The man Rocco Rossi has drafted to save his floundering mayoral bid has already competed against Rob Ford, albeit in a very different arena.
It was March 12, 1983, and Bernie Morton, then a 15-year-old hockey player, was on a hot streak in the championship game for his Etobicoke league. He scored three goals and two assists before the opposing team dispatched an enforcer to shut him down.
"A guy came behind me - a guy far larger than I am - and plowed me head-first into the boards and gave me a hairline fracture in the collar bone," Mr. Morton said. "His name was Rob Ford."
The ancient run-in might explain why Mr. Morton, a veteran Conservative operative, can't resist the hockey clichés when he insists his last-place candidate can still pull off an upset on Oct. 25 now that the last council session before the election has ended.
"It's playoffs now. Regular season is over. We're in it," Mr. Morton said, stroking his new facial hair. "I have my playoff beard on and we're going for gold."
On Monday, the Rossi campaign showed off its new postseason stand with a pledge to push for recall legislation and an endorsement from attack-dog Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella, now a volunteer adviser.
Both announcements came one week after Mr. Rossi retooled his campaign team, bringing in Mr. Morton to replace Liberal Sachin Aggarwal as campaign manager.
Mr. Rossi's proposal to fire local politicians midterm dominated the news cycle, even though the Premier immediately shot it down.
"Today [Monday]was the very first day that I thought we had a bit of a turn, and that was that we were talking about things other than Rob Ford," said John Wright, the senior vice-president of pollster Ipsos-Reid. "We were talking about an initiative and a policy and Rocco Rossi to go with it."
But one winning day doesn't equal a winning campaign.
Mr. Rossi's abysmal polling performance has been one of the surprises of the race so far. Formerly an executive with Labatt's and Torstar, a chief executive of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario and a top Liberal fundraiser, Mr. Rossi is bright, articulate and propped up by some of Toronto's top political strategists.
Yet polls released last week by Ipsos Reid and Angus Reid put him at 7 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively, at the bottom of a clump of three also-rans trailing Mr. Ford and George Smitherman.
Mr. Rossi's lack of name recognition isn't solely to blame; he enjoyed the support of 15 per cent of voters in January, according to one poll, and that was before months of tireless stumping.
Mr. Rossi's biggest problem is that he tacked to the right at the outset of the campaign, portraying himself as a fiscally responsible outsider prepared to take on David Miller's City Hall. He vowed to cut the mayor's salary by 10 per cent, sell Toronto Hydro, keep bike lanes off arterial roads and contract out garbage pickup, among other right-leaning proposals.
When Mr. Ford - who had spent 10 years in the public eye flogging a simpler version of the same message - jumped into the race, he sucked the oxygen out of Mr. Rossi's campaign.
He and his team failed to adapt to the new reality, Mr. Wright said. Even the new Morton-led campaign's recall plan doesn't differentiate Mr. Rossi from the Etobicoke councillor.
"Regardless of what you think of the policy, the message is the same as the Rob Ford message," Mr. Wright said. "If you're angry, you can pull them [politicians]out and get rid of the them." (Mr. Ford is the only other major candidate who supports Mr. Rossi's recall idea.) Yet Mr. Rossi refuses to admit his run has gone awry.
"I think that clearly Rob Ford's message is resonating and some of it is occupying space that we would otherwise occupy," he conceded over coffee at Cantine, across the street from his Avenue Road campaign office. "But I think as people look at it more closely, I'm confident that, come election day, we'll be victorious."
With more than $1-million in the bank, he's vowed not to drop out, a possibility whispered frequently when John Tory looked poised to enter the race. Instead, he's focused on the experience of Mr. Miller, who emerged from the back of the pack after Labour Day in 2003.
"Very few pessimists create anything in this world," Mr. Rossi said. "I think that's another thing that, quite frankly, sets me apart from Rob Ford. I actually see enormous potential in the city."
Mr. Ford probably wouldn't be so polite. His campaign confirmed the details of Mr. Morton's hockey tale, saying only that "hockey, like politics, can be a rough sport."