I've always wanted to do this. I figured, what better day to make it happen than the day before the Toronto Maple Leafs begin the 2010/2011 regular season with a trashing of the Montreal Canadiens. Ladies and gentlemen, Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs hit The Oregon Trail. Think of it as a microcosm of the Leafs' journey towards the promised land; towards Lord Stanley's Cup.
If you don't know what The Oregon Trail is, I'm old, and may God have mercy on your soul. Let's do this.
To begin, we've got three choices. To be:
1) A banker from Boston.
2) A carpenter from Ohio.
3) A farmer from Illinois.
Brian Burke's from Rhode Island, which is pretty much Boston. And while he's a lawyer, he's general manager of the Maple Leafs, with millions upon millions at his disposal, which in Oregon Trail speak makes him a banker.
The four Maple Leafs traveling with Mr. Burke are:
Phil Kessel. After dealing two first-round picks, and more, to get him, Burke's fate is tied to #81's. Dion Phaneuf. Acquired in another trade, he's now Burke's captain. Tyler Bozak. Burke's prized collegiate free-agent signing who's now expected to be a legit number one center. And, last but certainly not least, Tomas Kaberle. For my own sentimental reasons.
The journey to Oregon begins in April. Ironic, considering that's when the 2010/2011 Maple Leafs so desperately want to be playing
Two oxen to a yoke. Three were recommended, but Burke bought four. Two-hundred pounds of food were recommended for the team. Burke bought 250. Yes, one of Burke's priorities had been to change the culture around the Maple Leafs, and he would, but they had to eat. Also: Burke had to spend most of his money, otherwise deal with annoying fan unrest. Ten sets of clothes were recommended. Burke bought 15. Think of it as new jerseys for each person half-way through the journey. Twenty boxes of 200 bullets were bought. Burke's an avid hunter, yo. Throw in two wagon wheels, two wagon axles, and two wagon tongues, and the Maple Leafs were set to go, with $1,140 left under The Oregon Trail cap.
Before the Maple Leafs wagon set off for glory, Burke had to set the pace: steady, strenuous, or grueling? With the Kessel trade, Burke had given building steadily through the draft the middle finger. Two of them, actually. One for each first-round pick. So, the pace was obvious: Grueling. The Leafs' road to the Stanley Cup wasn't going to go down Chicago Blackhawks or Pittsburgh Penguins style. Burke was doing it his way, and fast.
What about meals?
Bare bones. From day one, Burke had set about changing the culture of the Toronto Maple Leafs. For far too long had players in the Maple Leafs dressing room been eating filling meals.
On April 2nd, the journey began, and 102 miles into Toronto's quest, they came upon the Kansas River crossing. Burke didn't bother to look around; the team's ultimate goal lay thousands of miles away.
Burke had three options:
1) Ford the river: pull his wagon across the shallowest part of the 5.7 feet deep, and 635 feet wide, Kansas River, with his oxen still attached.
2) Caulk the wagon: seal his wagon so that no water could get in, and then float the wagon across the river.
3) Use a ferry: have the Leafs' wagon placed on a boat and sail it across the river.
Burke, a tall man full of confidence, wanted to ford the river. But with deep MLSE pockets at his disposal, he chose to caulk his wagon, and take fewer risks. I know, not very Burke like. Rumour has it he was overruled by the suits upstairs at MLSE. Always meddling, those guys.
Regardless, it worked.
From the Kansas River crossing, it was 83 miles to the Big Blue River crossing. The Leafs made it in no time, having traveled 185 miles up until that point. Their health fair, and the weather warming up, Burke decided to throw them a bone. Rations were changed from bare bones to meager. Meals were "small, but adequate."
The Big Blue River was only 245 feet across, and 4.4 feet deep in the middle. Burke, carrying a ton of gear, once again went the conservative route. The Leafs caulked the river, with no problems, and set off for Fort Kearney, 119 miles away.
Still on the grueling pace they set out with, the Leafs made it to Fort Kearney in no time, and Burke chose to carry on, right away. It was 250 miles to Chimney Rock, and the team's health was fair.
On April 11th, the Leafs faced their first test. With hot weather rolling through the Midwest, one of the oxen was injured. That's life in the NHL, on The Oregon Trail. Burke was prepared, having bought four oxen, and he summoned one from the farm to step up and fill the void.
On April 12th, some more bad news: Phil Kessel was suffering from cholera. The man Burke traded two first-round picks, and more, for, was in ill health. Burke was not a happy man. A day later, the team's morale down, and in the hopes of improving his young sniper's health, Burke slowed the team's pace from grueling, to steady. Kessel's well-being was paramount, Burke told Oregon Trail reporters.
To ease his troubled mind, Burke went hunting, and it went well. Seventy-two of meat pounds well, to be exact.
