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On Happiness

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I was asked last night, over beers, whether I was happy, on a scale of one to 10.

First of all: A score of 10 is unattainable. For anyone.

Second of all: The question was posed to me shortly after I’d watched the Maple Leafs lose 8-0 to the Boston Bruins. Eight-nothing. Who the fuck loses 8-0? And I watched, for the most part, the whole game; couldn’t turn it off. The Bruins can go to hell. The Leafs can, too, for that matter.

I answered “Six-point-five.” And I think I was being generous. Had the Leafs lost 2-1, I’d have probably answered “Seven.” At least. Eight-nothing’s some bullshit.

No playoffs.

Image credit: Robert Adams, via This Isn’t Happiness. 

Written by Navin Vaswani

March 20th, 2012 at 6:36 pm

In Which I Compare Phil Kessel to Mats Sundin

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Already in his short Toronto Maple Leafs career, Phil Kessel has accomplished something Mats Sundin never did: Being named NHL player of the month. Learning that Kessel was the first Maple Leaf to take home the prize since Felix Potvin way back in 1993 surprised me; I just assumed Sundin did it, that he was the last Leaf to win the award. All those months, all those years, all those points, Sundin leaving Toronto its leading scorer in team history, I figured he won it, at least once, and I simply forgot about it.

At the same time, I wasn’t surprised that Sundin never won the honours. Mats was remarkably consistent, an elite talent — undoubtedly — in the dead puck era, but never bald head and Swedish shoulders above the rest of the competition. Not even for a month. The haters will likely use that as ammunition against Sundin. I maintain, as I always have: Fuck the haters.

Wednesday night in New Jersey, Phil Kessel continued his torrid start to the season, picking up another two assists, and running his total to 20 points on the season. In 12 games. (After Thursday night, Kessel’s got 21 points in 13 games.) Absurd. Thank you, Kessel, indeed. So, I was curious: Had Sundin ever reached the 20-point mark in 12 games as a Toronto Maple Leaf? I know, it doesn’t mean much, 20 points in what’s a long, grinding season, but it’s a nice, round number, so I figured, why not? To Hockey Reference, yo.

Below are their respective Maple Leafs seasons, and how many games it took Sundin, and has taken Kessel, to reach 20 points on the year, and the date on which each reached the mark.

Mats Sundin:

1995: 20 points — 20 games — February 25, 1995 (Lockout shortened season.)

95/96: 20 points — 14 games — November 16, 1995 (Injured; missed late October games.)

96/97: 20 points — 15 games — November 9, 1996

97/98: 20 points — 27 games — December 6, 1997 (No points in first seven games.)

98/99: 20 points — 16 games — November 12, 1998

99/00: 20 points — 17 games — November 29, 1999 (Injured; missed games in October.)

00/01: 20 points — 25 games — November 30, 2000

01/02: 20 points — 21 games — November 19, 2001

02/03: 20 points — 17 games — November 15, 2002

03/04: 20 points — 22 games — November 24, 2003 (No points in first five games.)

04/05: No games — No points — Only sadness.

05/06: 20 points — 24 games — December 26, 2005 (Injured all of October.)

06/07: 20 points — 18 games — November 25, 2006 (Injured in November. When it mattered.)

07/08: 20 points — 14 games — November 2, 2007

Phil Kessel:

09/10: 20 points — 21 games — December 14, 2009 (Missed training camp and all of October.)

10/11: 20 points — 33 games — December 20, 2010 (Blame November.)

11/12: 20 points — 12 games –November 2, 2011

So, there you have it: Mats Sundin, in all his years literally and figuratively leading the Maple Leafs, never had a start quite as incredible as Kessel’s this season. The game’s certainly changed since Sundin’s time, but I can’t — won’t! — take anything away from Kessel. His first twelve games have been must-see TV. I read it on Twitter, and although I can’t remember who was behind the brilliance, I know it was retweeted by the King of Reweets himself, my friend and yours, @mlse: “If there’s a Phil, there’s a way.” That’s about the best way to describe this early season, isn’t it?

As for Sundin, I think it’s fitting that his first full season with the Leafs began much like his last, 20 points in his first 14 games. Even though, as a team, Sundin’s final season with Toronto was an incredible disappointment, Mats wasn’t. He was like a fine Swedish wine, seeming to only get better with age.

Also, for shits and giggles, I took a look at Doug Gilmour’s stats from his ridiculous 1992/1993 season, and it took him all of 10 games to score his 20th point on the season. Killer.

It all comes back to Phil Kessel, though. He’s doing things Mats Sundin wasn’t able to. And, well, that kind of blows my mind. And, much like Sundin, Kessel’s doing it without much of a supporting cast (with all due respect to sniper Joffrey Lupul). It’s also worth remembering that Sundin, when he became a Maple Leaf and in his first few years with the team, was surrounded by veterans: Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, Mike Gartner, Mike Ridley, and Jamie Macoun, to name a few, who helped mentor him, and who eased his transition to our hockey-mad, Stanley Cup-starving town.

There are more parallels: Sundin was 23-years-old when he became a Leaf, Kessel only 22. Sundin played with the guys I mentioned above, and even Larry Murphy (Boo!), Kirk Muller, and the legend he was traded for, Wendel Clark. Kessel hasn’t been afforded that same luxury, if you can call it that. Of the Toronto team that Kessel suited up with on November 3, 2009, his first game in the blue and white, only Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Mike Komisarek, Colton Orr, Jonas Gustavsson, and Luke Schenn remain Leafs today.

