It’s been a few weeks since the Leafs have been banished to the sidelines, as observers while the chase for the Stanley Cup continues and is usually the case, the questions about what went wrong are plentiful. One storyline that won’t go away is the relationship between Mike Babcock and the team’s best player Auston Matthews.

In the 1971 NHL draft, Guy Lafleur was selected first overall and was heir apparent to the long succession of French-Canadian superstars. Under the demanding four-line system of Scotty Bowman the twenty-year-old Lafleur struggled his first few years and scoring just 21 goals in his third year, he was booed at the Forum. He considered jumping to the WHA to play for the Quebec Nordiques and when Montreal had to make a decision to stick with him or let him walk, they turned to Bowman for an assessment of just how good he would prove to be. Bowman thought he’d be a good player but never more than a second-liner, “ a Bob Nevin type.”

Two years later he scored 53 goals.

Punch Imlach had a less than grade-A relationship with Frank Mahovlich that may have lead to one of the few breakdowns the Big M had during their 10-years together.

The 1960-61 season, Mahovlich’s best as a Maple Leaf with 48 goals, Punch was asked what Frank did that year to have that kind of success.

“He was aggressive; take a look at his penalties, he had 131 minutes about one third more than his average.”
Imlach for years tried to motivate Mahovlich to play that way and during stretches of games he would show that aggression with success. Before game six of the 1967 Stanley Cup final and coming off his worst season as a Leaf with 18 goals, Imlach teed off on Frank again,

“If I landed on him hard he could go anyway so I took a chance; in other words I talked to him like he was any other player I thought was letting us down.

At one point I looked at him and said I don’t know where you’re from, Chicoutimi or some place but you should have stayed there so I wouldn’t have to be bothered with you.”

The Leafs won the Cup that night.

You think playing for successful coaches like Vince Lombardi, Mike Ditka, Woody Hayes or Bobby Knight to mention a few was easy?

Temperamental baseball manager Billy Martin once defined managing a ball club with this analogy, “On a 25 man roster you will always have 15 guys who will run through a wall for you; you have 5 who absolutely hate your guts and the remaining 5 are on the fence. My job as manager is to make sure those 5 guys who hate your guts don’t speak to the 5 guys on the fence.”

There is a fine line for coaches to push players, especially ones new to the professional ranks. Remember most of these kids have been superstars all their lives and could do no wrong; played as much as they physically were able to and pretty much given the keys to the kingdom on every team they played. They reach the pro ranks and are suddenly surrounded by 25 guys just like them with another 25 looking for a shot as well. Why do you think some of the most successful careers are from lower draft picks?

It’s simply because those lower picks had to make every team they’ve ever played for and are mentally prepared to challenge for a job.

Young players are not only impressionable but also fragile and coaches are cognizant of this molding a player into their particular system. It can be a very difficult transition for a young player who’s basically let his skills carry him to this point in his career. It’s why coaches have shelf lives.

The Mike Keenan 3-year plan is a trap most coaches can fall into easily. The first year you can preach and instruct just about anything because the young star is happy to be in the league. Year two comes around and if there is some success from year one, the model will continue, but year 3 is the critical year because if it’s the same constant pressure from the coach and no further team advancement, the player can soon tune him out. I never believe a player quits on a coach but definitely plays more defensive to job preservation than risk going the extra for that coach.

Mike Babcock has three years under his belt as Leafs coach and the honeymoon is over. The pressure to succeed will only accentuate moving forward next year and some of his moves questioned; such as why isn’t your best player on the number one power play? He must scrutinize these situations very carefully because not only are the players watching closely, so is management. Remember when things turn for the worst, the quickest solution is to fire the coach because you can’t fire the whole team.

It would almost be impossible to find a successful company or team today that had an environment that everyone got along. If that were the case, then someone is patronizing someone and disaster cannot be far behind.
We live in a results orientated world and I could care less whether Mike Babcock and Auston Matthews even speak as long as they’re on the same page for the few hours they are together at the rink. If your boss weren’t in a power of position would you even speak to him? Maybe you would or maybe you wouldn’t, but for those 8 to 10 hours a day you find a way to make it work regardless.

Lanny McDonald told me that the players in Montreal hated Scotty Bowman, but they respected him. Respect wins championships; friendship gets you unemployed.

Three years ago the Leafs were dead last in the NHL. The progression since has been fun to watch and the depth in the organization (Marlies in Calder Cup finals) is second to none in the National Hockey League. With a solid foundation built through the draft it assures the Leafs will be competitive for years to come and isn’t that all we can ask as fans?

As long as Matthews and Babcock have the same result in mind once the puck is dropped and remembering that actions speak louder than words; who cares how they get there?

Beginning this week with first round match-ups set, the NHL unleashes the professional hockey version of Spring Madness. Parity has afforded the league the luxury of a playoff season that really is open to any of the sixteen participants to be crowned Stanley Cup Champion. Beginning back in September, the seven months of blood, sweat, and toil to qualify for the extended season drives home the cruelty of sport with the reality, it could all be over in a week. The roller coaster ride of emotions during this period reek havoc on a city but nothing unifies one more than a deep playoff run. Bring it on!

So much has to go right for teams to win starting with the surprise hero from nowhere; a hot or cold goalie depending which side of the goal line you are cheering from; upsets tilt the tournament bracket to the unknown and in a way level the playing field. These occurrences are what make the NHL playoffs the best in sports, bar none.