His team feeling better, Burke's Leafs set off once more. On April 20th, 66 miles from their next landmark, their health had improved to fair. Spirits were high, and, on April 24th, the Leafs arrived at Chimney Rock, where they proceeded to rest for a couple of days. Team bonding exercise, Burke said. Gives everyone a chance to get to know each other a little better. On April 26th, the Leafs' wagon was back on the trail, 86 miles out of Fort Laramie.
They arrived on May 1st, the weather fair, along with the team's health. But they were low on food. With $1,140 left in cap space, Burke visited the market, and picked up 200 more pounds.
From Fort Laramie, it was 190 miles to Independence Rock.
Along the way, Burke stopped to hunt. As general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Burke promised himself he would never stop hunting for ways to make his team better. On this particular occasion, it didn't go so well.
On May 5th, Phil Kessel got lost, costing the Leafs one day. At least he was feeling better, Burke told himself.
On May 9th, the Leafs' wagon went down the wrong trail, and cost themselves another day. It was all part of the process, Burke told reporters. A team had to get lost before it could find its way.
On May 16th, Dion Phaneuf came down with dysentery. Dysentery! Not cool. With his captain suffering from severe diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain, Burke rested his troops for two full days. They set out again on May 18th, and arrived at Independence Rock on May 23rd, having traveled 830 miles. Only 32 pounds of food remained.
At Independence Rock, Burke put on his trading hat. He had his boys at a steady pace, and was feeding them meager rations, but he needed some food. Burke was offered 197 bullets for one set of clothing. No deal. Another GM came at him asking for 201 pounds of food. Like first-round draft picks, Burke didn't have that amount. Another offer: 53 pounds of food for one box of ammunition. Burke didn't have 53 pounds of food! He was incredulous. A fourth offer: two wagon wheels for one ox. Burke declined. He was focused on food. Finally, he found a deal worth making: one wagon axle for 45 pounds of food. Deal.
On May 29th, the Leafs set off for South Pass. Buoyed by the trade, and another few days rest, Burke decided to use his rifle some more. He did even better this time ...
Burke killed a total of 1,001 pounds of meat. Unfortunately, he was only able to carry 100 pounds back to the Leafs' wagon. So it goes. With only 115 pounds of food left, Burke set rations back to bare bones. "If you want it, you've got to earn it. You've got to stay hungry, and pay the price," he told the beat grunts. On May 31st, Burke had another successful hunting outing: 55 pounds of meat.
On June 3rd, still on their way to South Pass, Kessel came down with a fever. Burke elected to rest his men for one day. Kessel was a star, after all. And Burke had to take care of his stars.
On June 5th, more bad news: one of the oxen had died. The one who'd been called up from the minors. It had given its all. On the same day, after the oxen who was in the lineup on opening night was activated from the injured list, the Leafs' wagon stumbled upon an abandon wagon, with 42 bullets inside. Finders keepers, Burke told himself. Three days later, Burke learned from reporters that it was the Vancouver Canucks' wagon he'd found, and that Canucks GM Mike Gillis had lodged a formal complaint with the league. He wanted his 42 bullets back.
On June 5th, less than a week away from South Pass, the Leafs' health was fair, their pace steady. Then, on June 10th, suddenly, tragedy:
As soon as he'd arrived, Phil Kessel was gone. No rhyme or reason. Not even an explanation. One day he was fine, and his cholera was a thing of the past. The next, he was gone. Brian Burke, and Kessel's teammates, especially Bozak, were inconsolable. But Burke refused to let grief consume them. He ordered the Leafs to move on, and on June 11th, they arrived at South Pass.
Rattled by the sudden passing of Kessel, Burke gave the team a few days off. In the meanwhile, he tried to land some more food via the trade route. He finally got a half decent offer -- one set of clothing for 35 pounds of food -- and accepted.
On June 15th, halfway through their journey, their pace steady and their rations still bare bones, the Leafs took off once again. And it was here that Burke was faced with an important decision: head for Fort Bridger, or the Green River Crossing. Needing to stock up on food, it was a no-brainer. To the fort, 125 miles away.
On June 18th, with the team running out of water, and in poor health, Burke stopped to hunt. Of course, he didn't return empty-handed. He threw 100 pounds of bear meat into the wagon. And, now that Kessel was gone, Burke increased rations for his team from bare bones to meager. Kessel would have wanted it that way.
On June 28th, 1057 miles into their journey, Burke and the Leafs arrived at Fort Bridger. Burke, in an ornery mood as usual, bought one ox, and 500 pounds of food. With over $885 still left to spend, never would his Maple Leafs go hungry again.
From Fort Bridger, it was 162 miles to Soda Springs, and, after losing the trail, and one day in the process, Burke set his wagon's pace to strenuous. His troops were eating better, so they might as well move a little faster. On July 8th, the Leafs lost the trail once again, and this time lost five days. Had coach Ron Wilson been on the wagon, he'd have surely been fired that day.
