SPORTS

THE PUCK STOPS RIGHT HERE

JONATHON GATEHOUSE April 17 2006
SPORTS

THE PUCK STOPS RIGHT HERE

JONATHON GATEHOUSE April 17 2006

THE PUCK STOPS RIGHT HERE

SPORTS

Defensive, depressed, and angry: no one does failure like the Leafs

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

Somebody in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization is finding it difficult to live by the dressing room clichés about staying positive and simply taking it one day at a time. How else do you explain the Metallica chestnut blaring from the Air Canada Centre’s PA system as the players took the ice for a pre-game skate last week? There are lots of uplifting tunes you could spin to help motivate a team on the cusp of missing the playoffs and extending the franchise record of Stanley Cup futility to 39 years. I Disappear, from the soundtrack to the film Mission h?ipossible, clearly isn’t one of them.

A late-season win streak has served to delay the inevitable, but the old joke about how you know it’s springtime in Toronto—the “Buds” are out—seems as appropriate, and depressing, as ever. For the citizens of the “Leaf Nation,” however, the reality is even uglier this year. It’s not just that a failure to make the post-season would be the first since 1997-98; it’s the slow-dawning realization that this hockey club isn’t likely to get better any time soon.

The view from the press box in the Foster Hewitt Gondola, high above the ice at the ACC, puts the problem into perspective. Sprinkled among the arrive-late, gottacheck-my-Blackberry, quickexiting business types, the real fans wear jerseys emblazoned mostly with names plucked from Toronto’s big Book of the Dead. For every Sundin, or Domi, there are three Gilmours or Clarks. Perhaps it’s just a function of the $300 the team charges for replica sweaters, but a lot more people seem willing to walk around with Mogilny, Roberts, Joseph, Potvin, or even Renberg and Baumgartner on their backs than say, Belak or Wilm.

And who can blame them? The 2005-06 Leafs have no players among the league’s top

50 scorers. Ed Belfour, the team’s almost 41year-old goalie (whose season, and perhaps career ended last week with back surgery), ranks 37th in save percentage. Only five of its regular skaters have a plus rating. As of last week, the team had won three games all season when trailing after one period, and just a single match when trailing after two. And

‘YOU DONT HAVE ANY BALLS. NONE OF THE GUYS LIKE YOU/ DARCY TUCKER SNAPPED AT A REPORTER.

the Leafs’ major acquisitions have all proved disappointments. Slow-moving free agent Jason Allison notched 60 points before a season-ending hand injury, but was a defensive disaster, ending up at -18. Jeff O’Neill, acquired from Carolina for his scoring touch, has just 34 points and is a -17. And like bone china, Eric Lindros was too fragile for everyday use, lasting just 33 games.

In fact, if not for its power play—currently ranked fourth in the league—the club would

probably be finishing the season even closer to the bottom of the standings. Offensively challenged, elderly, and filled with middling skaters, especially on defence, this Leafs squad found itself at a huge disadvantage when the league opened up the game by cracking down on holding, hooking and obstruction. The immediate future holds little prospect for improvement. True, first year forwards Alex Steen and Kyle Wellwood are among the top 10 in rookie scoring, but neither has set the world on fire. There are no emerging stars like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf, or Carolina’s Eric Staal wearing the blue and white. And the venerable Hockey News has ranked the club’s farm-system prospects 25th out of 30 teams.

Perhaps that’s why even in the midst of the team’s too-little, too-late win streak, the dominant emotion in the dressing room seems to be frustration. Relations between the players and the media—never great in the overheated Toronto market—are frayed. At a mid-week practice, Tie Domi skated out to

centre ice, wound up and drilled a shot into the stands, uncomfortably close to a group of photographers and cameramen. Darcy Tucker, as much a gentleman off the ice as on it, reacted angrily to questions about a hit

IT’S NOT JUST THIS SEASON-IT’S THE REALIZATION THIS TEAM ISN’T GETTING BETTER ANY TIME SOON

that knocked Buffalo’s Jochen Hecht out of the lineup with a sprained knee. “This has been blown out of proportion by you guys, like always,” he said. “It was a nothing play.” Tucker later made a point of singling out the TV reporter who had led the questioning. “You don’t have any balls. That’s why none of the guys like you,” he barked. “I stick up for you, but nobody likes you.” Another young reporter watched from the sidelines.“Tucker said exactly the same thing to me at the beginning of the season.”

And even before the curtain officially descended on the year, the recriminations were flying. It seems a foregone conclusion that coach Pat Quinn will take a bullet for his team’s on-ice failings. (Although, arguably, if Quinn deserves to be fired it is for the choices he made as general manager between 1999 and 2003—trading hot prospects like Boston rookie Brad Boyes for past-their-prime springtime acquisitions like Owen Nolan—not for anything he’s done behind the bench.) “This season has been what it is,” a contemplative Quinn said after practice last week. He had been hoping for a strong spring playoff run to help ease the crushing disappointment of Team Canada’s exit in the quarter-finals of

the Turin Olympics. Now the 63-year-old is busy looking for the bright side of what could be the final few games of his coaching career. “This is a great job. I’m coming to a place that I like coming to. I’m working with a bunch of people that I like working with. And when it’s tough, some days you don’t necessarily feel real positive, but you try to work on that.”

John Ferguson Jr., the current general manager, a pugnacious little guy with the temperament and fashion sensibility of a highschool vice-principal, will likely get another chance to try and improve his club in the off-season. And perhaps he’ll excel once he’s fully out from under Quinn’s long shadow. But some of his past decisions—signing Belfour to a rich two-year deal in 2004, O’Neill’s $1.5-million contract, caving into pressure from the Leafs’ owners and re-upping Tie Domi last summer, are sure to haunt him.

The Air Canada Centre, with its guaranteed sellouts, $13 draff beers, and fine-dining restaurants offering such fare as seared venison chop with pureé of celery root, for the low, low price of $42, is a cash box for Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. And the franchise, already ranked as the league’s richest with an estimated value of US $325 million, is set for another banner year. But little of that money is available for the on-ice product. The NHL salary cap for next year is likely to be in the neighbourhood of US $42 million. The Leafs already have $20.34 million committed for 10 players. Re-signing Bryan McCabe, their top defenceman, will take at least $5.5 million more. That leaves just over $16 million to sign 12 guys, likely including a new first-string goalie. That’s a tall order.

Toronto’s only choice appears to be the hard route—rebuilding through draff picks and trades for prospects. Its fans, accustomed to springtime spending sprees and quick summer fixes, probably won’t be happy. But if there’s anybody out there in hockeyland equipped to deal with disappointment, it’s the folks in the stands wearing the blue and white. M