The Leafs are Kessel’s team, and he’s inherited the responsibility a lot sooner than Sundin did, at a much younger age, and without veterans the likes of which Sundin had as teammates, whom Sundin certainly relied upon. It makes what Kessel has done — he’s the NHL’s leading scorer, and the Leafs are the NHL’s best team — not only this year, but in his first two seasons as a Maple Leaf, too, that much more impressive.

It’s early still, Kessel might never be as productive as Sundin was, Tyler Seguin might end up turning into one hell of a hockey player, and truthfully I hope he does, but it’s pretty obvious: Kessel was worth the picks.

Image courtesy artobserved.com, via this isn’t happiness.

Written by Navin Vaswani

November 4th, 2011 at 10:10 am

I Learned Nothing From Last Season’s 4-0-1 Leafs Start

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Life — growing up, the human experience — is about making mistakes. They’re inevitable. What’s important on this journey is to learn from your mistakes. Not repeat them. So I’m a bit disappointed in myself because, with the Toronto Maple Leafs sitting pretty at 4-0-1, just as they were last October after five games, here we are, again: I’m ecstatic. I’m thinking this team’s different, this team’s the one that will end the postseason drought. I learned nothing from last year, when the Leafs got my hopes up, only to murder those very hopes a month later, in November, when the games mattered. Nothing at all. Actually, I’m even more excited this time around, after five games. Should the Leafs win four out of their next five, I think it’ll be pretty obvious to everyone else, as it will be to me, that the Maple Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup.

How could you not be excited after watching The Phil Kessel Show these past two weeks? Sure, people, including Ron Wilson, are talking about Kessel being a streaky scorer and really being in the zone right now, and that might well be the case, but Kessel looks like a different player on the ice. While his supporters, and I’m surely one of them, have continued to trumpet the fact that he is one of the NHL’s most dangerous offensive players, already a three-time 30-goal scorer at only 24-years-old, it’s the complete nature of Kessel’s game that has all of us thinking things we probably shouldn’t be. You know, hardware: a Maurice Richard trophy, maybe an Art Ross, hell, maybe even a Selke. Kessel looks dangerous out there, on every shift. You didn’t have to be watching to know when Kessel had the puck over the Leafs’ first five home games; you could hear it. He had the crowd buzzing. It was … fun. And if Kessel lights up Boston …

I know, I know, this Leafs team isn’t perfect. Far from it. It almost makes them easier to love. Nobody likes a perfectionist. But the flaws are evident, five games in. It’s a serious problem that Kessel and linemate Joffrey Lupul are scoring all the goals. Someone, anyone, please find a pineapple for Mikhail Grabovski to murder; he’s got to get going. The defence has been poor. Not that that’s surprising, really. But my worst fear seems to have been realized: Luke Schenn has been infected by the disease known as Mike Komisarek. Schenn looked awful on Winnipeg’s second goal Wednesday night, just brutal.

But one man’s struggles are another man’s opportunity, and after the way Jake Gardiner played last night, it’s impossible to keep him out of the lineup. And good on the kid. For selfish reasons, of course. Gardiner’s making it easier to let go of Tomas Kaberle.

It’s so much easier to support this team when the trades Burke has pulled off — Kessel, Gardiner, Lupul, Dion Phaneuf — seem to be working, and working out quite well, isn’t it? Speaking of trades, I wouldn’t object to the acquisition of Rene Bourque, but I’m mostly surprised that Calgary would even consider trading again with Toronto. The Flames are one fucked up organization.

A few words on Lupul: helluva finish on his first goal of two last night. What I love most about his success is that I know how much it pisses off, and will continue to piss off, Edmonton Oilers bloggers and fans. I hope he scores 35. In the battle of rebuilders, screw the Oilers, I say.

A favor: If you see anyone out there wearing a Carl Gunnarsson jersey, shake his or her hand. I will do the same.

Another reason to be a lot more excited about this season’s edition of the Leafs, compared to last: James Reimer. The fate of this 4-0-1 team doesn’t rest on J.S. Giguere’s groin, and the wounded psyche of Jonas Gustavsson. Advantage, huge advantage, this year’s squad. In all seriousness, I’m looking forward to seeing how Gustavsson does tonight. The Bruins aren’t scoring goals; they’ve got 11 in six games, Kessel’s scored seven in five. If this Leafs team wants to be taken seriously, now’s the time to capitalize on a struggling Boston squad, and to make sure that not one bloody soul at T.D. Garden is chanting “Thank you Kessel!” Well, except for Leafs fans. They should definitely be chanting “Thank you Kessel!” at T.D. Garden.

Also tonight: Nazem Kadri makes his debut. More skill. And there’s nothing wrong with more skill. Can’t wait.

The Leafs have yet to lose in regulation, their power play stinks, their penalty killing stinks even more (77.3%, ugh), they have zero secondary scoring, and, as cliched as I know it reads, have yet to play a full 60 minutes. Yet I’m thinking 6-0-1, what with Boston and Montreal — both struggling, both beatable — on the schedule before a date with the Flyers.

Should the Leafs take 13 points out of their first available 14, sorry, but I have to think playoffs. It’d be a crime not to. Let’s be honest: I’m thinking playoffs, hockey in spring in Toronto, already. It helps takes my mind off the coming long and depressing winter.