Finally, on July 14th, the Leafs arrived at Soda Springs. The weather was hot, and the team's health fair. Over 1,200 miles had been logged by the hard-working oxen. But it was only 57 miles to Fort Hall, so Toronto's wagon kept on moving. At Fort Hall, Burke bought one wagon axle, and 200 pounds of food. With his team's health fair, Burke changed their pace back to steady. Phil Kessel still weighed heavily on his mind. Two first-round picks, yo. Tyler Seguin! It put things in perspective. There was no rush. Slow and steady wins the race.
From Fort Hall, it was 182 miles to the Snake River Crossing. And this is where I, Navin, thought to myself: "This game seemed a helluva lot shorter in elementary school."
On July 22nd, Tomas Kaberle was suffering from exhaustion. Such a gamer, the Czech defenceman. In Kessel's absence, it was Kaberle who picked up the slack. Burke noticed, and promptly gave the team five days rest. He was taking no chances. On July 27th, the sun beating down, and the team's health fair, the Leafs' wagon returned to the trail.
On August 11th, after losing the trail for three days, the Leafs, tired but with plenty of food, made it to Snake River crossing. They'd traveled just under 1,500 miles. The Snake River was 1,000 feet across, and six feet deep. Burke took the latter as an omen, and, thanks to his deep pockets, hired a Native-Indian to guide the Leafs across the river. The Shoshoni guide asked for three sets of clothing in return. Deal, said Burke, and the Leafs' wagon made it across the river without issue.
Having crossed Snake River, it was 114 miles to Fort Boise, and Burke's Leafs lost one day, August 15th, thanks to heavy fog. That same day, Kaberle broke his leg. Poor Tomas, Burke thought. He just can't catch a break. (Pardon the pun.) Burke decided to rest the group for four days. He needed Kaberle for the stretch run.
On August 26th, an ox went down to injury, once again. It was the same ox that had been injured earlier in the journey, and it blamed the Leafs' trainers for rushing it back into action. Two days later, the ox was dead. Burke may have killed it. We'll never know.
On August 30th, 1,257 miles in the books, his team in poor health, and the weather turning cool, Burke's Leafs arrived at Fort Boise.
Fort Boise was the second-last fort on the journey. Even though Burke was carrying 346 pounds of food, he bought 300 pounds more, and changed his team's rations to filling. It was the stretch run; they were going to eat well. Burke also bought two oxen, and still had over $560 to spend. Think of Fort Boise as the trade deadline. Burke did. And he stocked up. The Leafs were going to do it for Phil Kessel, and stitched a massive 81 to the top of their wagon.
A hundred and sixty miles from the Blue Mountains, on August 30th, Bozak came down with cholera. Burke trudged on. On September 2nd, one of the oxen was injured. Burke knew he had to rest, and set up shop for five days. With time of the essence, Burke changed his wagon's pace to strenuous as he returned to the trail on September 7th.
On September 16th, the Leafs made it to the Blue Mountains. It was getting colder, but the team was in good spirits, having covered 1,732 miles. Again, Burke was faced with a decision: head for the Dulles River, or Fort Walla Walla.
For once, Burke went against his gut. He chose Fort Walla Walla, only 55 miles away. He did it for Kessel. He didn't want to lose Bozak, or Kaberle, or his captain, Dion.
On September 19th, his team's health extremely poor, Burke's wagon pulled into Fort Walla Walla. With 400 pounds of food still left, Burke bought 200 pounds more. He'd never run out. Thanks to a fanbase that supposedly won't support a rebuild, but that filled the building through the Raycroft and Toskala eras, Burke had cash to burn.
From Fort Walla Walla, it was 120 miles to the Dulles River. But Kaberle was breaking down. Burke knew it. On September 20th, Kaberle was bit by a snake. The snake was named, oddly enough, Cam Janssen. Tomas soldiered on. He was a veteran. And, deep down, Burke was proud of him. Proud that he'd not traded #15, and proud that he'd brought him on The Oregon Trail.
On September 27th, Burke and his boys reached the Dulles River. The weather was warm, their health poor, but they'd made it. Nobody reached the Dulles in good health. The Oregon Trail was a war. The toughest trail to conquer in professional sports. With over 500 pounds of food to spare, and having traveled over 1,900 miles, Burke gave the Leafs two days off, before their final journey. Before game seven.
From the Dulles, the trail divided once more. Burke had a decision: float down the Columbia River, or take the Barlow toll road. He'd come too far. And, at many times, conservatively. He was a Maple Leaf, through and through, however, and Burke led his Leafs to the banks of the Columbia River.
Countless rocks and boulders. Burke and the Leafs dodged them all.
On September 29th, they arrived in Oregon. They'd made it. The Toronto Maple Leafs were Oregon Trail champions. And they did it for Phil Kessel.