With the Leafs in town to take on the Kings Monday (and the Ducks Wednesday), it seems like a good time to ask that pressing question: What’s up with the Toronto franchise, which again seems like it’s mired in the muck as another coach has departed and the performance, somewhat hopeful in the first half, is flagging? And why the feeling that this is a huge, yeah verily almost national, tragedy?
I get that neither Montreal nor any other Canadian club has won the Stanley Cup for two decades (if by Canadian we mean teams resident there—there are lots of “Canadian” NHL teams which happen to play in the US. One is right here in front of me as I write—the LA Kings, who have 16 players of the 26 listed on the roster and IR hailing from Canada). What I don’t get is why the Toronto Maple Leafs have been so bad for so long, or why it sometimes seems like all the pressure to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada rests on them.
But here are a couple of theories. Management going back to the days of owner Harold Ballard has been horrible. Ballard, as most longtime fans of the game know, was famously a bad man. Just one incident as example: he fired Roger Neilson one day, then rehired him the same day. Another time, he tried to get Neilson to wear a paper bag on his head during a game.
From the 1920s-50s, Conn Smythe was the GM. There’s a story about him and his demands of players to sacrifice their careers to participate in WW2, and I tell it in my book My Country Is Hockey. Maybe that makes him too gung-ho, but he had a lot of success, too. Those were the days when the Leafs won the Cup on average every handful of years.
The GM during the late 1950s, most of the 1960s, and the bridge between the 1970s and 80s was Punch Imlach. The one person I know who played under his reign tells me that he was a miserable, cheap bugger. It was he, for example, who was responsible for the fact that the players, when they won a second Stanley Cup during their tenure with the Leafs, didn’t get a new ring. They just got a larger diamond placed in the old one. To this day, the former player I’m referencing has nothing good to say about Imlach. And this fellow was a marquis name and won a few Cups.
Yet it can’t be true that Leafs’ management is made up of horrid people, because some of the people who have been in the Toronto front office in the past couple of decades include Ken Dryden and John Ferguson, Jr. Then there’s Brian Burke, famous for truculence, but also highly effective, at least until his ideas, which worked to bring the Ducks a Cup in 2007, got stale without his realizing that they had. Good men all, so far as it’s known.
So what’s up with the team, and why the drought? This is an especially pressing question to the degree that they carry a mantle for the country. Why is that, and why can’t they fulfill the hopes that they’ll finally win again?
If it’s not ownership, maybe it’s something else. Coaching? They’ve had some of the best, men who have been successful elsewhere. So maybe it’s off the ice?
The thing is, the Leafs can’t escape the scrutiny of their fans. Yesterday, they were practicing in El Segundo, at the LA Kings’ facility, probably about as far from the traditional center of the hockey world as you might find yourself, and still, the coverage in the media was unrelenting. A lot of it is twitter. Tweet, tweet, tweet—every skate blade put wrong, every second taken off, every hint that someone’s injured. It doesn’t stop. How must that feel, as a player?
The worst boss I ever had was a guy named Doug who ran a gas station. I was the lot boy and filling attendant for full-serve. Doug never left me nor anyone else alone. We worked 12-hour shifts (Doug also had no idea what the words “labor law” meant when put side by side), and the guy could roll onto the lot anytime, see you, and pull you over to his car.
It might be nearly 9pm, still hot and humid, and you’d been there since 10am. “See that curb island?” he’d say. You’d nod. “It’s dirty. Paint it before you go home tonight.”
Bastard. We all hated the guy, because he never, ever left us alone. And that’s exactly what Toronto media and fans do to whoever wears their colors in a given season. What must it be like to work under those conditions? Like working for Doug. Witness Phil Kessel’s reaction last week when he’d finally had enough. And yet all speaking out does is give the press yet another story to write. Another story that really has nothing to do with hockey.
Perhaps that’s the tragedy, and the answer to my question. Hockey in Toronto is about what goes on on the ice, but it’s also about the soap opera created out of the constant need to talk things over, fret about what’s happening, and speculate on the future.
Now, in truth, twitter has given every team’s fans the ability to keep the dialogue going day and night. Even when there’s not a lot to say. It’s not just a Toronto thing.
How recently it was that you could go to a Kings game, hear the hour-long call-in show afterwards, and then experience silence on the radio and in the papers (except, if you were lucky, for a game recap, hardly ever an opinion piece) until the next game. In a way, it was lonely for hockey fans. But it was also good, because when the chatter did start up again, say amongst fans in the hours before a game, there was actually something to say, because it hadn’t all been said already.
But in the big TO, it’s never been that way, not, at least, since back when radio on the AM dial changed to all-talk format, and that’s what? The late 1980s? Now, with twitter and all that jazz a part of fan life, and fed by the media, who obviously, willingly or not, are compelled to take part, there’s never a silent moment.
I don’t know about you and your work life, but I like to turn the job off from time to time. Toronto hockey players can never, ever do that. Except for the 60 minutes they play the game 82 times a year, but that’s not enough, apparently, because as things stand now, just slightly past the halfway mark, the Leafs are tenth in the East and fourth in the wildcard race in that conference, and the team right ahead of them, Florida, has two games in hand on Toronto.
