Thursday, August 04, 2005

 

Berger Fix

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto



I received a telephone call while going for dinner here in Los Angeles last night from Lee Hamilton – the well-known afternoon sports-talk host on XTRA-570 in San Diego. “Hacksaw”, as he is known, began to rattle my chain for being on holidays during the most intensive period of player movement in NHL history. I quickly reminded Mr. Hamilton, however, that the team I cover in the NHL seems to be on extended vacation as well.

It was less than two weeks ago, at the Board of Governors CBA ratification meeting in New York, that Toronto Maple Leafs’ chairman Larry Tanenbaum – a man I like and respect immensely -- called the Leafs “the number-one franchise in the NHL”. That type of hyperbole is commonplace among the businessmen who operate Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the Leafs, the Toronto Raptors and the Air Canada Centre. And there is much plausibility to the claim as it pertains to the hockey club – owner of the second-longest drought in Stanley Cup history.

The Leafs, in fact, operate in the NHL’s most forgiving market, unconditionally supported by a massive cadre of fans who are among the most delusional in all of professional sport. Not to mention loyal beyond reason. An overwhelming majority of them are not of age to have any idea what it felt like when the 1960s Leafs routinely won championships, and many of those who do recall that era continue to hang around for an unlikely reprise. In short, the Leafs simply have to announce they are playing, throw open the doors to their glitzy arena, manufacture all items of marketing paraphernalia, and they become a license to print money.

As a plethora of teams they must compete with for Eastern Conference territory (Boston, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Florida, the Rangers and Islanders) have improved since the last puck was dropped – some to an apparently astounding degree – the Leafs have spent the first days of unrestricted free agency this summer in virtual paralysis. Incredibly, in the best-ever league-wide scenario for obtaining the franchise-type defenseman they have lacked for three decades, the Leafs have positioned themselves where they cannot compete for this type of player under the new salary cap system.

This, we must emphasize, is anything but an accident. It is the result of one of two factors – neither of which is credible… a) young general manager John Ferguson has completely bungled his initial foray into the NHL’s fiscal juggling act, overpaying several veteran players, while qualifying a group of marginal skaters that has no chance of contributing to a Stanley Cup. The net result is having to sit and watch like the class dunce while your fellow students excel… or b) Ferguson has simply been instructed by his bosses to remain inert during this process and not commit to any long-term deals.

Do not discount the latter. While Leaf ownership has reversed years of frugality by providing capital to sign expensive free agents, and management has sacrificed future parts to try and win (obtaining Owen Nolan, Brian Leetch, etc.), this is still very much a business-first enterprise, owned primarily by a pension plan board whose immense, hockey-related profits disappeared during the lost NHL season.

While filling out the roster with cheap parts, Leaf ownership and management is crafty enough to read its hockey market with precision. For decades, it has been routinely understood that the Leafs can do whatever they so choose, without even a ripple of consequence. If the poobahs at MLS&E have determined that this is not the summer for the hockey club to wisely position itself on the open market, then so be it. Other than members of the media holding the club accountable – which has all the effect of an umbrella in a typhoon – there is every motive to proceed accordingly.

This, after all, is a town whose “intellectual” hockey fans rationalize practically all elements of the big-league team. So what if Scott Neidermayer, Sergei Gonchar, Adam Foote, Chris Pronger and Brian Leetch have gone elsewhere – signed or traded? The Leafs can do just as well with (and I actually received this in an e-mail) Pierre Hedin, Brendan Bell and Karel Pilar. Unless you pay close attention to the Leafs, you likely have never heard of the aforementioned trio, and for good reason. The first two haven’t yet made it to the NHL, while the third has been a marginal injury substitute in recent years.

If, as a member of the media, you happen to point out this nonsense – or criticize the direction of the team in any covert manner – you are written off as a dolt whose opinions (though quoted extensively and verbatim) are not recognized. It is under this cocoon of protection that the Leafs operate on a daily basis, and by which it appears ownership is proceeding this summer.

There are even veteran members of the media who have been lured into rationalizing on behalf of the club. They explain that the Leafs have wisely chosen not to position themselves financially this summer (an astonishing claim) so they will have all kinds of extra dough to automatically reel in the top-name free agents next year – one of whom, Jarome Iginla, must have been suitably horrified by such a prospect that he quickly re-upped with his old team, the Calgary Flames.

But, hold tight, they say. Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, Joe Thornton and a host of others are just clamoring for the opportunity to pull on the fabled Maple Leaf. Why put yourself in a position to properly compete now for players like Niedermayer, Gonchar or Foote?

And, if the Leafs have indeed chosen this route, under which premise are they operating? This is a franchise that, in no way, has earned the right to forestall its progress for even a week. Imagine the temerity of an organization to consider this approach, after a comical absence of almost four decades from the Stanley Cup Final. It’s an excuse for ineptness, and nothing else.

The potential signings of Jason Allison and Eric Lindros should not be an appeasement. Yes, Allison was once a wonderful attacker before the pinched nerve in his neck derailed a promising career. No decent person should do anything but root for him to rebound, and if he does, he’ll help the Leafs. Same with Lindros, who I have long believed should be wearing a Toronto uniform (and have said so many times on radio), but who still has other teams pursuing him. For Eric to have a healthy season in his home town – devoid of concussion – would be a terrific, heart-warming story.

But, neither addition to the team would justify the Leafs inflating their salary structure with third and fourth-liners, then sitting idly on a powder-keg of front-line NHL defensemen while others around them smartly re-tool. If this is how the “number-one franchise in the NHL” conducts itself, with a manager claiming repeatedly he has a plan to keep the team competitive, something has gone terribly amiss.

My apologies to Leaf fans. The e-mail I referred to in my column actually said “Jay” Bell and it was my mistake not to double-check it. Of course, I was referring to Brendan Bell, and I thank all of you who pointed that out in e-mails to me. It doesn’t in any way, however, change the gist of the column.



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