Friday, August 26, 2005

 

A Berger Fix

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

The Toronto Maple Leafs have taken some off-season lumps from media and fans, but the organization put on a terrific show for its season-ticket holders this week at the Air Canada Centre. On three separate nights, the Leafs invited their subscribers to the arena floor for an informal meet-and-greet session with management and players that had “first class” written all over it.

With such an enormous and widespread fan base, it’s practically impossible for the Leafs to reach out to their die-hard supporters in an intimate way. Most Leaf junkies are content to live vicariously through the team and its players – as are the fans of any popular sports franchise. It’s the reason the Maple Leafs pull in untold millions of dollars each year through the licensing of their paraphernalia, and it’s been that way for as long as anyone can remember. If it’s considered a badge of honor to walk around wearing a Leaf jersey nowadays, it was just as exciting 40 years ago.

I still have some old, black-and-white photos of myself from the morning of my seventh birthday – February 3rd, 1966. I’ll always remember my parents anxiously awakening me before the sun rose that day, and presenting me with a blue Maple Leafs’ jersey – the kind they wore at home… a woolen garment with the old-style ‘60s logo. As a memorable moment from my childhood, few rank more vividly. Today, I live the same feelings my parents had, when I observe my 8 1⁄2-year-old son, Shane, who is similarly enthralled with anything related to the Leafs.

As such, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment deserves credit for going the extra mile this week to make its hockey ticket holders feel special. The Air Canada Centre ice surface was covered with wooden planks, and the fans were invited to walk onto the floor. The club served pizza and drinks, and a number of the players (Tie Domi, Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker and Carlo Colaiacovo among them) signed autographs and posed for photos. They were joined in a nice touch by members of the Leafs’ alumni – former players and coaches like Wendel Clark, Bob Nevin, Jimmy Jones, Jack Valiquette and Dan Maloney. It was the type of pep-rally occasion that’s more common in cities where hockey is not the number-one sport. As such, it was a meaningful gesture by the Leafs.

On a large stage, the long-time radio/TV voice of the club – Joe Bowen (only Foster Hewitt has called more Leaf games) – emceed a presentation in which general manager John Ferguson and coach Pat Quinn spoke about their vision for the club this season – Ferguson’s speech accompanied by graphics projected onto a screen. Also on hand were Toronto Marlies’ AHL coach Paul Maurice, and the versatile Mike Penny, who contributes to all of the Leafs’ personnel decisions.

There was an indelible air of excitement and anticipation in the building, as the subscribers looked forward to the return of hockey this fall. And, it was clearly a touch of class by the Leaf organization.



On another subject, I’ve come to realize that I was unfair to the Buffalo Sabres in making my predictions for the coming season, by burying them in the Eastern Conference basement. I think I got carried away by the losses of Alex Zhitnik and Miro Satan (both to the New York Islanders in free agency), while overlooking the club’s good, young players, and – most importantly – the ability of coach Lindy Ruff to squeeze blood from a stone.

There are few people in the game I like and respect more than Lindy, and while I feel his team will struggle more often than not this season, I see in him a number of Pat Quinn’s coaching qualities… primarily in the level of respect he commands from his players. If Lindy has the horses to work with, he’ll get the extra mile out of them.



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