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Grieving Over the Ghosts of Championships Past

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I was chatting the other day with my sports therapist, wondering about the trauma caused by living in Canada's largest city that cannot seem to produce a winning sports team.

The therapist -- more laid back than I, whom I'll call Mr. Bill -- was sympathetic, even understanding, but not particularly helpful.

As an occasional sports fan, I wondered if perhaps a professional grievance counsellor would be more appropriate. You know, one of those guys people like me tend to mock when they turn up at schools when there's a tragedy, to soothe the crumpled feelings of kids who are presumed unable to cope with calamity.

How can it be, I wondered, that the largest, most vibrant city in Canada has difficulty getting a professional team into the playoffs, much less winning all the marbles?

Of course, I was thinking mostly of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the richest team in all of hockey that hasn't had an unsold seat to any game in my adult lifetime. At this writing, odds are that they won't make the playoffs again this year -- half the teams they play against bet them.

Since their last Stanley Cup win in 1967 it's been downhill -- some 45 years, all starting with Harold Ballard's reign when he tore away the pride and tradition from a Leaf team that used to be renowned as a playoff team.

For Toronto's other major teams, there's an excuse. The Argos are having rough time, exacerbated by a city whose fans think they should have an NFL team. Canadian football, with three downs, is really more exciting and unpredictable than U.S. football with four downs. But American football promotion makes our football seem inferior -- which it isn't. But how do you fight perception?

The Raptors have a tough time getting traction as well. They keep trying and adjusting, and if they ever win consistently their fan base will skyrocket. It's still an uphill battle in a country where basketball is not a way of life.

In baseball, the Blue Jays have proven they can win, and these days have a management that wants to win. During the last decade the Jays have been a bit Alice in Wonderland-ish -- jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, never jam today. This year, in U.S. analyses, the Jays rate near the top.

Championship teams often have one player who symbolizes, or galvanizes the team: An inspiring figure whose leadership raises the level of everyone. The Jays seem to have sparked this quality in Jose Batista, who's become a take-charge leader. In the past the Jays won when leaders were Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, Mookie Wilson, even Rickey Henderson.

The Maple Leafs exceeded expectations when Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark were team leaders -- and are still adored by Leaf fans. Mats Sundin, a great and gentlemanly player, did not have the personality that motivated others. Nor does today's Phil Kessel, a good player without the charisma to inspire. The type of leadership that's needed is often more a matter to luck than design.

In 1947, when the Toronto Maple Leafs were stalled, they astounded the hockey world by trading five good players (Gus Bodnar, Bud Poile, Gaye Stewart, Ernie Dickens and Bob Goldham) for Chicago's Max Bentley -- and then won three of the next four Stanley Cups. There's never been a trade to match it.

It strikes me that team management, with its network of scouts and professionals, should be scouring the NHL for a player who can spark-plug the team, raise its performance by his leadership -- and then negotiate a Max Bentley-like five-for-one trade.

Several years ago I wrote that such a deal might have interested the Washington Capitals for Alex Ovechkin: Any five Leafs for Ovechkin. At the time they might have been interested, but not now.

A look at NHL standings is a rebuke to the Leafs. The Ottawa Senators are in a declared rebuilding year -- and at this writing are in fifth place heading for the playoffs. Leafs are heading for fifth place from the bottom, and sinking.

Maybe my next therapy session should be with a grief counsellor rather than Mr. Bill.

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