sitting in 6th, mere points behind the next team you’ll obviously leapfrog. Everything looks so brilliant when things are going well.

How it’s all changed so drastically in a week.

As of January 18, they find themselves again on the outside looking in, in 9th place with 49 points – a point behind the 8th place Capitals. But don’t look now. The feisty Winnipeg Jets are gaining fast — just two points behind Toronto after the loss to the Sens on Tuesday.

So switching puck-stoppers didn’t do the trick. James Reimer allowed 3 goals on just 21 shots. Didn’t help that Sens’ goalie Craig Anderson was red hot which is what you really need to mount a substantial run as have the Senators, 9 points up on the Leafs with 58. Hands up if you saw that coming. Yeah, me too.

Reimer, (remember when he was dubbed Optimus Reim as a rookie sensation?) is in some kind of sophomore jinx. He’s simply not the same prior to the Gionta hit that, let’s face it, resulted in some kind of concussion. The view from here is that he can’t be relied upon to  carry the load and the Leafs will have to lean a bit more on Gusty to fill the net. Bit of a scary proposition if you want to get to the promised land — and the franchise desperately needs to as they near the 8th (yes it’s been that long) anniversary of the their last playoff appearance.

It’s platoon time the rest of the way I believe with The Monster getting the nod slightly more than Reimer.

Better get used to it.

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Taking one for the team and not @#$%! happy about it

So there I was skating backwards like a son of a gun in a brisk game of shinny with some young turks at my local outdoor rink and…bam!

Faster than a Pierre McGuire shampoo and cut, I caught the brunt of an upwardly mobile stick blade to the nose. Ouch! Uh oh. Shit.

Ah, the unique thudding suddenness of being injured. One moment things are fine. The next, your world gets knocked off its axis.

My hockey life host Rolf Sturm bandaged up after taking a stick to the nose in a shinny game.

I instinctively dropped a glove and hunched over — again, shit! Blood. Not a lot but hell, I don’t need this! Christ, I thought, am I going to need a couple of stitches? A trip to a hospital waiting room and then wait and wait and wait and …

The thought of that in the brief seconds into my mishap was almost as bad as the injury. I decided against a trip to the ER -hardly an emergency – hoping my pretty face wouldn’t be permanently marked from this scrape. It’s supposed to add character, right?

One thing I did know was that it was game over for me this night. None of that playing the hero stuff, putting on a bandage and get back into the game. Too old for that.

As I skated off I thought what was the kid’s stick doing up around my nose? He seemed a bit clumsy, no hotshot but still, just bloody careless. And by the way, where did he go?

I didn’t hear anything from him either. No shy offers of “sorry” or the usual “Are you okay?” Nothing. It bugged me. It’s kind of keeping in the spirit of the game, not to mention common decency, to show some degree of concern to an injured party when you’re the perpetrator – accidental or not. In this case, there was none forthcoming.

I tried putting myself in his skates for a moment. What would the young me do in this situation? How would I handle a cursing adult — a stranger at that — who’s in some pain that I was the cause of?

Didn’t have to think twice: I would’ve said something, even if it was lame. Or help. You just do it. Didn’t happen here. I don’t know what’s changed in the world but something has. You can detect hints of it the way the game is played NHL style: More violent, less concern and respect for your fellow players. Sure it’s a stretch to extrapolate from one small incident at an outdoor rink to the pros yet there is a continuum of behaviour here. But that’s a story for another day.

Okay, so they didn’t exactly have to call in the paramedics or take me off in a stretcher. It was a minor mishap as hockey injuries go — all the more reason to say something, isn’t it? They sure would in my beer league game.

At the very least, it was an opportunity for this kid to become more of a man and show some concern like an adult would, or at least should. But he just skated away, perhaps afraid to say anything.  Just an unthinking, lost kid who missed a chance to grow up a bit in the fallout of an unfortunate incident.

Thanks for the souvenier, kid. Guess I have to go full shield next time I play shinny.

This is why I generally don’t like playing with teens and twenty-somethings. They are gifted with youth, vigour and skill but take risks, can’t resist showing off and frankly, can be quite callous. Not all of course but an alarming number are. A curse of the young I suppose. But at that moment, it just made me angry. I wanted supplication and didn’t get it.

All this probably just sounds like the whiny rantings of a baby boomer playing out of his age range but I was enjoying myself immensely in the fast pace up until that moment. So I just have to suck it up. Shit happens on the ice. Deal with it.

I’ve been relatively lucky during my hockey playing years, which has been most of my life,  in that significant injuries have been minimal, touch wood. The worst thing I’ve suffered is a broken wrist. Most of the other bumps, bruises and aches just kinda go with the territory.

I suppose the lesson here is to have worn a visor, or better yet, a full face shield. I don’t disagree. You should always be aware of protecting your face and head. But at least once this year, I wanted to feel the wind in my face and in my greying hair, playing in the great outdoors on a temperate winter’s night. I was just unlucky. Or maybe really lucky it wasn’t worse. Food for thought for sure.

The other lesson – and here’s where I’ll pull a Don Cherry on any young shinny players who might be reading this: Keep your sticks down!  Be in control. It’s an age old hockey axiom yet seems not to register in the brains of some teenagers and young men.

And when someone is hurt by your actions – whether accidental or not – be man enough, no matter how scared or bad you feel, to offer some help or kind words. They’ll likely be very pissed at you or might be in too much pain or both — but do it anyway.

Because that too, is also part of the code.

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Gretzky @ 50: What’s the next move for Number 99?

Goodness gracious, where has the time gone?

The Wayner, The Great One, has hit the big five-oh.

Still boyish, trim and hair-blessed at five decades but more statesman-like with a few more wrinkles.  He’s aged well I’d have to say; much better than most of us, all the while in the public eye.

Most of a certain vintage will recall the Wayner as being a pretty good hockey player. His story — his youth, his humility, his wonderful hockey dad — was also ours or what we wished ours to be. So very Canadian.  Being close to the same age, I could relate.

But what I couldn’t relate to was his hockey genius. I remember him on the front page of the Toronto Star when he, as an 11-year old, amassed some 378 points or something ridiculous. I just couldn’t believe how this slightly-built kid with a goofy grin could accomplish that. Yet, that’s the thing about Gretzky that continued throughout his career:  He had magic in his game and a knack for the improbable.

I looked at that front page many times that day. Over and over again. This kid was big news I thought, as I delivered yet another paper on my route.

Most hockey fans know the story.

He turned pro – a mere babe – at 17 in 1978 in the upstart WHA. Twenty-one years later he took his final bows at Madison Square Garden as a Ranger in April 1999. In between, his was a career like no other – a player who utterly dominated the world’s best hockey league for at least a decade.

