leafs in springtime: nobody is going to give us anything

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Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan delivered his verdict on the year just ended on Sunday, when he fired GM Dave Nonis, coach Peter Horachek, and nearly 20 other members of the team’s hockey staff. Yesterday, winger Joffrey Lupul called it “a wasted season” while captain Dion Phaneuf called it “the toughest year” of his career. In a press conference, Shanahan looked to the future. “We need to have a team with more character and one that represents this city the way it deserves,” he said. If you were looking for cruel vituperative fun on an altogether sombre day in and around the Air Canada Centre, there was always Rosie DiManno’s column in The Toronto Star, which I’ll just boil down here to a dozen or so key words and phrases she used to describe the team and its effort:

unlamented, unloved, misery, big whoop, defunct, blighted, arse-over-teakettle, implode, benumbed, laughable, how many times and how many ways can you say: Oh. My. God. irrelevant, plague of inertia, ignominy, moribund, the team’s loutish character, comedia del hockey.

This isn’t the first time the Leafs have missed the playoffs, of course, even if it is among the ugliest cases in recent memory. Counting back to 1917 and the dawn of the franchise, Toronto teams have avoided the playoffs about a third of the time, 32 of 97 seasons, or more than twice as often as they’ve won Stanley Cups. Actually, in fact, Toronto is the playoffs-missingest team in the history of the NHL: no team has fallen short more than they have — though the New York Rangers are a close second, with 31 futile campaigns to their credit.

With that in mind, before Shanahan’s future takes hold, there’s just time to review what lies behind, in the past, in the Leafs’ forlorn history of not being good enough.

In 1957, Leafs’ majordomo Conn Smythe took sole responsibility for his team’s — I don’t know what you want to call it, demise? downfall? collapse? Anyway, Toronto missed the playoffs that year for the first time in four years, and just the fourth in 27 seasons. “A year of failure,” Smythe called it at a “flamboyant” press conference he felt the need to hold in New York, where the NHL governors were meeting while the Leafs played out their season.

They still had a couple of games left, but Smythe wanted to get a headstart on the post-season turmoil. He’d already left his captain at home in Toronto, defenceman Jim Thomson, because treachery: he’d had the gall to be trying to help organize a players’ association.

“Next year,” Smythe thundered in New York, “our players will have to understand that they owe 100 per cent loyalty to the team.”

He didn’t fire his rookie coach that day, Howie Meeker, nor the GM, Hap Day, though many of the newspapermen had come expecting one or both to be sacrificed.

Smythe was willing to say that just maybe the Leafs would have to change the way they played. “We have a Spartan system,” he mused, “and we may be out of date. We prefer the body … we have stressed the defensive and not the offensive … Our system may be open to question.”

The very first year the Leafs were Leafs, they missed the playoffs. That was 1926-27, the year Conn Smythe took control of the team with a group of investors and in mid-season exchanged an old name (St. Patricks) and colour (green) for news. The team had three coaches that year and ended up bottom of the Canadian Division. They played their final game at home, hosting Montreal. Only a small crowd showed up, most of whom had come to see Howie Morenz and the Canadiens. But the Leafs played as if life depended on it, The Daily Star said, and ended up winning by a score of 2-1, with Bill Carson playing a prominent role along with, on the Leaf defence, Hap Day.

So that’s a plus.

In 1930, the club wanted to send the players off to their summers in style one the games were over, with a banquet, but it was hard to organize. Charlie Conacher, Red Horner Ace Bailey, and Busher Jackson were off in Montreal, watching the Maroons and Bruins in their playoff series as guests of a “Toronto hockey enthusiast,” while back in Toronto, the rest of the team was packing up for home. I don’t know whether they ever got their meal, but the Leafs returned to the playoffs the following year. The year after that, they won the Stanley Cup.

Just to be keeping it positive.

It was 14 years before they ended their season early again and while there’s no good reason, really, to be ranking the years of disappointment one above another, dropping out the year after you’ve won a Stanley Cup would have to smart, wouldn’t? 1946 Toronto did that with Hap Day now presiding as coach. (It happened again, though not until 1968.)

If only, wrote Jim Coleman in The Globe and Mail in ’46, the Leafs had a goaltender like Durnan, and defencemen of Reardon’s and Bouchard’s quality, maybe a front line resembling the likes of Lach, Blake, and Richard — well, then they’d be the Canadiens, of course, who did indeed end up winning that spring.

