Leafs Reminiscient of Early-’96

By HOWARD BERGER

CHICAGO (Feb. 29) – Since the early part of my career in radio, I have refused to advocate a person losing his job. If others wish to do so, that’s fine – there’s no right or wrong, it’s simply a matter of preference; and having lost my own job last summer after 23 years, I can tell you it isn’t a lot of fun. So, I will not encourage Brian Burke to fire Ron Wilson. What I’ll say, however, is this: from personal experience covering the Maple Leafs, an accomplished coach was fired by an accomplished general manager in a situation that bears frightening resemblance to the current mess in Toronto.

For almost two months in early-1996, a promising Leafs team folded like a cheap suitcase in front of Pat Burns. Not two years earlier, the notion of Burns losing his job as coach of the Leafs would have been nonsensical, given the club’s meteoric rise from twice missing the playoffs (1991 and 1992) to consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup semifinals (1993 and 1994). The Burns-led team featuring Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, Wendel Clark and Felix Potvin provided separation from the rot of the 1980s under Harold Ballard and rekindled a sense of pride in the hockey club.

The 1995-96 edition seemed ready to make another playoff run with a decent record of 20-13-6 after 39 games – on pace for 95 points. A 5-4 victory over Los Angeles at Maple Leaf Gardens on Jan. 10, 1996 had Leafs on a 4-1-1 streak heading to Uniondale, N.Y. for a game the following night with the Islanders. As seems to have happened during a late, post-game flight from Toronto to Winnipeg earlier this month, the ’95-96 Leafs evidently forgot how to play during that short trip to Long Island. Out of nowhere, a poised, veteran team with loads of playoff experienced just died – losing 4-3 to the Islanders and collapsing to 3-16-5 between Jan. 11 and Mar. 3.

The streak began with a 1-7-2 record in 10 games – actually a point better than the current Leafs free-fall of 1-8-1. Moments after the club lost, 4-0, at Colorado on Mar. 3, I was standing outside the visitors’ dressing room at old McNichols Arena in Denver and I’ll never forget Burns – pale and drawn – shuffling toward those of us on the trip and saying, “Well, it’s obvious Cliff has to do something… this can’t go on forever.”

It’s the only time I’ve heard a coach virtually sanction his own dismissal, which took place at the team hotel the next morning when Cliff Fletcher delivered the word.

Given what Burns had previously accomplished with the Leafs, it is more than understandable why fans and media are calling for Wilson’s head today. Burns and Wilson are a good comparable – both in the upper-echelon among career coaching victories; both credible and respected throughout the game (Burns, of course, took that respect with him when he died of cancer 15 months ago).

If Burns could be fired less than two years after his second appearance with the Leafs in the Cup semifinals, it is rather puzzling that Wilson seems bullet-proof right now, having never coached the Blue and White in a playoff game, let alone series. That call, however, rests with Burke, whose own credibility could be on the line with a fourth consecutive playoff absence looking like a near-certainty.

LEAFS COME HERE TO CHICAGO ON A 1-8-1 FREE-FALL IN THEIR PAST 10 GAMES.

Only Burke can determine whether the Leafs have quit on Wilson, as it so blatantly appears. Only Burke can decide whether damaging remarks such as those made by Wilson after Saturday night’s loss to Washington are permissible.

Double-B earned and commanded sole authority over hockey matters when he arrived here in November 2008. His soverignty is unlike any GM since Fletcher ran both the team and Maple Leaf Gardens in the early-’90s. Such responsibility is accorded those with a proven track-record (Burke and Fletcher both won Stanley Cups shortly before landing in Toronto) and with a demonstrated ability to put the team’s welfare ahead of any other consideration.

You aren’t alone if you feel Burke is wavering in the latter regard.

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I came here to Chicago on Tuesday afternoon for tonight’s Leafs-Blackhawks game at the United Center. This marvelous city was a frequent stop – in regular-season and playoffs – during the early part of my career, when Toronto and Chicago were in the Western Conference.

In recent years, Leafs have come here only once every two or three seasons and I have a vivid memory of each of the past two visits: Michael Peca suffering a grotesquely-fractured leg in a collision with Jim Vandermeer of the ‘Hawks in December 2006, and Luke Schenn being pick-pocketed by Patrick Kane while attempting to move the puck out of the Toronto zone in November 2009 leading to Kane’s unassisted goal.

Whatever happens on this trip, we know the game will be proceded by the most awesome national anthem in all of professional sport.

My photo-review, now, of Chicago – from above and below:

DARK CLOUDS AND HAZE WERE PROMINENT AS MY AIR CANADA FLIGHT PASSED NORTH OF CHICAGO ON FINAL APPROACH, EARLIER TODAY, TO O’HARE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.

MID-DAY TRAFFIC WAS NO ISSUE HEADING INTO TOWN FROM O’HARE.

THE FORMER SEARS (NOW WILLIS) TOWER IS ALWAYS IN THE LINE OF SIGHT (ABOVE) AS YOU APPROACH DOWNTOWN.

     

FORTUNATE TO BE STAYING DIRECTLY ACROSS THE STREET FROM THE JOHN HANCOCK CENTER (ABOVE), WHICH TOWERS OVER FAMED MICHIGAN AVENUE, I VENTURED ON TUESDAY TO THE OBSERVATION DECK, 96 FLOORS ABOVE THE CITY.  

