October 31, 2007

Guess Who's Bizzack?

Our favorite dinosaurs of the hard court, that’s who. The Toronto Raptors open their new season tonight at home against the Philadelphia 76ers, but I’m more upset than excited. The Raptors are being shown no love and I won’t stand for it much longer.

First of all, what the hell is a 76er? I’m curious as to:

a) how Philadelphia’s franchise got that name
b) why Philadelphia’s franchise got that name
c) why it hasn’t been changed

I guess I could Google it, but it’s the 76ers, so really, who cares?

The Raptors are coming off a ridiculously successful season. 47 wins, the franchise’s first division crown, a playoff series, Coach-of-the-Year honors for Sam Mitchell, and Executive-of-the-Year honors for His Majesty Bryan Colangelo. Yes, the playoff ouster at the hands of his whore-ness Vince Carter and the New Jersey Nets was tough to swallow, but it was vital experience in the evolution of the Raptors (get it, evolution and Raptors? You know, the whole dinosaur connection? Oh, forget it). Bottom line, it was experience this team needed to gain in order to take the next step.

What does it all mean for this year? To the NBA pundits and prognosticators, nothing at all. The Raptors are being slept on and being shown zero respect. What’s a basketball team got to do in order to be shown some love around here!?!?

The Raps boast one of the deepest rotations in the league, an All-Star power forward in Chris Bosh who is getting better every year, and super-sophomore Andrea Bargnani, who is poised to break out and become the star we, in Toronto, know he will eventually become. So what's the deal? As a buddy of mine would say, where's the love?

I’ve got a lot of love for Bill Simmons from ESPN’s Page 2. His column is one of the best in the business. I read it on the regular – got the RSS hookup on my Google Reader – but I was shocked and chagrined to see his predictions for the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Brace yourselves, here they are:

BILL SIMMONS:
PREDICTIONS FOR THE SEASON
EAST PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Chicago, 56-26
2. Boston, 49-33
3. Miami, 43-39
4. Detroit, 50-32
5. New Jersey, 45-37
6. Milwaukee, 41-41
7. Atlanta, 40-42
8. Indiana, 40-42

Where the fudge are the Raptors on this list, Bill?!?!? He’s taking Milwaukee, Atlanta and Indiana over Toronto?!? This has got to be some kind of joke. My guess is that, because the Raptors play in Canada, the great country to the north of our ignorant American cousins, Simmons has simply forgotten the Raptors exist. Or he’s still drunk from celebrating his Red Sox’s World Series victory (the latter deserves some serious consideration).

Bill, my man, these Raptors are not extinct! They are alive and well, and on their way to another Atlantic Division title (Dave Feschuk, of the Toronto Star, is predicting 50 wins).

Simmons has got the Boston Celtics winning the Atlantic – what a surprise. It’s the cool thing to do. Everyone’s doing it. Yeah, yeah, I know they’ve got Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. But who else? Name another two guys on that team other than Rondo or Posey? I can’t do it. The Celtics will be much improved, but they aren’t knocking the Raptors off their perch, no sir.

Simmons isn’t the only one disrespecting the Raptors. Sports Illustrated has Toronto pegged to enter the Eastern Conference playoffs as the eighth seed. The last seed.

It’s not just the media that's invited to the Show No Love to the Raptors party. In the NBA’s annual general manager survey, no one picked the Raptors to repeat as Atlantic Division champs.

I don’t get it.

Let’s not forget that this was a brand new team full of fresh faces last October. His Majesty Bryan Colangelo - I refer to him as His Majesty because of the way he turned the team around - is royalty. He’s a savior sent from the heavens, and after he managed to trade the lump of coal known as Rafael Araujo, it became clear that he is also a miracle-worker. BC came in and gutted the team he inherited, bringing in nine new faces. On a basketball team, that’s unheard of. And it worked.

After the team got off to a rough start – they were something like 2-8 or 2-10 – the calls for Sam Mitchell’s head got louder and louder, but BC stuck by his coach and his team. The team was able to stay above water with Chris Bosh on the injured list. Bosh returned, rounded back into All-Star form and the rest, as they say, is history.

BC and the Raps had a quiet off-season. Jason Kapono is the prized acquisition and he is the best three point shooter in the NBA. Not too shabby. He will help an already potent shooting team. If Andrei Kirilenko in Utah is AK-47, Jason Kapono is JK-47. He’s got a sweet stroke and can get his shot off in a hurry, a la Dell Curry (hey, that rhymes!). Welcome to Toronto, new friend.

Yes, the Raptors still can’t rebound and don’t play really tough defense, but with the talent Sam Mitchell has at his disposal, the best defense for the Raptors will be a strong offense.

With the point guard tandem that Toronto Star beat grunt writer, and one of the best in the biz I might add, Doug Smith calls “T.J. Calderon” the sky is the limit for this Raptors squad. Jorge Garbajosa, the blue-collar Spaniard is back and although he’s still technically playing on a broken leg, he looks like he’s ready to go. He was sorely missed last year in the playoffs. Here’s hoping his leg will hold up (literally), because his injury still sends a chill down my spine when I think about it.

For His Majesty BC, it’s all about continuity and chemistry, two things that are seriously overlooked when people try to predict how many wins a team will get. This Raptors squad is a notoriously tight-knit one. They’ve garnered a reputation of being almost too nice. They need to add a little Charles Oakley to their game, and I’m looking to Chris Bosh to bring it.

As upset as I am about the continued disrespect shown the Toronto Raptors way, a part of me is thinking it may be a good thing. Let the league sleep on the Raptors. Let the Raptors use it as motivation in their quest to an NBA championship. It’s going to happen, of this I’m sure, as long as His Majesty BC is at the helm.

Tip off’s at 7:00pm and Jason Kapono is in the starting lineup.

Monday night, while the Leafs were getting their tails handed to them, once again, by the Washington Capitals, a chant broke out in the third period of the 7-1 debacle:

“Let’s Go Raptors!” (clap, clap…clapclapclap).

Now that’s what I’m talking about...

October 30, 2007

Crashing Back Down To Earth

Last night's Capitals/Leafs game should have been played on Halloween because, oh my, it was scary. After playing their two best games of the young season the Leafs returned home and, as they've done with frightening regularity, stunk up the joint.

After the Leafs' impressive wins on the road in Pittsburgh and New York, I naturally pulled out the blue prints for the Toronto Stanley Cup parade route. Start out by going north on Bay St., then west on Front St...

After last night, it's safe to the blue prints have been tucked away once again. Far, far away. A 7-1 spanking at the hands of the hapless Washington Capitals was almost enough to make me light said blue prints on fire.

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Toronto Maple Leafs continue in their struggle to find their true identity and, in the process, continue to frustrate their oh so loyal fans. I, for one, am getting really tired of the ugly Mr. Hyde.

I don't get it. I simply don't get this team. How Toronto can play so well, on the road, against two playoff teams from a season ago, and then come home and make the Washington Capitals look like the Harlem Globetrotters of hockey, is something my little brain cannot comprehend.

It seemed like Toronto was finally getting on the right track. They put together two games of disciplined, defensive hockey, and only allowed three goals in the process. Vesa Toskala looked sharp in the net and it seemed like they were finally getting the message.

That message, it seems, goes on deaf ears on home ice. The Leafs have so far just been awful in their own building and the worrisome trend continued last night.

The game began in similar fashion. The Leafs found themselves down by a goal, as was the case in Pittsburgh and New York. They responded, however, with a goal of their own only seconds after they spotted the Capitals a lead. It was a 1-1 hockey game with 55 minutes left to go.

Then, before I could say "Andy Wozniewski sucks", the Capitals fired three goals past a helpless Toskala, it was 4-1 Washington, and Toskala was done for the night.

WTF!?!? The Leafs, once again, left their goalie out to dry. I feel for Toskala. The guy gets no help at all back there (I don't feel for Raycroft - he just sucks).

This game was eerily similar to the poundage the Leafs took when Hurricane Carolina swept into town a couple of weeks ago. There were no survivors that night, and it was much of the same yesterday. It was domination, pure and simple. Now lets be clear here, the Carolina Hurricanes are a strong team. But to lose 7-1 on home ice to the Washington Capitals - the Washington freaking Capitals - who came in to town with only one win in their previous seven games, is simply unacceptable. It's downright embarrassing.

Every team is going to get it's ass kicked every now and then - it's the nature of sports. Some nights, you're just not going to have your "A" game. Last night was, however, already the second night in October that the Leafs have been bent over and spanked like naughty little boys. It isn't fun. And it hurts. Something is wrong with this team. No NHL team should be getting schooled the way the Leafs have been, especially in their own building! It's infuriating.

The Maple Laughs have now surrendered a league-worst 52 goals in only 13 games. Fourteen of those goals have come in two games. I'm trying to be optimistic. The Leafs are still sitting at .500 right now (with a record of 5-5-3) and have five and a half months of hockey let to play, but someone has got to page Houston before this gets out of control, because we do have a problem.

