North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Further dispatches from the bottom of the sporting world

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It was Brian Burke who said a chanting crowd helped push Ron Wilson out of the Air Canada Centre and onto what I assume is a golf course. It was not a parade of columnists, not a cavalcade of callers into Sportsnet Radio 590 or TSN 1050, not a trending topic on Twitter. It was the crowd.

For a long time the crowd at the ACC has been a joke, even among Leaf fans. The lower bowl, with it’s outrageous pricing, years-long waiting list for season tickets and more tweed than Brooks Brothers, is a haven of Bay Street peoples. The season-seats bought by corporations who can write them off as an expense – to treat clients, natch – are what is pointed to by those who say Toronto is a losing team and cannot change. Never will change. These people will always buy tickets, supporting the team without any regard for the on-ice talent.

But what happens when even these crowds begin to boo?

Last night, as the Leafs blew yet another lead, this time to the bottom-feeding New York Islanders, the chanting began anew: Fire Burke. There was booing – inspired by what happened in Oakland? – amid a jacked-up ACC sound system. For those watching on TV, myself included, it was an odd spectacle since the booing was audible in snatches but quickly mixed out whenever possible.

If it seems a little like airbrushing out the nonpersons, maybe it is. It wouldn’t be the first time a team has presented a rosy picture to their fans when things inside are in disarray. And it’s hard to blame MLSE, either: they’re in the business of making money, not winning banners. Their aims are not altruistic, nor should it be. And, lost in this shuffle, is the nice sign that season tickets aren’t going to rise for 2012-13. But after seasons of discontent, why should they? It’s a bone thrown to fans, however small.

How bad have the Leafs been? This season they were as high as sixth in the Eastern Conference. Both Jeffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel were among the NHL’s best scorers, ranking 17th and fourth. Both James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson had great spells in net: Gustavsson won 13 of his first 21 starts, for example. As recently as February 6, the Leafs looked like a playoff team: 27 wins, 19 losses, 6 overtime losses.

Then the wheels fell off. Toronto went on a losing jag literally the day after that ESPN ranking. Since Feb. 7, they’ve dropped 17 of 21 games. They’ve been shut out four times, had at least five goals scored on them nine times. They haven’t won more than two games in a row, but have lost as many as six straight. They haven’t won at home at all in this stretch. No wonder the crowd is jeering.

Back in December, Burke gave Wilson a vote of confidence and a contract extension. In an email to TSN’s Darren Dreger, he said that Wilson earned an extension, no reason to wait.” On March 2, from his fortified bunker in Toronto, he fired Wilson, then with the team readying for a game in Montreal. By then, it was likely too late to save the Leafs season: they were 29-28-7 the day Wilson was fired and had lost six straight.

But it goes a little further than that. At the trade deadline, Toronto didn’t add anything for a playoff push, say a goalie or somebody to add depth to their offense. It felt like a concession things weren’t working, maybe beyond repair. That is on Burke. So are the trades which stripped the team of draft picks (including the second-overall in 2010), and how only two draft picks from 2008-11 have played in the NHL. Toronto has not been a playoff team since 2004 and only recently was among the league’s worst: that they have nothing to show for it is insane. 

Firing Wilson was a start. It should continue with a culture change. For years, pretty much the entire Burke administration and even before that, Toronto’s been on a short-term solution path. Trade a youngster here, a draft pick there for an established commodity. They’ve been rebuilding on the fly for what feels like years, staying in a weird stasis where they’re just okay, never especially bad or good.

Between 2006 and 2011, the Leafs never finished with more than 91 points and never less than 74, averaging 84 points per season. Make no mistake, it’s a pressure cooker here. Between the weight of a 45-year title drought, blanket coverage from four daily newspapers, three 24-hour sports networks and two all-sports talk radio stations and a vocal, often frustrated fanbase, Toronto can be a hard place to play. Maybe thats why goalies get torn apart here like nobody’s business: Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Vesa Toskala, Justin Pogge, Curtis Joseph, etc.

Maybe what needs to happen is a complete tank: go right into the gutter, full-tilt and start over again. This time without the quick fixes. Hope another talent like Tyler Seguin falls into their draft spot, build around him. Because what’s happening now – Burke’s stone-faced insistance that things are under control and improving – isn’t working.


Written by M.

March 21, 2012 at 2:57 pm

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