Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Berger Fix on All Things Leafs


The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

IT WAS CERTAINLY A PLEASURE to be back in an authentic hockey atmosphere yesterday, as the Maple Leafs began their 2005 training camp with physicals and fitness testing. The Ricoh Coliseum, on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition, is the main site of Leafs’ camp, and will serve as home ice for the American Hockey League Toronto Marlies this season, the club having re-located from its long-time base in St. John’s, Nfld. – one of the friendliest places on earth.

I only had two opportunities to visit St. John’s. I was scheduled to fly there on September 11th, 2001, as the Leafs were to hold their training camp at the new Mile One Stadium. But, everyone’s travel plans were obviously canceled on that horrific day, and I finally made it out the following weekend, once North American airspace had been re-opened to commercial traffic. The Leafs spent two days in the Maritime city – playing their Blue-White intrasquad game, then an exhibition match against Montreal in the handsome new arena. And the wonderful hockey fans of Newfoundland welcomed all of the tardy visitors from Toronto with open arms.

I’ll not soon forget walking into the Delta St. John’s hotel and seeing the hundreds of stranded air travelers camped out on the floor of the main lobby. Moments after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, airliners bound for Europe from both Canada and the U.S. were turned back over the Atlantic, and instructed to land in St. John’s – the home of legendary Hockey Night in Canada voice Bob Cole. Thousands of travelers had nowhere to go for four days, and the city did not have nearly enough hotel rooms to accommodate them all. So, the hotel proprietors gathered blankets, pillows and towels and invited the stranded people to carve out a spot in their lobbies and meeting rooms, while offering food and drink for free. A spirit of friendship and togetherness compensated for the horror everyone was feeling, and St. John’s – with its tranquil setting and picturesque harbor – was the perfect first place for any person to visit after the terrorist attacks.

It’s unfortunate that the Leafs had to depart the city, but it really did not make economic sense to remain there after the other Maritime-based teams in the AHL had moved elsewhere. The NHL club did leave behind a legacy, however, in Mile One Stadium – so named because it’s located on the very street where the eastern-most part of Canada begins. And the genuine people of St. John’s left an indelible mark on the Leaf organization for their many years of warmth and enthusiasm. It ensured that Toronto and St. John’s will always be connected, and I’m hoping the Leafs will see fit to return there and play exhibition games once every few years. It’s a sporting marriage that deserves not to be forgotten.

THOUGH HE SEEMED A TRIFLE uncomfortable, Eric Lindros walked straight into the hornet’s nest yesterday, knowing full well that an enormous scrum of reporters was going to ask him the customary first question about his concussion history. We’re all sure that the Big “E” is sick and tired of talking about the recurring ailment, but he’s intelligent enough to know that choosing to sign with the Leafs was going to bring about personal scrutiny the likes of which he did not encounter in New York.

What Eric has to do is relax and understand that the overwhelming majority of people following the Leafs are rooting for him to enjoy a season devoid of health issues. And that includes reporters who questioned the hockey club for signing him. I’ve said this before and I’ll repeat it: If Lindros and Jason Allison can somehow escape the injury bugaboo this season, Maple Leaf fans will quickly forget Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk. And that’s not meant as any disrespect for the former Leafs, who are both top-notch pros. But Lindros and Allison are multi-talented players, and both are young enough to perform at an optimum level… if their bodies will allow it.

WITH THE ADDITIONS OF Lindros, Allison, Jeff O’Neill, Mariusz Czerkawski and, perhaps, Steve Thomas, the Leafs are going to look dramatically different up front. As such, it will be intriguing to see the various line combinations that coach Pat Quinn deploys between now and the start of the regular season, Oct. 5th. Events are going to unfold in a hurry at Leaf camp. Daily scrimmages began this morning at Ricoh Coliseum. The club’s Blue-White intrasquad game is scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and the Ottawa Senators visit the Air Canada Centre on Sunday night to begin an exhibition schedule that will see the Leafs play eight games in 14 nights in five different cities.

If Thomas can make the team, Quinn will have eight experienced, proven forwards at his disposal: Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, Lindros, O’Neill, Allison, Czerkawski and Thomas. With a few breaks in the injury department – and good performances throughout – it would give the Leafs a pair of consistent scoring units, and allow them to line up pretty much the same as in previous years… top heavy, but with depth a potential issue for a coach that likes to roll four units. It would also limit the responsibilities of Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky, who have yet to prove they can be heavily relied upon. And, it would all but eliminate part-time players like Clarke Wilm and Chad Kilger, who loomed as regulars earlier in the summer. Once again, this is a best-case scenario, and not one that many Leaf observers are expecting.

FINALLY, AN ALERT E-MAILER wrote to remind me that the Leafs’ Stanley Cup drought is closing in on a significant overlap. If the club fails to win the mug again next spring, it will be 39 years since the last championship, in 1967. And 39 years prior to ‘67 was the year 1928 – only one season after Conn Smythe purchased the Toronto St. Pats and re-named them the Maple Leafs.

Then again, perhaps this friendly e-mailer simply has too much time on his hands.

E-mail this friendly chap (as all Internet chat-room folks will attest) at howard.berger@rci.rogers.com.