For solace, at least, the Leafs triumphed in the last two games they played that season, whupping Detroit 7-3 and 11-7. And that had to have felt pretty good.

Still, it was time to clean out the old, sweep in the new. It was a particularly poignant day, once the whupping was over, for a couple of long-serving Leafs who’d scored a bunch of goals over the years. Sweeney Schriner and Lorne Carr were retiring — though they did mention as they prepared to head home to Calgary that they’d be happy to listen to any other NHL teams who might be willing to make them an offer. (None were.)

As the spring playoffs went ahead without his team, Conn Smythe was feeling — surprisingly? — peppy. If nothing else, he noted for anyone who wanted to hear, the Leafs had rights to and/or options on a veritable mass of hockey talent for the year coming up, 82 players.

“We’re definitely,” he advised, “on the upswing.”

True enough: the Leafs did take home four of the next five Stanley Cups.

I’m not going to trudge through every season the team failed — where’s the fun in that? But back to 1957 for a minute. It is, if nothing else, a bit of a watershed. Teeder Kennedy, 31, retired that year for a second and final time, having returned to the ice midway through the year before deciding that it was time to make way for the next generation. Former Leafs captain Sid Smith, also 31, decided he was quitting, too, until Smythe talked him into returning for one more year. Continue reading

this week and others: hammy trpělivě dřel

Jaromir Jagr is the third best forward in hockey history, according to Corey Masisak of nhl.com.

He ran the numbers — they’re here — and that was his finding. “Jagr is by no means the third most iconic forward,” he wrote.

He’s certainly not the third most popular. Critics of the statement above will immediately turn to words like leadership and toughness to try and prove it wrong.

That’s OK, but Jagr’s ability to dominate during his prime, which happened to be one of the toughest eras in the history of the NHL to produce offense, along with his excellence well into his 40s is why he deserves to be considered the best forward not named Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

“Fuck that,” the owner of the Philadelphia Flyers was saying last week, Ed Snider. Not about Jagr; he’d been asked about patience and building a Stanley Cup-contender, waiting two, three years to compete. Nope, he said: the time is now. Or, at least, next year, since the Flyers won’t be playing in the 2015 playoffs.

“They beat us all over the ice,” is what the Leafs’ coach, Peter Horachek, said after St. Louis waylaid his team by a score of 6-1. “They beat us from the beginning to the end. They beat us all over the place.”

Gordie Howe’s family had a jam-packed 87th birthday planned for him March 31, according to Helene St. James from The Detroit Free Press. All being well, his family had a barbecue planned, and a cake, maybe some catfishing. (He’s living with his daughter, these days, in Lubbock, Texas, where it’s catfish season, apparently.)

Roman Josi is the Erik Karlsson of the West, said his (Josi’s) coach in Nashville, Barry Trotz, if CP’s Stephen Whyno is to be trusted.

Evgeny Romasko became the first Russian-born referee to work an NHL game a few weeks back, lending his whistle to a meeting in Detroit between Red Wings and Oilers. Back home in Russia, former pairs skater looked to the heavens as he hoped that Romasko might land a full-time NHL contract for next year.

“If we compare the first match with Gagarin’s flight,” Zaitsev told RIA Novosti, “the contract for the season with the NHL will be on a scale with the landing of the first man on the moon, even though he was not Russian.”

Ottawa beat the New York Islanders earlier in the month, and after it was over Senators coach Dave Cameron revealed the reason why. “You can’t win in this league without goaltending. Hammy was real good.”

Nearby, Islanders coach Jack Capuano was explaining the loss. “We have to stay the course and grind it out,” he confided. “Our structure has to be there and we have to execute and play with pace. But if you can’t score, you can’t win.”

The Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno checked in on Toronto’s Leafs, with particular thoughts on Phil Kessel’s recent defence of his captain.

No. 81 wasn’t wildly off the mark in his extraordinary outburst on behalf of Dion Phaneuf, although the aim was wide. If Kessel wanted to unload on the bitchin’ brigade, he should have targeted the ex-Leafs who’ve found a second career as radio and TV pundits because they’re the most venomous bashers of the bunch, their insider analysis far more scathing than any critical salvo launched by a beat reporter or columnist. And on the evidence, they’re right.

Of the odious tweeters and bloggers nothing more need be said. But it’s still unclear what exactly got Kessel so hot. He ain’t saying. We’re expected to read his mind, which oftentimes seems an empty cavity.