SHADOW OF THE HANCOCK BUILDING IS CAST ON THE SURFACE OF LAKE MICHIGAN (ABOVE), JUST BEYOND LAKESHORE DRIVE AND OAK ST. BEACH.

TWIN-SPIRES OF THE WILLIS TOWER (ABOVE AND BELOW), LOOKING SOUTHWEST FROM THE HANCOCK OBSERVATION DECK.

     

BENEATH NORTH FACE OF THE HANCOCK CENTER IS THE PALMOLIVE BUILDING (ABOVE) AT 919 N. MICHIGAN AVE. – KNOWN AS THE PLAYBOY BUILDING FROM 1965-89, AS IT WAS HEADQUARTERS OF PLAYBOY MAGAZINE. ON OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE STRUCTURE IS THE FAMED DRAKE HOTEL, ONE OF CHICAGO’S ELDEST AND MOST STATELY LANDMARKS.

CHICAGO’S NAVY PIER AND AMMUSEMENT PARK EXTENDS INTO LAKE MICHIGAN OFF THE CITY’S EASTERN SHORE (ABOVE AND BELOW-LEFT), WHILE THE ROOF-DECK POOL OF A CONDOMINIUM TOWER ON LAKESHORE DRIVE AWAITS WARMER WEATHER.

SEVERAL MILES SOUTHWEST OF THE HANCOCK BUILDING SITS THE UNITED CENTER (ABOVE) - HOME OF THE CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS – AT 1901 W. MADISON.

     

PHOTOGRAPHED BETWEEN TWO BUILDINGS, ON SOUTH-LAKESHORE DRIVE (ABOVE-LEFT), IS SOLDIER FIELD, HOME OF THE NFL CHICAGO BEARS. AND KITTY-CORNER TO THE HANCOCK CENTER (ABOVE-RIGHT) IS 900 N. MICHIGAN: A 66-FLOOR TOWER OPENED IN 1989, HOUSING CONDOMINIUMS; OFFICES AND A GIANT BLOOMINGDALE’S STORE.

VISITORS MARVEL AT VIEW OF THE WILLIS TOWER IN THE DISTANCE (ABOVE) WHILE LAKESHORE DRIVE WINDS NORTH PAST OAK ST. BEACH (BELOW). 

THE TRENDIEST LOCALE IN THIS CITY IS THE STRETCH OF MICHIGAN AVE. FROM THE CHICAGO RIVER TO OAK ST. KNOWN AS THE MAGNIFICENT MILE, WITH ITS NUMEROUS SHOPS AND RESTAURANTS (BELOW).

WITH THE FIREWORKS FUNCTION ON MY CAMERA, A LIGHT HALFWAY UP THE HANCOCK TOWER (ABOVE) APPEARS SCRIBBLED ALONG THE WEST FLANK OF THE BUILDING AT DUSK.

A NEARLY-HALF MOON SHINES OVER MICHIGAN AVE. AND THE GRAND PENINSULA HOTEL (ABOVE).

     

BEST PIZZA IN THE FREE WORLD, BAR NONE, IS SERVED HERE IN CHICAGO AT GINO’S EAST (ABOVE), ON SUPERIOR ST., ONE BLOCK EAST OF MICHIGAN AVE. AMONG THE RESTAURANT’S CHARM IS GRAFFITI PLASTERED ALL OVER ITS WALLS AND FURNITURE (ABOVE AND BELOW) – PATRONS ALWAYS ENCOURAGED TO CONTRIBUTE.

NOTHING BEATS GARLIC STICKS AND A THIN-CRUST SAUSAGE PIZZA. BRING YOUR APPETITE.

LIGHTS FROM CARS, BUSSES, STREET-LAMPS AND SHOPS ALONG MICHIGAN AVE. ARE DISTORTED (ABOVE AND BELOW) BY GENTLE CAMERA MOVEMENT IN THE FIREWORKS MODE.

 

Email: howardlberger@gmail.com

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2 Responses to “Leafs Reminiscient of Early-’96”

  1. Chris_F says:

    Great comments Howard. I was thinking about the 1996 collapse this week when I was trying to a find a comparison to the current predicament of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    In my mind there is one big difference between the two: in 1996 the collapse of the Pat Burns coached team was entirely unexpected. That was a deep veteran team with numerous playoff hardened warriors. When the team utterly fell to pieces it was a complete shock to just about everybody.

    The current collapse over the past few weeks wasn’t entirely unexpected (at least to me). This season the Leafs have given up far too many goals against to be considered a serious playoff contender. As of today, only Tampa Bay and Columbus have given up more goals than the Leafs. The Leafs were able to paper over this problem earlier in the year by out scoring their opponents. But over the past couple of weeks that has ceased to be the case and we have seen the results.

    Keep up the great work. I miss hearing you on the radio and hope you get another broadcasting gig (should that be the direction you wish to take your career!) soon!

  2. gary says:

    I am not smart enough to know if the players have quit playing for the coach (management and fans) If that is the case , shame on those players who have quit and shame on the leadership group for allowing it to happen, both players and management. Burke, Nonis, Poulin, Dudley, Loiselle, Fletcher, Wilson, Phaneuf, Kessel, Grabosky, Komisarek, this is your leadership group, identify the problem and fix it NOW.