As for a solution, lets please start with the banishment of Andy Wozniewski. He was a team worst -3 last night and, well, this guy just doesn't belong in the NHL. John Ferguson Jr.: Send the Woz to the minors, vote him off the island, do what you've got to; please just get rid of him. The saying goes that "you're only as good as your weakest link" and Andy Wozniewski, you are the weakest link, goodbye!

When the Leafs lost 7-1 to the Hurricanes, I told myself "it happens", and that it's better now in October than later in March or April during a playoff run. I'm telling myself the same thing now. Lets get the severe beatings out of the way. The Leafs have some kinks to sort out (ok, a ton of kinks) but there's still a lot of hockey to be played. I like to think of it like rehab - the first step is admitting you've got a problem. That's the only way this team is going to get better. They've got to face the demons that lye within.

(Hi. My name's Navin, and I'm a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.)

The Leafs will now hit the road for four games, starting Friday night in New Jersey. That's welcome news to me. Let's get this team as far away as possible from the Air Canada Centre right now. The Leafs play a more simple game on the road, and that's the key right now; keeping it simple.

As for the injured and suspended Maple Leafs - Kyle Wellwood, Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker and Mark Bell - please hurry up and get healthy.

If you're still looking for a Halloween costume, may I suggest you head to your nearest sporting goods store and pick up a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, because this team is scaring the bejeezus out of me right now...

October 29, 2007

A-Rod Opts Out

It's official, folks. Alex Rodriguez is leaving $72 million in guaranteed salary on the table and opting out of the remaining three years of his contract with the New York Yankees. Apparently, $25 million a season isn't enough.

First of all, this isn't shocking news. Most people in the baseball community saw this one coming. A-Rod is represented by uber-agent Scott Boras and Boras has let it be known that he thinks A-Rod is underpaid at $25 million per year. Underpaid at $25 million per year. You've got to say it twice for it to even start making sense.

Second of all, $72 million in guaranteed salary, for three years, is a hell of a lot of money. The opt out begs the questions: is A-Rod smoking that good stuff? I'm not sure. I think this has more to do with Boras - he thinks he can turn that $72 million over three years into $90 million. Boras works night's as a magician, evidently pulling rabbits out of his freaking cap.

A-Rod is now officially a free agent, his services available to the highest bidder. His career with the New York Yankees seems to have come to an end. They had said they would not attempt to re-sign A-Rod if he opted out. Well, he's done just that. The Yankees, still stinging I'm sure from watching the Boston Red Sox, their arch rivals, win another World Series, are now arguably losing the best player in all of baseball.

A-Rod had one fine season in 2007. He's going to win the Most Valuable Player award next month after leading baseball in home runs and runs batted in while batting .314.

Boras announced the decision during game four of the World Series. He said A-Rod's decision was based on the fact that Joe Torre is no longer the manager in the Bronx, and that none of Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte are sure to return to New York.

But that, my friends, is just plain old bullshit. It's all about the dollars to Boras and A-Rod. Anything they say otherwise is just a lie.

Baseball should, however, teach A-Rod and his agent a lesson. All 30 Major League Baseball teams should agree not to offer A-Rod more than the money he was scheduled to make in the remaining years of his previous contract. He was owed $72 million over three years, and no team should offer him a penny over $60 million. Let it be a lesson to the greedy Rodriguez and his arrogant agent.

A-Fraud talked all season about wanting to stay in New York and play in the pinstripes and, eventually, win a World Series in New York. It was all talk. He doesn't care where he plays, or whether or not he wins a championship. All he cares about is his paycheck.

I'm off A-Rod, huge.

October 26, 2007

The Leafs Finally Deliver

It took a while - only 11 games - but the Toronto Maple Leafs finally put in a quality 60 minutes of hockey last night. They played about as perfect a road game as you can play, and I couldn't be happier with their performance, a 5-2 dubya.

I'll be honest, I figured the Leafs were in for another beating last night in Pittsburgh vs Sidney Crosby and company. The Penguins are an offensively gifted and speedy team and, for the defensively-challenged Maple Leafs, they always pose a problem. Twelve days ago the Pens peppered Vesa Toskala with 52 shots and came away with a 6-4 win in Toronto. I was fully expecting another night full of cursing at my television screen.

Much to my pleasure, the Leafs had other ideas. It seems they learned from their last game against Pittsburgh. Imagine that, the Leafs actually learning something. Shocking, I know, but it's true. Toronto learned a valuable lesson: they can't play run-and-gun hockey with a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yes, the Leafs can score goals in bushels, but lord known they can't keep them out of their own net.

Last night, the Maple Leafs finally played a complete game of hockey for the first time all season. It was long overdue, and the team put in the type of performance I have long been expecting. This is a good hockey team, one that I believe in, and they proved it with their performance by beating a good club on the road.

For the boys in the blue and white, it was about as perfect a road game as can be played. Toronto limited the Pittsburgh offense from any clear-cut scoring chances and kept the shots to the outside. Toskala saw everything that came his way and was great when he needed to be. The Leafs even out-shot their opponent, something they've rarely done all year. Toronto was hemmed in their zone for lengthy periods on a couple of occasions but instead of breaking down so pathetically in the defensive zone as they have so often already this season, or taking a penalty, they kept their composure, played man-to-man defense, and were able to weather the storm.

I don't know if it was Pittsburgh's best effort of the young season last night but Toronto's a fragile hockey team, and they needed yesterday's game, bad. I needed yesterday's game, bad. It was a solid win and I'm likely as happy with the win as Jiri Tlusty is about it today.

Shout outs to the fresh-faced 19-year-old rookie Tlusty. His first ever NHL game was that which dreams are made of. Playing on a line with Matt Stajan and Alex Steen, he didn't disappoint, scoring two goals, his second - a beauty I might add - being the winner. This kid did not look out of place out there, and it's exciting to see a young prospect like Tlusty come up from the farm and deliver in his first game. The Leafs have never been the greatest at developing their own talent (that's got to be the understatement of the century) but #41 Tlusty looks like a keeper. I know, it's only one game, but the kid certainly looks like he's got a bright future.

Toronto played a great game in all facets last night. They won 59% of the face-offs, out-shot the Pens 27-25, and killed off five out of six penalties. Pittsburgh's one power play goal came on a five-on-three man advantage, and the puck deflected in off towering defenseman Hal Gill - no chance for my boy Vesa.

Entering the third period, which has been the Leafs worst period this year, the game was tied 1-1 and instead of imploding, the Leafs exploded. They pulled off four straight goals and never took their foot off the pedal. That's the key, they were hungry last night, and it showed. It was encouraging, to say the least.

The power play even showed some power last night, as Kaberle converted on a one-timer off a great no-look pass from Alex Steen.

Steener was great last night, with a goal and two assists. Pavel Kubina had his best game of the season, logging over 25 minutes in ice time with a couple of assists.

Mats Sundin, with an assist on Kaberle's goal, moved into a tie with Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg for the league's leading scorer, with 18 points. A lot of guys said Sundin was washed up - The Hockey News did not put him in their list of the Top 50 players in the NHL - and I think Sundin has taken it personally. Jason Blake is creating more room for the big man and to all you Sundin hater's out there, how do you like Mats now? He's off to the best start to a season in his career. I've said it before, Mats is like a fine wine, he gets better with age my friends.

I'm not sure who the impostor wearing Nik Antropov's #80 is, but I'm really diggin his game right now. He's dominating out there. Antropov picked up another two assists for his sixth multi-point game of the season. He's continued his tremendous start to the season and is up there on the league's leading scorers list with 14 points. Nikky's got 11 points in the last seven games. I love this guy!

Before I forget, who could have imagined the much-maligned Antropov wearing the "A" on his jersey for the injured Bryan McCabe? Antropov has really come a long way - he's a leader on this team now - and he deserves props because he's worked hard. I'm thoroughly enjoying watching him succeed. I've always liked what the lanky Kazakh has brought to this team and it's good to see it finally coming together. It's a nice!!

Despite last night's solid victory the news on the injury front isn't so good (surprise, surprise). Darcy Tucker has got a partial tear in his knee and is going to be out at least a month, if not longer. Tucker's passion will always be missed, but the Leafs have got a lot of guys who are able to carry the load - hello, Tlusty.

Bryan McCabe is also out with a groin strain. McCabe's been brutal so far this year, and hopefully the injury played a part in his vomit-inducing play. The Leafs played their best game of the year without #24 in the lineup. Coincidence? Yes. I know the media and the McCabe haters will all say it wasn't a coincidence, but believe me, it was. This guy is important to this team and anyone who says otherwise is smoking that crack. Who would you rather have out there, McCabe or Wozniewski? It's a no-brainer my friends, and don't you dare say The Woz.

