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Hockey Night In Canada co-host and former coach Don Cherry . REUTERS/Mark Blinch (MARK BLINCH)
Hockey Night In Canada co-host and former coach Don Cherry . REUTERS/Mark Blinch (MARK BLINCH)

Jeff Blair

Ranting Cherry steals spotlight from Leafs Add to ...

The NHL season started at the Air Canada Centre with the ritualistic piping by the 48th Highlanders Thursday night and ritualistic booing of the head coach. The highlight, however, came on the airwaves in the form of another nonsensical diatribe by Don Cherry, who unleashed a summer’s worth of venom on Brendan Shanahan and wailed about how the new method of message-sending in the game was players lining up other players and then intentionally missing them.

He didn’t drop a vintage Mike Milbury pansification line, but then that’s a lot of syllables, right? Instead, Cherry warned hockey fans to enjoy a game in which they wouldn’t again see such treats as Scott Stevens knocking the bejeezus out of people. “The ones that I am really disgusted with … are the bunch of pukes that fought before: Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson,” Cherry said.

Gold! Gold, I tell you!

“[They say]‘Oh, the reason that they’re drinking, [taking]drugs and alcoholics is because they’re fighting.’ You turncoats, you hypocrites. If there’s one thing I’m not it’s a hypocrite. You guys were fighters, and now you don’t want guys to make the same living you did. You people that are against fighting, you should be ashamed of yourselves,” Cherry said. “You took advantage of that to make your point on fighting.”

Oh, hockey. How we missed you! Wearing third jerseys that are a ballsy, karma-flaunting, raised middle finger to the hockey gods – similar to those worn by the Toronto Maple Leafs of 1967, which is when Thursday’s Coach’s Corner was apparently videotaped – the local flannel opened a season promising little with a game that offered no more or no less than what was needed.

Fitting, considering the summer’s worth of coverage of the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak and recent revelations of brain-wasting diseases and depression suffered by fighters and non-fighters alike, it was Matthew Lombardi who opened the scoring for the Leafs, starting and finishing a play that ended with Carey Price lying on his back and the puck in the net. The Leafs went on to win 2-0.

Lombardi was considered the penalty that Leafs general manager Brian Burke had to pay to acquire Cody Franson from the Nashville Predators, a guy with a history of concussions – the most recent being on a play that he described as simply being a matter of bad luck – and a salary of $3.5-million (U.S.) through 2013. Franson didn’t crack the starting lineup.

There really isn’t much point in reading a great deal into the first game of the season. The first-period shot total, 14-4 in the Habs’ favour, suggested that James Reimer had a strong period. True, he stopped pucks, but he was nervous and scrambly and lost track of three rebounds in what was a dire opening 20 minutes. Leafs fans will want many more shots like the one Dion Phaneuf took for the second goal, but if there was any lingering sentiment out of the game it was this: Andrei Markov can’t get healthy soon enough for the Canadiens.

Beyond that, it’s the win and the points that matter for the Leafs. Everybody knows that in addition to the emotional well-being of its fan base and, yes, some segments of the media, a quick start will keep away any questions about head coach Ron Wilson’s job status. This is a soft schedule: the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, a whole week off to work on special teams and then games against the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets.

So hockey is back and in Toronto, and this morning there will be a sense of “so far, so good.” Yes, indeed. Hockey’s back, and it’s brought its daft uncle Don with it, raging into the night. Coast to coast.

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