Image courtesy Crystal.  Thanks, Crystal. It’s my favourite.

Written by Navin Vaswani

October 20th, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Today in Goalies Who Screwed the Leafs: J.S. Giguere

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Post-lockout, when 51-year-old Ed Belfour was inexplicably signed to play goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs, I wished for him to just, you know, go away. After what we all knew to be true was confirmed: that Belfour could no longer play the position, that the Eagle was grounded. I wished upon Eddie — God love him, a great goalie who absolutely owned Ottawa in the playoffs — a bender, the likes of which he’d never seen. The bender I knew he had it in him to go on. It broke my heart to watch a once-proud goalie, who had 10 bloody shutouts in 2003/2004 (for the Leafs!), go out the way Belfour was. It was obvious: he was done.

Mikael Tellqvist and J.S. Aubin were never good enough to truly care about. I do remember when the Leafs faced Tellqvist, though, back on December 4, 2008 in Phoenix. He was awful, and played only 40 minutes after allowing three goals on nine shots. Vesa Toskala, Toronto’s goalie, was worse, allowing six goals on 26 shots. Toronto lost, the final 6-3 Coyotes. With Andrew Raycroft backing up Toskala, effectively leaving Toronto without a back-up goalie, the Leafs had no choice but to go down with the leaky ship.

(In his dreams, Toskala owns a boat: The Vesina.)

We’ve watched some awful goaltending in Toronto over the past few years. I mean really fucking awful. And it’s led to some serious personal bitterness. When Toronto faced Raycroft in Colorado in late January 2009, I wanted nothing more than for the Leafs to light him up. Payback. It was a game that I’d have circled on my Leafs calendar, if I had one of those Leafs calendars, you know, from Shoppers Drug Mart, the ones we all had as kids. Actually, physically circled, in red, on the calendar, along with, I don’t know, something subtle like “DEATH TO RAYCROFT.” The Leafs scored on Raycroft that cold, awesome January night, and scored on him often. It was fantastic. Seven Toronto goals on 30 shots. It was fun.

That’s what being a Leafs fan of late had been reduced to: revenge. I won’t lie: I wanted some very bad things to happen to Vesa Toskala. I’m still a little bit bitter over the fact he bolted for some Finnish beer league, where I have no doubt he’s one of the shittier goalies, before the Leafs, and Phil Kessel, got to him.

Tonight, in a few hours, J.S. Giguere makes his not so triumphant return to Toronto. Looking back at his 2010/2011 numbers — 11 wins, 11 losses, and a .900 save percentage — Giguere was better than I thought. Which is fucking sad, because those numbers aren’t very good. They’re average brutal. And that’s how I’d describe Giguere’s time in Toronto: so very average brutal, even though it seemed worse. But I don’t care. About Giguere, I mean. I could care less whether the Leafs light him up. I’d like for them to beat Giguere, and Colorado, obviously, so we can all enjoy another “Four-and-Oh!!!1″ parade, but in the grand scheme of things, Giguere doesn’t matter. (Although I’m still a little pissed off with Ron Wilson and the fact he started Giguere on March 17 in Florida, last season, against the Panthers, a 4-0 shutout loss. Giguere had no business playing that game, it being Reim Time and all, the Leafs still on life support in their valiant and very honorable quest for eighth place in the East. But, whatever.)

Finally, I feel indifference towards a former Leafs goalie, and this pleases me. Because I could hate Giguere. I could want the Leafs to absolutely destroy him, and his groin, the one that’s keeping his career alive, albeit barely, because it made absolutely zero bloody sense for Giguere to not have surgery, and play most of last season injured. But to blame Giguere for that would mean I’d have to blame the Leafs, the management, the fucking franchise, because certainly part of the blame for that bonehead decision — to keep playing the ancient and injured Giguere — falls on the Leafs’ shoulders. And, well, I think all of us supporters of the Leafs are past blaming the team. Really, what’s the point? The shit list’s way too long. It’s much easier to breed contempt for players who don’t perform, instead of the geniuses bringing them in in the first place.

The point is: I no longer need to concern myself with the long list of goalies who have, over the years, absolutely screwed Toronto. Because the Maple Leafs actually — finally! — have a goddamn goalie. If Giguere shuts the Maple Leafs out tonight, which he very well might, he isn’t J.S. Giguere the former terrible Leafs goalie who of course shut them out. No, instead, he’s just another terrible goalie who shut out the Maple Leafs. Period.

I wasn’t so sure this day would come. I probably didn’t think it would be today, and I definitely didn’t think the goalie to lead me away from the bitterness would be James Reimer. But today’s the day, and Reimer’s the goalie, and, for a little while at least, everything is perfect. No, literally. The Leafs haven’t lost yet.

UPDATE:

Leafs lose, Avs win, I hate Giguere.

Image via this isn’t happiness.

Written by Navin Vaswani

October 17th, 2011 at 5:15 pm

So Long, Wade Belak

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Wade Belak never seemed to take himself too seriously. That’s why I liked him. That’s why, like everyone else, I was shocked to hear of his death. He’s gone way too soon. But his death, his apparent suicide, serves as just another reminder that no matter what you see on the surface, everybody’s got demons, demons that they’re fighting, every single day.