Injuries. What can I say? They were bound to happen. Guys like Anton Stralman, Simon Gamache, Boyd Devereaux and Tlusty need to continue to step up. If they do, and the Leafs play team defense like they did last night, and play Toskala in net (after Saturday's pathetic performance by Raycroft - who had absolutely no business starting that game - against Chicago, he should be super-glued to the bench), the Leafs will be alright. This team isn't as bad as they have played, or everyone thinks.

Reports in the Toronto paper's and on sports radio are already discussing the replacement for John Ferguson Jr. It's ridiculous how fast this city turns on the Maple Leafs. Toronto, with all their struggles, are sitting at .500 today after their win last night. Yes, they didn't get off to the greatest start, but we're only 11 games in here people. There's a lot of time to right the ship, and hopefully it began to move in the right direction last night.

I'm not saying everything is jolly after one impressive victory. If the Leafs play one great game out of every 11, well, pass the Pepto Bismol because they're in a world of trouble. I especially know that the Leafs have been God-awful to start this season, but like I said last week, it's still early. If last night was any indication, when this team keeps it simple, forechecks hard, and plays a full 60 minutes, they're capable of big things.

The Leafs take their road show to the Big Apple on Saturday night, and they're going to need another performance like last night's if they want to continue to stay in the win column. Right now, we've got to take last night's performance, and just beleaf...

October 22, 2007

The Red Sox Did It Again

The great teams, in any sport, have a switch they turn on when their backs are against the wall, when they are facing elimination, when there is no tomorrow. The Boston Red Sox have that switch. Down three games to one to the Cleveland Indians in the ALCS, they turned it on.

The Boston Red Sox are a great team, and they’ve gone and done it again. For the Fenway faithful, it’s another monumental comeback that sends their beloved Red Sox to their second World Series in four years.

Another great op-ed by Will Leitch in the New York Times about how the Red Sox are no longer a tragic baseball team forced to deal with curses and condemned to forever be the loser (that would be the Toronto Maple Leafs). No, the Boston Red Sox are just winners.

Must be nice.

As special and remarkable as the Sox’s comeback was in 2004, this one was right up there with it. Just like 2004, I didn’t see it coming. This year’s version of the Red Sox didn’t look like a team that was going to make it happen. They didn’t look like the loosey-goosey “idiots” from 2004 who staged one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history. They didn’t have the characters like Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar, guys who were going to “cowboy up” and get the job done. Although Big Papi and Manny Ramirez were hitting the lights out of, well, everything, there seemed to be too many questions in regards to everyone else.

After another dominant effort from Josh Beckett in game five to send the series back to beautiful Fenway Park, there seemed to be life in the Red Sox yet.

But the questions, they were still on my mind.

Was Curt Schilling going to paint blood on his sock and win another crucial game six with his team facing elimination? Was he ready to accept that he must change his approach because he doesn’t have the stuff to dominate anymore? Was J.D. Drew ever going to do anything to justify that mammoth contract? Was Coco Crisp finally going to be forced to grab some pine? If they did force game seven, would Dice-K have enough gas in the tank?

Well, all of those questions were answered. With an emphatic yes.

Schilling got the win and improved to 4-0 with a 1.37 ERA in five starts when his team is facing elimination. J.D. Drew hit a grand slam to make sure there was going to be a game seven. Terry Francona finally benched Coco Crisp. And Dice-K, although not dominant by any stretch of the imagination, got the win, and therefore got the job done, with some help from his countryman Hideki Okajima. Okajima’s been so huge for the Red Sox all year. As if getting Dice-K wasn’t enough, geez.

As a Jays fan, seeing the Red Sox advance is tough. If it’s not Evil Empire #1 the New York Yankees, it’s Evil Empire #2 the Boston Red Sox. Other than spending a gazillion dollars, what’s a team got to do to make the playoffs in the American League East? Bud Selig, throw me a freaking bone here.

What made it even more infuriating was seeing that little weasel Royce Clayton, the former and might I add super-pathetic Blue Jay, celebrating in the Red Sox dugout and clubhouse like he’d been with Boston all year and contributed anything at all to their success (or was even on their playoff roster). Clayton's useless. What a tool.

But I digress.

It’s a Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies World Series and if you saw that one coming, well, you’re just lying. So stop it.

A lot was made of Manny Ramirez’s comments after the Red Sox went down 3-1, and how he said it “wasn’t the end of the world” if Boston lost the series. I agree, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but I wasn’t too pleased with Manny’s comments. He was chastised for not caring enough but you wouldn’t know it when he stepped to the plate with his .400 batting average.

In the aftermath of the comeback, some are saying that it was Ramirez’s comments that loosened up the Red Sox. It was Manny who got them to stop worrying about their situation. It was Manny who got them to go out on to the field and just play baseball.

Give me a break - Manny isn’t that smart. It was, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, just Manny being Manny.

Wow. I feel all cheap and dirty.

A telling stat from games five, six and seven – the Red Sox outscored the Cleveland Indians 30-5, and Big Papi and Ramirez drove in only five of those runs. It was the other guys who stepped up – the Pedroia’s, the Youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuukilis’s, and, unfathomably, the J.D. Drew’s.

What can you say about the Cleveland Indians? They’ve got a heck of a ball club, but their big boys didn’t show up when it mattered most. Grady Sizemore, Casey Blake and Travis Hafner, especially, are going to have a long off-season. Like the CBC Hockey Night in Canada song goes – “for the chance may never come again.”

And how about that poor idiot Ryan Garko? After game five a confident Garko had a severe brain cramp and told the media “the champagne tastes just as good on the road as it does at home.”

That lovely little quote ended up taped on the back of Boston’s clubhouse door at Fenway.

Way to go, Garko! I wonder how the champagne's going to taste in his basement.

It was a fantastic series, and the 11-2 final in game seven does not tell the story of how close the game really was.

I can’t find it in me, however, to say that the Cleveland Indians choked. The Boston Red Sox, like all great teams do when pushed to the brink, simply turned on the switch…

October 20, 2007

The Weigh In #2

It's time for another installment of The Weigh In. In this edition: Manny Ramirez, the baseball playoffs, Joe Torre, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Buffalo (or should I say Toronto?) Bills.

How big of a douche bag is Manny Ramirez? On Thursday night he hits a bomb to centre field, with two outs, that goes off the top of the wall and comes back into play - about as close as you can get to a home run without hitting one. David Ortiz, not exactly Flash on the base paths, comes in to score from first base, no problem. Where does Man-Ram end up? At first base. A 400 foot single.

Ramirez's antics are getting old. First of all, it's the playoffs. Second of all, his team was facing elimination Thursday night. You'd think he'd be playing a bit harder, right? Nope, that's not how Manny rolls. To him, it doesn't matter what the situation or the score is. He's going to hit moon shots, and whether they're leaving the park or not, he's going to hold his hands high in the air, admire his own power, and walk out of the batters box.

Great op-ed by Will Leitch in the New York Times about the fact that most fans probably care more than the athletes who actually play the games we, as fans, obsess over. Surely no athlete can care less than Manny Ramirez.

I'm sick of hearing that it's just "Manny being Manny". It's Manny being a jackass...

Lets stick with baseball. Joe Torre is officially out as manager of the New York Yankees. Not surprising, we all saw the writing on the wall, but the details of how it went down were rather shocking. Usually, the Yankees are the embodiment of class, but they dropped the ball on Torre. By offering him a one-year $5 million dollar deal (a pay cut from the $7.5 million he made this season), the Yankees knew they were giving him an offer he couldn't accept. With incentives, the new deal could reach $8 million. Torre was looking for a two-year deal. And the incentives, you ask? He had to win the World Series.

Now that, as Torre would agree, is complete bullshit. The playoffs, in any sport, are half skill and half luck. The Yankees have spent millions upon millions of dollars in the last seven years and don't have a World Series title to show for their efforts. It just isn't that simple. There is no magic formula.

Torre managed some great players in his years in the Bronx, but he also managed some massive ego's. That's what made him such a great manager. He was able to harness every man's ego in that dressing room and got them to buy into the team philosophy. Even though he was disrespected by management, he didn't have anything bad to say about the New York Yankees. Stay classy, Joe.

I believe Torre will be coaching in baseball next season, and I'm pretty sure it won't be in Toronto. At the very least, I hope the Blue Jays at least give his people a call. Every single team in baseball should be giving Torre's people a call...

More baseball...The Colorado Rockies, for the first time in their short history, are off to the World Series. What a magical run. Theirs is the story of fairy tales. Stuff like this isn't supposed to happen in real life. They've won 10 in a row and 21 out of their last 22, including a one-game playoff with San Diego to just make the playoffs. It's hard to root against a team like Colorado. They continue to defy the odds.

It must be good times to be a Rockies fan right now. God knows they've suffered through some tough years. The beer must be flowing like a river in Denver during "Rocktober", especially at Coors Field.

The World Series will begin on October 24 and it will be interesting to see how the long layoff will effect Colorado. Surely they must have wanted to keep playing every day. Dane Cook keeps telling us that "There's only one October" but the geniuses at Major League Baseball have scheduled the Fall Classic such that if it goes the distance, there will be baseball in November. Hopefully, it'll be snowing in Denver. A little Snow Series, please...

