By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Oct. 19) - Okay... back to the Maple Leafs.
It has been more than four-and-a-half months since I was fired by program director Don Kollins at The Fan-590, a move that disappointed me but also freed me up from what had sadly become a dead-end job. Though I miss my affiliation with Canada's first all-sports radio station, and the many wonderful people with whom I worked, the ensuing months have been enlightening; a bit frustrating, but mostly filled with the enticement of new possibility. As mentioned, I have not a single hard feeling toward Kollins or anyone else at The Fan-590; business decisions are made all the time and my former radio station sounds pretty darned good these days.
Those at the upper end of Rogers Media - and you have to be named "Scott" in order to work there (Scott Moore; Scott Woodgate; Scott Morrison) - have done a splendid job of re-branding Sportsnet; the look and sound of the television network has never been better and the glossy new Sportsnet Magazine is going to do very well. I wish them nothing but the best; if there is any disappointment, it involves not being part of all that excitement.
In its place, however, comes a chance to develop this blog around coverage of the Maple Leafs and the National Hockey League. For that, I owe much to Jim Bray, sports editor of The National Post, who has accorded me the opportunity to cover a number of Leafs road games for the newspaper - a role I maintained while traveling with the hockey club for the radio station between 1999 and 2008. During those years, I was very fortunate to work for Nelson Millman, who allowed me to double-up my duties while on the road. It was always exciting to get on a plane in Boston, New York, Washington or Philadelphia the morning after a Leafs game and see my story on the front sports-page of the Post. I now look forward to those moments once again.
The plan, right now, is to be in Montreal for Leafs practice on Friday afternoon - then at road games in the coming six weeks at Montreal, Philadelphia, New York, Ottawa, New Jersey, Columbus, St. Louis, Nashville, Carolina, Tampa, Dallas and Anaheim. I want to clarify that I am strictly back-up at The National Post... my pal, Michael Traikos, is the lead hockey writer; it has been my pleasure to watch him develop from a newcomer in the business to one of the most respected reporters on the Leafs beat. I look forward to picking up Michael's "scraps" once again.
The goal for this blog is ambitious, yet one that I'm hoping to attain. I'm looking to venture beyond the ubiquitous game stories and practice notes that are common in the industry, and executed superbly by the many fine people that cover the Maple Leafs. Unlike my role at The Fan-590, which involved Tweeting and disseminating every bit of minutiae regarding the Blue & White, I now have both the freedom and desire to go a bit deeper; to follow the team analytically, and to perhaps uncover the personality of those you cheer for each night. I have long been blessed to hang around hockey people - almost universally, the best you'll encounter in professional sport. My goal is to introduce some of these people to you on a more personal level... while still providing the necessary detail and analysis of games and practices.
I picked the Maple Leafs to finish seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference this season and to end their team-record playoff drought. The early games - as expected - have been all over the map, especially in the absence of such key performers as Tim Connolly and Clarke MacArthur. Yet, the results have been encouraging for fans of the hockey club (seven of eight points heading into tonight's home encounter with Winnipeg); coach Ron Wilson seems to be handling his "new world" quite well, and James Reimer - under an entirely different circumstance than his ascent to prominence last year - continues to provide timely stops amid lapses of concentration.
Brian Burke has put together a team that I feel should be able to compete - if reasonably healthy - all season long in the Eastern playoff hunt. As I've previously mentioned in this space, the turnaround over the final-third of last season had a much different feel than the "garbage time" improvement in prior years. Reinforced by Reimer's stability between the pipes, which allowed Wilson to better implement his coaching acumen, the Leafs rocketed into playoff contention from a 14-point deficit in mid-February - winning key games in such tough arenas as Boston, Buffalo, Philadelphia and Montreal.
If you're a fan of the hockey club, you remember the sudden feeling of "important" late-season games - previously absent in the post-lockout NHL.
As a result, I am not at all expectant of another early-season collapse. Though it's imperative to keep in mind what Wilson said a year ago at this time - that a true "start" to the NHL season involves games through at least mid-November - the 3-0-1 record out of the gate is likely to be more indicative of what the current Leafs are capable of. Clearly, the club must avoid its Achilles heel of past years: a two-week stretch of winless games in October or November that placed it in catch-up mode for the remainder of the season. There is no quantifying the physical and emotional energy required to be eternally fighting from behind in the 82-game marathon; the Leafs must conserve such energy for competing - on a level - with other playoff-bound teams, something I believe they have the capability of doing this season.
With my work-boots strapped on once again, I've been hammered by a flu-bug the past 24 hours (figures, huh?). But, I'm looking forward to getting back to the rink.
I hope you'll join me for the ride.