Entering the playoffs in a much stronger position this year, the Toronto Maple Leafs are set to challenge for a shot at the sixteen victory parade. However, along with the improved success comes higher expectations coupled with a controversial playoff format (two of the top 3 seeds in each division go head to head in the first round). Simply put, four very good teams will be eliminated in the opening round and while this makes for heart pounding excitement it will suck for the losers. But isn’t this what great sports are all about, a wide-open playoff format available to any team that qualifies? How envious is the NBA that has maybe four teams who have a chance at a title and the rest are basically schedule fillers? The MLB season opened over the weekend and by the end of May, twenty teams will pretty much be eliminated from post-season play.

While this signifies why the NHL is the best pro league in North America hands down, it also means your team could quickly be watching from the sidelines. Which brings me to the Leafs.

Does Toronto have a realistic chance to win the Cup this year? If everything goes right they sure do.

No team ever wins a Stanley Cup with out great goaltending so that’s a given. The simplicity of the game is to keep the puck out of your net and score one more than the other team. That concept hasn’t changed since the game was played on regular basis starting in 1875. The Leafs defensive zone play will be the key to success or failure thus it’s imperative the forwards be committed to defense first and foremost. The transition to offense with Toronto’s skilled forwards will take care of itself and similar to Pittsburgh the last two years, they didn’t have big forwards either, yet they prioritized defense and the result are back-to-back Championships.

The Leafs have an edge with the depth up front and if utilized properly (with Babcock’s experience there’s no doubt they won’t) this is what could separate them from whomever they play. Besides great goaltending, the other obvious is the best players have to outplay the other teams best players. No question about that.

The difference maker is usually how the bottom three or even the bottom six play versus the opponent. If the Maple Leafs can take advantage of this and get production from the bottom six this will be a difference maker (they have 4 or 5 players with limited ice that would play regular throughout half the league).

The Leafs recently played the Winnipeg Jets and some labeled it a preview of a possible future Stanley Cup match-up maybe as soon as this year (the odds for the Leafs to win the Cup went up after losing that game). That’s all well and dandy but I like to look at that loss as a reminder game. With the score tied at one in the second period Blake Wheeler drove the net and charging hard, Mark Scheifele was set to pounce on a loose puck but unintentionally ran into Leaf goalie Frederick Anderson. He tried to brace the impact by putting his arms around Anderson but was going to fast to slow the contact and even apologized after. The Leafs bench was incensed at the non-call (should have been a penalty) and moments later Jake Gardiner in uncharacteristic fashion crosschecked Scheifele into the boards behind the net. While serving the penalty not only did the Jets score but a minute later had a second in the back of the Leafs net. They lost the game 3-1.

As the playoffs approach the compete level is ratcheted up and things aren’t going to go your way all the time, calls will be missed or let go and any lack of discipline will end up with the puck in the back of your net. Expect the unexpected; ignore the cheap shots, late hits or anything that may upset your game. One goal can end a season very quickly and remember it’s an easier game with five skaters on the ice. Stay out of the box. Discipline and hard work create opportunity.

Mitch Marner knows better than anyone about increased intensity once the post season begins; last year Washington targeted him and he was pretty much a non-factor. I will bet that doesn’t happen again this year who ever the Leafs play starting with Boston.

The shock factor will be replaced by nervous energy.

First off the Leafs power play is very effective and the number one unit doesn’t even feature the best player on the team. Teams like Boston will be a little less likely to entice a player or take a cheap shot but they still will (insert Brad Marchand’s name here). The Leafs also have enough scoring on every line that the opponents can’t cover them all!

As I said earlier, if the Toronto forwards can limit the scoring chances of their man once the other team has puck possession it increases the chance for success. Again the plan is pretty simple, which is, if you don’t have the puck, go get it!
Much easier said than done, yes I understand that (the other guys are paid to score as well) but if the Leafs can efficiently manage their own end with the help of all twelve forwards?

It could be a fun spring!

If you haven’t read Doug Michel’s account retracing the early growing pains of the WHA and his franchise, The Ottawa Nationals, I’d highly recommend the book “Left Wing and A Prayer.” The context of the story is the signing of Chicago Black Hawk superstar left winger, Bobby Hull to the Winnipeg Jets with the rest of the teams picking up a portion of the contract; this would give the league instant credibility trying to sign established stars away from NHL clubs. The Prayer, using your imagination I think is pretty straightforward.

With baseball season kicking off and the Jays ready to open against the Yankees, it is with subdued optimism the media and fans are approaching the upcoming campaign. With this thought in mind I compare the Jays upcoming season similar to that of the original Ottawa Nationals, only the title would read “Left Corner and a Prayer.” The Bobby Hull version of the story is the Blue Jay’s superstar third baseman Josh Donaldson (left side of the diamond), with hope and prayers falling to the performance of the remaining 24 roster players.

Donaldson may be the most talented player to ever wear a Toronto uniform since Robbie Alomar. His “hockey player” mentality (he must have some Canadian genes) endears him to the fan base, teammates and admiration from the rest of the league.

JD’s talents and worth to the Jays are indisputable.

Management has certainly not done itself any favours alienating themselves with the “back again” fan base with some questionable moves. President of baseball operations Mark Shapiro seemed more concerned eliminating long standing administrative personnel rather than focus on the numerous holes in the lineup. GM Ross Atkins using the same party line insists the team will be competitive and the playoffs are not a pipe dream.