Repetition prevents me of trotting out The Great One’s achievements but suffice it to say the man holds more hockey scoring records and awards than anyone likely ever will, especially in today’s scoring starved NHL.

But a few of note:  He won 10 scoring titles; had a 92-goal season (92 goals!), 4 seasons of 200+ points, 4 Stanley Cups and was credited with saving and expanding the game in the U.S. as an LA King.

Maybe 24-year old Sidney Crosby, if he can return to full health and play oh, another two decades, could challenge the Great One’s legacy.

How does Gretzky look back on his hockey contributions as he enters the next phase of his life? Normally, 50 is a benchmark year; a time to reflect, get some perspective on things.

Watching him interviewed for his 50th last year, it’s clear Gretzky isn’t the reflective type. Anyone hoping to hear something profound or insightful from Number 99 was disappointed. In his words, he was just “living his dream” and doesn’t get overly sentimental or proud about his surreal hockey achievements.

Just a couple of weeks ago on the 30th (30th!) anniversary of scoring 50 goals in 39 games Gretzky admitted that that was his greatest achievement as hockey player and the accomplishment he’s most proud of. He thinks of it as the one record that may not ever be broken — no argument here.

And he did it in typical, improbable Gretzky fashion, scoring five that night against the Flyers to get to the 50-goal benchmark faster than anyone in history. I remember seeing the highlights thinking this guy’s a machine, a wizard. There is just no one like him, so far in front of the pack that it must be lonely. The staggering totals for the 1981-82 season: 92 goals, 120 assists, 212 points, finishing 65 points ahead of his next nearest rival, Mike Bossy. Wow. Better than Secretariat at the ’73 Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown.

But off the ice, I’ve always found Gretzky mundane in the words department except on the rare occasion like when he lashed out during the 2002 Olympic Games in his “us against the world” speech that lit a fire under the eventual gold-medal winning Canadians.  But that tantrum was very un-Gretzky like.

As a GM of all-stars, he was a good fit for Team Canada. As an NHL coach of lesser lights, not so much. It must be apparent to him and many others that he was far from being a Great One as coach. More Dan Maloney than Scotty Bowman I’d say.

So if not the bench, what then?

Since his somewhat controversial departure from Phoenix, he’s now just another hockey dad, chauffeur, former little league coach, bar owner, parent and of course, TV pitchman.

Time for a new challenge big guy. You’re still young enough to return to the game that gave you so much and gave back to you – and it can again. My humble advice: Stay out of the day-to-day trenches of coaching and GM-ing:, a hurly-burly world made up mostly of puck-heads and deal-makers.

You once were essentially the league’s player-ambassador as an LA King. Maybe a similar role could be created as the NHL talks of expanding internationally. A role for someone with star-power and credibility who would lend a touch of class to a league that, at times, is in dire need of it.

Could be a good fit for Number 99.

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Papa’s Gotta Get A Brand New Bag

There are times friends, when some things need to change.

And change as we know, is not always easy– especially for creatures of habit like us middle-aged, hockey-playing guys.

It can be scary letting go, breaking away from the familiar, the comfortable, the loved even – into the unknown.

But that time for me has arrived.

I need a new hockey bag.

Not a big deal you say?

Well not in the sense of a bank meltdown or stock market crash kinda way, no.

But in the micro-worlds of our lives, you can form some strange, even irrational attachments. Just ask any shrink. (Not that I know personally but you can ask).

My current carrier, equipped with end compartments and netted skate pockets, has been a worthy soldier. But lately, it has taken on a look that frankly, is a bit too tattered for my tastes. The vinyl skate pockets are held together with safety pins but even that measure no longer works. Skates have actually slipped from their confines and fallen out which, to be sure, is neither good for the skate nor an unsuspecting foot.

Incidentally, I have a bit of a gripe with the good folks at CCM. Why do you use cheap plastick-y vinyl for the side compartments to store something as sharp and heavy as skates? Surely there must be stronger, yet cost-effective materials that would do the job even if the odd time blade covers aren’t used.

But I digress.

I have, after all, owned this bag for 16 or so years. Sixteen years of housing my hockey paraphernalia, transporting it to where it needed to be. And it has done a fine job of it, too. It has logged many, many miles in trunks, back seats, pick-up trucks, streetcars, buses and subways always getting my hockey goods to and from the arenas where I play. It’s also made a fine scratch pad and bed for the cat.

And it has done it with a utilitarian style whilst concealing that particularly robust odour that distinguishes the rec hockey warrior. Ever see a professional hockey player tote a bag over his shoulder? Ever? They have handlers for such mundane matters but to the rec hockey player, his bag is his badge, his brand if you will, that says, “I am a hockey player and this big heavy canvas container I lug around separates me from the rest of you girly-men!”

It is not some flimsy handbag for lightweight sports say, like badminton or tennis. It carries hockey equipment.  Big, bulky, smelly, protective, collision-busting gear. Room enough almost for a space suit.  When you think of some of the scary things it provides a home to, what biological entities live within its canvas skin — it is one thankless job and for that, it should be duly appreciated.

And so it is with this little homage that I say so long to my old bag. It owes me nothing after a decade and a half of stalwart service. May you be recycled in a kind way or maybe come back as one of Don Cherry’s suits. Or perhaps live a second life as camping bag or something useful. Perhaps your carrying days aren’t yet over but they are as my personal hockey equipment transporter.

A new year has begun. Time for a fresh and I do mean fresh, start.

Maybe my next hockey hauler could be of the wheel-equipped variety, a concept I’d previously scoffed at but now find intriguing and indeed, labour-saving. The wheels make me think of airport passengers and buggies pulled by frail old ladies to carry a couple of vegetables. It’s an image I wrestle with as I enter the sunset years of my rec hockey life but wheels or not, it just might be the beginning of another beautiful friendship…

_______________________________________________________

Do you have a piece of hockey equipment that should be retired but just can’t part with?

Send a picture. Tell us the story behind it at and we could post it:

mhl@stories.ca

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Keep playing sports, live longer: Study

Many of us may have pondered when in the company of a very old person:  What is the secret to living a long life?

Well a recent book sets out to answer that question – and some of the findings are surprising.  The key finding was that people who are conscientious, that is, responsible and caring for both themselves and others, tended to live longest.

Playing a sport has health benefits beyond exercise. Emotions, well-being and confidence improve as well.

The Longevity Project is the result of an 80-year study of 1,500 male subjects. As middle-aged hockey players, it’s worth paying attention to a couple of  findings.

