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The Globe and Mail

Don't look now, but Toronto has a hockey winner

If, as Brian Burke says, this new generation of Toronto Maple Leafs cannot be held responsible for the city's Stanley Cup drought, it stands to reason the 2011-12 Toronto Marlies cannot be held responsible for Burke.

The Marlies can advance to the American Hockey League's Calder Cup on Friday with a win over the Oklahoma City Barons at Ricoh Coliseum, and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., must be wondering how the hell it handles the potential of a bona fide title.

Question: After Toronto FC won its fourth consecutive Voyageurs Cup on Wednesday – putting the lie for a few days to the assertion by one of their own players, Danny Koevermans, that they are the worst team in the world – is there any room on the MLSE mantel for the Calder Cup?

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Okay, that's a cheap shot. But get ready for more. The Marlies' success this season stands in stark contrast to just about everything else MLSE has done.

(Except make money. It's very good at that.)

And you know that all the haters out there are going to be snickering about how the Centre of the Hockey Universe™ hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1967. You can already hear the one-liners about a parade for the Marlies around the Ricoh Coliseum parking lot, or about having next year's Maple Leafs uniforms include a celebratory Calder Cup patch.

And don't get us started on the retirement ceremony for Ben Scrivens's Marlies jersey. "Hockey in Toronto in May? Who'd a thunk it?" Etc. …

This is such a bitter and twisted sports market that a Marlies win would carry with it a certain sting. Which is not entirely fair to the 6,238 fans who turned up Wednesday, waving their little white rally towels at an arena that still maintains some semblance of quaintness (and affordability) despite the usual MLSE overkill. Most certainly, it is not fair the Marlies players, who are trying to do what professional athletes do everywhere: win their league title and let everybody else put it in perspective.

It might not be the league title of their dreams – few players grow up dreaming about winning minor league titles or setting minor league goal-scoring or home-run records or things of that ilk – but that does not diminish the integrity of their effort. The fact they are led by a head coach, Dallas Eakins, who was deemed by his employers as being unworthy of replacing Ron Wilson as Leafs head coach only adds to it.

After stopping 30 shots on Wednesday in a 3-0 mud pile of a win over the Barons in the fifth game of the best-of-seven Western Conference final, Scrivens – who might not be much more than a backup goalie in the NHL but is squarely among the top half-dozen athlete interviews in this marketplace – spoke about how the Marlies aren't quite what you'd think.

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The truth is, an AHL team isn't like a top-level minor league baseball team; it tilts more toward guys treading water or guys on the way down than gilt-edged prospects, because many of the latter commodity are in junior or college. But neither are the Marlies a group of guys biding their time, waiting for the next cold beer.

"It's not cliquey," said Scrivens, who, as a Marlies regular this season, has tried to be a welcoming conduit for players on the way up or down. "We don't have guys showing up at the very last minute before they have to be out on the ice, or guys who get out of the dressing room right after the game.

"We have," he added, "a lot of good people in here."

It would be a little easier if the damned arena was out in the boonies some place instead of being within a cab ride of the Air Canada Centre. So close and yet so far. Yet here go the Marlies: attempting to be the first Maple Leafs farm team to advance to the Calder Cup since the 1992-93 St. John's Maple Leafs.

Next step? End a minor league title drought stretching back to 1982, when the Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks co-shared the New Brunswick Hawks, and even farther back to 1968, when the Rochester Americans became the last solely Leafs farm team to win a championship.

The Marlies players and supporters are unapologetic, which is how it should be. Feel free to forget who owns them, but most of all don't blame them for the past. Or the present.

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