Russ Martin has been a solid addition behind the plate with more to give but he’s a notoriously slow starter at the plate along with the issue he has that incurable disease, A G E. Despite endorsements from the pitching staff of his value, Luke Maile as Martins backup with a .146 batting average won’t cut it. On a good hitting club you can hide a weak bat, but this team will be fighting for hits and it’s a wasted spot in the lineup (remember R.A. Dickey’s personal catcher Josh Thole?).

While Devon Travis is a talented second baseman, his durability is a concern. Last year Travis was hit on the hand protecting his head in the batters box but went on the DL the next day with a banged up knee.
He’s a guy who risks injury putting his uniform on in the locker room everyday; never mind the playing field. As of this writing Gift Ngoepe is the backup. Exactly.

Since arriving in August of 2015, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki highlight as a Blue Jay appears to be having the coolest nickname on the team. Tulo in two and half years work has a below 250 ave, a little over 100 RBI’s, 36 home runs and played less than 240 games. His range appears below average and he like Travis risks injury tying up his spikes (he’s out with a ankle sprain from last August).

I’m 64 and in the last 4 months had a knee scope and 2 weeks ago hip replacement; I expect to be skating before the end of May.

Never mind the fact Tulowitzki’s been a complete dud (well he did hit a 3-run homer vs KC in the playoffs a few years ago), he’ll collect over $20 million this year for lack of effort. Tulo’s backup, another cast away, Aledmys Diaz, has similar numbers, adding another weak bat to the lineup.

Kevin Pillar leads the outfield core made of castoffs along with up and comers like Anthony Alford and Teoscar Hernandez (they may not start in Toronto but will finish is my bet). With a little luck this could offer a glimmer of hope.
Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales should benefit from Donaldson back in the lineup full-time. Again there is some promise at the top of the order.

The bullpen has some question marks with Osuna’s mind set obviously the main concern. The bright spot if everything goes right are the starting five that have a chance to be the best in the American League. Early reports on Sanchez are very encouraging while Stroman needs to put aside the Showboat Bob theatrics and pitch. Period.

Any kind of injury to one of the five will be devastating with no depth in Buffalo besides Joe Biagini.

Good teams do the little things right and that formula filters throughout winning organizations. The Leafs as far back as the Ballard era ignored that concept, preferring quick-fix methods to bolster weak lineups that only created a dysfunctional environment top to bottom. The MLSE operate the Maple Leafs today with strong leadership, defined roles and a pecking order that’s unmistakably clear and are now enjoying the results in the win column.

After nine years Deb and I cancelled our season’s tickets with the Jays. The reason wasn’t the failure of last year; the horrific start was a combination of injuries, bad luck and poor play that happens to all teams in sports. Rather it was the bumbling ways of upper management beginning with the replacement of Paul Beeston the summer of 2015 and giving control of the ball club to Mark Shapario thus making Alex Anthopoulos redundant. What was the rush to sign him?

Since taking control of the helm, Shapario has replaced long time, loyal employees with his own from Cleveland; hasn’t acquired a front line player and with a team that fell to last place, raised ticket prices 17%.

We regularly attended over 50 games a year and if we weren’t using our seats, one of the kids would go. Deb had a corporate relationship with the Jays for many years and continued to book packages for business, friends, family etc. Our Jays rep was awesome and always accommodated us for last minute tickets or what ever our needs were. The never-ending upheaval with new management became too much and sadly he left the organization. Our service was never the same since he departed.

Deb asked for a 20-pack in our seats (section 115, row 15, 1,2) but was offered 20 rows higher in another section. We declined.

The Blue Jays haven’t sold out the opener; forward sales are weak, season’s sales down substantially and out of 20,000 season ticket purchases last season 50% were to ticket brokers, not real fans.

After suffering through recent bad seasons and purchasing hundreds of extra seats over the years, you think someone might want to ask why we cancelled.

No one from the Jays has contacted us to find out why. I don’t expect they ever will. Years ago, the Jays did contact subscribers who cancelled.

The only offering of an explanation from Shapario concerning the bump in prices was so that the Jays could compete with Boston and New York in free agency and to retain their own players.

The Jays have a very average team with some exciting kid prospects headed for double A so there is some help coming in the near future. However, every other team has the same plan.

Blue Jay’s management has to realize Toronto is a major market team and the fans deserve not only transparency but also vision. Continue to build the farm system and develop homegrown talent using free agency as an option to bolster the lineup with a missing arm or bat. Maybe Mark Shapario needs a tutorial in Shanaplan?

But all is not lost because despite concerns at backup catcher, 2nd, short, and hoping Curtis Granderson can turn back the clock, Randal Grichuk, can play fulltime in right and bullpen additions John Axford, Seung-Hwan Oh can get people out and the Jays stay injury free, GM Ross Aitkens really likes this team.

I hope he’s praying!

Oxford Dictionary defines superstition “A widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief.”

One morning while living in Markham years ago and working downtown, I used a car service after a late evening the night before. As the sedan slowed in front of our building at York and King St. it suddenly dawned on me the driver had taken a different route than was the norm. It was my error not instructing the driver the preferred directions, so to right the situation he circled back to the DVP and drove my regular arrival route.