There are so many questions, and, frustratingly, zero answers. The pictures of Belak and his family, his wife and kids, are just gutting. What drove Belak to kill himself, and leave them behind? Why wasn’t Belak’s death treated with the same sensitivity as Rick Rypien’s? Was it because Rypien’s fight with depression was public knowledge? Was Belak tortured because he was an NHL enforcer? Was he depressed? Did he reach out for help? Did he have a history of concussions? If he was lost, “retired” at 35, knowing only a life in and around hockey, it didn’t come across. By all accounts, he was upbeat, content, the same old Wade Belak, and keeping busy.

It doesn’t make sense. Suicide never does, I guess. But it’s impossible not to make the connection, to tie Belak’s death to Derek Boogard’s, and Rypien’s. It’s impossible, when three hockey players, all enforcers, all so damn young, are found dead over the summer, to think that fighting still has a place in professional hockey. I’m done. I’m out. I don’t want to see it anymore. It isn’t worth it. Nobody can tell me that it is.

Wade Belak had this self-deprecating way of making himself seem like a regular guy. Like any other guy. He was like me, like you, like all of us, except that he played ice hockey, and fought, for a living. I’ll remember Belak as a Toronto Maple Leaf, for his wit, his interviews that were always so refreshing, especially compared to those of his teammates. I’ll remember Belak for the way he stood up for his teammates, especially for Tomas Kaberle, and for the goal he scored on December 4, 2007, against Nashville, the one he waited almost four years to get, the one that had the entire Air Canada Centre chanting his name. It was the last goal he ever scored in the NHL.

Wade Belak was only 35-years-old. Boogard and Rypien, even younger. I can’t help but think about how young they were, over and over and over again. There’s something about these three men dying that’s left me cold, that’s taken away from the invincibility of a professional athlete, the guy who’s “living the dream,” even the enforcer. Even though I know, to begin with, that the invincible pro athlete doesn’t exist, that he’s a construct, a product of television, and the Internet, and a vicious news cycle. These guys, they’re just like us. Sometimes they’re not happy. Sometimes they hate their job. Sometimes they drink to ease the pain. Sometimes they’re so fucking afraid of the future, they’d rather not even face it. The deaths of Belak, Boogard, and Rypien have taken away from the innocence of hockey, and of sport. The game’s supposed to give, not take away. Enough.

Image credit: Reuters, via daylife.

Written by Navin Vaswani

September 1st, 2011 at 9:05 am

It’s only temporary: Rooting for the Vancouver Canucks

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It’s true: I’m rooting for the Vancouver Canucks. Have been since day one of the playoffs. It’s got nothing to do with geography, and nothing to do with the fact they’re a Canadian team. By my count, there are only five Canadian hockey teams: the Toronto Maple Leafs, Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, and Winnipeg Jets. The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators aren’t from Canada; they’re from hell. And, for what it’s worth, I’ve got no problems rooting for an American team. I did in 1994, when the New York Rangers won the Cup. After the Leafs were eliminated by the Canucks, of course. I cheered on the Colorado Avalanche in 2001, and the Anaheim Ducks, lord knows, in 2007.

On Twitter, I mostly follow Leafs fans. And a handful of Boston Bruins fans. They all, with intense passion, hate the Canucks. Everyone – from Krys Barch to Dave Bolland, who very creatively called them “sort of like a girl,” – hates Vancouver. And I’ll be honest: it’s that very hatred that makes it easier for me to root for Vancouver. It’s the contrarian in me. And, hey, I’ve got nothing against the west coast. I’ve visited Vancouver a couple of times, and love the city. The mountains: so pretty! The people I’ve met from Vancouver have been all class, and I’ve often toyed not-so-seriously with the notion of one day moving out there. I know, they hate Toronto. Who cares. Who doesn’t hate Toronto?

As for the Canucks, I actually do enjoy them. They’re my backup. Have been for years. The Sedins have a lot do with that. I love those two creepy bastards. I fell for the Swedish twins a long time ago, and still wonder what might have been had they become unrestricted free agents on July 1, 2009. While my flirtation with the Canucks was certainly aided and abetted by Mats Sundin’s short fling with Vancouver, dominant Swedish players really do it for me. That’s just the way it is.

There’s also Ryan Kesler. I remember, years ago, when the Philadelphia Flyers signed him to an offer sheet, thinking, “The Flyers are out of their goddamned minds; Kesler can’t play goal.” Turns out, the Flyers were right. Kesler’s turned into a dominant player: a 40-goal scorer who can play, and play well, in any situation. Also: I wasn’t around last February, when Kesler pissed off our entire country as a member of Team USA, so he’s never actually given me, personally, a reason to hate him. The way I feel about Kesler is much like how I feel about one Pernell Karl Subban: I wish he was on my team.

I also happen to be a Roberto Luongo apologist. It’s the goalie in me. Even though I think it’s ridiculous that a goalie with a career .919 SV% in the regular season and the playoffs has apologists. All those years in Florida, making all those saves, while never getting a sniff of the postseason, endeared him to me. Finally, when he became a Canuck, and made the dance, his legacy was destroyed by the Chicago Blackhawks. Pulled in a pivotal game six match-up just a month ago, Luongo, the same goalie who came on in relief to get Canada to the World Cup final in 2004, and who backstopped Canada to Olympic Gold in 2010, in overtime, no less, apparently doesn’t have the mental fortitude to win hockey’s biggest prize. Right. Luongo’s endured. That’s what I love about him. He’s dealt with all the criticism and is now only two wins shy of winning the Stanley Cup. Luongo’s the goaltending equivalent of Mike Modano: no respect, until he wins it all. And perhaps that’s the way it should be.

