Jason Bell Behind the Bench
Free Press
Time to forgive old Smythe squads
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Time to forgive old Smythe squads

Good day to all,

There’s no reason to deny I was quietly wishing for different results this past weekend in NHL games involving Canadian-based squads. On Saturday night, I lamented yet another Game 7 defeat for the Toronto Maple Leafs, which should have come as no great shock to the system considering the franchise was 0-8 in elimination games in its last five post-season appearances heading into the battle with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lighting.

Toronto hasn’t emerged from the opening round of the playoffs since 2004, the year the team upended the Ottawa Senators in seven games before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in six. Since then, the Leafs have either missed the 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs (10 times) or were sent packing after the first round. As an organization, that’s a pile of failure to cart around, it’s demoralizing for its die-hard fans in the Ontario metropolis (although the loss was likely met with delight by Canada’s fervent anti-Leaf set) and it ain’t much fun for long-suffering supporters across the nation, either.

Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Zach Bogosian (24) hits Toronto Maple Leafs forward Ondrej Kase (25) during second period, first round, game seven NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey action in Toronto. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)

Routinely trashed for my pro-Buds beliefs, I tend to retaliate with sappy sentiment as my go-to excuse. I grew up watching Toronto play just about every Saturday night in the mid- to late-1970s, usually after dinner at my grandparents’ place on Dorchester Avenue. I fell hard for the ‘DEL-ivery Line’ of Darryl (Sittler), Errol (Thompson) and Lanny (McDonald), along with fellow forwards such as Ron Ellis, Inge Hammarstrom, tough guy Dave (Tiger) Williams and George Ferguson, defencemen Borje Salming, Jim McKenny and Ian Turnbull, and goaltenders Mike Palmateer and Wayne Thomas.

Then came the transition to the beloved Rick Vaive, Billy Derlago and John Anderson years in the early 80s, with Allan Bester and Ken Wregget sharing the crease, followed by the arrivals of Wendel Clark, Ed Olczyk, Russ Courtnall and Gary Leeman up front, with the aforementioned ironman Salming plus Al Iafrate and Luke Richardson on the blue line.

I still maintain the Mats Sundin era (1994-08) should have included at least one Stanley Cup parade in The Big Smoke. The 2001-02 Leafs, with Curtis (Cujo) Joseph between the pipes, and led by blue-liners Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle, and forwards Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Alex Mogilny, Gary Roberts and Shane Corson, dispatched the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators before losing the Eastern Conference final to the Carolina Hurricanes. That one stung, not just me but my then eight-year-old son, who inherited my love for the Leafs. There’s been much pain and suffering since.

Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mats Sundin, of Sweden. (Alan Diaz / The Associated Press files)

Opposite to that is my unwavering contempt for all things hockey in Alberta, the residual effects of watching too many versions of the Winnipeg Jets 1.0 regularly wage war against, and perpetually lose to, the Edmonton Oilers and, to a lesser extent, the Calgary Flames.

So, watching Connor McDavid and the Oilers slip by the Los Angeles Kings 2-0 in Game 7 of their series on the late broadcast Saturday and then seeing the Flames escape with a Game 7 overtime win over the Dallas Stars well past my Sunday bedtime was a bit of a double-whammy.

In the approximately 36 hours that have passed since Johnny Gaudreau finally found a crack in the wall (also known as Stars goalie Jake Oettinger) with just under five minutes left in the extra frame to spark the Flames to a 3-2 triumph, I’ve done an about-face and recognize how thrilling the first ‘Battle of Alberta’ in three decades shapes up to be.

Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau (No. 13) celebrates his overtime goal with teammates. (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press)

The last time the Flames and Oilers collided in the postseason was back in April 1991, a first-round series that went to Game 7 and was finally decided at 6:58 of overtime when Edmonton super-pest Esa Tikkanen (I typed that name with ferocity) notched his third goal of the game to seal the deal.

The provincial rivals met in four postseason series before that with Edmonton winning three of them. Calgary’s lone triumph came in the second round of the 1986 playoffs, courtesy of Steve Smith’s infamous ‘own goal’ in the third period of Game 7. Seeing the towering defenceman slump to the ice in utter despair after his pass inadvertently struck the leg of legendary goalie Grant Fuhr and bounced into the open cage still brings me great joy.

Most would say my disdain for the two former Smythe Division squads should have dissipated long ago, and I won’t disagree. I have no reason to dislike the current iterations of the Oilers and Flames. Maybe, it’s high time I put my bitterness in a bubble, blow it away, and just embrace the likelihood of a sensational series between two of the NHL’s most dynamic teams.

Frankly, there’s no chance I’d have watched Game 1 of a Dallas-L.A series Wednesday — (just about any Law & Order: SVU repeat would have won out) — but I’ll definitely tune in as the Flames host the Oilers in the series opener (8:30 p.m., CBC, Sportsnet).

Two wrongs will, almost assuredly, make a right.

Jason Bell

— Sports editor Jason Bell

Jason Bell


Major stumble: Seemingly always in a position of weakness, the CFL can ill afford any type of work stoppage, opines Free Press columnist Mike McIntyre.

Return to action: After being sidelined for two seasons, the seven-team Western Women’s Canadian Football League (WWCFL) is finally back in business, Taylor Allen reports.

Making his mark: Towering teen centre Hayden Paupanekis is projected as a likely pick in Thursday's Western Hockey League draft, writes Mike Sawatzky.

Drive for five: The Elmwood Giants begin the quest for a fifth consecutive Manitoba Junior Baseball League title on Wednesday, Free Press summer intern Gavin Axelrod reports. 



Andrea Backlund, who plays centre for the Fearless in Western Women’s Canadian Football League, tosses the pigskin around with her children Kacie, 8, and Mason, 5 at St Vital Park. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)




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