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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

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.

Two wins in a row is a streak

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I wasn’t happy when Nazem Kadri was called up to the Maple Leafs. Too soon, I said. The Damien Cox in me thought: “There goes another prospect.” Only a week later, I’ve done a complete one-eighty, and am mighty pleased with the promotion. There’s no way he’s going back. It’s obvious to any observer that Kadri is a point-per-game NHL performer, and will be for the rest of his illustrious career.

Kadri’s got vision; kid can pass. Phil Kessel and — especially — Kris Versteeg would surely agree. And Kadri’s playing his game. He’s confident. He’s trying to dangle around defenceman in the offensive zone. I like it. I like his attitude. Mike Richards probably doesn’t, but, really, who cares what Mike Richards thinks?

Now, I’m no Ron Wilson fan. I’m a hater, actually, and, well, I hate. But credit where credit’s due. Wilson’s playing Kadri. He’s got him out there with Kessel, on the top line, averaging 19:21 a game. Wilson’s giving Kadri every opportunity to succeed. And wouldn’t it be nice for young Nazem, after three assists in his first three games, to score his first career NHL goal in Montreal Saturday night, against the Habs? Yes, that would be nice. I’d like that very much. It’d let Habs fans know what’s in store for, oh, I don’t know, the next 15-to-17 years.

We all know who else played exceptionally well for the Leafs Thursday night: Mikhail Grabovski, who’s on a tear, and who I so very badly want to see succeed here in Toronto, and Kris Versteeg. Isn’t it awfully nice of Versteeg to finally join us? I think so too. And, of course, Jonas Gustavsson, Toronto’s new number one goalie. I don’t think J.S. Giguere gets his job back when he returns. Frankly, I don’t think he deserves it. And I think  Giguere’s had it pretty easy in the media so far this season, especially considering how much he talked during The Great Losing Streak of 2010. I know, I know, the Leafs can’t score. But the bottom line is that Giguere’s .895 save percentage simply isn’t good enough.

The Giguere/Gustavsson situation parallels the 2010 Toronto Blue Jays; John Buck and J.P. Arencibia, Lyle Overbay and Adam Lind. It’s no secret that Giguere, making a ton of money this season, won’t be back in 2011/2012. He isn’t part of the plan, so he doesn’t need to play. Especially not the majority of games. Gustavsson has been by leaps and bounds the better goalie five-on-five so far this season, his .933 save percentage shining much brighter than Giguere’s .905. While J.S. does have the edge in save percentage on the penalty kill, .846 to .769, the majority of the game is played at even-strength. It’s a no-brainer. It’s time to see what The Monster is made of. WilsonCity just doesn’t have the same ring to it as CitoCity, does it?

As for the New Jersey Devils, for the first time since I can remember, I don’t recognize them.

Image, one I can definitely get used to, courtesy of Reuters via daylife.

Written by Navin Vaswani

November 19th, 2010 at 3:31 am