Wednesday, October 6, 2010


At the end of the 2008-9 season, I wrote a post that was probably the best post I've ever written. Somehow, despite a totally inglorious season, I found a way to celebrate the Top 10 games of the season. This past April, no such post would be forthcoming. Last year was so joyless I doubt I could write a Top 3 games of the season. Instead, I vowed to write a post chronicling the worst games of the season, though I soon realized that I'd underestimated how painful that journey would be.

I abandoned the idea (and abandoned blogging altogether for a while).

Yet still I have this nagging sensation, that it's somehow important, maybe even only on a personal level, however difficult, to take this journey. To revisit the past and acknowledge where we're coming from. It won't be easy, but before we begin a new chapter, it feels necessary.

Top 3 Toughest Maple Leafs Losses, 2009-10

November 19, 2009: Carolina 6 Toronto 5, SO

On the road against the hated Hurricanes and Paul Maurice, the Leafs were flying out of the gate. Just 61 seconds into the game, Ponikarovsky strips his man and Matt Stajan bangs it home (uh-huh) to put the Leafs on the board early. Before the period was out, Stempniak and Grabovski would add to the lead, and Toronto would go to the dressing room after 20 minutes comfortably up 3-0.

The lead and the shutout held up for another 16 minutes into the 2nd until Carolina suddenly struck twice in a 43 second span in the final four minutes to bring them within one.

A powerplay goal by Ponikarovsky early in the 3rd gave the Leafs a two-goal lead again but less then 4 minutes later, Tim Gleason cut the lead again to one. Then - drama! Ian White, who'd already cleaned Eric Cole's clock earlier in the period, is called for a phantom high-stick that never struck a Hurricanes player. With White in the box, Carolina ties the game, Tim Gleason again, scoring the powerplay goal.

But White would not be denied. I dare say that this game might have been Ian White's best in a Maple Leafs uniform, and that's part of what makes this game so sad. With just 30 seconds on the clock, White plays the hero and scores what should have been a certain game-winner. Unfathomably, it was still not to be. With the goalie out, and despite the Leafs sending the puck all the way down the ice behind the Carolina goal line with less then 20 seconds to go, Eric Cole is somehow there to tie the game with 3 seconds left and drive a stake through the hearts of those foolish enough to believe.

In overtime, our hapless Leafs appear to score, certainly the puck entered the Carolina goal, but the referee waved it off because, well, y'know, he just didn't like that goal. Too ugly. So we go to a shoot-out instead. Ruutu scores. Kessel misses. Jokinen scores. Stempniak misses.

Game Over.

The Vancouver Canucks came to town to close out the month of January. Last season the Leafs had a terrible history of giving up the first goal, but ironically, on this night it's the Leafs who come flying out of the gate again. Just 52 seconds into the game, Phil Kessel opens the scoring, and then just under 3 minutes later, Kessel adds another to give the Leafs an early 2-goal lead. With just 5 seconds left in the period, Jamal Mayers puts the exclamation on his trade request, and the Leafs have a comfortable 3-0 lead heading to the dressing room. Amazingly, Luongo is chased from the net after surrendering 3 goals on just 8 shots, and our old nemesis, Andrew Raycrap is between the pipes to start the 2nd.

Everything was going so well. How could it go so wrong?

Mid-way through the 2nd, Alex Burrows scores a shorthanded goal to give the Canucks some life.

At 3:27 of the 3rd, Daniel Sedin makes it 3-2. Two minutes and 5 seconds later, Henrik Sedin ties the game. From there the score remains deadlocked until there's just 2 minutes and 4 seconds left, and Henrik sets up Daniel for the game-winner. With 38 seconds left in the game, Alex Burrows seals the deal with an empty-netter. As the final seconds tick down, Andrew Raycroft is seen saluting the fans and dancing in celebration.

I thought this was rock bottom. I thought it couldn't possibly get worse then this. And despite the fact that this was the last game Toskala, Blake, Stajan, Hagman, Mayers, and White would be seen in Maple Leafs uniforms, I was still wrong. There would be one more yet to come that would bring us to the lowest point of all.
The first game after the Great January 31st Overhaul, with Giguere and Phaneuf, was a huge success. A 3-0 shut-out over the New Jersey Devils had sparked fresh enthusiasm and declarations that a new era of respectability was on its way. The next game after the big trades, a return meeting against the Devils just 3 days later, was depressingly stark in the way it revealed how little had actually changed. Just when you started believing...

