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Road Trip: Hockeytown

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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

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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

A humble request

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First things first: Maple Leafs fans in Edmonton set the bar pretty high Tuesday night, during round two of the Rebuilding Bowl, now tied at one apiece. I hope Leafs fans in Calgary and Vancouver are up to the task.

Secondly: I found Brian Burke’s comments Tuesday afternoon, assessing Toronto’s and Edmonton’s competing rebuilding philosophies, rather poignant. Usually when Burke talks to the media — when he’s either defending the Phil Kessel trade, or telling paying customers they’re “disgraceful” for booing Dion Phaneuf, or claiming Leafs fans aren’t upset about the state of the union – I want to punch myself in the face.  But on Tuesday he actually made some sense.

For all the Oilers’ drafted talent, it’s Burke’s Leafs who are the youngest team in the NHL. The two teams are truly going about their respective rebuilds in a different manner, and no winner can yet be declared. After 30 games this season, the Leafs have 28 points, and Edmonton’s got 27. After 82 games in 2009/2010, Toronto finished with 74 points, and Edmonton with 62. While they are talented players, Edmonton’s first round picks from the past four years — Sam Gagner in 2007, Jordan Eberle in 2008, Magnus Paajarvi in 2009, and Taylor Hall in 2010 — aren’t exactly helping Edmonton climb the ladder. Not yet, at least. The Oilers remain a last place team.

Would I rather Burke have gone the Oilers’ route? Yes. Absolutely. But he didn’t. I’m sick of rehashing the Kessel deal. I’m sick of reading others reevaluate the Kessel deal. It’s done. The draft picks are never coming back. I always said I wanted a rebuild. It’s certainly not by the book, but it is a rebuild. And there’s no guarantee it won’t work out just as well, or as poorly, as the Oilers’ rebuild.

Both teams have bad contracts: Shawn Horcoff and Nikolai Khabibulin in Edmonton, and Mike Komisarek, Brett Lebda and, arguably, Colby Armstrong  in Toronto. I’d argue Toronto, with Jonas Gustavsson and Jussi Rynnas, have more depth in goal than the Oilers. I also hope and pray that all the kids Edmonton drafted in 2007 through 2010 turn out to be the reincarnation of their teammate Andrew Cogliano. Or at least that Nazem Kadri’s better than all of them.

Ironically enough, both teams, with 52 games left on this season’s schedule, find themselves eight points out of a playoff spot. And that brings me to my next point, and, eventually, the point — my humble request — of this bloody post. On Monday afternoon, the incorrigible Steve Simmons wrote:

The conclusion to [the Leafs' recent strong play combined with their inability to climb the Eastern Conference standings] is two-fold: One, the Leafs are playing better. Two, they have no chance, absolutely none, of making the playoffs.

Absolutely none? With 50 games left to play? I refuse to believe it. Crazier things have happened. Like, I don’t know, the 1992/1993 season, when after 30 games, the Leafs had the identical record they do today: 12-14-4.

It’s not impossible, but it won’t be easy. Nothing comes easy in Toronto. But I won’t stop believing, because of all the Leafs on the current roster, including heartthrob Luke Schenn, there’s nothing I want more than to see Mikhail Grabovski suit up for the Leafs in the playoffs. Preferably against the Montreal Canadiens. Grabbo’s success — he’s on pace for a career year — is that much sweeter because he’s a Habs castoff. And props to Francois Beauchemin for stepping up for #84 after he was Stortini’d. Love.

Okay, we’ve finally made it. My request: When the Maple Leafs make the playoffs, the night they clinch a spot during the regular season, I ask that they be allowed to celebrate baseball style; I humbly request champagne. Because 2004 was a long, long, long time ago. Because life’s too short to not celebrate (appropriately) small victories.

Image courtesy this isn’t happiness.

Viva White Vegas

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On November 9, after Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock tore Chris Bosh a new one, Jarrett Jack, Bosh’s bosom buddy and former teammate, opined on the quality of Toronto’s adult entertainment venues:

“I haven’t been to any of the strip clubs here, so they can’t be that good.”

Eleven days later, on November 20, Jarrett Jack was traded to the New Orleans Hornets. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Toronto’s reputation as White Vegas is taken seriously by the Raptors’ front office. It must not be compromised. Especially not by Jarrett Jack.

Jack, David Andersen and Marcus Banks for Peja Stojakovic and Jerryd Bayless. In reality: Jack, Anderson and Banks for Bayless and money. Stojakovic will shoot some threes for a few months, and be on his merry way. He could — and hopefully will be — traded at the deadline. As for Bayless, apparently he can defend. Something neither Jack nor Jose Calderon, once again Toronto’s starting point guard, do very well. Jack was brought to Toronto to appease Bosh. To convince the Raptors’ home grown star to stick around. Didn’t work, obviously. And with another two years and more $10 million left on his contract, he was more than expendable.

There is cause for concern, though. According to the National Post, the Raptors have about $24 million coming off the books next year. Add another $12 million and change to that total — what remains of the Bosh trade exception — and that’s enough money for the soon-to-be re-signed Bryan Colangelo to squash the rebuild Raptors fans so desire. The cycle of mediocrity in this town is nothing short of vicious.

But let’s focus on more positive developments: In their first Sunday home game of the young season, the Raptors beat the Boston Celtics. The first place Celtics. God bless 1:00 pm starts. God bless White Vegas.

Amir Johnson was spectacular off the bench, going nine-for-nine from the free throw line, the final two putting Toronto in the lead for good. More importantly, Andrea Bargnani, now the go-to guy for the young Raptors, dropped 29 on Kevin Garnett and the Celtics. That’s big. That’s clutch. In the previous three years, with Bosh as the number one option, CB4 dropped 29 or more points once against the Garnett-led Celtics. It was January 10, 2010. The Raptors lost 114-107, and Bosh scored 31 points on 9-17 shooting. Garnett wasn’t in the lineup that night.

Image courtesy of twoeightnine.com. Check out their extensive t-shirt collection, and buy your favourite. I own this one.

Written by Navin Vaswani

November 22nd, 2010 at 12:04 pm