The study began in 1921 and carried over to this century, well after the original founder died in 1956.  Data continued to be collected on the participants throughout their lives.

Among the findings:

As mentioned, conscientious people lived longer lives. The reason? The authors say it’s because they tend to be responsible, organized and think ahead. Because of this, they’re less likely to experience daily stressors. So planning ahead is never a bad thing.

They were also more likely to be moderate drinkers or abstainers and non-smokers. Even if you straightened out your life and became more conscientious that was beneficial as well.

Hard workers tended to live longer. 

Men who re-married after a divorce cut their risk, though the same did not occur for women.

Being steadily single was about the same as being steadily married.

And surprisingly, the very cheerful, optimistic types, didn’t outlive their more cynical colleagues.

But here’s the kicker:  Being active in mid-life and later was important, even if you weren’t earlier in life. That becomes especially true when doing something you like, like say, playing hockey, than going to the gym or running because you feel you need to.

So you see, all this time we’ve been dragging that smelly bag to arenas, suiting up and sweating like pigs has been good for us. As husbands, fathers and boyfriends we sometimes get criticized for continuing to engage in a silly game that according to some, we should’ve given up long ago. My father never played the game and yours probably didn’t either — not until late middle age anyway. But the truth is the process adds life to our years and years to our lives.

But I think we knew that.

Only now we have a scientifically valid excuse to head out the door to go play.  Something to remember next time your partner complains about it.

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Reimersson or Gustaver – take your pick

It’s becoming rather clear that at the halfway point of this NHL season, the Toronto Maple Leafs do not have a number one goaltender.

Leafs fans should be seeing lots of goalie switching as James Reimer continues his inconsistent play. Courtesy CP.

Despite being signed over the summer to a 3-year, $5.8M deal to ostensibly become the go-to netminder, the unsettling fact is James Reimer has underperformed this season. He’s not really the guy the Leafs hoped they were getting after a solid 20-10-5 in the final half of last season.

Since his return from concussion-like symptoms on December 3 after being run over by Canadiens’ Brian Gionta, Reimer has been struggling with a save percentage below .900 and a 3.20 GAA placing him  near the bottom for starting goalies.

Now the Leafs PK as we all know has been atrocious but it can only be part of the blame for Reimer’s game falling off.  

Reimer returned just as back-up goalie Jonas Gustavsson was actually getting hot, going 10-8-1  in Reimer’s 18-game absence. Okay, not red hot maybe but fairly warm.  At least he seemed to temporarily shake his once-a-game brain-fart of allowing an inexplicable  (“I can’t believe you let that in!) soft goal that always seemed to hurt the Leafs.

Just before The Monster took over the reigns he looked like he was about to walk the plank as Reimer was rounding into form. Certainly in this corner we’d basically written him off but to his credit and an apparent quiet reservoir of compete coarsing through his Swedish veins, he bounced back and got wins for the team. 

But with Reimer’s return he was again shunted to the end of the bench. Now after a dismal December with Reimer doing most of the heavy lifting, he’s gotten the team its first win of 2012 with a 7-3 victory over Tampa Bay earning him a start tonight (Thursday) against the Jets. 

To be frank, neither goalie appears up to the task of solidifying a spot for himself as the number one guy in net. One or most likely both have to be up to the job because any serious slippage and poof! Leaf playoff hopes vanish faster than a standing-O for a returning Tomas Kaberle.  

This is looking more and more like a platoon situation the rest of the way. It’s a struggle many teams face these days: How would you like to be the Flyers who are on the hook with the cosmically inclined Ilya Bryzgalov at $51 million big ones for the remainder of this decade? No thanks.

Fact is, only a handful of teams have a bonafide number one — even the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins are giving more starts to Tuukka Rask these days than their Vezina and Conn Smythe trophy winner Tim Thomas. But there’s no controversy because they’re both so damn good.

I’m sure the Leafs’ brass would like a clear answer to this dilemma. Nothing quite stokes the chattering mobs like an old-fashioned goaltending controversy (just ask Roberto Luongo and his best buddy Cory Schneider).

But no need to dial up 911 just yet.

Okay, so the Leafs don’t have a number one. But they may have a 1A and maybe a 2 or something close. Look at the bright side: With TWO non-starter-type goalies, each should be chomping at the bit to prove themselves every time the other falters. This could carry through right into the playoffs should the Bell-Rogers-Tannenbaum Leafs make it.

It’s really kind of a yin & yang thing happening: Reimer’s sunny optimism vs Gustavasson’s Ingmar Bergman-like gloom might result in a happy medium – a perfect psychological netminding mix of sun and cloud. 

So take your pick: Gustaver or Reimersson . Pickled herring and apple pie. Might upset your stomach a bit but it’s not bad; just not a complete meal.


 

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Stirring rally by Canada’s Juniors falls short

For the first time in 11 years, Canada finds itself playing for bronze instead of gold at the World Juniors this year in Alberta.

But that’s following one heck of a semi-final where Canada rallied in the third period from a 6-1 deficit to come within a goalpost of tying it in a 6-5 loss to the Russians who face Sweden in tonight’s gold medal game. Canada needs to stomach their disappointment and play for pride as they take on the Finns for the bronze.

Hey, can’t win em all.

Russian juniors celebrate semi-final win at WJC in Calgary. Canada lost 6-5 in a thrilling third period rally that fell short.

This outcome is seen by some as a disaster of biblical proportions. Nonsense. A couple of mediocre periods shouldn’t stain these teenagers’ accomplishments at the WJC. But it will because in this country, gold is the only colour that counts when it comes to minor hockey. That’s a bloody shame because it papers over the tremendous amount of top shelf talent that’s out there amongst hockey playing nations.

The Russian juniors are scary offensively. Such nice uni's too.

Look, the Russians are just friggin’ awesome in the offensive skills department and only slightly lesser so in goal. Even with that, Canada almost staged an upset for the ages in that epic third period down four goals — a weird karmic reversal of the team’s meltdown last year where Canada coughed up a three-goal third period lead to lose the final to the Russians 5-3. Now that was ugly and heart-breaking. Tuesday’s semi-final loss was, as losses go, outstanding. A proud moment if you ask me. Hey just ask the people who vacated the Saddledome when the boys were down 6-1. They missed one of the greatest turnarounds in WJC history. Just came up a little short.

Now some fans and a few media types are hyper-ventilating about Canada’s goaltentending. As in, what happened? How could we give up six goals? A thorny question but you can’t lay all the blame at the skate blades of the goalies.  Scott Wedgewood and Mark Visentin, seeking redemption from last year’s collapse, played quite well overall. Wedgewood was yanked after having some unlucky deflections go in off his own defencemen.

