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Leaf hopefuls from far and wide

- July 5th, 2011

The Maple Leafs’ birth certificates at this week’s prospect camp are as varied as their unusual high-digit sweater numbers.
There are a smattering of Americans of course, 12 in all, including Deephaven, Minn.’s Jake Gardiner, who turned 21 on July 4th. They come from all over the Eastern seaboard, all the way down to Floridian Myles Harvey. Born in Mouseville, aka Orlando, the 6-foot-5 forward attended Providence College where Brian Burke and Ron Wilson went to school. Otherwise, it’s Minnesotans, New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians aplenty.
On the European front, the Germans are the big news this year, on the heels of Marcel Mueller getting a shot with the Leafs in 2010-11. Three were invited, 5-foot-10 forward Martin Buchwieser, forward Matthias Plachta and defenceman Florian Kettemer. Four Swedes, incuding 2011 draft pick Daniel Brodin, made the trip and one Norwegian, 6-foot-4 stringbean Sondre Olden. He trained in MoDo, Sweden, under GM Markus Naslund.
The 42-man roster runs the gammut from A (Will Acton, son of the departed assistant coach) to Z (forward Mark Zengerle who played with Gardiner at the University Wisconsin). Some barely know each other, while the Owen Sound Attack’s Jesse Blacker and St. Mike’s Major Stuart Percy are too familiar. The defencemen battled two years in the OHL and in two different playoff series last season in the OHL and Memorial Cup. Someday, the might be fighting each other for a spot on the Leafs.
There are 19 Canadians in all, 15 from Ontario, hailing from downtown Toronto (Blacker) to the hamlets of Hammond (Kevin Tansey), Linwood (Tyler Brenner) and Washago (Brett Cook).
But the winner for most circuitous route here belongs to goaltender Mark Owuya. His Dad is from Uganda, his mother from Russia, who met back in the old USSR and moved to Stockholm, where Mark was born in 1989. He is slated to go even further afield this year to play with the Reading, PA., Royals of the ECHL.

- June 17th, 2011

Enough with the media tsk-tsking the violence in Vancouver. focusing on the young anarchists who are supposedly home-grown in B.C.
It could have happened anywhere in Canada, with Montreal having a few unruly playoff episodes of its own where crowds went loco after a loss. They pioneered this kind of thing almost 60 years ago with the Richard Riot.
And Toronto, despite well-behaved crowds on Yonge St. when Canada won gold at the Olympics, would have had its share of bad publicity had the Leafs ever made it as far as the Canucks this year. (Yes grandchildren, it has happened).
In 2002 when Toronto was playing Carolina in the Eastern Final there were already signs of unruly behaviour on Bay St. that surely would have clouded any kind of celebrations had the Leafs made it to June. It’s almost at the point where living in the moment of a championship means who can take the sickest pictures of rioting and send them along the social network the fastest. Hogtown is no better than Vancouver or Montreal, Edmonton or Calgary in that respect. Who didn’t look at the burning cop cars this week and think back to G-20?
At least in Toronto there will be a few years to work out a contingency plan before Cup talk gets serious. No one wants to celebrate a title in an armed camp, but unfortunately, it might be headed that way for all future winners.

Rewinding with Pat Burns

- November 21st, 2010

The last good chat with Pat Burns came sometime in 2003-04. He was pacing the hall by himself about an hour before a Leafs’ – Devils game at the ACC, a caged tiger as always.
I’d missed covering the previous spring’s Cup final with Jersey and gave him belated congratulations.
“It took you long enough,” I teased. “If you’d done that here 10 years ago, we’d both be set for life. You as Mayor of Toronto and me retiring on my royalties from Leafs Stanley Cup books.”
He laughed in agreement, we talked of those five eventful years on either side of the fishbowl and parted. I said hello in the press box a few years later when the present Leafs saluted the ‘93 team and could see he was ailing and heard it in his voice when I called Florida to get his opinion on Doug Gilmour’s Hall of Fame chances.
He kept most of the media at a distance and thought nothing of mocking your question in front of your peers. But at a time when the media had better access to the team, on the plane, bus or at the bar, his sardonic observations of life through the eyes of a coach, ex-cop and would-be country and western singer made many long days more bearable.
He gave honest answers to direct questions and never let his players shirk that accountability to their fans through the media. Most of all, he was a great coach and his era was still my favourite covering the Leafs. Some memories:

