Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Berger Collection (Leafs in Turmoil): Part 7

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 6) - As the Maple Leafs embark on their quest to end a playoff drought that is now twice the length of any previous famine, young supporters may think this is the worst juncture in team history. Such a claim is justified - particularly among rabid fans that have never watched the Leafs in a post-season game. My son Shane, for example, will be 15 in December; he lives and breathes Blue & White and has absolutely no recollection of the club's last playoff moment on May 4, 2004. You have to be nearing 20 years of age to recall the last time the Leafs posed a legitimate Stanley Cup challenge - advancing to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final in 2002 before bowing to the Carolina Hurricanes.

During the past generation, however, the most demoralizing period for the Leafs and their fans was the middle-to-late-'90s. Though the Leafs had some dreadful seasons in the '80s and early-'90s, the club missed the playoffs only in two-year fragments - owing, primarily, to a higher percentage of qualifying teams and the absence of three-point games in the regular season. But, the roller-coaster ride back then was debilitating to Leaf supporters - especially the plummet that followed the surprising ascent under Cliff Fletcher, Pat Burns, Doug Gilmour et al.

Fletcher came to Toronto only two years after managing Calgary to the 1989 Stanley Cup... and everything he touched initially turned to gold. Hiring Burns away from Montreal as coach; acquiring Gilmour in a 10-player blockbuster with the Flames - to this day, the largest deal in NHL history - and trading veteran goalie Grant Fuhr to Buffalo for scoring-winger Dave Andreychuk transformed the Leafs from playoff outsider in 1992 to Conference finalist in '93. Not even in Fletcher's wildest imagination did he expect his new club to advance so rapidly.

On Dec. 26, 1991 - during a 12-1 shellacking in Pittsburgh that dropped the Leafs to 10-23-5 on the season - Fletcher understood he was presiding over a hopeless situation. Exactly one week later, he pulled the trigger on the Gilmour deal with his former team and the Leafs' karma began to turn.

Appearances in the 1993 and 1994 Campbell (now Western) Conference final restored pride, dignity and enthusiasm to those that followed the Blue & White. When the club began to slide during the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95 (reduced to 48 games), there was mild disappointment. When a mid-season death-spiral in 1995-96 cost Burns his job - Leafs were 22-14-7 on Jan. 10; 4-17-4 between Jan. 11 and Mar. 8 - disappointment became dread.

It all unravelled the following year.

That's why the 1996-97 season ranks as the longest and most disturbing in modern Leaf annals; for even if the club had won the Stanley Cup, that year would be remembered - tragically - for the uncovering of a pedophile-ring inside Maple Leaf Gardens that dated to the 1960s. On the ice, the situation was more depressing for Leaf fans than today, when there is no point of reference. In other words, the Leafs have been absent from the playoffs for so long, that young fans in 2011 are oblivious to anything else. Fans of the mid-'90s, conversely, wondered why the exhilaration of the Burns-Gilmour era had led so quickly to another period of turmoil and defeat.

In this blog, I reflect, through my collection, on the 1996-97 season - one in which I followed the Leafs at home and on the road for The Fan-590. It was a year that began with a 4-1 home-ice victory over Anaheim and ended with a 4-1 triumph at the Gardens against Calgary. In between, there was constant tumult and upheaval under rookie coach Mike Murphy; a demoralized, beaten Gilmour, and - ultimately - amid the stench of the Gardens' pedophile scandal. When the dust cleared, Gilmour had been traded to New Jersey; Fletcher had been fired, and Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden joined the team as president and general manager.

As in my previous blog, the images below are centered around the Maple Leafs 41 road games in 1996-97. Programs; media passes and out-of-town newspaper accounts comprise the bulk of this project; the essence of the blog is apparent in headlines - home and away. All of the Leafs problems are highlighted by those portrayed in the Toronto Star; Toronto Sun and Globe and Mail. The utter disgrace of losing a game to the '96-97 Leafs is more than evident in newspaper headlines across the NHL.

In diametric opposition to all of this is the best memory of my life: the birth of my first child (Shane) on Dec. 6, 1996 during arguably the most gut-wrenching, humiliating weekend for the hockey club all season. So, please enjoy (if you can) this study of why, perhaps, the current Leafs' plight isn't nearly so discouraging as the one portrayed here.









THE TORONTO STAR SEEMED TO HAVE A PREMONITION ABOUT THE SEASON (ABOVE) ON THE EVE OF THE OPENER AGAINST ANAHEIM.



LEAFS BEGAN THE SEASON - AND MIKE MURPHY'S TENURE BEHIND THE BENCH - WITH A THOROUGH AND SATISFYING VICTORY (ABOVE) AT THE GARDENS OVER ANAHEIM ON OCT. 6. IT WOULD BE RON WILSON'S FINAL YEAR AS COACH OF THE MIGHTY DUCKS.