Finally: Manny Malhotra. He’s of Indian descent. I’m of Indian descent. And there really isn’t much more to it than that. He’s representing for more than a billion of us, and that’s why he’s one of my favourite players in the game. I still can’t believe the centre-starved Maple Leafs threw $9-million over three years at Colby Armstrong, while Malhotra signed for three years and $7.5 million. An extra million and a half bucks for truculence, I suppose. Anyway, there’s nothing I want more than for “Malhotra,” as Indian a surname as you’ll find, to be etched on the Stanley Cup for all eternity.

This brings me to the second half of this post: Why your reasons for hating the Canucks are, well, a touch insane.

Look, if Jim Hughson’s a homer, what in the hell does that make Joe Bowen? I don’t care that Bowen wouldn’t be calling nationally televised Stanley Cup finals games on CBC, should the Leafs ever make it that far, which, let’s be honest, they probably won’t. That’s not the point. The point is: Hughson’s a B.C. boy, has been an award-winning hockey sportscaster for as long as I’ve been alive, and is about to watch the team he’s covered for the majority of his career perhaps win a Stanley Cup. You’d be yelling “Great. Save. Luongo!” at the top of your bloody lungs, too. Get over it.

Vancouver Canucks fans: they’re annoying. I get it. Really annoying; the worst. But they’re not the first and only team with “douchebag fans,” and “bandwagon fans,” and they won’t be the last. You know who was annoying last year? Montreal Canadiens fans. And they didn’t even reach the finals. Do you remember Ottawa Senators fans in the spring of 2007? Of course you do. Bottom line: no one, and I mean no one, will be more annoying than Leafs fans should Toronto ever make the Stanley Cup finals playoffs. Parades all day, every day. Let them have theirs. We’ll certainly have ours.

That’s not to say that Canucks fans, and the Canucks themselves, haven’t brought the hate upon themselves. When Raffi Torres is out there headhunting Brent Seabrook, when Aaron Rome makes the dumbest decision of his hockey life in drilling Nathan Horton, and when Vancouver employs the likes of Max Lapierre, yes, I can see where the hatred stems from. But the narrative that the Canucks are the dirtiest team to ever grace the ice, and the only team to ever dive, whine, and, well, bite, is wrong. Period. I certainly understand that part of being a fan of any team, in any sport, is being a hypocrite. I’m the same Maple Leafs fan that cheered and adored Tie Domi, Darcy Tucker, Dave Manson, and, yes, even Bryan Marchment, when they wore the blue and white. Every team’s got ‘em. It just so happens that it’s all good when they’re wearing the sweater you’ve chosen as your favourite.

Both teams have long-suffering fan bases. At least one’s drought will end. And I’m all for long droughts ending.

Image credit: Geoff Penn Photography

Written by Navin Vaswani

June 8th, 2011 at 7:09 pm

Guest Post: On Hockey, Winnipeg & the Return of the Jets

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Saturday’s are synonymous with The Ack, weekend editor at The Tao of Stieb. If there’s one thing The Ack writes with, it’s passion. He refrains from “stat-hurling,” as @mererog so eloquently put it, and doesn’t come off the least bit condescending, something I appreciate more and more these days. I mean, I’ve got only so much time to read what people are writing; why bother if I’m going to be talked down to like I’m some idiot? I relate to The Ack. He’s a fan of baseball, a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, and, more than anything else, wants his team to win.

Recently, though, I asked The Ack about his thoughts on the rumours — the rumours that just won’t go away — surrounding the Phoenix Coyotes, and how they’re Winnipeg-bound once their season is done. I remember The Ack writing that, once upon a time, he was the biggest hockey fan out there. The biggest Winnipeg Jets fan there could be. I knew it was a touchy subject, but, luckily for me, and us, The Ack obliged.

Thank you, Ack, for your most passionate post on hockey, your first love, Winnipeg, and your Jets. I can’t help but hope the rumours are true. Without further ado …

It comes across like a massive cliché – “When the Jets left, it felt like a death in the family.” But it did feel that way. It really did.

But maybe I should start at the beginning…

*

I don’t remember learning how to skate. I just know that I’ve known how to skate forever. Same thing about loving the game of hockey; I don’t have a “first hockey memory”, per se… I only know that I always did.

Here on the prairie, that’s just the way it goes. I imagine it’s the same experience for a kid in Toronto – or anywhere in Canada – but winters in Manitoba? Forget it. That’s all we had. And I would never have had it any other way. I loved the game and everything about it.

Growing up north of Winnipeg, I played on the local minor hockey circuit from the ages five through seventeen. Practices twice a week. Two or three games every weekend. And that was just the “organized” component of my hockey-playing love affair. There was the “free skating” time when the ice wasn’t booked at the local rink. There was the, um…. “unauthorized” shinny games when the barn was closed… access gained through a back door “mistakenly” left unlocked. Or maybe we’d make a few piles of snow for posts and throw down some road hockey. And the rare treat – scouring back roads for some virgin ice on a country pond. Yes, we really did things like that. That’s not just a bullshit scene made for wintery postcards.

And throughout all of that, there was always one constant.

I was Dale Hawerchuk making moves at centre ice. Sometimes I might have been Paul MacLean waiting to snipe at the side of the cage. Near the end, when you’re supposed to be too old to still dream about these things, I might have been Teemu Selanne streaking down the wing.