* Burns used to joke that the French – Canadian media would embrace him as one of the family when Montreal had success, but refer to his Irish background (his grandfather was from Belfast) whenever the team fell on hard times or after he came to Toronto.
But there was no middle ground for Burns in debates such as the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum.
Burns was up at 8 a.m. on voting day phoning all his relatives to urge them to vote no.
“I have about 30 or 40 people there,” said Burns. “I just don’t think the people are getting the whole story from the media there, a lot of whom are separatists. I have a house and property there, so I’m concerned.
“I hope a lot of the people give it a second thought when they close the curtain to vote.”
* He knew exactly where Cliff Fletcher and Bill Watters sat in every NHL building. If there was a Leaf whom they differed on and that player did something good or bad, Burns would lock eyes on the boss with a grin of satisfaction or frustration and maybe throw his arms up with no further comment needed. If he’d championed a player a writer had criticized, Burns would wait for said player to score or make a big play and shoot a glance at the press box, as if to say ‘Hah’!
* Burns enjoyed spinning tales of his police days; getting conked on the head by a frozen turkey while breaking up a domestic scuffle, adventures with bike gangs, the drunk driver he arrested who later came back to the station brandishing a gun.
There was the night the squad had a strong suspect in a string of assaults in custody who wouldn’t co-operate. At the time, the storeroom was full of costumes recovered from a truck robbery and Burns proposed getting into a full Easter Bunny suit, hiding his face under the flop-eared mask, going in the cell and batting the guy with a big felt padded paw until he talked. He didn’t go through with it, but give him marks for creativity.
Burns said he always found his police background useful when dealing one-on-one with players, media or anyone, saying he could tell the phonies and the boot lickers from the honest joes.
* When the Leafs had a losing streak, very rare under his watch, Burns would be critical, but never to the point of embarrassing a player. He ventured one day whether Wendel Clark was being over-rated in Toronto, he said Grant Fuhr looked fat at training camp and in his most famous put-down, he claimed he wouldn’t know waiver pick-up Bill Berg if he ran over him in his car.
He would protect players and answer for their faults to a point. but some nights, if they weren’t rewarding his faith, he’d pull every Leaf out of the shower, the medical room or wherever they’d hidden from the press and order them to sit at their stalls until the mandated 30 minutes for interviews had elapsed.
* On the Leafs’ first visit to Tampa in 1992, the excited players piled off the plane like little kids into 75-degree tempertures, palm trees and the sight of pleasure boats bobbing in the bay. Burns saw trouble in paradise right away, read them the riot act and made sure they didn’t get lulled into vacation mode as the expansion Lightning were doing to other teams. The Leafs won 5-2.
When the interview room at little Expo Hall in Tampa proved too cramped after the game, Burns ordered the whole press conference moved outdoors on the lawn under a starry Florida night, a most bizarre sight for the fans as they headed to their cars.
“I’ve done a million of these, but never one ‘al fresco’,” noted long time Star hockey columnist Frank Orr.
* One night in Calgary, a forward we won’t embarrass by name was parked on the end of the bench watching Flames’ mascot Harvey The Hound do his drum-pounding routine, while hanging on the glass. Burns yelled the guy’s name on a time-out line change, but he didn’t go on. Burns then bellowed a second time with no response. Seeing the player was enraptured by Harvey’s skit, Burns knocked about five Leafs over as he went down the bench and screamed right in the player’s ear which snapped him back to attention and scrambling over the boards.
* As the 1993 Western Conference final raged with rival Barry Melrose on the Kings bench, Burns came close to losing it. When the two men starting jawing and Melrose puffed out his cheeks to mock Burns’ burly frame, the Leaf coach ran down the aisle and had to be restrained by team doctors who were sitting between the clubs.
“Let’s just say Barry was lucky that Pat didn’t get to him,” Fletcher said.
When the series went back to L.A. and Kings’ fans started sending doughnuts and fast food to Burns’ hotel room as a joke. Burns and his assistants took the food to Santa Monica beach and gave it to the homeless.
* Burns always seemed to have a nice little tale for reporters in every new city he wound up coaching. In Montreal, it was sneaking into the Forum as a kid to watch the hometown Habs, hiding under a beer truck at the back door. In Toronto, he said Frank Mavovlich was his favourite player and that he wore a Leaf sweater to pick-up hockey games and almost caused a mini-Richard Riot. In Boston, he said he owned a Johnny Bucyk sweater.
* Burns never forgot his working class roots. When he sensed the Canadiens were taking their status for granted. He would order the bus driver to steer away from the rink and go through his the tough Montreal neighbourhoods where labourers were digging ditches. The message was received.