The bigger issue was the untested (to that point) Canadians were slow in reacting to the Russian’s speed and play-making. And when they did it was in taking undisciplined penalties.

But again, it basically came down to half a game of “thems the breaks” hockey.

Hey don't hang your head cowboy! At least we have a shot at bronze.

This tournament is short and pressure-packed. When you’re finally faced going head to head with a worthy opponent instead of scrimmaging with the Danes and Finns in the opening round, things can go south in a hurry.

That’s really a structural problem of this tournament. It’s scheduled so that Canada has an easy-in the first couple of games, getting their legs as they blowout opponents, guaranteeing a first-round bye.  That’s great for chest-puffing but it doesn’t do much for testing the Canadians mettle so that when it comes to the medal rounds, the team might actually be able to adapt having become battle ready, as were the Russians Tuesday night.

Still, it’s a result that’s good medicine for Team Canada and Canadian minor hockey. A little bitter and disappointing sure (not the least of which will be TSN in suffering a ratings hit) that we won’t be in it for all the marbles.

But hey, get a grip. Canada’s played in the final for 10 straight years. I’m sorry but … boring! Do we really want the WJC to become women’s Olympic hockey where it’s Canada vs USA, Canada vs USA, Canada vs USA…until our eyes glaze over? By the way, can’t any other females other than North Americans play this damn game? Just asking…

But that’s kinda what’s been happening with Canada in the WJC. Only we’re too caught up in the hype to notice that it may not be the best thing for the game. This loss helps restore competitive balance at the junior level.

So be happy this year’s gold medal will be going to guys with a lot of vowels and weird letter combinations in their names. Cheer them anyway.

Next year when the scene shifts to Russia and the Canadians are up against it on foreign turf,  then they’ll really need our support and patriotism.

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Last call for Nazem Kadri?

So five games into Nazem Kadri’s latest audition with the Leafs, the slickly talented winger looks like he’ll finally stick with the big club.

It’s been a bumpy ride of promotions and demotions since being drafted 7th in 2009 but former critics are coming around saying this time he looks different. NHL ready.

He’s showing less of the flash that routinely got him into the doghouse with the coach and has more of complete game. Plus, he’s still got that scoring touch with a couple of beauty goals in the 15 days since being recalled from the Marlies.

Nazem Kadri is called up by the Leafs again. Kadri was selected AHL player of the month playing for the Marlies.

Kadri has notched 3 goals and five points in this fortnight with a +5 rating. Not only that, his shooting/goals percentage is at 20% – higher than Leaf leaders Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul at 15.5 and 15.7 per cent respectively. Of course, that number will decline as Kadri gets more playing time and shots. But overall, his re-debut has been impressive and looks as if he’s finally growing into the status accorded to a high first-rounder.

Nearly more than any other player in the Burke era, Kadri has been a lightning rod for criticism or praise. He seems to have the knack for setting off  the chatter among fans and media, sometimes by what he says, other times with his play.

The knocks on Kadri are well documented: Weak on the puck, not strong enough, too many turnovers, questionable decisions – made all the more annoying due to Kadri’s misplaced self-confidence. That combination has added up to being in Wilson’s doghouse in previous stints — and you just don’t want to go there with Uncle Grumpy.

There seems to be a nearly a palpable dislike on the part of Wilson for Kadri. Maybe because he’s a top-10 pick and he’s giving him some particularly tough love. Wilson plays the crusty, aloof University professor to Marlies’ coach Dallas Eakins’ kinder high school teacher. Expectations in the NHL are high and there’s little room for error. Stray too far from the this particular coach’s philosophy and he’ll find himself right back in the minors — perhaps for good as far as this franchise goes.

There’s also speculation Burke has recalled him to showcase him for a possible future trade. The latest rumours have the Ducks’ Ryan Getzlaf on the trading block. And we all know the connections Brian Burke has with Anaheim (still can’t believe how he unloaded Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala that brought J.S. Giguerre here.)

Burke would dearly love to get his mitts on Getzlaf — that first line hulking, talented centre the Leafs have been coveting ever since Mats Sundin left town. No doubt Kadri’s name would come up – just depends on who else would be in such a package.

This is very much looking like Kadri’s sink-or-swim moment and here’s hoping he gets a good, long chance at finding a role with the team.

Though just 21 with a good NHL career likely ahead of him, Kadri definitely has a contribution to make. I have an uneasy sense that it won’t be with the Maple Leafs.

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Blue Jays change tune on boosting payroll

On a day when the Blue Jays acquire a bonafide closer in the process of building a contender, the organization decides now is the time to talk about frugality.

Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos and president Paul Beeston say for the Jays to spend, attendance must go up

Suddenly Jays’ president Paul Beeston and GM Alex Anthopoulous are backtracking on previous claims that a beefed up payroll was there for the asking from the Rogers folks. Now it’s back to the Jays’ version of moneyball. Translation: If you come, we will built it. In other words, if you spend dough at the ballpark, we’ll open up our wallets for big ticket free agents.

Funny, it didn’t sound like that last January at a meet-and-greet with season ticket holders. Beeston said he could envision a time in the near future where the Jays payroll could expand to as much as $120 million from their current $70 million.

Frankly, this is lousy PR at a time when the organization needs all the good karma it can muster. Holding fans hostage for a brighter day doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. It could even backfire, making support for the team even more apathetic.

Blue Jays trade for former White Sox closer Sergio Santos who notched 30 saves last season

The news coming out of the winter baseball meetings has been positive.

Granted, the Jays didn’t make a big splash in backing up the Brinks truck to win the Prince Fielder sweepstakes but that was a long shot to begin with.

Instead they got closer Sergio Santos from the Chicago White Sox with a much more digestible contract. In his prime at 28, the one time shortstop, formerly in the Jays’ system, has 3 years left on an $8.25 million contract, plus a $2.25 million buyout at the end of that term if they don’t pick up the optional 3 years. That’s a bargain in major league terms and in AA-speak, Santos is “under control” — a closer with 30 saves and 92 strikeouts in 63.1 IP — a strikeout rate that puts him in the top five in the A.L.

Going to the White Sox is 22-year pitching prospect Nestor Molina who dominated at A and AA-ball with a 12-3 record with a 2.21 ERA in 23 starts. He could bloom into a solid starter but these are the deals you have to make when building a contender — and that’s awfully close to where the Jays sit going into 2012.

Unfortunately the deal was watered down by the tone-deaf pronouncement that Beeston wants more bums in seats in order for the Jays to justify in increased payroll to acquire free agents or players in trades.