I – no, we – loved those Winnipeg Jets. A force in the NHL, they were never. But it mattered little to me (us), because they were ours. That was our team.

*

If my summertime dreams were narrated by Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth (they were), my winter voices were Curt Kielback and Kenny “the Friar” Nicholson. Those names won’t mean much to you, I’m sure, but they meant everything to me back then.

“Heeeeere’s Hawerchuk…makes his move…pass to MullenbacktoHawerchuktoMacLean!…he scores!”

Isn’t it funny how you can still hear those calls in your head some twenty five years later? I listened to every game.  Every game! I’d bet the old man a quarter on each one, him always picking the other team just to let me have my fun. If you know Jets history, you’ll know that means I was out a few packs of gum, but I didn’t care. You have to bet on your team.

*

We always knew the franchise wasn’t the most stable. It was never a preferred destination for the players (and I’m being charitable). More than one talked their way out of town. The old Arena was an outdated mess of a building (but a fantastic atmosphere, especially in the playoffs) with 15,500 seats, of which maybe 13,000 had a halfway decent view of the ice. Local ownership had no money and didn’t even own the joint, and there were really no ways to improve the financial fortunes of the team. Luxury boxes? What’s that? It was a precarious existence, but we never thought, really, that it would come down to this.

And then the “for sale” talk got serious. And we all got nervous. We knew there would never be a local buyer. Actually, I wasn’t nervous. I was terrified.

*

As fans, we did everything we could. We held rallies. We congregated in the tens of thousands. There was a grassroots campaign. People were donating their own money – their own money! And it was in the millions! I’m talking kids emptying their piggy banks to “save the Jets”! That is not embellishment, friends. It really happened. Just pure, heartbreaking stuff, in retrospect.

Of course, it wasn’t enough. It never was going to be, but it was the symbolism that counted. The team was doomed to move, and we all knew it was simply a matter of time. The game hadn’t outgrown Winnipeg… but the NHL had. Goddamnit. We were losing our team.

*

The popular story is that 50,000 people will tell you they were at the last regular season game in that building of 15,500. I’m here to tell you that I really was one of them (courtesy tix from an ex-girlfriend. Thoughtful parting gift, don’t you think?). Watch this clip, if for no other reason than to obey the immortal words of Buck O’Neil: “Son, in this life, you never walk by a red dress.” Just trust me on this one.

I will never forget that game, that night, for as long as I’m alive. Never. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Watch for the emotion on the face of Kris King near the end of the anthem. He got it. Kinger still gets it. He knew (and still does) what the Jets meant to Winnipeg. Having just watched the clip myself, I had the same reaction I did back in ’96.

I choked up. Just now, I choked up. Fifteen years later. It still hurts.

*

There were a few more home playoff games, and that was that. They were gone. I kept all the local newspapers from that day. I still have them tucked away, somewhere. Thought I might frame them to preserve the memory. But who wants to remember that?

*

For a long, long time after 1996, I decided that I hated hockey. The game turned its back on me, so I was done with it too. Of course, hindsight tells me how foolish that was. The game didn’t leave Winnipeg… the NHL did. It took me a while to realize that, but I’ve yet to re-embrace the league. I can’t. I don’t have a team. I’ve tried adoption and it just didn’t work out.

I know that I still love the game. Canada vs USA in Vancouver? Forget it. Heart-attack city morphing into bliss. I know the passion is still there, but it would be nice to unleash it more than once every four years.

*

And now comes word that we, in this forgotten part of the country, just might have another chance. You have to understand what this means to us. Winnipeggers are used to the comments. I refuse to be baited into defending against the same old same old – “Winnipeg is a wholesale town; they can’t afford it; it’s not big enough; there’s no corporate support…” – even if I can acknowledge that some of it might be true.

Go ahead and fire your slings and arrows. We’re a hearty bunch. Another cliché, but living where we do, you have to be. Keep telling us that it will never work. You very well might be right.

We just want that chance to prove you wrong.

Image courtesy Sharon Hayes.

Written by Navin Vaswani

April 16th, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Road Trip: Hockeytown

with 5 comments

Playoff dreams often go to Detroit to die.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ likely did just that this past weekend, as after landing in Motown on Friday afternoon only three points from the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and optimistic they could claw closer, Toronto is an overwhelming seven points back with six games to play.

- James Mirtle (The one and only.)

Fitting, no, that I, along with my fellow “Kadris,” were at Joe Louis Arena when, for all intents and purposes, the dream — 8th place — died its most recent death. No playoffs.

Saturday night, though, wasn’t depressing. Perhaps it was the alcohol, but our visit down to Detroit on a weekend in late March felt more like a celebration. For starters, the game mattered. It wasn’t supposed to. The youngest Toronto Maple Leafs team I’ve ever seen assembled had put together quite a second half run, clawing themselves back into the race, and ruining — well, hopefully, still –Boston’s hopes of winning the lottery. They may have lost 4-2, but Saturday night was the celebration of a rebuild, and a fete in James Reimer’s honour.

(It was probably the alcohol.)

Nemo’s

Nemo’s, on Michigan Avenue, in beautiful downtown Detroit, is where the evening began. The joint opened its doors back in the mid-60s, and is still going strong today.

Upon walking into the bar, five brown-skinned men and one Asian, we were greeted warmly by the Detroit faithful.

“Hey, look, the Kadris are here.”

From that moment on, we were indeed The Kadris. It’s no coincidence young Nazem scored the second goal of his career a couple of hours later. His supporters section went wild.

