Sports

A TRIUMPH OF SWEAT OVER STYLE

Like it or not, the injury-depleted Leafs have become Canada’s team

JAMES DEACON May 27 2002
Sports

A TRIUMPH OF SWEAT OVER STYLE

Like it or not, the injury-depleted Leafs have become Canada’s team

JAMES DEACON May 27 2002

A TRIUMPH OF SWEAT OVER STYLE

Sports

Like it or not, the injury-depleted Leafs have become Canada’s team

JAMES DEACON

They should play the theme music from Rocky when the Toronto Maple Leafs step out onto the ice, and a tune or two from True Grit. Did the Bad News Bears have a soundtrack? Play that, too. The only Canadian team still battling through the NHL playoffs is one mangy mutt of an overachieving underdog. It scratched and clawed past Ottawa in round two of the playoffs with seven regulars sidelined by injuries and a roster filled with minor-leaguers, and now finds itself with only the Carolina Hurricanes standing in the way of a shot at the Stanley Cup. Through the mysteries of team chemistry, it appears, the Leafs have become greater than the sum of their parts. “Were doing all the little things,” says winger Alexander Mogilny, “and that’s what you need to do to win.”

It’s been nine years since the last Cup victory this side of the border, and given their injury woes, the Leafs were not the team fans expected to contend. Saku Koivu’s inspirational comeback from cancer treatments made the rejuvenated Montreal Canadiens a more popular choice until they fell to Carolina. The dashing Vancouver Canucks were more exciting even while losing their first-round matchup with

Detroit. And Ottawa’s Senators, though institutionally boring under coach Jacques Martin’s cloying, defence-first system, were more skilled on paper than beat-up Toronto, which was missing, among others, top scorer Mats Sundin and top defender Dmitry Yushkevich.

Paper, though, only counts on payday in hockey. Talent, execution and heart decide things on the ice. The Leafs dropped the cheap-shot shenanigans that sullied their first-round series against the New York Islanders and have been sticking to diligent but dull defence. Shayne Corson leads a corps of shot-blockers helping out goaltender Curtis Joseph. Centre Alyn McCauley steps in from the fourth line to ably fill broken-wristed Sundin’s spot on the top unit. Eight call-ups from the St. John’s Maple Leafs of the American Hockey League play enough shifts to give the firstliners a breather. And everyone relies on defencemen Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle, and forwards Mogilny, McCauley and Gary Roberts, to provide the offence. Roberts is one of the few Leafs with a Stanley Cup ring. “That was in ’89 with Calgary and I was only 23,” he says, explaining the motivation for his hard-driving play. “I thought I was going to get a lot of chances at this, but it doesn’t happen that way.”

In college hoops-mad North Carolina, shinny is still a novelty. Thanks to the playoff excitement, though, the ’Canes are now attracting sellout crowds cheering a lineup led by veteran centre Ron Francis and the hot BBC Line—Rod Brind’Amour between Bates Battaglia and rookie Erik Cole. Folks are buying jerseys and learning to appreciate the work of grinders along the boards. What they lack in tradition, they make up in enthusiasm—when full, the Entertainment & Sports Arena in Raleigh is as loud as any arena on earth. And since Carolina’s lineup is healthier than Toronto’s, the sport’s star turn along Tobacco Road may just be getting started. “This is big for the city of Raleigh,” says Brind’Amour. “It’s building a hockey market.”

Toronto fans hardly need stoking. It’s scary to think what might happen if the Leafs ever actually won a Cup, given that supporters launch horn-honking, YongeStreet-clogging celebrations just for beating Ottawa. They are starved—Toronto last won the Cup 35 years ago—and their hopes are fuelled by Leaf old-timers who say the current blue-collar ethic reminds them of that 1967 team when it upset Chicago and then Montreal. It’s one thing to dream, but even Leaf fans know it’s too soon to plan a parade. EH1