Kyle Turris, Ottawa centreman: “Hammy is standing on his head for us. I can’t even explain how well he’s playing. It’s unbelievable.”

Scott Gomez wrote about his hockey trials and tribulations at The Players Tribune:

Life and hockey kind of mirror each other in the sense that when you’re having good times, it’s difficult to imagine how things will ever go wrong. And when you’re having bad times, well, yeah.

Czech nhl.com was on the story, too:

“Hammy” ale dál trpělivě dřel a postupně se vypracoval v kvalitního gólmana. I díky zdravému sebevědomí a velkému odhodlání. Ostatně dvouletá smlouva od Sens nebyla jen dílem štěstí, nejprve totiž uspěl na zkoušce na jejich farmě v Binghamtonu.

Calgary rookie Johnny Gaudreau talked about what’s working with the high-scoring line he’s on with Jiri Hudler and Sean Monahan:

“The chemistry is there. For me, it’s the chemistry. When you get to play with a player or a few players throughout the whole season, you just feel really comfortable with them on and off the ice. You learn more and more about them and where they’re going to be at on the ice and that’s what we’re doing right now.”

“Hammy has been exceptional,” was another thing that Dave Cameron was saying in Ottawa. “Everybody knows that.” Continue reading

pat quinn, 1943—2014

1971-72 O-Pee-Chee #122 Pat Quinn

Roy MacGregor’s requiem at The Globe and Mail is the one I’d send you to, here, followed by Steve Milton’s tribute at The Hamilton Spectator and this one that Rosie DiManno wrote for The Toronto Star. I’d quote Trevor Linden, who said earlier on Monday, “We have lost a great man. It’s a sad day for hockey and for everyone who loves our game.” Then I’d leave it at that.

(Photo: The Want List, hockeymedia, on flickr)

tosser

sweater

A fan leaving the game with seven minutes remaining in the third period tossed his Leafs sweater on the ice to the left of Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Calls for coach Randy Carlyle’s job will start to flow if the Leafs don’t win soon … There’s no question that James Reimer should start versus the New York Rangers on Sunday in Manhattan, which probably was the plan no matter what happened against the Penguins. Bernier already could use a mental break …
• Terry Koshan, The Toronto Sun
October 11, 2014

Linesman Don Henderson moved in, scooped it up, bunched it to himself like sinful laundry that had fallen to the cathedral floor. He had it handed off the ice and out of sight so fast that it seemed as though the delicate modesty of the whole Air Canada Centre depended on his urgency.

The Leafs were losing, of course. Had lost their season opener, against Montreal, were following that up with an ugly showing against Sidney Crosby’s Penguins. They were getting hammered, as Cathal Kelly wrote for a Thanksgiving Monday’s column in The Globe and Mail, when …

some lonely hero without any real problems trod down to ice level and chucked a $150 Toronto jersey onto the ice. The ACC crowd responded with roars, clapping him up the stairs and out into the night.

The meaning of the gesture was lost on no-one. That didn’t it didn’t have to spelled out and probed and glossed in the press. “It seems the fanbase’s patience is beginning to wear thin,” Kaitlyn McGrath wrote in The National Post. Mike Zeisberger of the Toronto Sun called the anonymous fan disgruntled. And: embittered. Other fans, nearby, high-fived him as he departed the rink. That’s what reporter David Alter saw.

Cathal Kelly:

The scene was reminiscent of the Tank Man at Tiananmen Square. Except completely pointless, as well as annoyingly bourgeois.

Uncrushed by armour, the guy seems not to have been charged by police, either. That happens, of course, sometimes. I guess because he was leaving the building he didn’t need to be ejected by staff. Is he now banned? No-one seems to be mentioning anything like that.

Fair enough, said Zeisberger: the Leafs didn’t make the playoffs last year, after all.

Or — no. Sorry. Not cool:

No matter how ticked you might be, chucking anything onto the ice — be it jersey, waffle, other breakfast food, etc. — is unacceptable. Don’t be idiots. Boo, hiss, jeer if you want, but let it end there.

Because — danger? Tossing stuff on the ice is a hazard to those who skate there, which is why the NHL bans it and deals so severely with the tossers (octopi excepted, mostly). Never mind that, historically, stuff-tossing has been as much a part of the game as, oh, I don’t know, players punching one another in the head. The point is, it’s not civil, it’s unsafe, nobody wants to be associated with a sport in this day and age where that kind of thing would be tolerated. Continue reading