I’ll pass on the recommendation we received from a Red Wings fan who’d made the trip across the river from Windsor: A Ground Round burger with American cheese, fries, and a beer. After a meal like that, in a place like Nemo’s, you can’t help but want to chant: “USA! USA! USA!”

Once you’ve done your patriotic duty, hop on Nemo’s shuttle bus for $3, and be whisked away to Joe Louis Arena.

The Business

We found ourselves seated next to and around some of the most polite Red Wings fans ever. They were Canadian, obviously. Let’s be honest: If I was from Windsor, I’d root for the Red Wings, too.

Other than some good natured razzing at the rink, and by one buffoon at Lafayette Coney Island after the game, a good time was had by all. The highlight of the night might have been my boy Dee explaining to a fellow Leafs fan in the concourse that we were, in fact, related to Nazem Kadri. His emphatic response: “I KNEW IT!!!1″

You’ve heard it before: It’s a shame the Leafs and Red Wings don’t play each other more often. Well, it’s true. I can now corroborate this fact. The building’s paying audience is split down the middle in its fandom, and there isn’t much better than yelling “Go Leafs Go!” at the top of your lungs in between chants of “Let’s Go Red Wings!” She’s an older rink, the Joe, but she’s got character, and charm.

I’ve been to Maple Leafs games in Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and now Detroit. The tilts in Philly and New Jersey were playoff games; we truly were the enemy, and were treated as such. Philly, to no one’s surprise, was the worst. It got racial, and there was some mild shoving. Fun!

I’d lump Detroit in with Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. It’s as Canadian a hockey experience you can get without actually being in Canada. The folks at the Joe know their hockey, they enjoy their beer, and they’ve been blessed for years with a fantastic, #winning team on the ice.

Needless to say, I’d recommend a visit down to Detroit. Stop by Caesar’s Windsor on the way. Spend the night. Don’t think of it as losing money at the Blackjack table. I don’t. I think of it as contributing to Windsor’s, and Detroit’s, battered economies.

Good Times

The older I get, the more I realize weekends like the one that just passed will only become fewer and further in between. Good friends, good times, incredible music, copious amounts of alcohol, along with healthy debates about religion, why I personally think all Hindus should eat beef, politics, and democracy. Cheers, fellow Kadris.

Looking back, there’s only one way the weekend could have been better. In a perfect world, the Leafs would have killed off the only two penalties they took.

Maybe next year.

Written by Navin Vaswani

March 28th, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Delusions of grandeur

with 6 comments

Over the past couple of weeks, as the Maple Leafs have rocketed up the standings, I’ve heard it on radio call-in shows, have read it in emails and text messages, and have even had it said to my face: “Don’t bother. They do this every year.”

“This,” of course, being Toronto’s late season sprint towards eighth place — the promised land — in the Eastern Conference, after the rest of the field got off to a head start.

“Don’t bother”? Really? Would you rather the Leafs didn’t, and continued to, you know, stink?

Personally, I can’t see how anyone, if they’re out there, isn’t over the moon about James Reimer, finally annointed Toronto’s number one goalie. The “deeply religious” and unassuming 22-year-old, who looks so goddamn comfortable between the pipes, as if he feels no pressure at all, has me thinking I need to find God. While Alex Ovechkin’s busy posting photos of Phil Kessel on Twitter, Nikolai Kulemin’s out-scoring his Russian comrade. Kulemin continues to improve, year over year. He’ll pot 30 this season, and I see no reason why he can’t be a 40-goal man in the years to come. Speaking of Kessel, chosen last by his peers in the all-star draft, only 13 players in the NHL have scored more goals than #81. Five of those 13 players have 28 goals to Kessel’s 27. It rings true about the all-star game, too: Draft Schmaft.

The list, headed by career years from Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski, goes on. This isn’t a Leafs squad riddled with underachieving veterans and the Andrew Raycrofts and Vesa Toskalas of the world. This is the youngest Maple Leafs team I can recall, attempting to claw back into a race they were told they were out of months ago. This is fun, goddamnit, and I will enjoy every second of it.

In years past, when the Leafs did “this” before, the killjoys of the world complained that all it did was set Toronto back when it came to the draft. A valid point, sure, even though it wrongly assumes the Maple Leafs can draft decent talent outside of a top-10 pick. Considering Boston’s got Toronto’s first-round pick, I’m having a difficult time wondering why there would be any hesitation to step aboard the bandwagon.

The Maple Leafs are rebuilding. They always have been. Trading two firsts, and one second-round pick, for a proven first-round pick, didn’t make it not a rebuild. Nor did signing a couple of veteran defencemen in free agency, even though Mike Komisarek has turned out to be nothing short of the worst. But: Assets have been recouped. First-round draft picks, and prospects drafted in the first round. All of a sudden, Ron Wilson’s not so bad behind the bench. And Brian Burke’s work in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline was top-notch, or anti-Joe Nieuwendyk. Keith Aulie’s playing 20 minutes a night. Carl Gunnarsson’s playing between 23 and 24 minutes a night. Kessel’s leading the way. Don’t bother, my ass.

The way I see it, the Leafs could be playing out the stretch. In a perfect world, they’d be fighting for home-ice advantage in the playoffs, but the world is far from, and never will be, perfect. Meaningful Leafs games, that’s what these — tonight! — are. Or, as I like to call them, playoffs before the playoffs.