OCT. 17, 1996: TORONTO AT ST. LOUIS





EX-LEAFS GOALIE GRANT FUHR - STALWART IN THE EDMONTON OILERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980s - HAD BEEN ACQUIRED BY CLIFF FLETCHER FROM EDMONTON; TRADED BY FLETCHER TO BUFFALO FOR DAVE ANDREYCHUK; DEALT BY THE SABRES TO LOS ANGELES, AND SIGNED AS A FREE AGENT BY ST. LOUIS. HE DEFEATED ONE OF HIS FORMER TEAMS (ABOVE) IN THE LEAFS INITIAL ROAD ENCOUNTER OF 1996-97.

OCT 19, 1996: TORONTO AT DALLAS








THE FIRST SIGNS OF TURMOIL, STRESS AND PANIC WERE VISIBLE (ABOVE) AFTER THE CONSECUTIVE LOSSES IN ST. LOUIS AND DALLAS TO BEGIN THE ROAD PORTION OF TORONTO'S SCHEDULE.

OCT. 24, 1996: TORONTO AT BOSTON





"LOWLY" WAS ABOUT THE NICEST ADJECTIVE OUT-OF-TOWN NEWSPAPERS WOULD USE TO DESCRIBE THE MAPLE LEAFS AFTER TORONTO ROAD VICTORIES IN 1996-97.



TWO OF THE LEAFS MOST AGONIZING LOSSES OCCURRED IN HOME GAMES AGAINST LOS ANGELES. TORONTO SUN FRONT PAGE (ABOVE) AND SUMMARY (BELOW) TELL STORY OF OCT. 29 DATE WITH THE KINGS.


OCT. 31, 1996: TORONTO AT NEW YORK ISLANDERS





EX-ISLANDER KIRK MULLER OF THE MAPLE LEAFS RETURNED TO NASSAU COLISEUM FOR THE FIRST TIME ON HALLOWEEN 1996 (ABOVE) AND THE VISITORS PREVAILED.



1996-97 WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A "CELEBRATION" OF MAPLE LEAF GARDENS 65th ANNIVERSARY. INSTEAD, IT LED TO THE TRUTH BEHIND A HORRIFYING PATTERN OF BEHAVIOUR THAT WOULD FOREVER TAINT THE CARLTON STREET SHRINE. ON SAT. NOV. 2, THE LEAFS HOSTED (AND BEAT) DETROIT - SELLING A COMMEMORATIVE PROGRAM (ABOVE) TO PATRONS OF A GAME THAT FEATURED THROW-BACK JERSEYS (BELOW).



NOV. 7, 1996: TORONTO AT OTTAWA





LEAFS WERE BEATEN IN OTTAWA (ABOVE) BY GOALIE DAMIAN RHODES, WHO HAD SPLIT THE CHORES WITH FELIX POTVIN IN BLUE AND WHITE THE PREVIOUS THREE YEARS.

NOV. 10, 1996: TORONTO AT PHILADELPHIA





THIS WAS A BUSY DAY FOR ME - BEFORE AND AFTER THE LEAFS-FLYERS ENCOUNTER IN PHILADELPHIA. I ATTENDED THE EAGLES NFL GAME THAT AFTERNOON (ABOVE) AGAINST BUFFALO AT OLD VETERANS STADIUM (BOUGHT A SCALPER'S TICKET) AND THEN HAD TO SCRAMBLE BETWEEN DRESSING ROOMS AFTER THE HOCKEY GAME IN THE WAKE OF A NOW-LEGENDARY FIGHT AT THE FINAL BUZZER INVOLVING LEAFS GOALIE FELIX POTVIN AND VETERAN COUNTERPART RON HEXTALL (STORY BELOW). IT WAS TORONTO'S FIRST VISIT TO THE FLYERS' NEW ARENA (THEN KNOWN AS CORESTATES CENTER; TODAY AS WELLS FARGO CENTER) - LOCATED ACROSS A PARKING LOT FROM THE PHILADELPHIA SPECTRUM.



NOV. 13, 1996: TORONTO AT ANAHEIM








NOV. 14, 1996: TORONTO AT LOS ANGELES





LEAFS DEFENSEMAN MATHIEU SCHNEIDER HAD TO MISS THE DEFEAT AT LOS ANGELES (ABOVE AND BELOW). THE LEAGUE TOLD HIM NOT TO DRESS AFTER SCHNEIDER DELIVERED AN ELBOW TO THE CHOPS OF MIGHTY DUCKS FORWARD PAUL KARIYA THE PREVIOUS NIGHT IN ANAHEIM. HE WAS ULTIMATELY SUSPENDED FOR THREE GAMES. VETERAN GOALIE DON BEAUPRE HAD A ROUGH NIGHT AGAINST THE KINGS.



NOV. 16, 1996: TORONTO AT PHOENIX








KEEPSAKES (ABOVE) FROM THE MAPLE LEAFS FIRST-EVER VISIT TO PHOENIX. THE COYOTES - FORMERLY THE WINNIPEG JETS - PLAYED HOME GAMES IN THEIR EARLY YEARS AT AMERICA WEST ARENA IN THE DOWNTOWN CORE (NOW USAIR ARENA) - ALSO HOME TO THE NBA PHOENIX SUNS. THE HOCKEY CLUB EVENTUALLY MOVED TO THE WEST-END SUBURB OF GLENDALE, WHERE IT NOW TENUOUSLY RESIDES.



