You don’t dream in the backyard or in the park about hitting a home run in Game 5 of the World Series.
You don’t dream when taking shots on the driveway with a tennis ball or shooting pucks at your friends’ outdoor rink about scoring the overtime winner in Game 4 of the playoffs.
And you don’t dream of hitting that final shot, the one you practised in the gym at school or the basket at the local park, of winning just any game.
It’s always about Game 7.
The perfect numbered game and the perfect numbered dream.
We saw adults living out a kid’s dream on Saturday night in Toronto and Edmonton and in Carolina, where no backyard had an outdoor rink.
We’ll see adults living out a kid’s dream on Sunday afternoon in Boston and later at night in Phoenix.
This is the year of the seventh game. The game of our childhood dreams and the reality is not everybody can survive them. Not everybody can win.
It is certainly time for victories in Toronto and Edmonton, in Phoenix, and not necessarily for Boston, the city that wins championships far too often.
In Edmonton, the once-proud Elks, have fallen on some hard times. The once dynastic Oilers, with hockey’s most dynamic players, haven’t had a playoff run since 2006, and before that won nothing of any significance since 1992. It’s been a while and it’s been a wait in Edmonton.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ story has been over-documented. Too many years without a playoff series win. Too many years without a Stanley Cup. Too many years, period.
But first, a Saturday night where the name Hockey Night In Canada truly reverberates followed by a Sunday night with two more Game 7s, these coming in New York and Calgary.
This is the year of the seventh game.
For a moment, we’re allowed to become kids again and live our childhood dreams through highly paid professionals.
There’s still a magic to it all. That should never go away.
THIS AND THAT
Who should get fired now that the Leafs lost to Tampa Bay? That’s the question I get asked more often than any other. My easy answer: Nobody. Who would I replace team president Brendan Shanahan with that will do a better job? Who would be an upgrade over Kyle Dubas as general manager? A sure-thing upgrade? After he has grown nicely into the position. And where will you find a coach with a better winning percentage than Sheldon Keefe? He has a .678 percentage in parts of three seasons with the Leafs. That’s better than Pat Quinn’s .628 and way better than Pat Burns’ .546 in Toronto. The difference: Playoffs. Quinn coached in 80 playoff games for the Leafs. Burns had 46. Saturday night was Keefe’s 19th playoff game. He had won eight to date. He may be the most vulnerable of the three-headed Maple Leafs monster: But where are you going to find a better coach? … And don’t tell me Barry Trotz, whom I greatly admire. Trotz is the perfect coach for the Winnipeg Jets, the Philadelphia Flyers, teams with some talent in need of structure. Having Trotz coach Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander is like having the fastest horse at Kentucky Derby with Shaquille O’Neal as the jockey … Trotz did not see his firing coming on Long Island. He was surprised as anyone to be let go by Lou Lamoriello. After the firing, Trotz took a week away, just to clear his head and see what might come next. He will be much in demand, if he isn’t already, to coach next season in the NHL … Dressing rooms are still not open to media in the playoffs. Commissioner Gary Bettman says this season will continue on, with media availability coming via news conference or Zoom calls only. Baseball has already returned to pre-COVID form, opening clubhouses to the media and making players available pre-game and post-game. Bettman says he hopes the NHL will return to its previous form next season. With hockey clubs now controlling the message, I’m not sure that teams want to return to the way it worked in the past.