On to the ALCS - Is Curt Schilling the best post season pitcher of all-time? As much as I don't like the ever-opinionated Schiling and his stupid bloody sock (I still believe it was fake blood - pure Red Sox propaganda), it's hard to argue with the man's playoff resume. He's started 17 games in the second season and has a career record of 9-2, with an earned run average of 2.23 and four complete games.

Josh Beckett, Schilling's teammate, might have something to say about all this when his career is over. He's been dominant in the post season as well. Though I do despise his little chin growth. It's hideous.

The Red Sox have their backs against the wall once again tonight, but Schilling's on the mound, and I don't think there's anyone else they want to give the ball to. Well, other than Beckett, but he can't pitch again, silly!Here's hoping for a Schilling/Red Sox win to force game seven. There's only one October, and there's only one game seven...

On to hockey - It's been an interesting week for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Monday night in Buffalo, in typical Leafs fashion, they blew a lead - three of them to be precise - and lost in overtime on an own goal by Bryan McCabe. The third period was certainly a doozy.

I must admit I really felt for McCabe after the game. Obviously, he didn't mean to do it and made a mistake. He's been getting ripped in the media already - The Star's Damien Cox really, really hates McCabe - and you just knew he was going to be the main target for the fans and the media after the gaffe.

I'll give McCabe credit for standing up and talking to the media on Wednesday after practice. He knew he was getting ripped and his message was the right one - Relax!

Maple Leafs fans are a fickle bunch. We're still way too early in the season to be passing judgement on this team. Sure, they've been maddeningly inconsistent, but again, it's early. Give them some time to work out the kinks. I'm not going to evaluate this team until Kyle Wellwood, Carlo Colaiacovo and Mark Bell are in the lineup. At least 20 games need to be in the bag before I think we can make a logical assessment on where this team stands.

I'm also tired of hearing about McCabe's $5.5 million dollar salary. It's just nonsensical that fans calling in to the talk shows keep bringing it up. If you're not happy about his contract, blame John Ferguson, don't blame Bryan McCabe. What was he supposed to do, blush and tell Ferguson it was worth too much? He signed what was OFFERED to him, fools.

I'm not sure why Leafs fans need someone else to boo when we've got Andrew Raycroft. On a serious note, the booing doesn't help anyone (not even Raycroft, the poor sap). These are our boys, this is our team, let's embrace them. McCabe bounced back with a solid game on Thursday night, scoring a goal and dishing out some hits. I wish Leafs fans would sit back, take a deep breath, and have some green tea. It's a long season. Seven games does not a season make. The Leafs picked up a point in Buffalo Monday night, so just shutup and take it. If Toronto had picked up a point late last year against Buffalo, when they blew a 4-1 lead in the third period (and ended up losing 5-4 in regulation), they would have made the playoffs. My point is, be happy with the bloody point. Let's think bigger picture here, folks...

Still on the Leafs, how about one Nik Antropov? Long gone it seems are the days when he was the guy getting booed at the Air Canada Centre.

Stupid Leafs fans. Now they love Antropov. He's got 11 points in eight games and has been the best Leafs forward so far this young season, along with Mats Sundin. He's playing with a ton of confidence and you can see it in his game. When he puts his mind to it, he can dominate. I said it last year, for what this guy brings to the team, at $2 million a year he's an incredible bargain. The patience the Leafs have shown with him may finally be starting to pay off, almost 10 years after he was a first round draft pick. If he can stay healthy, the sky's the limit...

How good are the Philadelphia Flyers looking early on this season? Talk about a quick turnaround. They were one of the league's worst teams last year, but they cleaned house and are showing signs that they could be an elite team, and fast. Daniel Briere is leading the charge with nine points and Martin Biron is looking more than solid in net. Philadelphia has always lacked goaltending, but they may have finally found a keeper in Biron. They're definitely looking like a playoff team.

Philly's got a record of five wins and only one loss. They've scored 25 goals in their 6 games and, most impressive of all, have only let in 10. To put that into perspective, the Maple Leafs usually let in 10 goals in about 5 periods of hockey...

The Chicago Blackhawks are in town to face the Leafs tonight and they arrive in Toronto with - surprise - a winning record. It's been a long, long time since the Blackhawks were any good. I don't even remember the last time they had a winning season. I'd have to Google it to find out. Give me a second.

Ok, it was the 2001/2002 season. Ouch.

The future, however, is looking mighty bright for the young Blackhawks. Patrick Kane, last year's first overall draft pick, is already leading the team in scoring with seven points in the teams first seven games. Not too shabby. Jonathan Toews, another highly touted young Canadian, has a point in each of the five games he's suited up for. And boy did he score a beauty last night. Goal of the season, so far. Make sure you catch SportsCenter or YouTube it. Trust it.

For Chicago, the kids are alright. It should be a good test for both the Leafs and the Hawks as they face off on Hockey Night in Canada...

And finally, is the NFL coming to Toronto? The short answer is, I think, yes, at least for a pre-season game. The Bills have asked for permission from the NFL to play an exhibition game in Toronto in 2008 and a regular season game in Toronto in 2009.

This issue has gotten a lot of play in the media over the last couple of days. Here's why the Bills wouldn't relocate their franchise to Toronto - they've got a better option in Los Angeles. The NFL isn't going to expand to Canada before they put a team back in L.A. It just doesn't make sense to not go back to a huge U.S. market like La La land and instead put a franchise in Canada.

Although I think Toronto is well-deserving of an NFL team, the Rogers Centre isn't the best place for it to call home. Ralph Wilson stadium in Buffalo has got capacity for crowds of more than 80,000. The Rogers Centre can only fit 55,000. And one thing is for certain, the arrival of the NFL in Toronto, whenever it does happen (and I do think it eventually will), will mean the end of the CFL. Everyone knows that.

However, my main concern in regards to the NFL coming to Toronto, and specifically the Rogers Centre, with its lack of parking near the stadium, is where the hell would we tailgate? It's all about priorities, people...

October 12, 2007

A Night to Remember...

Last night in Toronto, Mats Sundin scored his 390th goal and 917th point as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, making him the franchise's all-time leading scorer. And I was there.

After the laugher of a hockey game the Maple Leafs played on Tuesday night - it's a stretch to even call it a game since the Leafs didn't bother showing up - I was looking extra-forward to last night's visit from the New York Islanders. Yes, those same Islanders who stole the eighth and final playoff spot from under our fingers on the last day of the regular season last year (no, I haven't forgotten). More importantly, I was interested in seeing how the Leafs would respond after the severe poundage they received on Tuesday. Only four games into the season, and it was gut check time. You don't lose 7-1 on home ice and not come back in a nasty mood for your next game. Little did I know I was going to be witness to Toronto Maple Leafs history.

Actually, little did I know I was even going to be at the game. A colleague of mine offered me a pair of Air Canada Club tickets at 5:00pm. She couldn't make it, and she was asking me to come off the bench and pinch hit. I was getting the proverbial tap on the shoulder. I was the chosen one. Who was I to let her down? It was simply an offer I couldn't afford to refuse. Especially since she was offering the tickets for FREE ninety nine. Free Leafs tickets, are you kidding me? I'm there. All day, everyday. Unfortunately, I didn't wear my Leafs jersey to work (I wonder how that would go over?), so I didn't have it. I'm now thinking about carrying it with me permanently in my bag, just for emergency situations like these. Anyways, the seats were tremendous, thank you Susanna Kelley. I owe you, big time, trust me.

I was looking forward to my first live glimpse at Leafs goalie Vesa Toskola. More importantly, I was looking forward to starting the "Ve-sa!! Ve-sa!!" chant. As I got to the arena I received a text message from my brother, whom I blessed with the second ticket. He was on his way downtown to join me, and was the bearer of some terrible news: Andrew Raycroft was getting the start in goal.

Talk about a swift kick to the nuts.

Raycroft makes me nervous. Every time the opposition has the puck I'm afraid they're going to, well, score. He is the human sieve after all. But not even Raycroft could ruin this night, my friends.

The Leafs came out flying and were up 2-1 after a spirited first period. Darcy Tucker assisted on both goals for Toronto and was finally on the board after a rough start to his season.

Then, seven minutes and 15 seconds into the second period, it happened. Tomas Kaberle scored a beautiful goal, patiently out-waiting Islanders goalie Wade Dubielewicz (Dubie!!) to make it 3-1 Toronto. The assists went to Jason Blake and Mats Sundin. For Sundin, it was his 917th point as a Toronto Maple Leaf, moving him past the legendary Darryl Sittler into first place all-time in Leafs scoring history.

In the excitement of seeing how the Leafs would respond after Tuesday's loss, and in the disappointment of hearing that Raycroft was playing, I forgot that Sundin, my heart and soul, was on the verge of the historic record. He had tied Sittler with an assist on Tuesday night. Now, the record was his. It was only fitting that I was there in the building to share it with my main man Mats.