WHILE THE LEAFS BLUNDERED THROUGH THE AUTUMN OF 1996, THE CFL's TORONTO ARGONAUTS FIELDED ONE OF THE BEST TEAMS IN FRANCHISE HISTORY: A 15-3 JEWELL - LED BY QUARTERBACK DOUG FLUTIE - THAT MAULED MONTREAL IN THE EASTERN DIVISION FINAL AT SKYDOME (PREVIEW ABOVE ON SPORTS FRONT OF SUNDAY TORONTO SUN) BEFORE PREVAILING OVER EDMONTON IN THE 1996 GREY CUP GAME ON A SNOW-COVERED FIELD AT IVOR WYNNE STADIUM IN HAMILTON.


THE LEAFS WERE IN PHOENIX WHEN THE GIANT SCORE-CLOCK AT THE NEW MARINE MIDLAND ARENA IN BUFFALO CRASHED TO THE ICE SURFACE (ABOVE)... THANKFULLY WITH NO ONE STANDING BENEATH IT.



NOV. 21, 1996: TORONTO AT BUFFALO





ARENA WORKERS IN BUFFALO DID A QUICK REPAIR JOB ON THE SCORE-CLOCK IN TIME FOR THE LEAFS LONE VISIT OF THE SEASON FIVE NIGHTS LATER (ABOVE AND BELOW).






AMONG THE FEW BRIGHT OCCASIONS FOR THE LEAFS AND THEIR FANS IN 1996-97 WAS INDUCTION TO THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME OF 1970s ACE DEFENSEMAN BORJE SALMING ON NOV. 25. BUT, EVEN THAT CELEBRATION WAS ACCOMPANIED BY A HEADLINE MORE INDICATIVE OF THE SEASON ON SPORTS FRONT OF THE TORONTO STAR (ABOVE).

NOV. 27, 1996: TORONTO AT DETROIT








AFTER A LOSS IN DETROIT, THE LEAFS MOVED ON TO DALLAS. HEADLINES BACK HOME, MEANWHILE, PROVIDED THE FIRST INDICATION OF THE CAPTAIN'S PLIGHT (ABOVE).

NOV. 30, 1996: TORONTO AT DALLAS











WHAT AN HONOR IT WAS TO TRAVEL THROUGH PARTS OF THE 1996-97 NHL SEASON WITH FRANK ORR OF THE TORONTO STAR - THE DEAN OF HOCKEY WRITERS IN OUR CITY DURING THE 1970s AND A MAN THAT ALWAYS TOOK TIME TO MENTOR AND ENCOURAGE ME. ORR COVERED THIS TRIP TO DALLAS (HIS GAME STORY ABOVE). HE AND I HAD DINNER THE NIGHT BEFORE WITH LEAFS' RADIO ANALYST MARK HEBSCHER AND A LIFE-LONG PAL OF MINE - DAVID SILVERMAN - WHO CAME ALONG TO TEXAS. I HAD NO IDEA IT WOULD BE THE FINAL LEAFS ROAD GAME BEFORE MY SON WAS BORN.



DECEMBER BEGAN WITH SANTA GILMOUR ON THE FRONT OF THE TORONTO SUN (ABOVE), AND ANOTHER "BALANCING" HEADLINE IN LOWER-LEFT CORNER. VETERAN SUN COLUMNISTS DEBATED THE BURGEONING ISSUE TWO DAYS LATER (BELOW).






VETERAN TORONTO STAR COLUMNIST DAVE PERKINS GOT INTO THE ACT IN EARLY-DECEMBER (ABOVE), AFTER THE LEAFS HAD BLANKED ST. LOUIS, 2-0, AT THE GARDENS.

DEC. 6, 1996: TORONTO AT NEW YORK RANGERS


I NEVER MADE IT TO THIS GAME. AROUND 8:45 THE PREVIOUS NIGHT, MY WIFE, SUSAN, WENT INTO LABOR... SIX WEEKS BEFORE OUR FIRST CHILD WAS DUE. LITTLE SHANE ARRIVED AT 12:35 A.M. ON DEC. 6, AND THE GREATEST PERIOD OF MY LIFE WAS UNDERWAY. BEFORE RACING TO MOUNT SINAI HOSPITAL, I TELEPHONED A COLLEAGUE OF MINE AT THE RADIO STATION NAMED ELLIOTTE FRIEDMAN AND TOLD HIM TO GET HIS ASS TO NEW YORK. NOT LONG AFTERWARD, "FRIEDGE" LEFT ME AND A WHOLE BUNCH OF OTHERS IN HIS WAKE, ROCKETING TO STARDOM FIRST AT THE SCORE, AND LATER AT HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA, WHERE HE IS NOW A MAINSTAY.