HEAR AND THERE
I asked the right question the other night, using the wrong word. Sometimes that happens. I asked Keefe why he started his “worst” defenceman to open Game 4 in Tampa. The Leafs were scored on in the first minute of that game and Justin Holl, who hadn’t dressed for Games 1 and 2, had a particularly rough first shift. The question blew up on social media, as these things tend to blow up, especially when I happen to be involved. The haters gonna hate as Taylor Swift might sing, but the question needed to be asked. I should have asked Keefe why he chose to start his sixth defenceman, instead of saying worst defenceman. If I had done that, there would have been no noise on social media and then people could have gone back to yelling at the Leafs for their horrid Game 4 performance and praising them for the way they played in Game 5, rather than wasting their time and energy attacking me … By the way, if Rasmus Sandin is healthy and Timothy Liljegren is playing to form, Holl wouldn’t be dressing on defence for the Leafs. On a depth chart, he would be the Leafs’ seventh or eighth defenceman … I thought the Calgary Flames would beat Dallas rather easily. I thought the Edmonton Oilers would easily dispatch the Los Angeles Kings. I thought the Minnesota Wild, with Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, would beat St. Louis. I really have to stop thinking about these things … In terms of what the Leafs might have expected from John Tavares when making him one of the highest-paid players in hockey was witnessed in Games 5 and 6 against the Lightning. The pass he made on a Morgan Rielly goal was highlight-reel material. The two goals he scored in 26 seconds in Game 6 were forceful and impactful. That’s the Tavares the Leafs paid all that money for. There’s still that in him.
SCENE AND HEARD
Why does everything leak in the NBA? They can’t announce a bloody MVP Award without the winner leaking out first. It is really embarrassing for the league … Don’t you hate it when pending free agents say they never thought about free agency during the final season of their contract? Like, how couldn’t they? … What a time for Canadian ballplayers in Cleveland. Mississauga’s Josh Naylor is smashing the ball with the Guardians while Paul Quantrill’s son, Cal, is in the starting rotation for the Guards … Can we call them the Guards? … Are the Blue Jays still investigating the drunk driving charges against pitching coach Pete Walker or are they just trying to make this go away during this challenging season? … Neither Canadian sports network does post-game hockey better than Turner or ESPN do it, which is surprising. Since TSN dropped That’s Hockey2Night, there is no post-game show in Canada that compares to anything Turner or ESPN is doing … Having Charles Barkley pop in on occasion on the TNT panel is great publicity for hockey in America. Agree with Barkley on one thing: He thinks NHL coaches should get one free challenge per game before forfeiting if the challenge isn’t upheld. He thinks the penalty should come after the second challenge … Jacob Trouba didn’t cheapshot Sidney Crosby. But it was unnecessary contact. He could have avoided it. It reminded me a little of the outdoor game collision with David Steckel, which was not intentional either but had severe impact on Crosby … Can Milwaukee and Boston please play a best-of-14 in the NBA. Is that doable?
AND ANOTHER THING
Nobody got snubbed in Hart Trophy voting. There were so many candidates. Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin got the third nomination, in my mind, behind Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid even though I didn’t vote for him. Any of these could have had that third spot: Jonathan Huberdeau, Johnny Gaudreau, Kirill Kaprizov, Leon Draisaitl and Roman Josi. Eight sound candidates for three spots. No snubs here, just not enough room for everyone … Will we ever see a McDavid-Matthews Stanley Cup final? We never did see Wayne Gretzky vs. Mario Lemieux in a final … The Montreal Canadiens have the first pick in the NHL draft. They’ve had it before, taking Doug Wickenheiser and Guy Lafleur as their most recent choices. But both those picks came from trades the Habs had made. This year they get first pick on honour: They had the worst record in the NHL … Montreal took all kinds of grief for selecting Wickenheiser ahead of Denis Savard in 1980. Savard went on to have a Hall of Fame career. The truth at the time: Nobody would have taken Savard ahead of Wickenheiser, who went on to play parts of 10 NHL seasons, never scoring more than 55 points in any season. He did score a big overtime goal for St. Louis in 1986 … This was a promising week for Bianca Andreescu, maybe her most encouraging tennis week since winning the U.S. Open. She beat two seeded players before losing to world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in Rome. She looked like she belonged and was interested which she hasn’t always been the past two years … Jon Cooper should give summer seminars to NHL coaches — maybe all pro coaches — on how best to deal with media on a day-to-day basis. Nobody, except maybe Steve Kerr, does this better or smarter … Happy birthday to Rick Vaive (63), Pat Borders (59), George Brett (69), Tony Perez (80), John Smoltz (55), Jack Hughes (21), Emmitt Smith (53), Rob Gronkowski (33), Alain Vigneault (61), Dave Reid (58), Dennis Martinez (68), and Justin Morneau (41) … And hey whatever became of Karel Pilar?