Flashback: Back in 2003 I was on a business trip in Alberta with my brother. We had coincided the trip with the Maple Leafs schedule, who were visiting the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. It was March of 2003 and Sundin was on the verge of 1000 career points, a significant milestone, as he would become the first Swedish-born player to accomplish the feat. I think he was stuck on point number 999 for six or seven games, until he broke the record in Edmonton, where my brother and I had tickets in the first row behind the glass next to the Edmonton goal. Sundin scored point number 1000 right in front of me on a backhand off a scramble in front of the net. It was fascinating. He had a huge grin on his face and his teammates all hopped over the bench and came right in front of us to congratulate their captain. As Sundin skated back to the bench with the puck in his hand, I swear he looked me right in the eye. He knew his biggest fan was in the building. It was magical.

Back to last night: As the puck was dropped at centre ice after Kaberle's goal, Maple Leafs announcer Andy Frost announced that Sundin had just broken the record, and the crowd went crazy. Everyone was on their feet, and chants of "Sun-din!! Sun-din!!" broke out. It was louder than loud, and Sundin was getting his due. Finally, after what seemed like ten minutes, there was a stoppage in play and a tv timeout, and the scoreboard showed a smiling Sundin on the bench. Once again, the crowd went nuts. Suddenly, the Star Wars theme song broke out on the speakers and a montage of Sundin highlights began to play on the video scoreboard. Everyone was on their feet clapping for Sundin as they watched the greatest moments of his 13-year career with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The goals, the hugs, the smiles, the overtime winners...it was magnificent. I had tears in my eyes. You couldn't slap the smile off my face. I could have stood and clapped in appreciation forever.

Thirteen years have gone by in a flash. Sundin arrived in Toronto in 1994 a young Swedish boy with a charming smile and a full head of hair. He's now a man and while the charming smile is still there, the hair is not, and who, really, can blame him? His job - captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs - is not an easy one.

I've been a staunch supporter of Mats Sundin since the day he arrived in Toronto and while people still argue that he is not a great captain, or a good leader, or the best Maple Leaf of all time, it was sweet justice watching him get point 917. Say what you want about the man, his numbers speak for themselves. He was more than deserving of the ovation he got last night, believe me. It was simply extraordinary.

After the Leafs went up 3-1, the rest of the game really didn't matter anymore, to be honest with you. I just sat in my seat with a beer in my hand and a perma-grin on my face. Nothing could bring me down.

Until public-address speaker Andy Frost, five minutes into the third period with the Leafs leading 6-1, announced an official scoring change - that Sundin in fact had NOT registered an assist on the Kaberle goal in the second period. He was still tied with Sittler.

Talk about another kick to the nuts. This time with a steel-toe boot.

The crowd boo'd and hissed their disappointment. I was shocked. Shagrinned. Distraught. How could it be? I was in the building. I was there for Mats. I was there to witness history and watch him become the greatest player ever to wear the blue and white. I couldn't believe it, and I think my brother couldn't believe how big a deal I was making of the whole situation. Deep down I wanted him to slap me and tell me to pull myself together. It just wasn't right. Who cares if Sundin didn't touch the puck? Just give him the assist! It was heart-breaking.

I was praying Sundin would somehow, someway get his name on the score-sheet in the last 15 minutes of the game. I felt it was meant to be. The tickets fell in my lap two hours before game-time and Sundin wasn't going to let me leave with breaking the record.

My prayers were answered. Five minutes after the scoring change announcement, Sundin came down the left wing and sent a pass towards the goal. It hit the skate of New York defenceman Brendan Witt and went straight into the net. There it was, baby. Goal number 390, to break Sittler's record of 389, and point number 917, to break Sittler's record of 916. Two bird's, one puck. Thank you, Brendan Witt. This time, there was no doubt. Sundin had just broken the record, and no one was going to change it. Once again, the crowd was on their feet. I led the charge. I was practically up in the rafters. Alex Steen handed Sundin the monumental puck and Sundin's teammates also stood on the bench and banged their sticks against the boards in honour of their tremendous leader and face of the franchise. It was another staggering standing ovation and Sundin raised his right arm in appreciation to the crowd.

Sundin is one of the classiest athletes to ever play in Toronto, and he proved it again last night, clapping to the crowd as they cheered him on. It's been a tremendous ride for Sundin here in this city, full of ups and downs, but last night proved that he has been appreciated. I've never been part of an ovation like that, and it's something I'll always remember for the rest of my days.

After the game, which the Leafs won 8-1, the organization made sure they recognized Sundin's accomplishment as well. He was named - in a classy move - the game's third, second and first star and came out onto the ice alone for another rousing ovation.

How can I complain? Three beautiful ovations for one hell of a hockey player, and the hockey love of my life. The scoreboard read "Go Mats Go" and I don't think you can put it any better than that.

I can't put it any other way - I was meant to be there last night. Sundin was to have broken this record last year, both the goal scoring record and the total points record. But he waited. He only scored one goal in the final 20 games of last season. He waited for me.

In the dressing room after the game, the selfless Sundin once again showered his teammates and fans with praise.

"My respect has grown every year as a player for this city, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the fans," said Sundin. "Hopefully, it's grown the same for me as a player."

Oh, it has Mats, it most certainly has. Thank you...

October 10, 2007

The Weigh In

When news of Jason Blake's cancer diagnosis broke, it put a lot of things in perspective. Professional sports, in general, are quite meaningless. Blake is a young man - only 34 - and a father of three. His health, not hockey, is the only thing that matters now......It's amazing that only five or six years ago the disease - chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) - was uniformly fatal. Thanks to a pill called Gleevac, it now has a survival rate of 85 to 90 per cent. Jason Blake is going to live a long and healthy life, God willing. The lesson of the day? Cancer research, boys and girls. It's for real, and it's money well spent. Let's keep on donating......So, it looks like the end of the line for Joe Torre in New York. I think George Steinbrenner is actually morphing into his Seinfeld character - he's going straight loco! Is there not enough pressure to be a New York Yankee, coach or player, than for Big Stein to come out and publicly say that if the Yankees didn't come back to beat the Cleveland Indians that Torre would be fired? Give me a break. Give Torre a break. He deserved better than that. Sure, there's an insane amount of talent on that team, but Torre never once missed the playoffs as coach of the Bronx Bombers. Steinbrenner's losing it, man......Speaking of Torre, I had a dream last night he was wearing a Blue Jays uniform and sitting in the dugout at the Rogers Centre, the newest manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. Wouldn't it be something? As much as I love John Gibbons, if the Jays can get Torre, see ya Gibby! Sure, Torre will come at a ridiculous price tag, but my main man Ted Rogers can afford it. He's a baller. I know, some of you probably think I'm going loco, but hey, a man can dream......Keeping it on baseball, great column by Dan Wetzel over at Yahoo! Sports. The Yankees, with their $200 million plus payroll, once again failed to make it past the division series. Money a championship does not buy. There are four teams left standing in baseball's playoffs and only one of them has a payroll in the top 12 in baseball - the Boston Red Sox ($143 million). Cleveland checks in at #23, the Colorado Rockies at #25 and the Arizona Diamondbacks at #26. Add up the payrolls for Cleveland, Colorado and Arizona and you get $168.2 million - substantially less than that of the New York Yankees. That is absolutely ridiculous. And I wondered why Big Stein was losing it......Oh, those poor, poor fans of the Buffalo Bills. When will their suffering end? In what SI's Peter King called "The best 24 minutes in sports in 2007" the Bills were once again silenced by the Dallas Cowboys, this time in a Monday Night Football game for the ages. Tony Romo was intercepted five times, but it wasn't enough. How a team can win when their quarterback gets intercepted five times is beyond me, but the Cowboys pulled off a miracle. Numerous official reviews, an onside kick, two 53-yard field goals - it was drama at its finest. The Bills led all the way until the end and they were, oh, so close, but as always, they lost. If you've got a heart, you feel for the city of Buffalo and its citizens. Forever losers, and it's got to be rough......Speaking of the Cowboys, they've got a date with the New England Patriots next week, in a match-up of undefeated teams. Tom Brady vs Tony Romo. Already talk has begun of New England possibly going 16-0. Premature? You're damn right. Impossible? No way. If anyone can do it again, Tom Brady can. He's Superman. And Batman. If you need me on Sunday at 4:15 pm eastern time, I'll be on the couch......Back to the Yankees for a second. It's looking like Alex Rodriguez is going to opt-out of the final three years of his contract with New York. Seven years ago when he signed his mammoth contract it was believed that his would be the most expensive contract in baseball history at $25 million a season. Now his agent thinks he can get $30 million. After the season A-Rod had, he will undoubtedly be named American League MVP, I wouldn't be surprised if he got $35 million a year. I thought baseball was out of control back in the day. Some things will just never change......What's up with Lebron James wearing a Yankees hat at the game in Cleveland? He's just asking for trouble. Witness!......Word has it that Rasho Nesterovic has shown up to Toronto Raptors training camp in great shape. Maybe it's premature to hand Andrea Bargnani the starting centre job. A little healthy competition never hurt nobody......Classy move by Jacques Villeneuve in his NASCAR debut at Talladega Superspeedway over the weekend. A number of drivers, including a vocal Jeff Gordon, made it known they weren't happy with Villeneuve making his debut on NASCAR's biggest and fastest track, during the NEXTEL Cup Chase (I still have no idea what that is). Villeneuve, however, held his own and qualified sixth for the race. Before the green flag dropped, though, he voluntarily moved to the back of the field. He caused no accidents, didn't piss anybody off, and said the 500 miles were a great learning experience. Attaboy, Jacques. That's how we Canadians roll......How God-awful were the Leafs last night? A 7-1 loss early in the season on home ice can't be a good thing. The Leafs have a number of home games in October and need to get the ship on course, and fast. I can't even blame Vesa Toskola for his performance, because none of the Leafs showed up. I guess they should have evacuated before Hurricane Carolina showed up at their front door...