John Madden coached the Oakland Raiders during the glory years of the 1970’s and adamantly insisted that travelling to road games the team used the same airline and stayed at the same hotels. Everything was exact in each city, including room floors, taping and meeting rooms, dining Hall, bus departures to and from the stadium, along with the travel itinerary given to the wives of each player.

In 1984 Wayne Gretzky went on a 51 consecutive games point streak that actually extended 10 games from the previous year but wasn’t recognized. In this remarkable time frame Gretzky put up astounding numbers (61 goals, 92 assists, 153 points) and would go on to break the 200 point total (in 74 games) for the 2nd time in his career.
During the streak he wore his traditional Daoust skates, but constant wear split the leather heel inside the boot piercing his Achilles tendon, causing Wayne considerable discomfort. The Oilers training staff failed miserably attempting to correct the problem because usually a player would just replace the skates with new ones but double 9’s wouldn’t change. He wore them through the streak.

Between periods the late Pelle Lindbergh drank a Swedish Beer (had to be Pripps) with no more than two ice cubes in the glass, served by the same trainer.

Wade Boggs only ate chicken on game days and with 40 recipes to choose from his wife would make hundreds of meals each season.

Players are known for rituals that may seem trite or trivial but it’s more about feeling comfortable without distractions. John Madden’s anal-like approach to team travel was directing focus to the opponent rather than a player upset the Westin didn’t blend milkshakes like the hotel they usually stayed or the egg-salad wasn’t made similar.

Nothing defines the copycat world of sports more today than the also ran’s trying to match the winning formula of the successful teams. Five times Wimbledon Champion Bjorn Borg prepared for the tournament each year by growing a beard and wearing the same Fila shirt. Teams in the NHL (1980’s Islanders were thought to be the first) picked up on the beard ritual that’s become almost a pre-requisite to participate in the playoffs. For some players everything from sitting on the team bus, getting dressed, taping a stick, to leaving the ice, is a process Batters choreograph an approach for each plate appearance, from the walk up song to getting set for the pitch.
Patrick Roy talked to his goal posts during games; Mark Fidrych became an overnight pitching sensation with the Detroit Tigers in 1976, spoke to himself between pitches and manicured the mound to start every inning. Glenn Hall threw up before every start in goal; Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform every game; Gretzky drank a diet coke, water and Gatorade between periods, in the same order; Ken Dryden wouldn’t leave the pre-game warm-up until he made one last save. Certain players like to be last on or off the ice after every period; the Pens broke the supposed jinx of touching any Cup other than the Stanley Cup a few years ago, they won.

Throughout my career I refused to listen to the news driving to work for fear I’d have preconceived ideas about what was happening in the markets, choosing instead to play rock music loud. My objective was to react to the impact of what was happening when I turned on the News screens at my desk, creating my own ideas.

Incidentally before turning in each night, I religiously checked the wake-up time on my alarm clock and tested the radio 3-times to make sure it was perfectly positioned. I was up 10-minutes before it was set each morning and the alarm never woke me once throughout my time on Bay St.

It’s of no consequence whether you play sports professionally or are a part of the working world; we all have our own quirky habits to get us through the day.

On a daily basis you may wake up, have breakfast, arrive at work by car or transit, read the paper with a Tim’s coffee sitting at your desk and answer emails before you start work. Is this superstitious because you follow the same ritual everyday? Of course not!

Do really think because Stan Mikita used to smoke between periods and then toss the butt over his left shoulder it contributed to his Hall Of Fame career? Goalies who religiously clean there crease every stoppage packing snow around the goalposts; does this slow a puck from entering the net? (Some used to place snow along the goal line). During the 1976 Playoffs against Philadelphia, Leafs coach Red Kelly without the player’s knowledge placed pyramids under the bench and dressing room. The Leafs came back and tied the series but lost in 7-games.

According to scientist our brain represents, “3% of our body’s weight but uses 20% of the body’s energy;” thus the clearer the mind, the more energy to concentrate on the challenge presented. If you apply that to a professional athlete, by ridding the mind of distraction by a set routine, ritual or if you insist a superstition, then they should react quicker in game situations. It makes sense.

Failing that you could apply ex-Maple Leaf Jim McKenny’s approach to success in the NHL, “Half the game is mental and the other half is being mental”

Recently I posted a piece about collecting autographs as part of the hobby. While I’ve never really been a big acquirer of signatures (funny I have a few hundred) I get the attraction to collect theme autographs of 500 goal scorers, Hall of Famers, teams, photos, etc. My passion is more about the artifacts that carry the story of the piece than having it signed. If the signature adds additional provenance or closure concerning the item, then by all means if the opportunity arises I’ll have the player sign. Standing in lines, waiting outside a hotel or rink, have never been things I’ve done with respect to my collection. While most of my experiences have been nothing but pleasant with the athletes there have been a few that didn’t go so well.

Years ago I attended the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago and with the weekly pass I purchased entitled me to a couple of autographs. I didn’t really have any interest in standing in a line but my curiosity got the best of me and decided to see what actually happens in the line (nothing) and waited for Johnny Unitas to sign a football. I thought by adding a Hall Of Fame quarterback would not only diversify my collection but also broaden the scope of topics to discuss. After forty-five minutes passed I started questioning myself why I was enduring this painful experience. Approaching the table set on a platform and handing Johnny the ball, he looked irritated with zero interest engaging in any kind of conversation with me, let alone a friendly nod. The feeling was mutual believe me.