WHILE SUSAN AND I WERE BUSY WITH OUR NEW-BORN SON, THE LEAFS SUFFERED A CRUSHING LOSS AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN (ABOVE AND BELOW) - YIELDING A PAIR OF GOALS TO THE RANGERS IN THE FINAL 3:03 OF REGULATION TIME... WAYNE GRETZKY ENGINEERING TORONTO'S DEMISE AS HE HAD SO OFTEN BEFORE WITH EDMONTON, LOS ANGELES AND ST. LOUIS. ADDING INSULT TO INJURY WAS THE FACT GRETZKY HAD A DEAL IN PRINCIPLE TO PLAY FOR THE LEAFS IN THE SUMMER OF 1996 BEFORE OWNERSHIP PUT THE KIBOSH ON IT. PORING SALT ON AN OPEN WOUND WAS FORMER LEAF BILL BERG, WHO SCORED THE GAME WINNER OFF A GRETZKY PASS WITH 27 SECONDS LEFT.






THE LEAFS' SITUATION WENT FROM GUT-WRENCHING TO DOWNRIGHT UGLY WHEN THE RANGERS MADE A RETURN VISIT THE FOLLOWING NIGHT. GRETZKY (ABOVE ON FRONT OF SUNDAY TORONTO SUN) SCORED ANOTHER GOAL IN A 4-0 BLANKING OF TORONTO THAT TURNED THE NORMALLY TACITURN GARDENS CROWD ON THE HOME TEAM.









IN THE WAKE OF THE CONSECUTIVE-NIGHT LOSSES TO NEW YORK, THE HEAT BEGAN TO INTENSIFY AROUND GM CLIFF FLETCHER (TORONTO STAR ABOVE). MANY OF THE SAME REPORTERS AND COLUMNISTS THAT HAILED FLETCHER A GENIUS ONLY THREE YEARS EARLIER FOR THE BURNS-GILMOUR PRODUCTION WERE NOW EMPHASIZING HIS FOIBLES, AS THE HOCKEY CLUB CONTINUED TO PLUMMET IN THE STANDINGS.

DEC. 9, 1996: TORONTO AT CHICAGO





WE BROUGHT SHANE HOME ON DEC. 8, 1996. A NIGHT LATER - IN CHICAGO - THE LEAFS UPSET THE BLACKHAWKS (ABOVE). I WAS BACK AT WORK AT THE UNITED CENTER, IN THE THROES OF EUPHORIA UNIQUE TO A FIRST-TIME FATHER.



AT THE NHL GENERAL MANAGERS' GATHERING IN SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ., DAMIEN COX OF THE TORONTO STAR PRESENTED THE FIRST INDICATION (ABOVE) THAT DOUG GILMOUR WOULD ULTIMATELY BE TRADED BY THE MAPLE LEAFS.

DEC. 15, 1996: TORONTO AT DETROIT


CURRENT-DAY FOLLOWERS OF HOCKEY WILL BE SEEING AND HEARING LOTS FROM THE PLAYER PICTURED (ABOVE) ON THE COVER OF DETROIT'S GAME PROGRAM IN MID-DECEMBER 1996. BRENDAN SHANAHAN IS THE NEW - AND VERY ACTIVE - CZAR OF DISCIPLINE IN THE NHL.



DEC. 17, 1996: TORONTO AT SAN JOSE








LOCAL PAPERS (ABOVE AND BELOW) WERE HARDLY IMPRESSED WITH THE SHARKS LOSS TO SUCH AN UNWORTHY OPPONENT.



DEC. 17, 1996: TORONTO AT PHOENIX





DEC. 21, 1996: TORONTO AT COLORADO





THOUGH THE AVS WERE BANGED UP, THIS LOP-SIDED VICTORY IN DENVER OVER THE DEFENDING STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS MAY HAVE BEEN THE HIGH POINT (NO PUN INTENDED) OF 1996-97 FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS. THE ROUT WAS LED BY MATS SUNDIN - TRADED TO TORONTO BY THE COLORADO FRANCHISE PRIOR TO ITS FINAL SEASON AS THE QUEBEC NORDIQUES.

DEC. 27, 1996: TORONTO AT ST. LOUIS











THE PLAY-BY-PLAY VOICE OF SATURDAY-NIGHT LEAF GAMES ON TV FOR MORE THAN A GENERATION DIED ON CHRISTMAS-DAY 1996 (ABOVE). BILL HEWITT, SON OF BROADCASTING PIONEER FOSTER HEWITT, WAS 68 YEARS OLD. HE CALLED LEAF GAMES ON TELEVISION THROUGHOUT THE 1960s AND '70s, PRIMARILY ALONGSIDE BRIAN McFARLANE AND ONE-TIME TORONTO DEFENSEMAN BOB GOLDHAM.



TO THIS DAY, WRITERS AND COLUMNISTS IN WESTERN CANADA RARELY WASTE AN OPPORTUNITY TO PILLORY THE HATED MAPLE LEAFS - KNOWING HOW SUCH PROSE WILL INCITE READERSHIP. AMONG THE BEST WORDSMITHS OF THE CURRENT GENERATION IS CAM COLE: NOW WITH THE VANCOUVER PROVINCE; STILL WITH THE EDMONTON JOURNAL (ABOVE) IN JANUARY 1997, WHERE HE RESEARCHED AN INTERMINABLE PHENOMENON.