October 08, 2007

Maple Leaf Musings

Three games in and it looks like the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending controversy is over. Wait a second, I thought it just began? I guess that's the shelf life of a goaltending controversy when Andrew Raycroft, the human sieve, is involved.

The Leafs finished week one with a 1-1-1 record, and considering they started the season with back-to-back dates with the hated Ottawa Senators, I'll take it. Three points out of six ain't bad, especially when you play the defending Eastern Conference champs twice.

Much to everyones surprise, Raycroft got the start over Vesa Toskola Tuesday night. When I heard the news, I was at first quite upset. What was the point of getting Toskola if Raycroft was going to start? I mean, doesn't anyone remember game 82 last year? The biggest game of the season, when Raycroft was sent to an early shower?

After I settled down, I realized it was the smart move. Leafs Nation was already on edge after Toskola's rough pre-season. There was no need to drop him in the pressure cooker known as opening night, especially when the opposition was the high-octane Senators. Let Raycroft deal with it. He's used to the fans hating him and showering him with boo's. Toskola would then get the start on Wednesday night in Ottawa, where he wouldn't have to worry about the crowd. It was a tough decision that Paul Maurice and the Leafs knew would be sharply criticized, but it was the right move nonetheless.

Toronto dropped the opener 4-3 in overtime. Andrew Raycroft was, well, Andrew Raycroft - four goals against, a number of decent saves, but not the "big one" the Leafs needed. Looking back, Raycroft could have really made life difficult for Maple Leaf management. He could have gone out opening night and stoned the Ottawa Senators. Had he got a shutout, it would have been tough to take him out of the lineup. But, alas, he was the Raycroft of old, the Raycroft who let in the standard soft goal and who wasn't able to hold on to a lead late in the third period.

Let's just be clear right here that I'm not blaming Raycroft for Ottawa's tying goal late in the third period that forced overtime - he had no chance on that goal. The Leafs broke down in alarming fashion in front of him, and there wasn't anything he could have done on the tying goal. I'm only blaming him for goal's one and two. They were stoppable. I know it, those who watched the game know it, and Raycroft himself knows it. His body language on the second goal (by Daniel Alfredsson) said it all. You don't look up to the heaven's in disgust the moment the puck goes past you because you've been beaten by a great shot - you do that because you know that's one you want to have another crack at.

All in all, a point against the Senators on opening night, I'll take it. Such is the life of a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

Thursday night in Ottawa Vesa Toskola got the call and he played a great game. The Leafs fought back from a two goal deficit but in the end it wasn't enough, thanks to their own stupidity. Their love affair with taking the most bonehead penalties continued and Ottawa had three power plays in the last nine minutes of the 2-2 contest. The Leafs were able to kill off the first two, but not the third. Alfredsson buried one off the crossbar - no chance for Toskola - and the Senators bagged two straight wins over Toronto.

What can you say? The Leafs simply haven't learned that they cannot take one hand off their stick and place it on their opponent - guys, that's a freaking penalty. If I was Paul Maurice, I would have seriously contemplated benching both Chad Kilger and Nik Antropov for their utter lack of discipline. If having these guys watch a game or two from the press box is the only way they'll get it, so be it.

All in all, although the Leafs did lose both games to Ottawa, the positive was that they didn't get blown out of the water. Some of the Toronto-Ottawa games are over about five minutes into the first period. The Leafs were able to skate with Ottawa and play with them. It could be argued that Toronto was the better team, in both games. The effort was there, the results weren't.

The headline in the Toronto Sun after the Leafs' 3-2 loss on Thursday night?

"Wait 'Til Next Year."

And I wonder why nobody reads the Sun. What a joke.

Saturday night brought the Montreal Canadiens to town. They were looking for revenge for last season, when the Leafs came from behind from a 5-3 deficit to eliminate them from the playoffs in the last game of the season. The atmosphere was electric. There was a palpable tension in the air. It was only game three of the season, but the Leafs needed a win. If only to quell those idiot writer's over at the Toronto Sun.

So much for revenge for those suckers from Montreal. They blew another lead, this time a 3-1 margin, and the Leafs won 4-3 in overtime thanks to a Tomas Kaberle power play goal. The penalty that put Toronto on the power play was a complete joke, but such is life in the "new NHL." I remember back in the day, a power play in overtime was a very rare occurrence. You had to practically kill a guy in order to get a penalty. Now the referee's call the slightest hooks and holds. It's a joke. There's way too many power plays in hockey today. But I digress.

Vesa Toskola only made 25 saves against Montreal, but he was phenomenal.

"The fact of the matter is our goaltender gave us a chance to win." - Paul Maurice

That's the difference, right there, between Toskola and Raycroft. It didn't matter that Toskola had been beaten three times before the third period. What mattered was that he shut the door from there on out, and made some phenomenal saves to keep the Leafs in the game. He gave the team a chance to win and the Leafs just did that. He made the type of saves Raycroft just wasn't able to make last year.

Toskola looked confident out there, and his teammates fed off it. On at least two occasions I saw a Leafs player go up to Toskola and give him a love tap on his helmet after he made a save, to show his appreciation. I can't remember the last time I saw someone do that to Raycroft. Confidence in one's goaltender can go a long, long way, and if a team isn't confident in their goaltender well, straight up, they haven't got a prayer. I said it months ago, it's not going to take superb goaltending to instill more confidence in Vesa Toskola from his teammates. Raycroft was so average last year that even decent goaltending will give the Leafs more of a fighting chance in the tough Eastern Conference. Toskola earned the confidence of his teammates, and the fans, in games two and three of the new season. He was aggressive in net and challenged the shooters. It's clear that he's all about cutting the angles and he's also solid going post-to-post. He just seems quicker in the net than Raycroft. He's got some unorthodox tendencies to his game as well and Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox put it best - he's got some Cujo in his game.

For those of you whom I haven't told, a few years ago in Buffalo, a friend and I started the "Edd-ie, Edd-ie" chant in honour of former Maple Leaf goaltender Ed Belfour. Belfour's tenure in Toronto got off to a rough start but after he stole the aforementioned game for Toronto in Buffalo, the fans fell in love with him. The next night in Toronto, the "Edd-ie" chant was out in full force. No word of a lie, we really started the chant, and I've got witnesses to back up my claims.

Anyways, my point is that I know it won't be long before Maple Leafs fans at the Air Canada Centre will be chanting "Ve-sa! Ve-sa!" I'm thinking about attending a game just so I can get it started.

Here are some random thoughts on the first three games:

- Mats Sundin's six points: A solid start to what I hope is going to be a monster season.

- Alexei Ponikarovsky's two goals: Props out to Paul Maurice for putting Poni on Sundin's line after Montreal went up 3-1 late in the second period on Saturday night. The reunited Sky Line (Sundin, Antropov, Ponikarovsky) responded with two goals. This is how it works in Toronto. The Leafs sign a 40-goal scorer in Jason Blake and he fails to light the lamp in two and a half games with Mats Sundin. In an attempt to wake up his troops, coach Maurice inserts Poni on the wing and it results in two quick goals. That's Toronto for you. Got to love it. I can't be mad though. I need Poni to light it up. At this rate, he's on pace to score 55!

- Andy Wozniewski: I'm still not sold on the Wizard of Woz. He took some really stupid penalties against Montreal. I'm looking forward to the return of Carlo Colaiacovo.

- Pavel Kubina: Kubina, listen, when you break your stick while killing a four-on-three penalty and the puck is in your zone, don't go to the bench for a new piece of wood. I'm not sure what the hell Kubina was thinking in overtime on Saturday, but he owes Toskola a steak dinner at Mendy's. Toskola absolutely robbed Montreal's Mark Streit after Kubina left the Leafs' zone to get a new stick. Turned out to be the save of the game, as the Leafs bagged the winner a couple of minutes later.