I started to ask Unitas if he’d write his Hall of Fame induction year under his signature, but before I could blurt half the sentence, the staff member standing beside him shouted, “Mr. Unitas will only sign his name, so move along”

That would’ve been fine except for Unitas’s snicker of disgust that I could be so stupid asking such a thing.

My blood was boiling as I said, “Geez I guess after standing in that line for forty-five minutes my simple request must really be a burden on you Johnny. Just so we are clear I’m not trying to date you, just a little courtesy on your part might have been sufficient. You’re lucky I don’t drill this back in your face, but you’d probably sell it”

That certainly got Johnny’s attention as we glared at each other for what seemed a minute but was more likely a few seconds. I gave the ball away.

Joe Morgan ex-star of the Cincinnati Reds had just started his career hosting Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN and was a guest signer at a Sports Collectors show.

Again I had a free autograph and reluctantly stood in a small line to get Joe to sign a baseball. Approaching the table I thought I’d offer a comment about something he mentioned about the Jays on a telecast, but he didn’t even acknowledge my presence. He took the ball, scribbled his name while gazing in another direction making me feel like a stalker and a foot tall. Leaning over the table I said, “Sorry to disturb you but in case you aren’t aware, you’re getting paid to do this, at least humour us, Jesus.”

He looked through me and said nothing. I decided that unless a player was in the same room with me, I’d never ask for a signature again.

I appreciate they are busy (so am I) but clowns like these two fail to realize the reason they are seated at the table is because of the fans standing in line.

I’m asked constantly what certain athletes are like to deal with and if I ever feel intimidated? Never.

They are superior athletes at sports we all played as kids (and even as adults) but I always say give one of them a seat at a trading desk on Bay St and we’ll see who’s the star.

My firm was a major sponsor of the Special Olympics black tie dinner held every December broadcast live on TSN. It was a star-studded affair with Toronto society out in full force along with a who’s who of celebrity guests.

It was near the end of the evening and I was walking back to check on a few things Deb and I were bidding on in the silent auction. I noticed Raptors star Vince Carter who was having a breakout season, capturing the hearts of Toronto including our two young boys at home. Carter was standing by himself so I decided to break my own rule and ask him to sign the two programs I had for Ryan and Jules. Approaching I said, “Vince you will make two young boys very happy and me a star if you can sign these to Ryan and Jules.”

He continued leaning against the wall, rolled his eyes and said, “Really man?”

Stunned I look at him and replied, “If its too much trouble don’t worry, they’ll never know”

He snatched the programs, scribbled his name shaking his head the whole time staring at the roof of the Convention Hall. It was all I could do to restrain from ripping into this goof but I just said thanks and walked away a non-Carter fan.
Carter was paid to be at the event and mingle; it wasn’t like I was following him around a mall or interrupting his dinner at a restaurant. The look on his face was like I’d asked him if he wanted a dose of aids!

Players like Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Ernie Whitt and Darryl Sittler showed the classy side of athletes taking photos and signing autographs until the end of the evening. By the way, Shawn Green had been traded to LA but still made a point to attend the event even though he easily could’ve bowed out.

Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson was also at the same Special Olympics event and Deb’s son Jules was a fan of his. Deb bought his book in the silent auction and when Johnson had a free moment she approached him to mention what a fan Jules was and how much she was sure he was going to enjoy reading this book. Dwayne Johnson couldn’t have been nicer, personalized the book and passed a message along to Jules appreciating his support as a fan. Is it a coincidence The Rock is regarded as one of the classiest and truly “good guys” in Hollywood?

Most of the athletes I’ve encountered have a sincere appreciation for the fans and nothing defines a person’s character both professionally and personally than by the way they treat others.

Vince Carter is the same guy who attended a morning graduation ceremony rather than preparing for a game seven-playoff later that afternoon. Really Man!!

This same jerk quit on his team, played soft, sat out a game supposedly hurt but was spotted at a night club after the game and so on. Really Man!!

And they want to bring this stiff back and retire his number? Really Man!!

When someone is in the public eye I get the fact fans can be overbearing and demanding; it’s a small price to pay to afford the life they live. The public pays the freight and even though they have no financial interest in the team outside of purchasing merchandise and tickets, fans still think they own the franchise.

Fans Matter!

Maybe these Prima Donna’s forget they were kids once themselves and may have asked an athlete for an autograph or just a friendly handshake or greeting? The short encounter with an athlete can leave a lasting impression forever on a fan that’s either pleasant or otherwise.

If guys like Carter, Unitas, Morgan and so on, are so put out dealing with public life, then maybe they should say no in the first place? Oh but do you really think they would give up the money they are paid to attend card shows, fundraisers etc.? Not on your life would they.

I’ll guarantee when they get free meals, comp tickets, deals on houses, cars, boats or whatever it may be; they have a friendly smile for that fan.

A few years ago a friend of mine was escorting Jean Beliveau to a number of Hall of Fame events over a few days and was walking him back to the Royal York one night. Beliveau’s health was failing, it had been a long day (now close to 11pm) and there was a crowd of fans in front of the hotel waiting for the players to arrive.
My pal said to Jean,

“Mr. Beliveau I know you are tired so I have way through the back of the hotel that can avoid this big crowd and get you quickly to your room”

Jean looked at Kevin, “Thanks but those people made me who I am today and I wont disappoint them”

He stood and signed autographs for 45 minutes.