JAN. 3, 1997: TORONTO AT EDMONTON








JAN. 4, 1997: TORONTO AT VANCOUVER








AN EDITORIAL CARTOON IN THE CALGARY SUN SPORTS SECTION (ABOVE) ON JAN. 7, 1997 LEFT NO DOUBT ABOUT ITS FEELING TOWARD THE MAPLE LEAFS.

JAN. 7, 1997: TORONTO AT CALGARY











JAN. 13, 1997: TORONTO AT WASHINGTON


THIS GAME MARKED THE LEAFS FINAL VISIT TO USAIR ARENA (ORIGINALLY KNOWN AS THE CAPITAL CENTER) IN LANDOVER, MD. THE CAPITALS MOVED TO THE MCI (NOW VERIZON) CENTER IN DOWNTOWN WASHINGTON THE FOLLOWING SEASON.






AS PREVIOUSLY MENTIONED, NO TWO DEFEATS ON HOME ICE IN 1996-97 STUNG QUITE AS BADLY AS THOSE SUFFERED AGAINST LOS ANGELES. THE TORONTO SUN HEADLINE (ABOVE) AND SUMMARY (BELOW) TELL THE STORY OF THE KINGS SECOND VISIT TO MAPLE LEAF GARDENS ON JAN. 15, 1997.






ONE DAY AFTER THE LATE COLLAPSE AGAINST LOS ANGELES, A POLL IN THE TORONTO STAR (ABOVE) LEFT NO DOUBT WHERE LEAF FANS STOOD ON THE MATTER OF THE CLUB'S GENERAL MANAGER. MEANWHILE, IN SAN JOSE, THE NHL'S TOP ATTRACTIONS GATHERED FOR THE ANNUAL ALL-STAR GAME, INCLUDING WAYNE GRETZKY, MARK MESSIER AND MARIO LEMIEUX, PICTURED IN THE TORONTO SUN (BELOW).



JAN. 20, 1997: TORONTO AT HARTFORD


THIS WAS THE MAPLE LEAFS FINAL VISIT TO THE HARTFORD CIVIC CENTER: A 3-1 LOSS TO THE WHALERS, WHO WOULD RE-LOCATE IN GREENSBORO, N.C. THE FOLLOWING SEASON AS THE CAROLINA HURRICANES. IT WAS ON THE FLOOR OF THE CIVIC CENTER - JUST PRIOR TO THE 1994 NHL DRAFT - THAT THE LEAFS ACQUIRED MATS SUNDIN FROM THE QUEBEC NORDIQUES.



JAN. 24, 1997: TORONTO AT CHICAGO





KIRK MULLER'S OVERTIME GOAL AT THE UNITED CENTER (ABOVE) WAS LOST AMID THE SENSATION OF GOALIE ED BELFOUR BEING TRADED TO THE SAN JOSE SHARKS. 



ANOTHER LATE FOLD-UP ON HOME ICE - THIS ONE AGAINST COLORADO ON JAN. 27 - DEPOSITED THE MAPLE LEAFS INTO THE NHL CELLAR FOR THE SECOND TIME IN 1996-97: A PLIGHT REFLECTED IN THE FACES AND POSTURE OF THOSE DEPICTED IN THE TORONTO SUN (ABOVE). MEANWHILE, SUN COLUMNIST AL STRACHAN (BELOW) CAME OUT IN VEHEMENT OPPOSITION TO THE LEAFS SHOPPING THEIR GRITTY CAPTAIN.



JAN. 31, 1997: TORONTO AT NEW JERSEY





IT WAS CLEAR IN POST-GAME SUMMATIONS OF THE LEAFS AND NEW JERSEY THAT DOUG GILMOUR WAS VERY MUCH ON THE DEVILS RADAR - NEW YORK POST STORY ABOVE; NEW YORK DAILY NEWS BELOW.



FEB. 12, 1997: TORONTO AT ANAHEIM


LEAFS BEGAN THEIR LONGEST ROAD TRIP OF THE SEASON - A FIVE-GAME SWING OUT WEST - IN ANAHEIM ON FEB. 12.



FEB. 13, 1997: TORONTO AT LOS ANGELES








MOMENTS BEFORE LEAVING THE TEAM HOTEL IN SANTA MONICA, CALIF. FOR LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, I SPOKE WITH DOUG GILMOUR ABOUT HIS GROWING DISCONTENTMENT... AND MY GOOD FRIEND, ROSIE DiMANNO OF THE TORONTO STAR (ABOVE) WAS LISTENING TO THE RADIO.



BY THE TIME THE LEAFS ARRIVED IN CALGARY FOR THEIR SECOND AND LAST VISIT TO THE SADDLEDOME IN '96-97, THEY WERE EASY TARGETS FOR THE LOCAL MEDIA (ABOVE AND BELOW).



FEB. 15, 1997: TORONTO AT CALGARY








WHILE IN CALGARY WITH THE LEAFS, CLIFF FLETCHER DISCUSSED THE ON-GOING TRADE TALKS INVOLVING HIS CAPTAIN (TORONTO SUN ABOVE).

