Tuesday, January 15, 2008

THE NIGHT I MANAGED THE MAPLE LEAFS


I've been sticking close to home for the last few days, waiting for the call to come. Y'know, the call from the Maple Leafs asking me to come back and run the team again.

Again...?

Yeah, you read that right. I even got rid of a coach and turned around what was looking like a losing season. And I did it all in one night.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

To understand how all this happened, you have to realize that I've been a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team since they were winning Stanley Cups on a regular basis (and that hasn't happened in over 40 years).

They were my boyhood dream, my teenage passion and a reliable alternative when I couldn't get a date on a Saturday night.

I'm often fond of saying, "If Life was fair, I'd have Captained the Leafs to two Stanley Cups by now." Yet we all know that Life is not fair.

But it still could be.

After I moved to Toronto, I even lived in the shadow of Maple Leaf Gardens, where the team won most of those Cups. And when I couldn't afford the price of admission, I cadged ducets from scalpers after the first period when they were officially worthless, or watched the games in the bar across the street with the other locked out die-hards.

The Maple Leafs were often as unbearably awful as the spelling skills of whoever first picked their name. But they were my team and you never give up on your team. There's always next year -- and most often with the Leafs -- next year is all you've got.

Like me, much of Toronto lives and dies with the Maple Leafs and for the last couple of years we've mostly been dying. Now, we're well on our way to missing the playoffs for the 3rd straight year, something that has never happened in the entire history of the venerable blue and white. Careers and legacies are on the line. Leafs Nation is in panic mode.

But back to what's important here -- reviving my sports management career.

I exhibit all those skills necessary for the modern general manager of a professional sports franchise. I'm honest and trustworthy, tight with a buck and loyal to a fault to my team, be they made up of actors and writers or hockey players.

If you work for me, I go to the wall for you and everybody from network note-givers to refs and opposing players has to crack my impenetrable shell to get to you. Because I know that your talent is the only reason any of us are here, so I make sure that nothing disrupts that talent from finding the path to success.

Did I mention that I can also cuss out officials like a sonovabitch -- and know that actor's trick so they can hear me no matter how many other guys are yelling?

I once got on referee Don McCreary after he'd failed to take action as some nameless and best forgotten San Jose Shark abused Leaf Captain Wendel Clark. I mean, I gave it to McCreary for so long that Wendel actually stared over the glass at me in what I'm pretty certain was amazement. Could've been bewilderment, but...

Anyway, I sat down and smiled proudly at my wife, who was suddenly deep in conversation with the drunk she'd been ignoring all night. I looked to my other side, into the faces of a stunned 11 year old who'd just learned a whole bunch of new words and his very displeased father. I glanced down at the kid, figuring I should say something. He beat me to it -- "Way to go, man!"

See -- Leafs Ownership -- in me, you have somebody with a passion fans can really get behind.

Yessirree, I am the proverbial extra man out there. I've always got a vision and a plan. And I don't care who knows it.

Which brings me to the night in question.

February, 1996. I'm in LA and the Leafs are arriving soon to play the Kings. I've been in sunny California for weeks and I'm missing my guys. The newspapers never have any hockey coverage beyond day old scores and finding a game on television is about as likely as not tuning into a live police pursuit.

Even though the Kings have Wayne Gretzky, I can't bear the thought of making them my temporary home team -- and especially not after Gretzky's unpenalized high stick on Doug Gilmour ("Dougie" to true Leafs fans) cost us a chance at the Cup in 1993.

But I ask around about getting tickets and discover a writer friend knows Gretzky and can get his seats. We'll be right behind the Kings bench.

I'm in heaven. And I start getting excited about seeing Dougie play again. For you non-hockey folks, Dougie (pronounced Dug-eeeee) is the quintesential Maple Leaf. He arrived in a trade in the 1991-92 season and almost single-handedly brought the team back to its former glory, threatening to end a then only 25 year drought through sheer force of will. He scored, he fought and he had enormous heart, never giving up and always finding a way to win.

I remember first seeing him in person in a restaurant as a table of grown men suddenly transformed into squealing 12 year olds when he came over to shake hands and say "Hello". Doug was just the best, on and off the ice.

I also got to know him a little when his wife's sister came to work on "Top Cops". She'd often bring the family dogs to the production office and Doug's favorite, a tiny little terrier named "Harley" would sack out on the couch in my office. On days when Doug picked up the dogs after practice, he'd invariably wander in, knowing exactly where Harley could be found.

Okay -- so it's game night in LA. The Leafs aren't doing well and I don't have any idea why because I'm bereft of hockey news and haven't even seen an entire game on television all season.

We arrive to catch the pre-game skate and my writer pal is waving to "Gretz" miming "Thanks" and I'm noticing that this rink has menus and waitresses serving sushi in the seats. I'm also sitting behind some bonehead in a CAA golf shirt explaining the rules of the game to his hot date and not having the first clue what he's talking about.