Last year I wrote about my return to play beer league hockey after a 12-year hiatus and the seamless transition getting back up to speed. Well that’s provided you consider the constant pain, knee operation and getting old, part of the process. My acceptance to the league was made easier by childhood friend Andy Tocchet aided by the fact that of the 300 players in the MMRHL, he’s probably had a beer with 299 of them!

I never realized how much I missed playing until I started again and liked it so much I’m up to 4-skates a week and once a week throughout the summer. However any player will tell you that competition aside, the real enjoyment of beer league hockey is the guys in the “Room.” Period.

Talent aside, the character of the player is the key component when the teams are selected through a draft in the off-season. At our one day Christmas tournament I said to Tocc, “I thought we had 15 guys on our team? How come we had 30 in the Room after our last game?”

Unlike any other sport, the post game beer rehashing a win or loss with verbal shots coming from around the room allows 15-guys in that moment to forget about anything that might have occurred earlier in the day. Priceless.
Unfortunately there is only so much time for the post-game socializing with other teams waiting for the dressing room so team bonding moves to another venue.

This may seem like a simple procedure but walking from the dressing room to the car can quickly change a guy’s thought process to just go home. Thus the next stop better be worth the effort, especially in the middle of February.

The Duchess of Markham (est. 1980) is a rustic neighbourhood English Pub located on Main St. within walking distance for a lot of the locals.

Upstairs is the unofficial headquarters for the Markham Men’s League with a horseshoe shaped bar tucked in the corner and table seating for around fifty. The upstairs is only open in the evenings and patronized regularly by the players in the league.

Like a superstar player that needs only a first name to be identified, the Duchess is simply “Duch.”
Players exiting the dressing room while nodding good-bye utter one word, “Duch” and the recipient without hesitation respond usually with a thumbs-up.

The straw that stirs the drink at the Duch is John Ruscetta the head server on the second floor. Johnny is a friendly, outgoing family man with a permanent smile and warm greeting to all who frequent the bar. As far as I can tell Johnny’s only shortcoming is his non-affection for the Leafs but rather the Philadelphia Flyers.

The second time I patronized the Duch, before summoning the server, a pint of the beer I’d ordered the previous visit was placed in front of me. To the average guy this wouldn’t mean anything, but bar etiquette carries a code of priority, especially ones first visit to a clubhouse environment. They also wouldn’t understand that everything from seating around the bar to ordering a drink is all based on seniority. It’s widely believed that hockey players are very superstitious regarding everything they do, but that’s not the case at all. Its not superstition; rather routine that not only applies to the way he tapes a stick, sits in the dressing room or orders from a favourite spot in the bar. Having been around the game all my life I respected the “code” and stayed away from the bar until I established who sat where along with the general order of balance. An “all-star” server like Johnny has a way of welcoming a newcomer like myself without disrupting the semblance of order with respect to the regular perched on his designated barstool. I quickly figured out who occupied designated seats (Bruce, Gerry and Hayden; the rest are first come) and have become good friends with them.

During summer months the upstairs bar shifts outside to the patio that is probably one of the best in city of Toronto. One Thursday night the patio was packed and the bar was four or five people deep, so I decided to wait to order because Johnny was jammed, but to my amazement I suddenly felt a nudge and one of the servers working the floor tables was handing me a beer. How he saw me I have no idea.

Dealing with inpatient beer drinkers I’m sure can be a nerve-racking experience and even with three or four teams in the room at once Johnny in “machine like” fashion, remembers every order. Aside from making sure everything on the second floor operates smoothly, seasonal NFL, NHL pools,” draws and lotteries are managed by Johnny as well. Even with this buzz saw of activity he still manages to have three or four conversations going at the same time around the bar. And if that isn’t enough to keep a guy busy, he still finds time to send jars of Italian sauces, hot peppers and sausage home with me because he heard Deb is a fan (so am I). All homemade of course!

One thing is certain that no matter what kind of day I’m having, I know arriving at my favourite bar I’ll be greeted by a friendly smile and a cold beer. To our humble barkeeper, similar to Stars known by name only like, Wayne, Sid, Mario and Auston, we respectfully include Johnny!

Like most sports fans in the Toronto area, I watched with pride as the FC won the MLS Championship last weekend. It was the second game I’ve watched in it’s entirety the previous 12-months, with the other being last year’s heartbreaking loss to Seattle. Obviously not a big soccer fan, I am a Toronto fan and cheer for all our teams. The Leafs are the number one favourite sports team in the city by an insurmountable margin over the others, but I wonder if we could see the order of preference shift?

The obvious number 2 and 2A falls to the Jays or Raptors depending on the sport of choice; bundled in the third tier has the FC, Argos and Rock. It’s extremely difficult in a large city like ours to gage the popularity of teams besides attendance. But maybe the numbers do lie? The Raptors sell out most of the season but while still working (2 years since retired) it would be a rarity for a client of mine to request seats to a Basketball game. As a matter of fact, when Miami with the loaded LeBron lineup played in Toronto the first time seven-years ago, a client took me to the game. At half time I remained in the Chairman’s Lounge bar and watched the Leafs playing in Buffalo. I wasn’t alone.