- The absence of Darcy Tucker: Anyone seen him? I don't usually agree with Don Cherry (who I think is on some serious drugs - really, how else can you explain those suits?) but Paul Maurice can't possibly keep Tucker on the third line. Cherry was incensed that Tucker's only playing 12/13 minutes a game, and I must agree. Tucker was invisible in the first three games. This guy is supposed to be a key cog in the engine here. He simply has to play more. When Kyle Wellwood returns I wouldn't mind seeing the top two lines as such:
Tucker Sundin Blake
Poni Wellwood Antropov

- A confident Matt Stajan: Two goals in the first three games - not too shabby. That's 20% of his total from last year. In light of Wellwood's absence, the Leafs need Stajan to step up, and he has so far. He and Steen seem to be playing with a lot more confidence, and that will go a long way in the Leafs' chase for a playoff spot.

October 06, 2007

Why I Love Sam Mitchell

Sam Mitchell isn't your average, run-of-the-mill coach. This guy is different. Just a few years removed from his own NBA playing career, Mitchell speaks candidly, honestly and pulls no punches.

Mitchell's style is refreshing, to say the least. He doesn't feed the media with the regular sports cliche's that most coaches and players do. He shoots from the hip, and has a lot of confidence. He believes in himself, and his team, and is the best coach, in any sport, the city of Toronto has seen in a long, long time.

In April of 2006, Mitchell was named the worst coach in the league in a Sports Illustrated poll of 248 NBA player's. He didn't let it effect him. He just continued to do his job, and in the Rob Babcock era of the Toronto Raptors, it wasn't easy for Mitchell to do just that. He had a terrible team, and was forced to stand by and watch as the Raptors traded away Vince Carter, the most talented player on the team and in Raptors history, for absolutely nothing. But Mitchell never complained.

Mitchell is a self-proclaimed battler. He didn't forge an NBA career out of sheer talent. He had to work hard to stay in the league and he carved out a solid career because he was a "grinder." Mitchell instills those same values in his players.

He was named Coach of the Year in April, after guiding the resurgent Raptors to a 47 win season. People tend to forget that the Raptors started last season by winning only two of their first 10 games. And Mitchell didn't have a contract extension, to boot. He was labelled a "lame-duck" coach and rumours of his firing were rampant.

Once again, Mitchell didn't let it bother him. He just continued to believe in himself, and his team, and the Raptors turned it around and ended up winning the Atlantic Division. Mitchell was justly rewarded with a new contract, and like everything else, I know it won't effect him. He'll just keep on being Sam, and that's all I can ask for.

The Raptors are overseas for training camp this year and although Mitchell wasn't too keen on the trip to Italy and Spain, he's embraced the decision and is making the most of it. As always, he's delivered some fantastic quotes while walking the streets of Venice and Rome.

I leave you with the money quotes. Remember, it's just Sam being Sam...

On having a swimming pool in the backyard of his Georgia home:
"My kids took me out to the nine-foot-deep part and let me go. I cried like a baby."

On swimming:
"You never hear about people who can't swim drowning. We're smart enough to put on a life jacket. It's always the guys you hear about – `He was a strong swimmer' – they hit their head and they're in the water and that's it."

On the constant zinging of own players:
"I am an equal-opportunity hater."

On shooting guard Juan Dixon's sunglasses:
"Those are ugly sunglasses ... y'all look like a bumble bee."

Upon Chris Bosh turning his video camera on Coach Mitchell:
"Whassup, young fella? You need a haircut."

Singling out Raptors hopeful Jamario Moon:
"Hey Moon, do they have water down there in Alabama other than in the well?"

On the Raptor's director of basketball finance (including payroll) Steve Fruitman, who was wearing a bandana on a sunny day:
"Hey Fruits, you look like you're on crack! ... You're the spitting image of Johnny Depp! You're beautiful to me, baby. As long as that cheque comes on the 15th and 30th, you're gorgeous."

On his perceived anger regarding the trip to Europe:
"I'm not grumpy about it. But if I say, `Hey guys, I'm so excited, we're going to see Rome and we're going to see this,' then people are going to say, `What the hell! He thinks he's going on a European vacation!' The headline would be, `Mitchell Too Excited About Europe.' And if I'm too dry, you guys are saying, `Oh, he ain't happy about going. It's always something."

On the shopping prospects of Europe:
"I can't wear those European-cut suits. I can't move. I have ass. I don't have these ass-less bodies that y'all have."

Now do you see why I love Sam Mitchell?

Former Toronto Raptors coach Lenny Wilkens was about as exciting as a black cup of coffee. Or one of his bland turtlenecks. Sam Mitchell is more red bull and vodka, and pinstripes, and I'm grateful for that.

Keep doing what you're doing, Sam. You the man.

October 02, 2007

My Maple Leafs Wish List

Finally, October 3rd has arrived - the NHL's opening night. One of the most exciting days of the year, my friends. This could be the only day the Toronto Maple Leafs are in first place. I know, technically they're tied for first place with the rest of the bloody league, but they're in first place nonetheless.

Before I get started, I'd like to wish my blog - SportsAndTheCity.com - a very happy first birthday! In the words of one Dave Chappelle - "It's a celebration, bitches!"

I can't believe it's already been a year. Time flies when you're...blogging. It's been fun sharing with the world the ups and downs in my life as an obsessed Toronto sports fan, and I thank each and every one of you who make it a point to stop here along your travels upon the information highway. Yes, thank you, all two of you. You are appreciated.

Sigh. Blogs, they just grow up so fast.

Last year on the eve of opening night, SportsAndTheCity began, with an open letter to Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr. It was a long, rambling letter, full of emotion, heartache, fear and optimism.

This year, on the eve of opening night once again, I bring you my wish list for the 2007/2008 Toronto Maple Leafs season - eight things I want, and desperately need, from the Maple Leafs this year. I'll try to keep it short and sweet, but we all know I'm pretty bad at doing just that. Happy birthday blog, and go Leafs go.

The Wish List:

1) Anything that resembles NHL-calibre goaltending:

For the love of Jesus Christ, Lord Krishna, the Prophet Muhammad, or whomever you prefer to believe in, the Leafs need some God damn goaltending. A part of me feels bad for hating on Andrew Raycroft as much as I do. A part of me wants to give him another chance, but the other half of me is calling myself an idiot. But when I look at his numbers, I just can't help being a hater. He's horrendous. He's the problem, and not any part of the solution.

The Leafs gave up a lot to get Vesa Toskola and although he didn't have a great preseason, he's got to be the man. Coach Paul Maurice has still not announced who's getting the nod in goal but I believe it will be Toskola. There's got to be pressure on Maurice from upper management, especially JFJ, to start Toskola. He is supposed to be the man to fix the Leafs' goaltending woes, not sit and watch the dry-heaves inducing Raycroft.

I've said it repeatedly to anyone who wants to listen - if the Leafs got 91 points with Raycroft in net, they can get 100 with Toskala - a real goaltender who can actually stop 9 out of 10 shots he faces.

This corner is praying, every night, for more Toskola and less Raycroft.

2) Healthy bodies:

Well, lets throw this one out the window. Kyle Wellwood is out at least four weeks with a recurring groin injury and Carlo Colaiacovo has not recovered from off-season knee surgery and won't be back until November at the earliest. Those are two guys who were supposed to contribute significantly to the Leafs' cause this season.

Wellwood's injury really creates a gaping hole down the middle, and is making JFJ look foolish for not resigning Mike Peca. Here's hoping guys like Boyd Devereaux, Andy Wozniewski and Kris Newbury, who filled in admirably last year when injuries struck, can do it again.

For the Leafs to make the playoffs, they've just got to stay relatively healthy. That's a mission, it seems, for any of Toronto's sports teams. You name the team - the Leafs, Raptors, Jays, Toronto FC, Argos - and they've all had do deal with a ridiculous amount of injuries over the past year.

Last season Darcy Tucker, Mats Sundin, Wellwood, Nik Antropov, Pavel Kubina, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Wozniewski all missed significant time due to injury. If the injury bug bites again, the Leafs will once again find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.

And if Nik Antropov can play more than 70 games in one season, well, it just might snow in July.

3) 27 goals from Alexei Ponikarovsky:

This one is pretty straight forward, and also pretty selfish. I've got $50 bucks riding on Poni to bag 27 goals. It seems my boy 40 still doesn't have faith in one Alex Ponikarovsky. I'm confident Poni will prove him wrong for the third consecutive season. Oh yes, my friends, the Poni Express is set to ride again, and the ticker at the top of the page has been updated for your viewing pleasure.

Two years ago, the bet hinged on Poni scoring 15 goals. He scored 21. Last year, we raised the bar to 21, and Poni finished with 21 (it was close!). This year we've once again increased the total by six goals, to 27, and I see no reason why, barring any injuries of course, Poni can't do it. He's getting better every year and was the Leafs' fourth-leading scorer last season. And he hit the post about 15 times last year. His hands of stone are surely bound to get a little better. This guy is just coming into his own. He can skate, check and finish, and I see no reason why he can't be a consistent 30 goal man in this league.