The knock on the team was the Carlyle style wasn’t enough into possession. That’s another way to say that you can truly understand the game using Corsi analysis. Maybe you can, but most seat-of-the-pants guys would say that it’s not just that they haven’t had the puck enough. It’s why.
So why? Because they don’t have the marquis players? Because they’re not fast enough (back to the Burke method)? Because nobody fears them? Maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it’s doubt.
One time I was standing at a prospects camp game with a member of the LA Kings staff, and I asked him how many of the guys we were watching would end up making the NHL. “I don’t know. A few at least, but I can tell you one thing—every one of them believes he will, or he would never have made it this far.” It’s a story I’ve told before, but it bears repeating here because when you watch hockey played at the NHL level, the one thing that you notice is that things happen so fast that there is no room for thinking. You’ve got to react. And doing the right thing when you react means having a pure thought process so that you just know what the move is.
There’s no way to measure whether that’s been compromised for these players, but I think the theory holds. Think about other people who wouldn’t play where they didn’t think they’d succeed—Dionne ending up in LA, the Lindros affair drove him away from Quebec. The best players in history know that the mental game is as much as the physical. If you’re wondering, even in a tiny sliver of yourself, whether you’re making a mistake, you’re going to. And that’s got to play into this Leafs’ thing someway, somehow.
It’s just that nobody’s going to admit doubt, and nobody is going to diss the holy grail of fan interest that seems so untouchable—seems, even, the reason to fabricate the lie (sometimes) “we thought our fans were great tonight, full building, blah blah blah” when in fact, it’s a Thursday in February and the barn was half empty.
But maybe, if the Leafs were just left alone to play hockey once in a while, things would be different. Maybe.
Anyway, here, for you who want a quick game recap, is what happened on Monday night:
The Kings stormed out in the form of Drew Doughty, who clearly had decided before the puck dropped that he was going to play his strongest offensive game of the year. He wheeled the puck into the Toronto zone and around the net, throwing it to Kopitar as he came around from the left. Kopitar put it at the net and in. But play continued. Review after the next stoppage clearly showed the puck had gone in high and come straight back out, and the goal stood.
The hitting was hard in the first period, and though the Leafs came alive in the second half of the frame, holding the puck and at one point getting a dangerous two-on-one on Martin Jones (yes, Quick was resting, for once), they registed just three shots in the period. Granted, the Kings weren’t a ton better, with just seven, but Toronto had, essentially no meaningful offense.
Period two settled into the doldrums, with not a great deal of action and very few scoring chances in the middle portion. The Leafs had a power play early, but their only shots came via a behind-the-back deflection and thena shot on the rebound. Jones was good.
Bernier in the other net had a couple of moments too. He stopped a puck right next to the post with about ten minutes left and the Kings were on a slight surge. Soon, things again settled down to playing mostly in the middle of the ice.
Kessel put a puck to Bozak for a one-timer, but Bozak’s stick broke, and he got not shot. Phaneuf put one to Winnik, but he batted it wide.
The Leafs had another power play, and got just one shot on it. But the offender, Matt Greene, burst out of the box and ended up with a mini-breakaway. The reaction on press row? If he scores, better get home and store your stuff away from the coming apocalypse.
The best chance of the game came late in the period, when Van Riemsdyk burst in on net and got a shot away before flying over the defenseman in his path. Jones made a strong save. The period ended with the shot total not much improved from period one, with the Kings ending with 13 and the Leafs 11.
You could look at that another way. The Leafs outshot the Kings in P2, 8-6. You might also say this—the Maple Leafs brought the Kings back to them, forcing them (?) to play their no-offense style of game.
Period two thus ended with a 1-0 score, as had the first. The only goal, recall, was scored with just over half a minute gone in the contest.
The third period saw the Leafs post their best shot total, and outshoot the Kings 8-7. They pulled even in total shots with the Kings at 14 midway along, and then pull ahead. Both clubs had dangerous chances at 16 shots apiece, and the Kings only iced the game with a late empty net goal.
Stephane Robidas had positive things to say about the team’s effort. “I think that’s the way we want to play. We try to move forward. The last two games, it’s playoff hockey. We came up short, but we made it a game. It was 1-0 in the third period in a tough period with a team that’s the Stanley Cup champion. They know how to play with the lead. They know how to defend it. We limited them on the other side of the puck. It was a good game from our side. If we play like that, we’re going to win more games than we lose.” He added that they’ve been working on the details, like how to position themselves in their D zone.
The coach added to that afterwards, “They’re a big team, and they came out very hard. We didn’t execute well coming out of our zone in the first period, but the resolve was there. We’ve got to take some solace from the fact that their shots, their chances, were lower, and we’re going to be able to score some goals.” He added, “You look at all the top teams in the West, and they all play tight in terms of chances. We’ve got to get comfortable playing that way. I think we can take advantage and play that way more often.”
With Pearson out with a broken fibula and Toffoli suffering from mono, Jordan Nolan was in once more, and also Andy Andreoff. Called up from the AHL was Nick Shore, who is scoring more than a point a game in that league.
Note also that the crowd of reporters which follows the Leafs around is huge, so getting close to the players and coaches to hear their comments is difficult. Some of my transcriptions may miss a word or two, but the ideas are accurately represented, I believe.