FEB. 18, 1997: TORONTO AT VANCOUVER








CREEPING TOWARD A CONCLUSION, THE GILMOUR TRADE TALKS WERE NEWSWORTHY ENOUGH TO BE HIGHLIGHTED IN THE VANCOUVER PROVINCE (ABOVE) WHEN THE LEAFS ARRIVED IN TOWN FOR THE SECOND TIME THAT SEASON. WITH THE CANUCKS TRAILING, 6-2, IN THE THIRD PERIOD (BEFORE SCRAMBLING BACK TO WITHIN A GOAL, BELOW), FANS AT GENERAL MOTORS PLACE WERE RAGGING ON THE HOME TEAM.



FEB. 19, 1997: TORONTO AT EDMONTON


MINUTES AFTER ARRIVING IN EDMONTON FOR THE FINALE OF THE LEAFS WESTERN ROAD TRIP, I WAS STANDING NEAR THE ELEVATORS OF THE WESTIN HOTEL WHEN INFORMED OF THE DREADFUL NEWS THAT METRO TORONTO POLICE HAD UNCOVERED THE PEDOPHILE RING WHICH TERRORIZED YOUNG BOYS WORKING IN MAPLE LEAF GARDENS. THE GAME THAT NIGHT AT NORTHLANDS COLISEUM (NOW REXALL PLACE) - THOUGH THRILLING (BELOW) - SEEMED NOT TO MATTER TO VISITING REPORTERS.






FRONT PAGES OF NEWSPAPERS ACROSS THE COUNTRY - INCLUDING, OF COURSE, THOSE HERE IN TORONTO (ABOVE AND BELOW) - SPELLED OUT SAD DETAILS OF THE GARDENS PEDOPHILE RING.






WHILE FLYING TO MONTREAL FOR THE LONE VISIT OF 1996-97 BY THE MAPLE LEAFS, I READ A MARTY YORK COLUMN IN THE GLOBE AND MAIL (ABOVE) THAT WOULD PROVE ACCURATE JUST MORE THAN THREE MONTHS LATER.



SPORTS SECTION OF THE SATURDAY MONTREAL GAZETTE (ABOVE) FEATURED A HEADLINE THAT TOOK A POKE AT BOTH LONG-TIME RIVALS AND A DETAILED STORY BY COLUMNIST JACK TODD.

FEB. 22, 1997: TORONTO AT MONTREAL








MOST WOULD PROBABLY HAVE AGREED THAT ANY TEAM LOSING ON HOME-ICE BY FOUR GOALS TO THE MAPLE LEAFS OF FEBRUARY 1997 HAD HIT "ROCK BOTTOM" - AS HEADLINE (ABOVE) IN THE SUNDAY MONTREAL GAZETTE PROCLAIMED AFTER THE VISITORS ROMPED, 5-1, OVER THE CANADIENS. MATS SUNDIN AND THE LEAFS ENJOYED A RARE EASY NIGHT IN THEIR THROWBACK JERSEYS.






ON MON. FEB. 24, 1997, I WAS AMID A HORDE OF MEDIA AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS FOR A PRESS BRIEFING BY LEAFS OWNERSHIP ON THE PEDOPHILE RING - ONE THAT WAS LONG ON LEGALESE AND WOEFULLY SHORT ON ANYTHING THAT RESEMBLED SYMPATHY FOR THE VICTIMS. REACTION IN LOCAL NEWSPAPERS THE NEXT DAY (ABOVE AND BELOW) WAS RICHLY DESERVED. ALREADY IN THE CLOSING STAGE OF TRADE DISCUSSIONS INVOLVING DOUG GILMOUR, LEAFS GM CLIFF FLETCHER SAT ALONGSIDE HIS BOSSES BUT WOULD HAVE RATHER BEEN LAYING ON A BED OF NAILS.









THE SAME DAY AS THE GARDENS PRESS CONFERENCE, TORONTO SUN SPORTS EDITOR SCOTT MORRISON (NOW THE DIRECTOR OF HOCKEY COVERAGE AT SPORTSNET) SET UP THE BIG NEWS (ABOVE) THAT WOULD BREAK 48 HOURS LATER.


LOCAL NEWSPAPERS ON FEB. 26, 1997 WERE LOADED WITH COVERAGE (ABOVE AND BELOW) AND REACTION TO THE TRADE OF LEAFS CAPTAIN DOUG GILMOUR - BETWEEN 1992 AND 1994, THE GREATEST PLAYER IN TEAM HISTORY. GILMOUR AND DEFENSEMAN DAVE ELLETT WENT TO THE NEW JERSEY DEVILS FOR PROSPECTS ALYN McCAULEY, JASON SMITH AND STEVE SULLIVAN. HAD THE LEAFS CHOSEN - IN HINDSIGHT - TO RETAIN SMITH AND SULLIVAN OVER THE LONG HAUL, THE DEAL MAY HAVE TRULY BENEFITED THE BLUE & WHITE. AS IT TURNED OUT, IT HAD A MARGINAL EFFECT ON BOTH CLUBS.





