Blue Jays' president Paul Beeston says more ticket buyers needed to justify an increased payroll

Sorry, doesn’t work that way.

Fans will not show up in increased numbers – especially in that lame “ballpark” — in the hopes that the team will spend to build a winner. Not in this market.

The only exception being the Leafs who, no matter how bad, never had to worry about attendance and revenue.

“We’re still capable of going to the US$120 million payroll once we start drawing the people,” he said. “Once we start drawing the people means that we’re winning, right? The formula hasn’t changed.”

For several years the message was the money will be there when the Jays are in position to contend. Well now with the teetering Red Sox – who may implode under the vain Bobby Valentine — and the ever-aging Yankees squad plus the added chance of an additional wild card, the Jays might finally be able to crack the tough nut of the A.L. East.

One could argue there’s never been a better time to strike and take a legitimate shot at a Prince Fielder or another big bat. Or starter. Forget Pujols. He’s gone. Now living in Disneyland both literally and figuratively with his 10-year, $254 million signing by the LA Angels. Now there’s spending money on a star and sheer idiocy which the Angels seemed to have exercised but that’s another story.

This franchise has been making positive moves, thanks largely to the integrity of GM Alex Anthopoulos and leadership of Paul Beeston. Sadly, it is typical of the organization that there would be some kind of financial pullback by the corporate parent Rogers; that the big bucks would be available for the asking;  and that, too, there would always be a catch. And now we know. You pay, we’ll play with the big boys.

But that strategy just won’t work anymore in this baseball market. Baseball has become somewhat of a niche sports with dwindling interest and as such, it has to capture the casual fan to increase its fan base. The only way of doing that is winning. Period.

Winning is the best marketing plan, bar none. With the positive strides the Jays have made in the past couple of years, they still haven’t played any meaningful games in September. Until that happens, expect disappointing crowds.

Attendance at the Roger’s Centre has been in decline since the glory days of 1992-93.  People have long ago grown weary of this stadium if you can call a glass-mall-artificial-turf-concrete box a good place to play and watch baseball.

In addition, ticket prices are too high for a mediocre team. Fans are gouged with $12 beers, expensive food and parking. Also, the hardcore baseball demographic has aged & doesn’t go out as much anymore and the demographic itself has shifted — Toronto has become a much more international city than and many people just aren’t interested in following baseball.

Attendance returning to 30 or even 25,000 on a nightly basis is a pipe dream. Even with a winner on the field, it still won’t be an easy sell. Linking finances to attendance is just an ill-advised move and the timing sucks. Why deflate the positive vibe that’s currently around the team?

Toronto sports fans are tired of being promised things and then screwed. Show us, show us! a winner and we might support you. Earn our respect, charge a fair price and we may open our wallets.

Otherwise we may forget you entirely.

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NHL realigns into four conferences

After much hand-wringing by GMs and owners, the decision to go from six divisions to four conferences passed with little drama at the NHL governor meetings in California.

It wasn’t expected to go down this easily.  But the owners — especially those of established teams — felt the pain of far flung franchises and compromised for the greater good of the league. The new alignment begins next season.

It looks like it shapes up pretty well with a minimum of difficulties. Okay, fans in Winnipeg might not be over the moon at being the only Canadian team in their conference but hey, they’ve got to be happy just being allowed back in the club, right?

The yet unnamed conferences are geographically based with no more than 2 teams in each conference being more than one time zone away.

Two conferences will have eight teams, the other two, seven. The top four teams will make the playoffs with the 1st playing 4th, 2nd plays 3rd. The conference winners will play each other but it’s not decided how. The two conference winners located in the more eastern zones could play each other or the four conference winners could be re-seeded based on season records. So you could get an all-eastern or all-western final. Boston vs Pittsburgh for the Stanley Cup final? Works for me. But no potential Toronto-Montreal cup final because they’re in the same conference.

The compromises meant a few teams in the east will rack up slightly more air miles but compared to the Edmontons, Vancouvers, Anaheims, Dallas, and now Winnipeg, they’ve had an easy ride. Miles and miles and miles between cities, plus time zone changes makes it a bit of a nightmare for some western teams. The Toronto-Montreal-NY-Boston-Philadephia region is just so much easier for everyone concerned. By the way, that setup has been kept intact, adding Tampa Bay and Florida to the mix.

Nashville and Columbus need the draws of Detroit and Chicago to be viable. They will all be in the same conference.

The real winners are the western teams and especially Winnipeg who being in the middle of nowhere have a gruelling travel schedule replacing Atlanta in the southeast division. Detroit too gets a break. There was much speculation that they’d move east which made a lot of sense but for the sake of being a strong draw to the Nashville’s and Columbus’s they were kept in the same division. At least Red Wings’ fans won’t have to routinely stay up for 10:30 start playing a west coast team. That’s got to be brutal for fan interest, especially kids if your team doesn’t begin the game until well past your bedtime. Now the farthest they’ll have to travel is Dallas.

It also give the NHL some flexibility for expansion/relocation. Under this format, it becomes much easier to add/subtract from a conference.

Which brings us to the Phoenix Coyotes, the NHL’s financial basket case being bankrolled by the league.

They remain a wild card in all this depending on who it’s sold to and whether they will be relocated. If it’s Quebec City, it could be absorbed into the same conference as Montreal (and Toronto) because they are currently one of the 7-team conferences.

Teams will play each other six times within a conference.  In conferences with seven teams, they’ll alternate years of playing each other five or six times a year.

Most of the established rivalries remain intact with a couple new ones resulting for an added twist. In short, this plan makes a lot of sense.

Here’s the breakdown:

Conference A:  Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver.

Conference B: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg

Conference C: Boston, Buffalo,  Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Florida

Conference D: New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, Carolina

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Competitive spirit alive and well in older players

Why do so many of us middle-aged guys continue to haul our asses out to rinks, put on bulky equipment and play this game of hockey?

The simple answer could be because we still can. Or we enjoy the workout. Or we like the camaraderie with the guys.

All true for anyone who plays.

But a new study in the journal Psychology and Aging hints at an even more basic reason: We love competition.

The study points out that the competitive spirit peaks at about 50 and is strongest in the age range of 45-54. In fact, if you can believe it, 55-64 year-olds are more competitive than those 30 years younger aged 25-34. Go figure.

The study looked at 543 men and women ranging in age from 25-74. They set up a kiosk in a mall and got people to participate by offering a cash reward for doing a couple of tasks. Participants would have to quickly judge an answer as right or wrong on a quick math equation, (eg. 5+8+2-6=9.)

