I got out of Toronto this week just before the Maple Leafs fired their coach, an event which has caused a hubbub of opinion ranging from, “About time,” to “What now?” Truth be told, most pundits and fans knew that the move was coming. But much of the hockey discussion in the Toronto papers over the past week and a half had been devoted to the Junior tournament going on in that city and Montreal.
This was especially so when it turned out that the gold medal game would be contested between the Canadians, who hadn’t won gold for a number of years, and the Russians, their archenemies stretching back to 1972.
Being something of an authority on the 1972 Summit Series (I’ve edited a book on the subject, and written about it extensively in several of my books), I always take great joy when a series is compared to that Cold War battle. Truth is, nothing will approach the international intrigue and suspicion which characterized that series ever again, unless Japan plays the US World Series champion and pushes them to a seven-game limit, with the Yanks only scoring the win via walk-off hit in the bottom of the 11th.
But believe me when I say that the firing of Randy Carlyle is probably producing a firestorm about equivalent of the Junior World Gold which the Canadians wrapped up late Monday evening. In that case, of course, the outcry is positive, whereas the Carlyle news was tinged with sadness. The old, “It’s a shame when someone loses his job” stuff that players even sometimes take onto their own shoulders (“We got him fired . . . “). That’s because in Toronto, nothing is ever done by half measures when it comes to their NHL team. Every lineup change causes delight or panic. Every pimple is dissected (not literally) for signs of looming illness.
Truth is, the players in Toronto didn’t get Carlyle fired. Nor did Carlyle get Carlyle fired, though his critics, the excellent journalist James Mirtle coming most to mind here, have been asking for a year why he does what he does with the players he has. Despite early season success this year, his system is just old-fashioned, and his team lacking in really big talent. Sure, the names Kessel, Lupul, and Phaneuf are marquis-quality. The talent in the case of the first and third guy isn’t quite there, and the second is, and always has been, as fragile as a Doulton figurine.
Speaking of players, to a man their mission now is to prove, “It wasn’t me,” which is why a team often goes on a bit of a tear after losing a bench boss. It never lasts. There was a reason for the firing in the first place, in most cases (Harold Ballard canning Roger Neilson and then rehiring him the same day, to cite an example from Leafs’ history, notwithstanding), and that’s not because the team was doing well. How much of that is the coach’s fault varies by situation, but in this case, there’s blame to go around on both the players and coach.
Maybe he’ll do this time what he did when the Ducks canned him and hang around. How awkward, but he was in the press dining room and attending the games after the Ducks let him go. Funny guy, and that’s not to take away from his abilities as a coach. He did a great job in Anaheim and simply didn’t adapt his game to the realities of the new NHL. Of course, that’s a matter of opinion. Perhaps it was just that the cast of blueshirts he had to draw from just didn’t have the talent to fulfill the enormous expectations that they have as a team that last won the Stanley Cup when most of their fans were either not born or not out of diapers.
And who is coming next? All the whispering has Mike Babcock taking the job, and for a ton of money (says the Hockey News this week). But think about that a minute. Is he going to throw his reputation onto the scrap heap of Toronto coaching failure without knowing that things are going to be different with the team in July and next fall than they are now? So getting Carlyle out of the way is, more than anything, about sending a message to everyone associated with the Maple Leaf logo—watch it, because you’re next.
Babcock is tough enough to take the job, and smart enough to tell the endlessly needling Toronto media and fans just to bugger off and let him do his job. But he’s not going to lurch onto a sinking ship with the hopes of righting it singlehandedly. That never works (ask his two or three predecessors, should he take the job). Rather, he’s going to watch and see what the Leafs position themselves as as the season heads toward the draft. Then he’ll decide.