Pictou Advocate sports

Next question: Will Keefe last long?


When you’ve written thousands of columns like I have through the years, there’s a scenario that’s bound to occur once in a while. Someone asks, innocently, if I ever run out of subjects to discuss.

Yes, I do.

I faced that situation in just the last few days. It was the evening before my deadline to file this week’s column.

Last Wednesday, I was with my son Graham and granddaughters Claire and Anna at The Millstone Public House in Dartmouth. It was “wing night” and we were finishing our generous portions of the little critters.

Claire, the older of the girls, asked what my next column was going to be. I had to tell her I had no idea.

I had been contemplating to address Long Pond, the birthplace of hockey in the Annapolis Valley that is for sale. I thought, too, that an update on my fantasy hockey adventures was overdue. There were a couple of other topics on my mind.

There was no need to talk about Don Cherry again. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ struggles were ongoing, sparking endless rumours that coach Mike Babcock’s job was in jeopardy.

Decision time was drawing nigh.

Just as we were about to leave the restaurant, Graham passed his cellphone across the table. Young people are continually checking their hand-held connections to the outside world.

“You better see this,” he said as he passed the thing to me. Just four words were on the tiny screen: “Babcock fired by Leafs.”

I had my subject.

Nobody — hockey followers or not — has to be told what Toronto fans always have on their minds. Leafs, Leafs and more Leafs.

This year, like anytime over the last 52 years, the subject ignites a sick feeling to those of us who bleed blue and white. When you’re monitoring more than half a century, that’s a long, long time. A painful long time.

That evening, Babcock’s firing, along with the promotion of Sheldon Keefe from the Marlies farm, were being thrashed to death on all the sports channels. I had to watch every moment, listen to every “expert.”

Another Leafs coach had joined the massive list of bench bosses who failed to bring a championship to the centre of the hockey universe.

It was only proper to feel sorry for a man who had been burdened by the millions of dollars that were stashed into his pockets.

Will bright days finally return? Don’t hold your breath.

Since the Punch Imlach era, there have been so many coaches placed in charge that even devout Leafs fans probably can’t name them all.

In case you need to be reminded — once more — I became a Leafs die-hard on Christmas morning in 1946.

That was long ago.

Oh I have no complaints about choosing my team as an eight-year-old. It was a wise decision — at least for the first two decades.

There were four Stanley Cups in my first five seasons, another four cups in six years in the 1960s, when I was scouting for the organization and attending the playoffs each spring.

The coaches in those 20 years?

Hap Day was in the midst of a 10-season run when he coached winners in 1947-48-49. Joe Primeau was responsible for the 1951 celebration.

Then, in an 11-year drought, King Clancy, Howie Meeker and Billy Reay missed the big prize.

Enter Punch Imlach.

He was my favourite, around for the glory seasons in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967. I won’t hide my feelings. I loved that era, I loved Imlach and every player under him. Imlach had his critics but, by the time his era was over, he and I had gotten to know each other by our first names. A great guy.

After another victory in Canada’s centennial year, Leafs fans expected the winning to continue. Since the arrival of the computer age, my email address has carried the number 1967. Guess why.

If only we knew in ‘67 what we know now.

When a professional sports franchise fails decade after decade, the runway to the bench remains wide open — for newcomers to arrive, for failures to leave.

It’s been a busy spot.

Since Imlach, this new fella Keefe is the 20th human being at the controls of Mission Impossible.

Bet you can’t recite them all. I struggled mightily to do so, eventually referring to my files to complete the lineup

I’ll list the names in sequence.

There were John McLellan, Red Kelly, Roger Neilson, Floyd Smith and Joe Crozier. Then came Mike Nykoluk, Dan Maloney, John Brophy, George Armstrong and Doug Carpenter. They were followed by Tom Watt, Pat Burns, Nick Beverley, Pat Quinn and Paul Maurice. Finally, Ron Wilson, Randy Carlyle, Pete Horachek, Babcock and Keefe.

Brophy, our old friend from Antigonish, piloted the Nova Scotia Voyageurs from 1981-82 through 1983-84, then held the Leafs reins in 1986-87, 1987-88 and the first 33 games in 1988-89. We found out in Halifax what a fun guy he was.

We also got to know Carpenter in Nova Scotia when he was coach of the AHL’s Halifax Citadels in 1988-89. His Leafs days lasted only through 1989-90 and the opening 11 games in 1990-91.

But back to the present.

Leafs supporters — myself included — believed the current club was going to return to winning ways, ending the heartache.

Less than two months into the schedule, it was becoming clear that nothing positive was happening, despite the presence of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and others.

It was becoming obvious each day and each game that the 56-year-old Babcock had to become the latest casualty.

When the axe fell, few in Leaf Land were surprised the next candidate would come from the Marlies.

I’d like to be optimistic but, in my aging mind, one huge question remains: Will the 39-year-old newcomer from the farm last long on the hot seat?