This is not what I'm used to in an arena. Nobody's smoking. Nobody's smearing your sleeve with hot dog mustard and absolutely nobody is drunk before the first puck drops. I almost start feeling sorry for Gretzky having to play here. Almost.

The only time anybody gets excited is when some Sitcom star comes out to sing the National Anthems and a bunch of guys looking like Scientologists in Kings blazers fire T-shirt bazookas into the crowd.

The Kings owner, Bruce McNall, has just been convicted of Fraud and is doing time. People said it had something to do with rare coins, but I'm thinking it was for telling people this is how you watch a hockey game.

But the puck drops and things get going and right away I can see my guys are in trouble. They're not gelling. Passes are being missed. Plays keep getting broken up or fall apart all on their own. My pal is rambling on about some deal he's got at ABC while my fine hockey mind is ignoring him and sussing out the problem here.

The Leafs have been losing a lot lately and now Coach Pat Burns is juggling lines and line combinations so often nobody knows who's supposed to be where or what the hell the play is.

Since I'm only two rows back and the place is like a mortuary convention, I easily get Burns' attention and point out the error in his game plan. He gives me a dismissive look since I'm obviously sitting in the Kings' private section and he's not about to take direction from there.

But I persist and pretty soon I'm being noticed by Cliff Fletcher, the team's then manager, who is seated nearby with a very hot blonde, who I'm not sure is Mrs. Fletcher or the stewardess he left her for shortly thereafter.

Anyway, Cliff is hearing what I've got to say as well and I can tell it's making some sense to him, because these continuous line changes are really screwing up Dougie's game.

See, Doug's a little guy for a hockey player. Barely 5' 10" and 160 in a game where the average is bigger by a head and heavier by 50 pounds. So his great skill is being able to outskate the opposition, get behind the net with the puck and then control the play by firing it to a charging winger who puts it in the net. Bang. Bang. Red Light. Cue the Foghorn.

Only this night, because Burns keeps changing who he's playing with, Dougie is being repeatedly mashed into the boards before he can get rid of the puck.

By the second period, the Leafs are down by about three goals, I am riding Burns relentlessly and as the buzzer sounds, he glares and gives me the finger as he heads to the dressing room.

By the start of the third period, my friend has moved down a row to schmooze with the CAA agent and his date and Fletcher is having a heated discussion with Burns by the bench and gesturing in my general direction, so obviously he knows my suggestions have merit.

Some might say Cliff is thinking, "If somebody in this sea of inexperienced neophytes can tell we have a problem, we must really have a problem." But I'm pretty sure he was struck (as many are) by my sincerity and my certainty.

In fact, I know that was it, because less than 48 hours later, he fired Pat and a couple of weeks later, the team had turned around enough to make the Playoffs.

Now, don't feel badly for Pat. All coaches get fired. That's just the way it is. And although the Leafs still haven't won a Stanley Cup in the intervening years, Burns led the New Jersey Devils to one in 2003. So he's okay with what happened. In fact, I'm sure he'd tell me how much he appreciated what I did for him if he had the chance.

And if this damn phone would ring, I might even give him another shot at the Leafs. He's a pretty good coach and he'll be coming in having experience with the nimble hockey mind he'll be dealing with.

I might bring Dougie back too. He might have a bum knee now, but hey, he's got two of them right? Bobby Baun scored a Cup winning goal on a broken leg, so Doug'll be just fine.

And you can't imagine how many shirts and bobbleheads we'd sell with good old "93" on them. The fans would just eat that up, especially up in Woodbridge. Talk radio would be raving non-stop. The Buzz would be incredible. And don't let anybody kid you, making money and creating Buzz are part of the manager's job too.

I could totally do this!

All they need to do is call.

I can hear the cheers now...


Dug-eeeee -- Dug-eeeee -- Dug-eeeee

4 comments:

"The Book of Don" said...

Jim...I was just wondering about that group of 12 year olds who came over to Dougeee's table....

I guess this was AFTER he'd stopped "dating" that 12 year old in St. Louis and BEFORE he hooked up with the Toronto chickeee.

:)

dy

(Go Sens)

jimhenshaw said...

Don,

I must defend Doug's honor. First of all, she was 13 -- and no charges were ever laid because the police refused to prosecute. Second, the parents originally approached the team offering to keep quiet for $200,000. Later, Doug and his wife counter sued for defamation and the matter was settled out of court in their favor.

Dug-eeeee can do no wrong.

"The Book of Don" said...

Thanks for clearing that up for me Jim. :)

And despite the fact that he's Cherry's favourite player ... I have to admit that I always picked Doug in my Fantasy Hockey Pool -- I just liked the way he played. He was just one of those players you just knew would come through in a crunch. As much as I've lived and died with the Sens these past 14 years (eg Patty Lalime)...and these days admire the skills of Alfie and Redden and Spezza et al - I can't help but feel they won't hoist that silver cup until they bring in someone like Gilmour or Gary Roberts.

Kelly J. Compeau said...

I've always liked Doug Gilmour. Nice guy, excellent hockey player.