The consensus is the Raptors have a good team but is that really the case or rather the abundance of inept talent throughout the league? Toronto’s next six opponents have a combined won/loss record of 53/101 and won’t play a 500 team until a back-to-back set with Philadelphia just before Christmas (the Sixers are exactly 500).

The Jays temporarily won our hearts with some great baseball after the blockbuster trades in August 2015, but the bumbling ways of management are threatening to set the franchise back a number of years. The Blue Birds painstakingly won back the fan base after a twenty-year absence and they rewarded us with a 17% ticket price increase after a 75-win season. After 9 years as season ticket holders (we attended 50 games a season), Deb and I didn’t renew for the upcoming season. The troubling part is that no one from Jay’s management bothered to ask us why we cancelled.

The Argos during my youth was everything to all Toronto sports fans, because next to the Leafs they were the only game in town. With the emergence of new professional teams and unlimited access to games every night, they have become an after thought. True, they won the Grey Cup this year and made the front pages for a few days, but even a 50% increase in ticket sales next year will still register attendance below 20,000 a game. How many people do you know after the exciting Cup win a few weeks ago said they would buy tickets next year? I haven’t found one.

The Toronto Rock took the city by storm almost 20-years ago filling the ACC regularly and increasing interest at the youth level exponentially. Today they receive minor coverage and are barely mentioned in sporting circles.

That brings us to the Toronto FC who currently holds the distinction of “The Team” basking in the aftermath of a MLS Championship.

Before you shoot me down with the obvious “band wagon syndrome,” lets recognize an individual whose barely been mentioned yet put in place the foundation for the successes we are enjoying. Tim Leiweke. Remember him?

With complete autonomy, Leiweke joined the MLSE Management Team in 2013 and immediately made a lot of noise with at times, reckless abandon. But he got things done!

His mandate was to solidify management starting with hiring of Masai Ujiri to revamp a struggling Raptors franchise coming off a 5th place Atlantic Division finish in 2012-13. Under the rule of Ujiri the following year they improved from 14 games below 500 to 14 games above, winning the Division.

Next on the agenda was the tough task dealing with the jewel of the MLSE family, the Maple Leafs. With names like Wayne Gretzky being tossed around as possible candidates to lead the recovery of this broken franchise back to respectability, he settled on unproven ex-player Brendan Shanahan. The last time the Leafs chose the route of inexperience to operate in a pressure cooker environment like Toronto, it failed miserably. John Ferguson Jr. while respected in the hockey world, was unceremoniously tossed to the wolves and the predictable poor results surprised no one.
Both teams haven’t looked back since, although the honeymoon appears to be over for Raptors with weak post season play the last few years. The natives are getting restless.

The feather in Leiweke’s cap was the handling of FC and using a phrase from the investment world, he took a “bottom up” approach towards the fledging club, which was once voted the worst soccer team in the world.

Signing Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley to $100 million worth of contacts seemed at the time ludicrous but that was only the beginning. Leiweke fought for the expansion of BMO field to make it the exclusive home of the FC. With Teflon like resistance after the Defoe failure, Leiweke coaxed Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore into FC uniforms. Even a casual fan (like myself) understands the monumental contribution these two along with Bradley have made the past few seasons capped by finishing the greatest season in MLS history this year.

The real carrot in all of this is the message I believe Leiweke was sending to the sporting world. Everyone loves a winner in any sport but if a major organization like MLSE can spend mega-dollars on a team down the chain (FC), then the sky must be the limit for the core teams of the group? It reassures players that anyone under the MLSE banner will be not only be rewarded for exceptional performance, but treated as equals. It not only brings league recognition but also gives the city and fans hope.

The recent successes of the Leafs, Raptors and now FC, are attributed to strong management teams defining what’s expected of players, coaches, staff or anyone associated within the organization. Strong Leadership is the common denominator the most successful companies in the Fortune 500 strive to attain.

The Raptors played in Memphis last week and with Toronto trailing by 17 points a Grizzlies player decided to showboat a dunk and missed. He was benched and his idiotic antics lite a fuse under the Raps who rallied to win. People will say its “basketball culture,” but that’s a lame excuse for selfish, non-caring play and the said player sitting on the bench laughing while his team coughed up another loss is just plain disrespectful to the fans. The point is people are getting sick of spending money on spoiled athletes that for the most part, don’t care unless it’s self-serving.

It’s refreshing to see raw emotion from a player like the FC’s Bradley who appreciates the support from the people in the stands and doesn’t take the game he loves to play for granted.

Similar passion from players in the CFL and MLL exists but unfortunately for the Argos and Rock, they are missing the key ingredient for consistent success, Leadership.

The Jays baring a miracle at the winter meetings have another losing season in store for us fans this year, although they have rid the organization of numerous administrative personnel that must be the reason for team’s failure on the field.

Toronto fans appreciate hard work and dedication, so is it time we gave the lesser teams the opportunity to challenge for the number 2 spot in the pecking order?

Fans attending Raptors, Jays or even Leafs games, are they there because they really root for the club or because it’s the fashionable thing to do? I’m not referring to the “real fans” in the upper sections spending their own money and not on a corp boondoggle or business night out. The Jays proved in the summer of 2015 that the fan base would come in droves if the end product were worthy.

The Argos founded in 1873 is the oldest sports team in North America still using its original name and the Rock play our National sport of lacrosse.

There’s no reason the Argos and Rock cannot join the FC and become relevant again.