4) A dominant Mats Sundin:

I'm not going to pull any punches - Mats Sundin needs to be better. If he's serious about leading the Leafs to the playoffs, and serious about winning the Stanley Cup, Sundin needs to be a man on a mission. For those of you that know me well, you know how much I love Sundin. He holds a special place in my heart. I could stare into his Swedish blue eyes forever.

But the truth is I need more from him. Only once in the past seven seasons has Sundin reached the 80 point mark, and it was back in the 2001/2002 season. He's still produced at a point-per-game over the past few seasons, but he's been forced to deal with some injuries. This year, Sundin has to stay healthy and return to form as one of the dominant players in the NHL.

To all the Sundin haters out there, I know Mats has it in him. He fired a career-high 321 shots on goal last year, and scored 27 times. He finished with a .084 shooting percentage, by far the lowest of his career. He's got a career shooting percentage of .142. Goal scoring wise, last season was on off year for the greatest captain to ever play in Toronto. He only scored six power play goals, his second-lowest power play goal total ever in a Leafs uniform.

He may be getting up there in age - he's 36 now - but I believe last year was just an aberration. I believe in Mats Sundin. I believe, with Jason Blake on his wing, that he's capable of 90 points. The Leafs need him to be that dominant.

The fact he signed a one-year contract in the offseason is already creating a buzz that this is definitely Sundin's final year in Toronto. I don't believe that to be the case - I'm confident he'll retire a Maple Leaf, and statistically the best one at that - but he can help keep the media and the fans off his back by having a huge campaign. He is the Captain and the driver of the bus, and the Leafs need him to lead more than ever right now. Make me proud, Mats. I love you.

5) Improved penalty killing:

This one is pretty simple. Paul Maurice has got to work on the penalty killing in practice until the boys figure it out. They were pathetic with a man down last year and although I blame Raycroft for the majority of the struggles (the goalie is the most important penalty killer, remember?), the Leafs to a man need to be better when they are killing penalties. They need to win more faceoffs, clear more bodies from the front of the net, and clear the puck when they have the chance.

I think Toskola and Jason Blake will markedly improve the penalty killing but, if all else fails, the Leafs need to learn to TAKE LESS FREAKING PENALTIES. A team with a penalty killing rating of 78.5% doesn't deserve to make the playoffs. It must improve.

6) Have guys take responsibility and step up:

Alex Steen, Matt Stajan and Pavel Kubina - I'm looking at you. When it comes to Steen and Stajan, the youth excuse isn't going to fly no more. If these guys are serious about becoming solid contributors in the NHL, they've got to make that leap. Now.

I'll give Steen and Stajan, who I'm really trying hard to not be so hard on (it's early in the season so I'm trying this whole "positive attitude" deal), some credit because, while they struggled offensively last season, they made sure they worked on their defensive games. But, with that said, there's no time like the present to step up. The Leafs need these two to contribute, especially now that Wellwood is on the injured list.

As for Pavel Kubina, he's looked good and faster (thank God) in training camp. Word is he spent a lot of time on the stationary bike in the offseason (I'm amazed that thought never entered former Leaf Jeff O'Neill's mind). I'm expecting big things from Kubina in 07/08. He gets the benefit of the doubt because last season was the first time in his career he was limited to fewer than 65 games. An injury at the start of the season really put him behind the 8-ball and he just wasn't able to get his game on track until too late in the season.

However, the Leafs are a much better team with him in the lineup, as he brings down the ice times of both Tomas Kaberle (God bless his heart) and Bryan McCabe. Paired with Tomas Kaberle over a full season, I think Leaf fans will see why Kubina scored a fat contract when he became a free agent. A healthy and hungry Kubina will go a long way in securing a playoff spot for Toronto.

7) Continued excellence:

There seem to be a boatload of Bryan McCabe haters out there in Leafs Nation and in the media, but this corner is a staunch supporter of #24 in the blue and white. McCabe put up 57 points last year and was a +3. Any player who finishes plus on a team with Raycroft in net has had a good season, in my opinion. If McCabe was a -20 like, say, Sheldon Souray, I'd totally understand everyone's beef, but McCabe isn't a pylon like Souray, so I just don't get it. McCabe, just keep doing what you're doing bro.

The people who focus all their attention on hating McCabe need to fuhgeddaboutit and start showing Tomas Kaberle some love. Kabby is the most underrated defenseman in the NHL, straight up. In all my years of watching hockey I've never seen a guy display so much confidence with the puck as Tomas Kaberle. He's a treat to watch, especially when he leads the breakout or makes a beautiful breakout pass. His continued blossom-age into one of the league's elite defenseman will help propel the Leafs to the playoffs.

Once again, welcome to Toronto, Jason Blake. I don't need 40 goals from him, 25 to 30 will be just fine. The Leafs can score goals, I know this already. Blake will add speed, grit, and heart to this Leafs team and he and Darcy Tucker are going to be counted on to provide a significant chunk of offense for this team. I have no doubt they will deliver.

That's it, my friends. Short and sweet, just like I promised. I like this team, I truly do. 100 points is not out of the realm of possibilities. The season begins tonight with another installment of the Battle of Ontario - it never gets old.

As for a prediction, I'm not going to go there. Not yet, at least.

I will, however, leave you with number 8 on my wish list:

8) Make the playoffs...

October 01, 2007

Shea It Ain't So

Even hockey's Ottawa Senators haven't choked like the New York Mets. There is heartbreak in Queens tonight. A late season collapse of epic proportions means the Mets are not going to the playoffs.

I love Major League Baseball's playoff marketing strategy - "There's only one October." They're absolutely right. The New York Mets apparently took October for granted and instead of gearing up for playoff baseball they're sailing into the sunset of an excruciatingly long off season.

What a collapse.

On September 12th the Mets had a seven game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. A seven game lead, with only 17 games left to play. Their final seven games were home dates, and they lost six of them. The Mets matched the largest division lead ever blown in September.

Shocking, absolutely shocking. What else can you say? The Mets had the division lead pretty much all season but they couldn't hold on when it mattered the most. For those people out there that say the baseball season is too long and too many games are meaningless, take a look at the boys from Queens. It all came down to the final day of the season, and they couldn't get the job done. It's true - every game counts, every game matters.

It's hard to believe the Mets could actually pull off a choke-job like this one with the lineup they have. David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine.

Speaking of Glavine, if this was his last game as a major leaguer, what a way to go out. The Mets needed the 300 game winner to pitch them into the playoffs, and he did the opposite. He punched their ticket to the sidelines. Glavine got one out in the first inning and was pulled after getting tagged for seven runs on five hits, including a hit batsman. Who did he plunk, you ask? Dontrelle Willis, the Florida Marlins starting pitcher, with the bases loaded no less. After the first inning the Mets were down 7-0 and it was clear the life had been sucked out of them.

I'm not sure who's to blame. Everyone has to man up and realize that it was a complete team failure. A seven game lead in September should be more than safe.

In the aftermath of the Mets' collapse, praise has to be given to the Philadelphia Phillies. They never gave up. They went out and played hard in September, even though they needed a miracle. In baseball, anything is possible, and they got their miracle. One hot streak can get you into the playoffs. The Phillies went on a run at the right time - a run like the one I kept dreaming the Toronto Blue Jays would make. The Phils won 13 of their final 17 games and, coupled with the Mets losing 12 of their final 17, are division champions for the first time since 1993 when they went to the World Series (where, I might add, they lost to my Blue Jays).

Back in spring training Phillies superstar shortstop Jimmy Rollins predicted his team would make the playoffs. He was laughed at and ridiculed. I'm sure some of the Mets laughed at his comments as well. Even I thought Rollins was off his rocker. It's ok to believe your team will make the playoffs - I know all about that, I'm a Jays fan after all - but to come out and say it publicly? Easy, Jimmy.

Well, Rollins and the Phillies needed every last game out of the 162 on their schedule, but they did it. They're off to the playoffs, and Rollins got the last laugh.

The Phillies, however, don't know who they'll be facing in the first round of the playoffs. I'm sure they don't really care, either. I'm sure all the Phillies, to a man, are pretty hammered tonight. As they should be.

Philadelphia will host the winner of Monday's wild-card tiebreaker between the San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies. It should be a great game. There's nothing like a one game win-or-go-home playoff with everything on the line. For the Rockies and Padres, the first 162 games didn't matter. Only game number 163 does.

It's a privilege to play baseball in October in the big leagues. Only the truly great teams, still standing after a grueling six-month long season, get to play on. The New York Mets were thought to be a sure bet to make the playoffs by all the baseball pundits out there. They were labeled a playoff team, 100%. In the end, they were a playoff team, but only on paper. There's only one October and the Mets, like me, will be watching the playoffs on tv...