AMID THE GILMOUR TRADE FUROR WAS CONTINUING COVERAGE OF THE GARDENS PEDOPHILE RING. OVERWROUGHT FROM BEING MOLESTED FOR YEARS BEHIND THE WALLS OF THE HOCKEY ARENA, COURAGEOUS MARTIN KRUZE (ABOVE) WOULD TAKE HIS OWN LIFE BY JUMPING OFF THE BLOOR ST. VIADUCT IN DOWNTOWN TORONTO.






ON MAR. 8, 1997, HARTFORD WHALERS VISITED THE GARDENS FOR THE LAST TIME (ABOVE) AND SKATED TO A 1-1 TIE WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS.



THE LEAFS TRAVELED TO FLORIDA ON MAR. 13 - TWO FULL DAYS BEFORE THEIR ONLY GAME AT MIAMI ARENA (WHERE THE PANTHERS STILL PLAYED) IN THE '96-97 SEASON. FLETCHER PUT THE TEAM UP AT A MARRIOTT RESORT ON FORT LAUDERDALE BEACH (MEDIA HAD TO ROUGH IT BY TAGGING ALONG) AND THE GM WORKED FEVERISHLY TOWARD THE APPROACHING NHL TRADE DEADLINE. SUSAN AND TWO-MONTH-OLD SHANE WERE WITH ME ON THE TRIP BUT I DIDN'T SEE A LOT OF THEM, OWING TO THE DEADLINE WATCH; FLETCHER HELD POOL-SIDE BRIEFINGS TWICE A DAY. THE BIGGEST RUMOR SURROUNDING THE LEAFS APPEARED IN PAUL HUNTER'S TORONTO STAR STORY (ABOVE).

MARCH 15, 1997: TORONTO AT FLORIDA














I REMEMBER CATCHING A RIDE BACK TO FORT LAUDERDALE BEACH WITH CLIFF FLETCHER (IN A RENTED CONVERTIBLE) AFTER THE LEAFS AND PANTHERS TIED IN MIAMI. DURING THE RIDE, FLETCHER TOLD ME THE CLUB HAD SIGNED A FORWARD FROM BOWLING GREEN UNIVERSITY: MIKE JOHNSON (NOW A BIG-WIG ANALYST AT TSN). JOHNSON WOULD JOIN THE LEAFS IN TAMPA THE FOLLOWING DAY. MEANWHILE, IN THE LATE-WINTER CLIMES BACK HOME, ROSIE DiMANNO MADE A RATHER SALIENT POINT ABOUT THE WRETCHED MAPLE LEAFS (BELOW).



MAR. 16, 1997: TORONTO AT TAMPA BAY








NEW LEAF MIKE JOHNSON PLAYED HIS FIRST NHL GAME IN TAMPA - SKATING ON A LINE WITH STEVE SULLIVAN AND WENDEL CLARK, DRAWING AN ASSIST.






THE LEAFS HELD ON TO FELIX POTVIN BUT DEALT VETERANS KIRK MULLER (TO FLORIDA) AND LARRY MURPHY (TO DETROIT) ON TRADE DEADLINE DAY 1997, ACQUIRING UNKNOWN JASON PODOLLAN AND NOTED SCRAPPER KELLY CHASE. MURPHY - A FUTURE HALL OF FAMER - WENT FROM THE OUTHOUSE TO THE PENTHOUSE. TEAMED WITH THE GREAT NICKLAS LIDSTROM, HE WOULD HELP DETROIT END ITS 42-YEAR STANLEY CUP DROUGHT THREE MONTHS LATER; THE WINGS (AND MURPHY) REPEATING AS CHAMPIONS IN 1998. THE OTHER DEALS PROVED OF NO CONSEQUENCE.



MAR. 20, 1997: TORONTO AT PITTSBURGH


ROOKIE PITTSBURGH GOALIE PATRICK LALIME WAS ALL THE RAGE WITH A LONG UNDEFEATED STREAK WHEN THE MAPLE LEAFS MADE THEIR LONE VISIT TO MELLON ARENA IN 1996-97. LEAFS WOULD EVENTUALLY HAVE THEIR WAY WITH LALIME, WHOM THEY LATER DEVOURED IN SEVERAL PLAYOFF ENCOUNTERS AGAINST OTTAWA.






BET'CHA NEVER KNEW THAT LEONARDO DiCAPRIO PLAYED FOR THE LEAFS (ABOVE). MEANTIME, GLOBE AND MAIL COLUMNIST GARE JOYCE (NOW EDITING SPORTSNET MAGAZINE) POINTED THE FINGER IN A RARE DIRECTION (BELOW).



MAR. 26, 1997: TORONTO AT SAN JOSE


THE MAPLE LEAFS FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK IN 1984 - DEFENSEMAN AL IAFRATE - WAS FEATURED ON THE SHARKS' PROGRAM COVER (ABOVE) WHEN TORONTO PLAYED IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA LATE IN THE 1996-97 SEASON. FUTURE LEAFS GOALIE ED BELFOUR WAS THE SUBJECT OF A PROGRAM PHOTO-INSERT (BELOW) COMMEMORATING THE RECENTLY-HELD ALL-STAR GAME AT SAN JOSE ARENA (NOW H.P. PAVILION).






