By Stu Hackel
When you strip away their economic might and level of media attention that are wildly at odds with with their on-ice success, there is one glaring fact about the Toronto Maple Leafs that stares you in the face: From a competitive standpoint, they are largely irrelevant.
Once upon a time, the Leafs were the best team in the NHL, a formidable collection of rock hard, mostly veteran athletes whose various talents blended seamlessly. Their reward was three successive Stanley Cup championships (1962-64), and four in six years.
Those Leafs were classy and even colorful...
...and everyone loved (and still does) their ageless goalie Johnny Bower, who not only stopped pucks with the best of them, but also had something of a hit song.
But if you recall those days, you are at minimum pushing a half century old. Today, the Leafs lead the NHL only in wealth and futility, their ranking as the richest hockey club a perennial certainty but their Cup drought now at 43 years.
You wouldn't know it based on the buzz the Leafs generate as the sole team in the biggest city of a country where hockey is the national sport. Every morsel from a routine practice has the potential for headline news, and the coverage of the team by some can border on delusional, fueled by the team's overestimation of its own strength. Almost any player worth having will at one time or another be rumored as heading to Toronto. Each year, Canadian publishers produce handsome books on Leaf greats or a glorious chapter in Leafs history. The weekly CBC Hockey Night In Canada network telecasts take on a decidedly Maple Leafs slant, even if they are not playing the featured game, as if something special is actually happening with the team. And, fair or not, fans to the east and west derisively refer to TSN as the Toronto Sports Network.
All this for a club that has missed the playoffs for five consecutive years and has not advanced beyond the semi-final round since 1967 (and only five times in that stretch, most recently in 1993 and 1994, thanks to the coaching of Pat Burns, whose funeral is today in Montreal, and in 2002).
When the reality of another rough season finally descends on Toronto, the giddy euphoria comes crashing down and the inevitable fault-finding begins anew. With today marking two years since Brian Burke was hired as Maple Leafs' GM, the local papers have been filled with stories on the anniversary, delineating his moves and dissecting just how Burke, who arrived with such great fanfare, has stumbled. While the analysis is all soundly reasoned, it also has a tinge of impatience about it, considering the mess that Burke inherited.
But with dashed expectations such a tradition, can anyone expect anything less than impatience?
As Mike Zeisberger writes of Burke in The Toronto Sun, "No one wants this franchise to win more than him." Still, Zeisberger -- like everyone who follows the Leafs -- knows that this team is once again "a train wreck."
Burke hasn't exactly gotten the train back on track, and because of his deft ability to turn a phrase, his constant exposure in the media when most GM's are rather camera shy, and his moves -- such as acquiring Phil Kessel, which he has long defended but seems at the moment only to be helping the Boston Bruins -- he's become something of an easy target for his critics.
As we go deeper into autumn, the Leafs' fortunes look like they're falling with the leaves once again, and this once proud franchise's long nuclear winter continues.