Back to their usual form, the Leafs gave up the first goal of the game in the 1st period, an even-strength marker to Dainius Zubrus. The 2nd period however, belonged to the Leafs. Kaberle on the powerplay has the equalizer at 3:39, and then at 10:23 the powerplay strikes again, this time it's Stempniak. to give the Leafs the lead. At 16:09, and after 38 games, Rickard Wallin scores his first goal as a Maple Leaf, giving the Leafs a 3-1 lead and sending them into the second intermission with a 2-goal cushion.

The game stays that way with the Leafs in control and relaxed and the game well in hand until, with just 3 minutes and 4 seconds to go, McAmmond strikes for New Jersey to bring them within one. Suddenly Leaf fans are a little anxious, and Leaf players look nervous and grip their sticks like they're hanging from the edge of a cliff. A penalty to Ponikarovsky increases the New Jersey momentum, and with a sixth attacker joining the play, the Devils tie the score, Zajac in dramatic fashion, with just 44 seconds left on the clock.

Then the unthinkable.

It took just 25 seconds. The New Jersey crowd rocked and roared and the Leafs seemed utterly helpless. Those Leaf fans that witnessed it felt that helplessness. Pondolfo scores for the Devils with just 19 seconds left and New Jersey takes a 4-3 lead. A two-goal lead for the Blue and White evaporating in under 3 minutes and not even a consolation point for overtime. Nothing. Just another loss. Our new-look Leafs were all too familiar.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

After the game we learned the terrible news that Brendan Burke had passed away at the young age of 21.

Time stopped. Hockey stopped. The NHL standings lost all relevance. All the anger, the frustration, the disappointment of losing, the utter despair that should have followed such an astonishing defeat, all of it stopped. Suddenly meaningless and swept aside, replaced by immeasurable grief and sorrow.

The real world. Human life. So much more important then a spectator sport. How can we express our sadness and discuss death and then go back to talking about a game? It's so tragic. And it has nothing to do with hockey. Personal lives are not part of the spectacle.

And yet I believe it's fair to say that hockey fans were deeply moved. An outpouring of sympathy came from every corner of the hockey universe, Leafs Nation included. How could I write a post about our toughest losses without mentioning Brendan Burke? And how could I mention Brendan Burke in a post and not let it take over the post? How can I not write about what a remarkable human being he seemed to be and how utterly sad it is...? How can I write about how it hurts to lose hockey games when someone else has lost someone they love? Why would I do this?

Because I remember, and I can't forget. Because I respect Brian Burke for what he's done in his career and for what he's doing now with my beloved Blue and White. He is the figurehead of a franchise and a fanbase that sometimes feels like my family. There's no comparing, of course, to real-life relationships, but I can't deny the emotional engagement either. I adore the collective spirit; the passion that unites us all, in anguish and in triumph. This is my team. Win or lose.

It's just a game after all, but for many of us, it means more. The most wonderful aspect of Leaf Nation is the sense of camaraderie and how deeply we care.

I remember Brendan Burke. Same as I remember Teeder Kennedy. And Peter Zezel. With sorrow, but also joy. Heroes are heroes. We honour them by remembering them and then by moving forward and opening our hearts.

And when we're ready, new heroes will emerge.

I remember these losses, amongst others, as I remember last place overall in the Eastern Conference. It only makes me want to win even more. Have faith. And let the season begin...


general borschevsky said...

Go Leafs Go!

Junior said...


I would have chosen the exact same three games,and I think the (temporal) connection between the Devils game and the passing of Brendan Burke remains in every Leaf fan's mind.

These three games were the zeitgeist of a horrible season.

blurr1974 said...

Beautifully written. I think you hit the nail on the head. Hockey, as much as we love it, is fleeting.

As much as those (and the countless other) losses the Leafs suffered through last season, we can move on with renewed hope. Like your review of the Devils game shows, the emotions this game causes are manic, and swing wildly day to day.

We are not a Leafs "Nation", we are a family of fans, who hold our team tightly. When one of us loses, we all do, and nothing personified this more than the night Brendan Burke passed away.

Beautiful and poignant general. I'm truly happy you're back to blogging.

Mikey said...

Quality blog GB. Can always count on feeling something after reading your articles.

1967ers said...

This is excellent! Welcome back. :)

general borschevsky said...

Thanks gang! Really appreciated.

Mikey said...

I want last night's win to be momentous - I want it to be the beginning of something bigger than just one game in an 82 game schedule, stolen by our goalie in the last minute.
I want the transition from heart-pounding to elation that i felt last night to not have been in vain.

So here's to remembering how nuts, and how worried we all were prior to last night, and how great it was to have won our first home opener since October 7, 2000.

general borschevsky said...

@Mikey: It's a nice feeling having a winning record.