People got 25 cents for each correct answer or they could forego that in favour of entering a more competitive challenge for a bigger cash reward. If they beat other competitors, they could double the cash reward; if they underperformed in the group they got nothing.

Sounds a bit like The Price Is Right or Let’s Make A Deal but it does illustrate a few intriguing points about the nature of competition.

Not suprisingly only 36 per cent of women went for the group challenge compared to 56 per cent of men.  The study also found that these results held throughout adult life from 25 to 75. It suggests men are just more competitive than women.  The study also found that the competitve streak in middle age marked a desire for a higher profile. Again, no surprise there as it is the time most of us make our mark in our careers, rising to our highest rank. To achieve that, you have to be competitive, not to mention dedicated.

Now these are small potatoes. If the prize were bigger, say $10 for a correct answer to the math questions and $200 to enter a competition, the results might be lower for “competitive” men. Who wouldn’t want to make a quick $30 or $40 vs a longer shot at $200?

Paul Newman as the ultra-competitive Reggie Dunlop in the classic Slapshot

But the results do point out a couple of interesting things when it comes to playing rec hockey in middle age. Our bodies may be undergoing a slow decline but our competitive juices still flow strongly.

In games that are unimportant in the larger scheme of things where results shouldn’t mean a thing, we still want to win, sometimes urgently. Why keep score? Because in the moment, the crux of competition, it matters.

We still want to best our opponent or a particular player and win those small battles whether it’s beating the goalie, gaining a puck along the boards or making a slick move on a defender. It’s what sports and hockey are all about. Those small victories over our competitors — and ourselves.

It also might explain the darker side of the competitive spirit — the uncalled for trip/slash/rough play to gain advantage over an opponent. Fortunately in most rec hockey these plays are self-regulated by the group and offenders — though they may be friends — pay by being called out or ostracized. Fairness usually prevails.

Here's a few old-timers back in the day. Can you name them?

But hockey, whether it’s a beer league for middle-aged guys or the NHL there is a level of competitiveness that makes those who play the game come alive. In some small way, as men we want to assert ourselves, hold or gain our position in the hierarchy, as the study points out. When we lose that ability or that outlet, our lives become smaller.

The good news is the study found that competitive spirit lingers until about 65.

As the pundits like to say, there’s still a lot of hockey to be played.

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Leafs lose (again) to Bruins

Last night’s Leafs-Bruins game had a special family component for the visiting Leafs.

Their dads were on hand to cheer on their sons in Beantown as part of a father-son road trip, courtesy of MLSE.

Too bad it had to be against Boston. Their progeny must’ve looked like little boys vs the manly Bruins.

The Leafs were man-handled again by Bruins in 4-1 loss, they're 4th straight loss vs Boston this season.

Let’s face it. The Leafs, right now, promising as they might be after an excellent start, just can’t beat this team. They could play them 20 times and maybe get two wins but even a broken clock is right twice a day.

The season record against the Bruins in four games: Boston 23, Toronto 6.

That pretty much says it in a nutshell.

The fact starting goalie James Reimer made a surprise return after missing 18 games only made a slight difference. With the Monster in net it might’ve been 6-1 or 7-1 though the Leafs did compete by staying close the first two periods.

Noticeably absent in this latest Bruin beatdown was of course Phil Kessel, who again was pointless and looked intimidated at times. He was all but a non-factor in his latest fruitless search for cajones against his old team.

Zdeno Chara never looks as good as he does against Phil Kessel.  Kessel’s numbers vs Bruins are ghastly. He’s a minus-7 in four games against Boston this year. Just seven points in 16 games since becoming an ex-Bruin.

Chara and the rest of the Boston crew are in this guy’s head and the Bruins couldn’t care less that Kessel had built up some cred by being the league’s leading scorer. Think that concerned them?

Chara was probably thinking in that charming accent, “OK, Kessel leading NHL scorer. Come down my side Mr. Big Scorer I make you leading girly-man. Ha ha ha.” And Kessel knows it. The threat of physical intimidation still matters in this game and PK is one of those guys that’s just not going to challenge that. He’s just not wired that way.

Bit of shame but that’s just what you have with Kessel. He’s not a player that will carry a team through a couple of rounds of playoffs. He desperately needs a 1A to his #1 to take the pressure off him – and the search for one of those guys remains elusive.

But it’s unfair that the Leafs horrible record vs the Bruins is hung on Number 81 alone. He is but one skater out there. This team, despite what Brian Burke intended, does not have truculence and toughness as its core identity. The Bruins must make Burke do a slow burn as they are exactly the team he no doubt envisioned for his Leafs.

But they’re not. For better or worse (and the worse shows up against the Bruins) it is a speed, forecheck and skill team.

The jury is still very much out on how far that will carry them, especially if they continue to slip in the standings from their once lofty perch a few short games ago.

Right now, the Leafs have come up miserably short of what they’d hoped for in this home-at-home series.  It’s a sobering reality check. The Bruins are unquestionably the league’s best in the last five weeks. Cripes, they haven’t lost in regulation since October, steam-rolling everyone in their path.

Still, it must be crystal clear to management how far the team still has to go to challenge the best. It’s going to take a couple of whipsmart moves by B. Burke & Co. while at the same time hoping like hell with all the depth they’ve built someone or maybe a couple,  will blossom into difference makers.

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Coaches cornered: How long before you lose the room?

Well Bruce Boudreau didn’t spend much time in the unemployment line after being jettisoned Monday as the Washington Capitals’ coach.

The coach who holds the NHL record for notching 200 wins the soonest is also the soonest to be re-hired. He was on a jet to the Anaheim Ducks faster than he could pack up his office and autographed momento of Alexander Ovechkin’s 65-goal season in 2008. “To Gabby, You’re the best coach ever. Thanks for letting me just be me and score goals. Don’t ever change. Love, Ovie.”

Ah, memories. Well things change, sometimes really fast.

Fresh off his Washington firing, Boudreau now finds himself with having to rehabilitate the plummeting fortunes of the 7-13-4 Anaheim Ducks, the 2007 Cup champs now reduced to bottom feeders in the West.

Out: Randy Carlyle In: Bruce Boudreau is new coach of Anaheim just three days after being fired by Washington. Courtesy National Post

The casual fan may do a double-take as they look behind the Ducks’ bench and see one former chubby, balding middle-aged white guy replaced with another chubby, balding, middle-aged white guy. Only this one has more charm.

Boudreau replaces curmudgeonly, hard-assed Randy Carlyle whose no-fun approach had worn a little thin. Perhaps Carlyle could apply to be an assistant to Brent Sutter in Calgary. Wouldn’t that be a barrel of laughs for the Flames. At least that’s one way of getting Iginla to waive his no-trade clause.