A 2-1 VICTORY BY THE LEAFS ELIMINATED SAN JOSE FROM PLAYOFF CONTENTION. THAT SAME DAY, FOLLOWERS OF THE HEAVEN'S GATE CULT COMMITTED MASS SUICIDE.



MARCH 27, 1997: TORONTO AT PHOENIX


I HAVE A RATHER DISTINCT MEMORY OF STAYING AT THE HYATT REGENCY IN DOWNTOWN PHOENIX DURING LEAF TRIPS FROM 1996-98. MY HOTEL ROOMS INVARIABLY FACED EASTWARD, ALLOWING ME TO WATCH AS THE GIANT BALLPARK FOR THE EXPANSION ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS ROSE FROM A HOLE IN THE GROUND... TO A STEEL FRAME... TO A FINISHED PRODUCT IN TIME FOR THE '98 BASEBALL SEASON. BANK ONE BALLPARK (NOW CHASE FIELD) IS LOCATED TWO BLOCKS EAST OF AMERICA WEST ARENA, WHERE THE COYOTES PLAYED BEFORE MOVING TO GLENDALE.






MARCH 29, 1997: TORONTO AT COLORADO


PHOTO-SHOOT FOR THE TERRIFIC PROGRAM COVER (ABOVE) MUST HAVE BEEN A CHORE FOR AVALANCHE FORWARDS PETER FORSBERG AND JOE SAKIC. THOUGH THEY RANK AMONG THE GREATEST PLAYERS OF THE PAST GENERATION, NEITHER SOUGHT ATTENTION AWAY FROM THE ICE.



AMONG THE TRUE ANOMALIES OF THE 1996-97 LEAFS SEASON WAS HOW SUCH A PEDESTRIAN HOCKEY CLUB COULD PREVAIL IN BOTH ROAD GAMES AGAINST THE DEFENDING STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS. IT SEEMED RATHER CLEAR THAT HEADLINE WRITERS AT THE TWO DENVER NEWSPAPERS (ABOVE AND BELOW) WERE MYSTIFIED.



APR. 3, 1997: TORONTO AT DETROIT


THERE IS SUCH TRAGIC IRONY IN THE PHOTO THAT GRACED THE COVER OF DETROIT'S GAME PROGRAM (ABOVE) DURING THE LEAFS SECOND AND LAST VISIT TO JOE LOUIS ARENA IN 1996-97. DEFENSEMAN VLADIMIR KONSTANTINOV WOULD PLAY A VITAL ROLE IN THE RED WINGS' STANLEY CUP VICTORY TWO MONTHS LATER, ONLY TO INCUR SEVERE BRAIN DAMAGE IN THE CRASH OF A LIMOUSINE HE RODE IN WHILE CELEBRATING THE CHAMPIONSHIP. KONSTANTINOV SURVIVED; TODAY, HE IS ABLE TO GET AROUND - RATHER MIRACULOUSLY - WITH THE AID OF A WALKER, AND HE STILL ATTENDS A NUMBER OF GAMES AT J-L-A.






MY FRIEND, STEVE SIMMONS, WAS RELENTLESS IN HIS BELIEF (ABOVE) THAT CLIFF FLETCHER SHOULD NO LONGER MANAGE THE BLUE & WHITE.

APR. 9, 1997: TORONTO AT DALLAS





THE MAPLE LEAFS CONCLUDED THEIR ROAD SCHEDULE IN 1996-97 AS IT BEGAN - WITH CONSECUTIVE LOSSES AT DALLAS AND ST. LOUIS.

APR. 10, 1997: TORONTO AT ST. LOUIS














POST-MORTEM BEGAN (ABOVE) EVEN BEFORE THE LEAFS PLAYED THEIR FINAL GAME OF 1996-97.



COINCIDENTALLY - BUT OF NO CONSEQUENCE WHATSOEVER - THE LEAFS ENDED THEIR SEASON WITH A 4-1 VICTORY AT THE GARDENS OVER CALGARY (ABOVE)... SIX LONG MONTHS AFTER STARTING WITH AN IDENTICAL TRIUMPH OVER ANAHEIM. SEASON REVIEWS (BELOW) CLEARLY REFLECTED THE FUTILITY OF IT ALL.












SIX WEEKS AFTER THE LEAFS PLAYED THEIR FINAL GAME, GENERAL MANAGER CLIFF FLETCHER RECEIVED HIS WALKING PAPERS (ABOVE AND BELOW). SOME BLAMED FLETCHER FOR THE HOCKEY CLUB'S MESS; OTHERS POINTED TO LEAFS' OWNER, STEVE STAVRO, WHO HAD ORDERED A MASSIVE PAYROLL CUT IN THE SUMMER OF '96 - THE DISSING OF WAYNE GRETZKY PARAMOUNT TO THAT FINANCIAL MANEUVER.





















ONE WEEK AFTER BIDDING ADIEU TO FLETCHER, THE LEAFS HIRED HALL OF FAME GOALIE KEN DRYDEN AS PRESIDENT AND GENERAL MANAGER (ABOVE AND BELOW).








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