LANIER A BIG MAN AND BIG INFLUENCE
Bob Lanier got me interested in basketball.
I think I was 10 or 11 years old at the time, sports-obsessed, caring mostly about the Maple Leafs and the Argos and the Boston Red Sox — and he was playing for St. Bonaventure in his hometown of Buffalo and suddenly the Bonnies games were on Channel 4 and this larger-than-life figure seemed to matter.
Not long after that, there was an NBA team in Buffalo that would play the occasional game in Toronto and Willis Reed limped onto the court for the New York Knicks and almost everybody in gym class the next few weeks limped around with the basketball, pretending to be Reed.
But it was Lanier, who pulled this youngster watching on a blurry black-and-white television screen, into a game he hardly knew. It wasn’t just how Lanier played, it was the hope brought with every game. The Bonnies weren’t a big-time NCAA school. They were a little guy with a big centre.
Every week on television, or whenever they were on, this was a mini-series about hope and dreams and possibilities. You couldn’t help but watch.
I never met Bob Lanier, who passed away the other day at the age of 73. In his Hall of Fame NBA career, he made every team he played on better. But it was after his career ended, that he had his most influence, working with youth and education in America. Lanier changed many lives along the way.
In a very different way, he helped influence mine.
VERHAEGHE PROVING SCOUT RIGHT
Scouts tend to fall in love with their draft picks — especially the players they really believe in.
Dave Morrison was the Leafs’ head scout when Toronto drafted Carter Verhaeghe in 2013. He was a 44-point scorer in the OHL before the Leafs picked him. The next two seasons he scored more than 80 points and the Leafs thought they had stolen him in the third round — or at least Morrison thought that.
So Morrison wasn’t thrilled when Lou Lamoriello traded five contracts in 2015 — one of them being Verhaeghe’s — for Michael Grabner, not that they cared that much for the veteran winger, but because the Leafs had too many players under contract and needed to clear some space.
Morrison never looked at Verhaeghe as just space.
He didn’t make the NHL quickly, first in the Islanders organization, then Tampa, now with the Florida Panthers. But now that he has established himself, he’s not leaving anytime soon.
Verhaeghe scored the overtime winner that sent the struggling Panthers to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the series against Washington, where Jonathan Huberdeau disappeared, Verhaeghe had six goals and six assists in six games. He’s tied going into Saturday night with Connor McDavid in playoff scoring.
Twice in recent years, the Leafs had an interest in bringing Verhaeghe back in free agency, but each time he signed quickly before they were prepared to make any pitch.
Morrison, who then was head junior scout for the Leafs, is now a pro scout. His belief in Verhaeghe was well-founded. And had the Leafs won on Saturday night, they would have been playing Florida and Verhaeghe in the next round. A team that pro scout Morrison knows very well.
THIS YEAR’S JAYS TEAM REMINISCENT OF 1988 SQUAD
When the Blue Jays lost their final seven games of the 1987 season — their greatest collapse in franchise history — there was much promise for the 1988 campaign.
They had won 96 games in ’87 and lost the pennant to the Detroit Tigers on the final day of the season. They were just about everyone’s pick the next season to finish first, and many people’s pick to win the World Series.
What happened? The team dropped from 96 wins to 87 — were never in the race and it has turned out to be one of the more forgettable seasons in Jays history.
Last season, the Jays won 91 games, one game out of the playoffs, one game behind the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. They were that close — although they didn’t blow a lead the way the ’87 Jays did. And this winter, and heading into this baseball season, the Jays were just about everybody’s favourite pick to win the AL East and for some the American League.
So what’s happening here? We’re learning what we’ve already learned before. That last year has nothing to do with this year in baseball. That just because Charlie Montoyo could pencil in a lineup that has Vladdy Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez slugging it back-to-back-to-back meant everything was going to be just fine.
Everything isn’t just fine. This looks like a team falling apart. It’s still not June but it reminds me of the 1988 Jays.
Expected to be everything. Delivering next to nothing.