Carlyle’s presence is even rumoured to be the source of star Bobby Ryan’s displeasure who apparently gave the Ducks an “either he goes or I go” ultimatum that was the principal reason that a Ryan trade was floated out there this week.

But it’s funny how the NHL musical chairs of coaching works.

Just days earlier, it was Caps’ GM George McPhee saying the players were no longer responding to Boudreau but is received gratefully in Anaheim in record time for his “leadership” and “great track record.” Guess the Ducks’ GM didn’t count the last six or so weeks.

Guess it depends which day of the week it is as to which players are/are not responding to which coach. It’s a bit confusing to tell you the truth. But the Ducks are convinced Bruce is the man — for now. Players will be paying close attention to him just because he isn’t Randy Carlyle. And if they continue to lose, so be it. It just might be that it’s more fun losing with Boudreau than winning with Carlyle.

We’ll check back in a couple of months.

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NBA tentative deal struck (sound of one hand clapping)

Okay so NBA commissioner David Stern and former NBAPA head Billy Hunter, or whatever he is these days, have hammered out a deal that apparently is digestible to both sides.

Billy Hunter and David Stern all smiles after reaching tentative CBA deal

This, after the players took their ball and went home after months of fruitless negotiations, dissolving the union. Evidently the threat of massive anti-trust lawsuits by the players which if successful, not only would have shut down the league for who knows how long but may have cost the owners a collective $6 billion – three times the annual players take.

Whatever. It’s not just about the money, right?

But there the two of them were in sweaters, looking all warm and avuncular in the middle of the night after a 15-hour bargaining session last weekend.

I give them credit, in a reluctant, back-handed way. I thought the season was toast but they got it done in double OT. The deal still has to be ratified by players but that’s a formality. The 66-game season begins in earnest on Christmas Day with a wall-to-wall schedule of five games wedged in between opening presents and turkey dinners. The locks come off team facilities December 1 so players can start workouts with training camp opening December 9. That gives them 16 days for training camp, a couple of exhibition games and bang – you’re into the regular season.

Raptors' new coach Dwane Casey

Actually, on some level, not a bad way to go. Sure teams with new coaches like the Raptors are going to be at a disadvantage because there’s always a learning curve with a new guy.

But hey, would you like their chances any better if Jay Triano were still calling the shots? Lockout and coach aside, the Raptors were on course for another ugly season no matter how it’s spun by BC (GM Brian Colangelo). The silver lining of course would be getting a high draft pick and word is, this will be a strong draft. So there is that to look forward to next year.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t look forward to this season — I do.

It somehow didn’t feel right with them not playing this time of year. It fills a bit of a void in my sports viewing calendar and provides a break from a steady diet of hockey, hockey, hockey. I’m not a hockey guy who hates or doesn’t care about basketball. I actually surprise myself a bit about how much I do enjoy the Raptors’ broadcasts both radio and TV.

Because of small rosters, the pace of the game and lack of bulky equipment you can see expressions and feel the emotion more clearly than practically any other team sport.

I think that’s what connects the fans to the game.

Demar DeRozan expected to play key role in Raptors' offence

Listen, no one would’ve taken to the streets or occupy the NBA offices because they’re outraged about not having basketball. In the height of the lockout a poll in the US found that 76 per cent didn’t care if the NBA shut down for a season. Ouch.

C’est la vie.

I for one am glad — maybe not jumping up and down glad — but happy I’ll be coming back to Jack Armstrong, Matt Devlin and the Jones/Smith radio show.  I miss those guys. They have fun calling the games and don’t take it all so deadly serious as it can be with hockey. It’s refreshing.  Then again, it is the Raptors where a sense of humour is pretty much required.

And I mean that in a good way.

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Hunter faces big challenges with Ovie & Company

It was not a good day for NHL coaches on Monday.

Not one but two bench bosses were released within hours of one another. Carolina fired former Leafs’ coach Paul Maurice for the second time, replacing him with former Montreal assistant coach Kirk Muller.

But that was overshadowed by the headline-grabbing firing of Washington Capitals’ coach Bruce Boudreau bringing an end to this chapter of the ongoing soap opera in Washington. The media-friendly Boudreau is being replaced by Dale Hunter, a former Capital and smashingly successful OHL coach.

Alex Ovechkin at practice with new Capitals coach Dale Hunter

The Boudreau-Ovechkin saga had been churning for some time and it wasn’t a shock to most hockey insiders that the plug was finally pulled by GM George McPhee.

The disenchantment had been brewing for weeks highlighted by Ovechkin’s sulking superstar act after being benched in the third period of a close game a couple of weeks back. The healthy scratch of teammate and fellow Russian Alexander Semin simply hastened a deteriorating situation. Boudreau’s tough love act wasn’t working. Something had to give and as usual it’s the coach, not the multi-millionaire, under-performing superstar, that gets the axe.

The Capitals’ brass followed the script perfectly.

Hunter comes in with a reputation for being a hard-nosed, demanding coach who works his players hard.

Problem is, his players, until today, were juniors. Kids making $80 bucks a week giving every ounce of effort in the hopes of a huge payoff by making it into the NHL draft.

With Ovechkin & Company not so much. It’s a completely different situation, requiring a completely different method of dealing with under-performing stars and superstars.

Ovechkin has been in a major funk since the Russians were no shows at the 2010 Winter Olympics. In fact, it goes back even further. He’s been in a steady decline since his 65-goal season in 2007-08. He appears to have lost a lot of his mojo and is more often playing with a scowl instead of the once omni-present gap-toothed smile. He seems somehow burdened. Maybe the captaincy and the mega-contract have wiped away the smile.

Ovie could not have played his entire career throwing his body around recklessly as he did during his first couple of years. Boudreau had tried to instill some defensive responsibility, making him a better two-way player. But he seems to find that stuff boring. He sees himself as a scorer and when a scorer isn’t scoring, they’re generally not happy campers. With a personality that soaks up adoration like Ovie, it’s sulking time.

Pundits and insiders say opponents have figured him out and he simply hasn’t adjusted his game. His outside-inside move & shoot has become predictable.  There has to be a way for someone as talented as him to come up with some more creativity and use teammates better.

And what about the delicate questions hanging in the air:  Is there a different way to treat Russian players? To get more consistency out of their obvious talents?

Boudreau isn’t the first coach to lose his job because a mercurial superstar didn’t perform up to snuff. The question is will Dale Hunter fare any better. Caps management hope like hell that he will because if the team misses or does a first round playoff exit, they’ll have to look deep within themselves because for better or worse they’re stuck, stuck! with Ovechkin for a decade. That’s almost painful to realize but the Ovie-doubters are increasing by the week.