They just need the right leader to find the winning combination.

PS. After I wrote this piece it was announced that MLSE had purchased the Argos.

Now that flip-flops and T-shirts have been replaced with shoes, hoodies and jackets, the change of seasons is official. Driving to my Sunday night hockey game three weeks removed from a knee operation, I was anticipating how things may go, but instead the sprinkling of snowflakes across the 401 took my thoughts elsewhere. The Leafs passing the 25-game mark and the Grey Cup now complete are clearly signs that winter was around the corner but something was still missing.

With Led Zeppelin playing on the car radio, it finally dawned on me what was missing. Over the past few weeks I haven’t noticed a single road hockey game on the street or at one of the many schoolyards in the neighbourhood. It’s not a new revelation that street hockey has become a fading pastime, even illegal in some parts of the city; it still doesn’t make it any less sad to see.

In the fall of 1961, I was playing in the basement of our Scarborough home when my dad bounded down the steps with a bag of hockey equipment. He quickly outfitted me before making the 15-minute drive to McGregor Park for what would be a life-changing moment that day.

Looking around a stuffy, cramped room with a bunch of kids my age wearing the same sweater pulled over winter coats, dads tightening their skates, we all had that same puzzled expression on our faces. “Where the heck are we?”

Making our way onto the freshly shoveled ice surface with a crisp winter breeze filling our lungs, we were playing hockey for real. McGregor was an outdoor facility at the time so the slapping of sticks, pucks hitting the boards, the smells, seeing your breath, were all magnified beyond playing on the streets or running around our backyards.

At one point the puck ended up on my stick in front of the other teams net and with cat-like reflexes (more like a rusted door in slow motion) I slapped, make that pushed the puck towards the goal. What followed was that magnificent feeling of elation players experience when a puck goes in the net. Even playing 60-year old beer league today that feeling never goes away. The puck I shot that day hit the back bar of the square net, never leaving the ice and made a loud ringing clang (more like a ting) sound. Looking up I immediately caught eyes with my dad standing behind the goal who in a delayed reaction lifted his arms. Norman Rockwell had his next cover for the Saturday Evening Post, what a moment! The fact I was 25 feet offside and supposed to be playing defense, nullified my heroics. That wasn’t the moment!

On the way home my dad asked if I enjoyed playing and did I want to go back? I quickly answered yes to both; that was the moment!

I became obsessed with hockey, playing any chance I could, whether on the street, basement, or the local schoolyard outdoor rink. Most of the kids in the neighbourhood had the same passion to play so I always had someone to take shots with or start a pickup game. Granted it was a much simpler time with no Internet, game boy or 500 channels on TV as distractions. Our version consisted of tuning in the cartoons on the family black and white television, with rabbit ears for reception.

Today the game has become extremely technical with specialized shooting, passing and skating, motivated by the fear of failure or falling behind your age group if these vital fundamentals are ignored.

Challenges entering high school, not only in the classroom, but athletics, social activities and earning money with part time jobs are forcing kids to quit the game. The pressure of upcoming adulthood is tough enough for a teenager; why add the game of hockey with a full-time commitment and no end game? Those kids figure out pretty quickly that it’s more rewarding to have A’s on your report card rather than a hockey jacket.

But what if that kid is a late bloomer and never given the opportunity to find out how good he could become? Growth spurts, training, maturity are traits a late bloomer may develop or an early phenom may lose.

I believe Global warming has been impactful because in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, winters were long and cold, with lots of snow. Activities for kids were very limited so hours spent outside playing hockey, filled the void. The team each kid played for in competitive hockey was never a consideration because on the street or local outdoor rink everyone was equal.

The game of hockey at the pro-level has gotten younger, faster and more skilled; clearly the most competitive of the entire major sports today.
My concern isn’t the pro-level but statistics showing a significant decline of kids playing today. The cost along with limited ice facilities is deterrents limiting the growth of the game in Canada and that’s a fact. However kids lucky enough to play are encouraged by parents and friends, more as a necessity than for the right reason, to have fun.

There is something to be said playing an outdoor game of shiny trying to stickhandle around a dozen players on the other side. Most kids today rarely experience the thrill of playing outdoors therefore the passion and fun is lost in the demands of shooting clinics, off ice training or 3 practices a week.

About 10 years ago I played in a charity game at Leaside Arena and took my then 12-year old son Ryan to watch me play. I was very excited because it was at Leaside, I watched my dad play as a kid and knew the rink inside out. I recounted to Ryan how before my dad headed down the steps to the dressing room, he’d hand me 25-cents for the snack bar. I’d stuff the quarter in my pocket and make a beeline into the rink hunting for broken sticks, stray pucks or strands of tape to make shooting objects.

What made the Sunday morning trips to Leaside Arena even more exciting was Frank Mahovlich’s dad ran the skate-sharpening booth. Proudly I recalled hanging around his booth, hiding from the rink attendants trying to breaking up our impromptu mini games. A father cherishes sharing a childhood adventure with his son hoping one day he’ll pass the bonding moment along to his own.
Finishing my quick summary of life as a rink rat, I took a breath and waited anxiously for Ryan’s reaction; with his hand out for his treat money he said,

Dad why didn’t you just bring your mini-sticks from home?”

Dejectedly I handed him a toonie, he mumbled thanks, looked down at his game-boy and headed into the seating.