Update:

Leafs 3, Flyers 2. Playoffs!!!1

Image via this isn’t happiness.

Written by Navin Vaswani

March 3rd, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Since you’re gone the moonlight ain’t so great

with 8 comments

You can also find what’s written below, my goodbye to Tomas Kaberle, at Pension Plan Puppets. Thanks for the platform, gents …

I wanted to wait a few days before writing the post I never wanted to write at all. In the meanwhile, a week has passed, the Leafs remain on fire, and, let’s be honest, there isn’t much left to be written about Tomas Kaberle that you haven’t already read. Hell, there wasn’t even any time to reflect on, or to mourn, Kabba’s departure. A few hours after the trade was announced, there was Tomas, in Ottawa, having ditched blue and white, the only colours he’d ever worn, for white, black and gold. Twenty-four hours later, the post-Kaberle era was underway in Toronto, with the Leafs and Ottawa Senators doing their best, through 65 agonizing minutes and a shootout, to slap hockey in its face.

“[Tomas Kaberle] did not want to leave. He asked for an extension several times.”

- Brian Burke

While I remain — first, foremost, and always — a supporter of the logo on the front of Toronto’s sweater, it’s impossible, over the years, to not become attached to certain names and numbers on the back of the jersey. Kaberle and his 15 were one of those names and numbers.

By now, you know how I feel about Kaberle. I wanted him to remain a Maple Leaf. More than that, I wanted him to retire a Maple Leaf. I believe he’s got years of elite hockey left in him. Another contract’s worth, at least. While Kaberle’s game is not without its obvious shortcomings, I thought he was the perfect mentor for Luke Schenn. I certainly didn’t find it a coincidence that Schenn was enjoying a rebound year while playing alongside Kaberle. And if there’s one area where Schenn drastically needs to improve, it’s with the puck. Who better than to mentor Schenn, the future captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, than Kaberle?

Don’t get me wrong: I found the return for Kaberle nothing short of astounding. Phil Kessel was traded for two high first-round picks, both potentially top-10 picks, and a second-round pick. In exchange for Kaberle, Brian Burke received a 2008 first-round pick, 16th overall, in Joe Colborne, a late to-be-determined first-round pick in 2011, and a conditional second-round pick. Two firsts, and potentially a second. It’s impossible to be unhappy with that haul. Not when it was known that Kaberle’s list of teams he’d waive his no-trade clause for was one team long. Not when Joe Colborne’s scored three goals in three games, plus one rather filthy marker in the shootout, for the Toronto Marlies.

Kaberle didn’t have to agree to leave. Frustrated by the fact Burke did nothing about his advances, Kaberle could have used his no-trade clause and stayed put. He didn’t. It became a meme on Twitter after the trade to Boston was announced, and remains just as important today: Thank you, Tomas.

Life goes on. Kaberle wears #12 now, and plays for the rival Boston Bruins. The Maple Leafs have officially embarked on their yearly quest for the promised land: Eighth place in the Eastern Conference. But in the days since the trade, since Burke announced that Kaberle wanted nothing more than to remain a Maple Leaf, I’m having a hard time buying in. Even as the Leafs slowly climb the standings. I understand why Kaberle had to go, why assets desperately needed to be recouped. But the fact Kaberle was never a Burke-type player, or a Ron Wilson-type player, while Mike Komisarek and Brett Lebda are, just doesn’t sit well with me, even though I believe the Leafs, as a franchise, are headed in the right direction. I’m so confused.

I’m emotional, obviously. Kaberle was the last link to days gone by; to better days. To Maple Leaf Gardens. To the playoffs. To winning. To the end of my teenage years, and my youthful early 20s. When everything — even home-ice advantage in the first round, and division titles — was possible.

As ardent a Kaberle supporter as you’ll ever find, I found comfort in what was written, tweeted, and said about #15 in the aftermath of the trade. He was appreciated. His accomplishments, available for one and all to see in the Leafs’ record books, were applauded. Kaberle came out of nowhere to have a stellar Maple Leafs career. He goes down as one of the greatest offensive defenceman Toronto has ever seen.

The post-Mats Sundin years have done wonders for Sundin’s legacy. As the Maple Leafs continue to struggle to score goals, and struggle to find elite talent up front to play alongside Phil Kessel, more people are beginning to understand what a truly special and game-changing talent Sundin was.

I’m confident the same will happen with Kaberle, and the legacy he leaves behind. With time, more people will come to appreciate the way he was able to rush the puck up ice, and his ability to make that first pass. Kaberle’s vision, patience, and innate hockey sense were extraordinary, and will be very difficult to replace. While Toronto’s power play has struggled under Wilson (what hasn’t struggled under Wilson?), Kaberle was never what was wrong with it.

Tomas Kaberle was always going to leave. The writing had been on the wall for years. But that didn’t make saying goodbye any easier. Come playoff time, other than the Maple Leafs, I’ll be watching and rooting for the Boston Bruins. And until Kaberle signs a new contract with Boston, or another team on July 1, I’ll be hoping against hope that he returns. The door’s always open, until it’s closed.

Let nobody tell you otherwise: Kaberle’s a winner. He wanted to win in Toronto. Like you and I, Kaberle knows that winning the Stanley Cup with the Maple Leafs is as good as it can possibly get.

Image courtesy Per Englund. Life does indeed go on.

Written by Navin Vaswani

February 25th, 2011 at 4:18 pm