There’s something amiss here with Ovechkin, Semin and even other Russian stars like Ilya Kovalchuk that prevents them from being consistent performers. The Ovechkin situation and the ludicrous Kovalchuk contracts should serve as cautionary tales to GMs when thinking about signing Russian players to long-term deals.

From where we sit, Ovechkin’s noticeable slide from superstar to ordinary hockey “star”, is well under way. He once vied for best player in the world with Crosby. He could have elevated his status in the void Crosby left. He didn’t or more likely, couldn’t. The comparison of who’s best isn’t even a relevant one anymore, made all the more obvious considering Crosby’s spectacular start to his comeback.

Dale Hunter certainly deserves a fair turn as NHL coach and solving the Ovi enigma but it likely won’t be long until he finds himself flummoxed with the same frustrating question that cost his predecessor his job: Why can’t I get Alex Ovechkin going?

He may be beyond what any coach can do for him. He might not even know himself. Maybe it’s time for a sports psychologist to step in because whatever it is, he’s not the same player. At the relatively young age of 26, his best playing years appear to be behind him.

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Truculence optional for these Leafs

Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul helping drive the Leafs' offence

With today marking the third anniversary of Leafs’ GM Brian Burke’s tenure, it’s a good time to re-visit his now famous vision of building a team with truculence, so boldy laid out at that first media conference.

It’s one of the fanciest words ever to describe a hockey team and is thus favoured — mostly in a sarcastic way — by media when the Leafs are playing in a decidedly un-truculent way. After three seasons, it’s a term that no longer seems to fit the team Burke has built. They’re by no means soft but they also aren’t the Boston Bruins.  These Leafs are fast, skilled, persistent and most importantly, deep. And that’s not a bad thing.

Truculence may or may not enter into the equation but it doesn’t seem to be a priority now. Ask Colton Orr or Jay Rosehill who’ve seen about as much ice time as Nazem Kadri — who, as he finds himself buried in the minors seems a waste of a first round draft pick (but that’s another story).

Anyway, so much for loading a team up with tough guys and fighters.  Today’s game rewards speed, skill and strategy. Let the other goons take the dumb penalties and allow teams like the Leafs to make opponents pay. In case you haven’t noticed, they’re now a top-five PP and have made improvements in practically every facet of the game. Things are beginning to click into place and it makes sense to keep a good thing going.

Now that may change this week as the Leafs return home in high spirits after winning their third in a row on the road to face those, ahem, truculent Bruins.  This will be a challenging home-at-home series with the Boston going 9-0-1 in their last 10.

It will be an opportunity to see if the Leafs can run with the big boys or are an early season flash-in-the-pan. Pride matters too as it’s a chance to redeem themselves after being run out of their home rink by the Bruins in that 7-0 spanking three weeks ago.

And hey, let’s not even get into the whole Kessel-Seguin trade thing again, it’s so 2010. But it would be nice if Phil doesn’t completely disappear in these two games as he tends to when playing his old team. As the NHL’s leading scorer, he’s better than that now, right? We’ll see.

What will be interesting is whether Wilson tweaks the lineup against the Bruins who, after a slow start, are looking every bit like Stanley Cup champions. Will we see the likes of Orr or Jay Rosehill to combat the Lucic’s and Charas or will he go with what’s been working of late?

The Leafs go into Wednesday’s game with the Bruins second overall in the eastern conference with 30 points — two behind the Penguins and one ahead of Boston. The outcome of this two-game clash should prove to be highly useful in assessing what the Leafs really have as a team.

Still, just being part of the conversation for first place is refreshing in itself.  Certainly not what many predicted going into December.

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Leafs playoff bound? Numbers say yes

Courtesy: Toronto Star

Leafs’ fans may now actually have  something besides a hope and prayer in getting to the  playoffs this season:  Statistics.

According to an article in this week’s Toronto Star, as of US Thanksgiving the Leafs have a 77.5 per cent chance to make the playoffs. At the quarter pole – a time when GMs take stock of their teams and future needs – the Maples are 12-8-2 with 26 points.  That tops the northeast division and ties them for third in the eastern conference.

Sure it’s early and there’s lots of hockey yet to be played as they say but the numbers make a  pretty compelling case.

While there’s just five points separating first in the East (Penguins with 28) and 8th (tie with Buffalo and New Jersey) the mere fact the Maples are on the right side of that ledger matters significantly about who gets into the post-season.

The Star’s sports research team has compiled a statistical database going back to 1993 tracking this trend at the quarter point in the season, or 20 games. I’ll just borrow a couple of numbers which show that the picture even gets a little better for the Leafs.

They found that teams who had 28 points or more had an 89 per cent chance at the playoffs. The Leafs, with 26 after 20 games, means they have an awfully good shot. Teams with 17 or fewer points didn’t make the playoffs 84 per cent of the time.

What’s also noteworthy is how fine the line can be. According to the Star statistical database, 21 pts gets you in; 20 and you’re out. That’s how close it is. This time last year, the Leafs had 19 points and as we all know, they didn’t make it.

In the east, the Islanders and the Hurricanes are statistically out of it so far. Everyone else has 21 points or better which means a) there is exceptional parody in the conference and b) the statistical trend established will be bucked this year as five other teams will miss the playoffs.

The west has more separation with the Ducks, Avs, Flames and Blue Jackets currently below the 21-point threshold.

On average two teams from each conference who were in a playoff spot after 20 games fell short, replaced by two teams who managed to climb back in it by season’s end. Last year in the east, Atlanta dropped out and Buffalo got in. Three teams in the west traded spots. That of course will change this year in the east with 13 teams currently meeting the statistical criteria to make the playoffs at this point.

What all this shows is that there isn’t all that much volatility in the standings: it tends to remain stable despite just playing 25 per cent of the season. It’s incredibly difficult to make up lost ground in the 3-point system. Once you’re on the wrong side of that playoff cut-off, it’s a tough slog to get back in it. That’s why you have to feel encouraged as a Leafs fan with this bit of news.

Of course, things can go horribly wrong as Leaf cynics like to point out. After all, they haven’t been in the playoffs for six years. Confidence is a fragile thing as every sports talk show host in the city can attest to having to listen to the whiny, doomsday callers every time the team loses a couple in a row.

But let’s just say this much: Sitting near the top of the standings at the quarter mark feels a whole lot better than being on the outside looking in. The statistical projections add that extra layer of legitimacy. So fans should take a little comfort in knowing  for the first time in ages, the numbers are finally working in their favour.

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