Jim Kelley
Thursday January 17th, 2008

TORONTO -- Come with me now on a trip to the center -- or as they say here in the largest and most sophisticated metropolitan region in Canada, centre -- of the hockey universe.

Look over there at the Air Canada Centre, the most profitable building in the National Hockey League and, according to some with knowledge of such things, the most profitable sports arena in North America. It sits at the foot of a region that is home to nearly eight million people, seemingly all of them Maple Leafs fans from before the time they were born.

The ACC, atop a rail hub that services by far the most densely populated region in the country, hosts one of the most storied franchises in sport, a member of the NHL's Original Six and far and away the most profitable team in the league. The building also houses the Toronto Raptors of the National Basketball Association and more one-off events then almost any building in North America including New York's storied Madison Square Garden, the United Center in Chicago and the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Look up Front Street. Literally across from the ACC there is the Hockey Hall of Fame. All of the great players in hockey history are enshrined there and many of them wore the blue and white that adorn the Maple Leafs sweaters. From the HHoF, you can look back at the ACC, the crown jewel of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) and see the dish receivers for the Leafs and Raptors television networks.

Across the parking lots, train depot and the connected subway station, you can see where the Maple Leaf condominiums, twin towers we might add, are being built. From there. you can look toward the waterfront and see where the brand spanking new BMO Field, home of MLSE's financially successful Toronto FC soccer club. It's right next door to the MLSE-controlled Ricoh Centre where MLSE's Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League play.

As sports business empires go, MLSE has no equal.

The one small problem: the centerpiece property, the Leafs, just might be the worst team in the NHL, and it is giving off an embarrassing odor that even the business moguls in the adjacent ACC office tower can't seem to eradicate.

Look at the record.

As of Wednesday evening, the Leafs, pretty much at the upper limit of the NHL's $50-some-million salary cap, were in 28th place in the overall standings, barely ahead of the skidding Tampa Bay Lightning and the rebuilding Los Angeles Kings, both of whom have better records over the last 10 games.

The Leafs are mediocre at home (9-8-5), worse on the road (8-13-3) and 2-7-1 in their last 10 games. They are also a dead certain lock to miss the playoffs for a third season in a row. The franchise hasn't won the Stanley Cup, a prize once considered part of the franchise's birthright, since 1967, a time before the majority of the many corporations that fund the season-ticket base filed their first profit and loss sheets.

Oddly enough for Leafs fans, truly the most loyal and gullible in sports, that's been acceptable. What's starting to get under their blue and white-painted skin is the fact that there appears to be no end in sight.

The Leafs are mostly old, largely overpaid, and certainly underperforming. The few prime-age players they have are mediocre at best, and their prospects pool is considered possibly decent but small, and has been constantly marginalized by a series of desperate trades that minimized their immediate potential and put into question their long-term success.

In their most recent act of desperation, the Leafs have become embroiled in a titanic struggle among members of the MLSE Board of Directors as to whether or not they can, should, or will fire coach Paul Maurice, general manager John Ferguson, Jr. or both. They board appears to have decided to fire Ferguson, but doesn't quite seem certain about how to go about it and, more importantly, how to go about arranging for his replacement.

The latest rumor has former Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher on a short list, but reportedly only on an interim basis. Fletcher, who had some success with the franchise in the early 1990s, would be charged with stabilizing things until a permanent successor comes on board.

That, however, is not without controversy as most accomplished GMs have made it clear they don't like the way Ferguson is being treated while this process goes on and that they can't trust the powers-that-be at MLSE to grant them the autonomy they need to get the franchise back on track, even if the powers put it all in writing.

Regardomg the first point, Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke, a man many in this community argue would be the best man for the job, blasted MSLE for its shabby treatment of Ferguson. Sources this week told SI.com that others, including Nashville GM David Poile (whose contract reportedly is up at the end of this season), have previously rebuffed overtures simply because of the who-is-in-charge issue.

All of this comes on the heels of a summer-long search for a "mentor" for Ferguson during which the Leafs approached several candidates including Poile, former Ottawa GM John Muckler, and legendary coach Scott Bowman before deciding to do nothing.

The current mindset in the city is that Ferguson, a good man and a good hockey man who admittedly made some mistakes, must pay with his job. That seems likely at some point. However, the bigger issue is how that might come about and whether or not the most profitable franchise in hockey history has even a clue in regard to making it happen. One thing is clear: the longer MLSE fiddles, the more the Leafs burn down.

Tampa coach John Tortorella after a win over the New York Rangers.

"I still think we're a stupid hockey team. It doesn't matter if you win or not. Our third period, in the situations we put ourselves in, you can't keep going that way."

Tortorella was upset with Mathieu Darche's penalty for too many men on the ice that gave New York a 1:23 five-on-three, a gaffe that was fodder for head-scratching.

"I've never seen a too many men on the ice penalty while you're killing a penalty," Tortorella said. "It was a first for me."

St. Louis Blues players were recently asked to jot down their fantasy golf foursome for this year's media guide. Defenseman Barret Jackman listed Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque and Dan Hinote.

When questioned about which one of those players didn't seem to fit, Hinote mentioned the legendary Orr.

Obviously, Hinote knows he isn't in Orr's or Bourque's class, but Jackman had a plan.

"Dan Hinote, he's a good-looking guy," Jackman said. "The girls are just going to flock to him anyway, so you might as well have him with you."

Hinote, by the way, is engaged to Amy McCarthy, the sister of actress Jenny McCarthy.

Is there a better deal in the nets than what Detroit has with Chris Osgood?

At the top in nearly every goaltending category this season, Osgood was named to the Western Conference All-Star team for the game in Atlanta later this month. Passing on his upcoming free agency, he signed a three-year contract worth a mere $4.5 million. He's making just $800,000 this season.

"I really love playing here and always have," Osgood said. "It's a big thing for me to finish my career where I started. I'm excited about playing for a good team that has an opportunity to win every year."

Amazingly, Osgood didn't even consult his agent about testing the free-agent market.

"I always wanted to stay here," he said. "We started talking about a month ago and we both knew where we were going to go [with the discussions]."

Osgood hasn't been a participant in the All-Star Game since the 1997-98, the year he goaled the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup.

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