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Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson looks at the puck in the net after Boston Bruins' Jordan Caron lifted it past him in the first period. (FRED THORNHILL/Fred Thornhill/Reuters)
Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson looks at the puck in the net after Boston Bruins' Jordan Caron lifted it past him in the first period. (FRED THORNHILL/Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

Roy MacGregor

Leafs earn an 'A' for effort, but still an 'L' for result Add to ...

When it comes to hockey, The Centre of the Universe is a bit of an understatement.

It may, in fact, be next to impossible to succeed in Toronto given the way coverage of the national game has travelled from joining the Saturday-night broadcast an hour late to such suffocating, blanket coverage. What was once a weekly event brought to you by something you pump into your car is today an every-night-of-the-week event brought to you, perhaps no coincidence, by alcoholic beverages and cures for erectile dysfunction.

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Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre had the air of a major event, rather than just NHL Game No. 984 in a season quickly winding down. Every possible stop was pulled out – even the anthems sung by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, the only rock star ever to master the saucer pass – to celebrate the arrival of the 21st coach since the Leafs last won a Stanley Cup, hired by the 10th general manager since that long-ago year.

Seven minutes 15 seconds into this game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, the scoreboard – sound cranked, as always, higher than any other scoreboard in the NHL – showed a photographic montage of the new coach, Randy Carlyle, and his new assistant, Dave Farrish, both former Leafs players, and the crowd reaction was, to put it politely, muted.

Such are expectations in the only part of Canada where “1967” brings a wince instead of a smile.

NHL hockey coaches usually rotate in a good-cop, bad-cop cycle, but in this case the reach was from miserable cop to hard-ass cop. Out with Ron Wilson and in with Carlyle, a legendary taskmaster when he coached in far less stressful situations in Winnipeg (AHL) and in Anaheim, where he and Leafs GM Brian Burke won a Stanley Cup in 2007.

Following his debut game as new Leafs coach, a 3-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens Saturday night, this would be Carlyle’s first game before a testy crowd that had already fired Wilson through derision by the time Burke acted.

To prepare for this final 17-game push to make the playoffs, a task roughly comparable to RIM overtaking Apple, Carlyle had put his charges through two gruelling practices. Perhaps he was merely taking the advice of long-time coach Harry Neale, who used to say: “I know my players don’t like my practices, but that’s okay because I don’t like their games.”

More likely, however, he was taking a note from the book of another hard-ass coach, Ken Hitchcock, who took over the St. Louis Blues halfway through this season to great success. The secret, Hitchcock believes, is “You have to get players to do what they don’t want to do.”

To some degree, Carlyle succeeded on this night. As predicted, there were fisticuffs, Toronto’s Jay Rosehill and Boston’s Shawn Thornton flailing away in the second period, Boston’s Dennis Seidenberg drawing blood from Toronto’s Colby Armstrong a few minutes later. This, obviously, was the promised increase in “truculence” that Carlyle and Burke had hinted at.

To the Leafs’ credit, they played far harder than had been in evidence the past several weeks. They scored first, were ahead 2-1 and they tied the game 3-3, but in the end they were still the Toronto Maple Leafs, not even in the playoffs since the 2004-05 lockout, up against the defending champions. The Bruins were ahead 5-3 by the end of the second period and, though a Mikhail Grabovski breakaway brought the Leafs to within one goal, went on to win 5-4. “A” for effort but, unfortunately, “L” for result.

Halfway through the game, the cameras found 87-year-old Johnny Bower, the Leafs’ goaltender during their four Stanley Cup victories in the 1960s. All he did was wave and the sellout crowd of 19,684 offered back a long, warm standing ovation.

It was a reminder of how incredibly different this city is five decades on, how tough this market is in which to have success. Talk radio is no longer Gordon Sinclair and the traffic reports on CFRB. Talk radio is today hockey, all day long, all week long, even all summer long. The two national sports channels, TSN and Sportsnet, mean there is more hockey discussed on Toronto television than politics. Burke, with his tie and hair askew, is more recognizable to Canadians than any premier.

That Toronto is the national media centre is a reality. And it is only natural that those who work in a city talk more about the team and players they know best. It is no accident that in the six other NHL cities in Canada, TSN is regularly referred to as “The Toronto Sports Network.”

The spotlight, the microscope and the nattering is unrelenting. Both national newspapers pay far more attention to the Leafs than any other hockey team, including the one truly superior team in the country, the Vancouver Canucks.

Perhaps those other teams should quit their complaining and show a little gratitude that they play on the outer edges of this impossible universe.

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