Some favourite Burns quotes:
* “I’ve been getting this grumpy guy stuff. Do you guys have any idea what it feels like to coach an NHL team in overtime? Do you want me to show you my armpits? I don’t come in chuckling and dancing and laughing. That’s my character. I’m sorry. – on his gruff temperment.
* “I just looked at him and said ‘No. You stay out’. I played the crap out of him.” – sending a worn out Doug Gilmour back on the ice for the assist on Nik Borschevsky’s Game 7 winner against Detroit in ‘93.
* “This is no fun. No one’s throwing up.” – Burns at training camp when he bag skated the Leafs at the end of a long workout.
* “The pride of this team has to come back. It ticks me off to go around Canada, go into sporting goods stores and see Canadiens or Oilers sweaters, but not the Leafs. We’ll get that changed.” – After taking over as Leafs’ coach in ‘92.
* “People have put this ‘defensive hockey’ label on me for some reason. I don’t believe it. It’s how many points you get that matters.” – on his coaching style.
* “I wouldn’t know Bill Berg if I ran over him with my car.” – On the Leafs picking up the winger on waivers.
* “You can’t play this game as a choir boy. You’ve got to have some dog meat in you.” – On drafting players with attitude.
* “I didn’t leave Montreal because of the press. But every day became more difficult. Everyone wanted to coach in Montreal; they all had an opinion. But Pat Burns had to make the decision.” – On four years with the Canadiens.
* “For two years I was king of the city and now I’m a pauper. But you’d expect to feel the heat in any high-profile hockey city.” – On four years with the Leafs.
* “The tail has been wagging the dog too long around here. It’s not my style to criticize players, but I will criticize stupidity. Something will be done. We’ll change faces if we have to.’’ – Blasting his Leafs to the media after a loss, right in the middle of their dressing room
* “I hope people don’t expect Mats Sundin to fight Bob Probert.” – Telling Leaf fans to get over the Wendel Clark trade.
“Cliff and I and Doug had a great run for a while. We were the Three Musketeers.” – On the good times with the Leafs.

Leafs’ draft past a drag on Kadri?

- November 12th, 2010

The burden of pressure on Nazem Kadri has more to do with the previous failures of the Leafs at the draft table than the affable youngster’s ability.
Maple Leafs’ management, fans and yes, the media, have pined to see a young phemom grow from boy to man in blue and white since the 1970s produced such talent as Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Ian Turnbull ans John Anderson, all picked between fourth and 15th.
Since Anderson in ‘77 up to Jiri Tlusty in ‘2006, Toronto has had 17 selections between first and 15th and only one, Wendel Clark, had a truly memorable Leaf career and retired a Leaf, albeit on his third swing through town.
The parade of picks in that range since ‘77 goes from the duds (Brandon Convery, Jeff Ware and Jiri Tlusty), to traded studs (Vince Damphousse, Russ Courtnall, Kenny Jonsson) to the physically injured (Gary Nylund, Nik Antropov) and those suffering mental cruelty (Laurie Boschman and Al Iafrate). The Leafs have had years with three picks in the first round and no picks for almost three rounds. They’ve gone off the board and taken a Kazakh forward, Swedish defencemnn, Finnish goalie, Italians from Switzerland, Italians from St. Clair Ave, an American high schooler, local kids and French Canadians who grew up worshipping the rival Habs.
One illustration of their draft luck was 1996. They’d given up the first rounder to Philly for Dmitry Yushkevich, fair enough, but missed out on Dainius Zubrus and used their second round pick on Czech defender Marek Posmyk. He played a few NHL games, none with the Leafs, while only one of the 13 other prospects chosen that year made the team. That was another Czech defenceman chosen 204th, Tomas Kaberle, who is likely to play his 900th Leaf game this year.
The list of good players taken with Leaf picks; Zubrus, Roberto Luongo, Scott Niedermayer, Mike Cammalleri and perhaps Tyler Seguin is history, but a past that will cast a shadow on Kadri, fair or not.

Leaf Drama Class

- September 30th, 2010

Did Ron Wilson really blame the media for creating too much ‘drama’ about Nazem Kadri after the Ottawa game? Last time I looked, he was a first round pick, vital to their playoff hopes who had under performed and had been called out at least three times by coaches and management who kept using the term ‘last chance’ . Can’t hang this one on us.