Sunday, November 23, 2008
Once a year my best friend and I get out for dinner, pints and a Leafs' game. The tickets are always terrific, courtesy of the company he works for, and the games are generally memorable ones. Two years ago was the Pouliot penalty shot game, as it will forever be remembered in these parts. The 67 Cup team was feted before that game, Red Kelly made an amazingly politically incorrect comment during an interview shown on the scoreboard, and the Oilers fell just short in one of Ryan Smyth's last games in copper and blue. We were also shown on the broadcast a number of times apparently. (I was the handsome man in the cordouroy coat booing the Torontos).
Last year was an afternoon game that Hasek essentially handed to a badly outplayed Leafs' squad. Dan Cleary was also hit in the face by a slapshot and knocked out of the Wings' lineup for the rest of the regular season. Our seats were right near one of the gangways and we got to watch Elliott Friedman do his thing - interesting stuff.
Last night was a terrific game. Khabibulin, who apparently has been great this year, did his best to hand the game to the Leafs but the third period and short overtime were spent in the Leafs' end and the Hawks' comeback was pretty well inevitable. The Hawks are an entertaining team to watch, fast and skilled, anchored by Keith and Seabrook on D, featuring Kane, Toews and Patrick Sharp up front. They have a ton of balance and they are very young and they are hard on the puck - without Bob Pulford around to fuck things up it looks like this franchise may be finally turning the corner.
The Leafs, meanwhile, are long on hard work and short on talent. Toskela was mediocre again and unless he is very good they will lose on most nights. Jeff Finger, who Cliff Fletcher mistook for Kurt Sauer, was atrocious. Blake, who responded to a benching by having his best game as a Leaf against the Oilers, was a cipher once again and I cannot see how they will be able to move him at all. And Ian White was sporting a gigantic mustache which made him look especially douchy. We were thinking Movember but I'm sure he has sported it all season and White strikes me as a guy who would not raise a hand to help anyone and also one of those people who any form of irony would completely escape. I'm pretty sure he's just an idiot.
Of course last night was Wendel Clark night at the ACC and I have to admit that I have never seen a Leafs crowd act like that at any time ever. They roared and roared and would have kept on roaring if an embarassed Clark hadn't plowed through his speech despite the ovation. They settled quickly when they realized that he was going to keep on talking and then it was over with. Clark was one of the most exciting players of his era on the ice and one of the dullest off of it. His six or seven lines made Joe Sakic look like Winston Churchill rallying the Empire during the Battle of Britain.
Wendel Clark is an interesting cat and anyone trying to figure out the Leafs and their fanbase would have to start with him as a case study. He was a good but not great player who did three things very well. He had a terrific wrist shot. He was a punishing bodychecker, one of the best that I have ever seen. And he was a ferocious fighter. He came to the Leafs when they were wandering the wilderness and he immediately became THE fan favourite despite the fact that he was a poor playmaker, an indifferent two way player and a guy who never really led the Leafs anywhere. Gilmour was the far superior player, as was Sundin, who Fletcher traded Clark for in the classic sell high move. Clark had scored 46 goals, his career high, when Fletcher moved him to Quebec. His body was already breaking down and after he left Toronto his career swiftly declined. The player the Leafs received, Sundin, would perform at an extraordinary level for nearly fifteen years and yet when his day comes at the ACC the reception will be nothing like the one Wendel received.
I was at the celebration of the 67 team and the reception for that last championship Leafs team was nothing like what went on last night. The crowd was in a celebratory mood from beginning to end and even a loss did little to suppress the rowdy buzz.
Does that say anything about Leaf fans? Part of me would like to be smug and say yes but the truth is there are Leaf fans like the ones behind me last night who lamented the team's lack of a leader since Clarkie left, who booed Kubina and Antropov constantly, who went on and on about Luke Schenn and how awesome he is and who remarked that they could care less about winning as long as the team played hard and tough. And then there are fans who loved Clark and enjoy the change in atmosphere around the club these days but who hate the decades of poor ownership and mismanagement that have left this one proud franchise one of the least successful in the league over the last forty years. Every club has its dope fans (Trade Hemsky!) but I don't know that the Leaf fanbase has a greater share of delusionals then the Oilers. Its just that there is a lot more noise when it comes to the Leafs and that MLSE is such an incompetent bunch who still manage to make extraordinary profits despite their ineptitude. The Leafs' fans, for better or for worse, won't vote with their feet and as long as they don't (and Richard Peddie is in charge) the drought will continue, regardless of who comes in to take over the club.
So the fans here hang their hats on Clark and Gilmour and Domi (!?) to try and forget these decades of misery, while Sundin languishes outside of their affections. This allocation of loyalty, by the way, again is not solely a Leafs' storyline. Oilers fans, spoiled by their still relatively recent dynasty, find fault in nearly every player. Players of extraordinary skill like Hemsky and Visnovsky are not bloody minded enough, guys like Gilbert, Horcoff and Pisani too subtle. But Ryan Smyth, like Wendel, was the beloved face of the franchise for years. A far better player then Wendel Clark, Smyth lacked the big shot or the flashiness (qualities the new fan favourite Souray possesses in abundance), but made up for it with the greasiness along the boards, the resilience in front of the net, the steadfast reply to country's call, the so obvious love for the game.
Strangely enough though Smyth is now a villain amongst many Oiler fans which is more depressing then anything. As they lament the present club's inattention to detail, its failure to get its collective nose dirty, its go nowhere flashiness and slickness they forget that one day, not that long ago, they had a player who epitomized the qualities they miss and while the divorce was mutual it seems that Smyth and a few diehards are the only ones who remember what we once had.
Someday Ryan Smyth will probably receive some sort of honour from his original club. Hopefully the outpouring that night will equal what Wendel received last night but I would guess, sadly, that it will not.
Posted by Black Dog at 2:22 PM