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Never-ending slump for the lowly Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention last Thursday. Their loss to the sad-sack Carolina Hurricanes (n Hartford Whalers) put a well-deserved end to an undeserved flirtation with post-season qualification. What is a Leafs fan to do, except maybe commiserate with aficionados of the New York Rangers?

It is difficult to be a Leafs supporter in Princeton, this land of college hoops, lacrosse and crew. Heck, it's not that easy being any type of hockey fan here. Anybody following college hockey would think we were some place in the South with a team accidentally dropped into our laps (like the aforementioned 'Canes). And how many in the Princeton community realize that the hockey Tigers arguably had a better – and more surprising – end result to their season than Carmody's back-door specialists?

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Still, there may be more die-hard fans of the Buds (the Leafs' chummy appellation as given by Toronto sportswriters) here than of any NHL team besides the Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and possibly the sides of Boston, Detroit and Chicago. That would be because Canadians represent about half of all international undergrads, and half the Canadian contingent hails from the self-declared "center of the known universe" (a.k.a. Toronto).

There are way more Californians and Texans on campus, of course, but, given hockey still hasn't caught on that much in locales where air conditioners are used in winter, I wouldn't wager to find many rabid L.A. Kings or Dallas Stars followers. Conversely, the definition of "Canadian" in the Oxford English Dictionary is "rabid hockey follower" – you have to check a special edition, but it's there – so there are likely to be more fans of the defunct Winnipeg Jets than of recent Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.

Unfortunately, "relative number of fans in Princeton" is not yet a key offensive statistic, and neither is "number of sellouts despite a bad team," so the Leafs' chances of winning Earl Stanley's chalice remain somewhere between none and none. Yes, in what is perhaps the hockey hotbed of the world, the marquee team can hardly be called that. But that has been the plight of the blue and white with few exceptions since the onset of the Harold Ballard years in the early '70s.

Those Torontonians reading this are now nodding their heads knowingly while all you others stare at this page with puzzled looks. Let me put it this way: picture George Steinbrenner, except with less sports sense and a more destructive personality. That moves toward a rough description of Harold Ballard on a good day. At least the scourge of the Bronx Bombers wins World Series and often fields competitive teams. Ol' pal Hal took a veteran team in need of slight rebuilding shortly after what remains their last championship season (1967) and mismanaged it into the ground.

And Ballard's treatment of coaches makes Steinbrenner's relationship with Billy Martin seem like marital bliss. When he finally kicked the Gatorade cooler to join the great VIP box in the sky, Ballard set off a legal battle over ownership and operational control of the club and its associated enterprises, a mel e whose repercussions still hamper management five years later.

Despite laughingly inept direction, the Maple Leafs gave their fans some thrills and somehow squeaked into the playoffs on the penultimate day of the season almost every year. (Counting the current string, only three times in the last 40 years has Toronto failed consecutively to make the post-season.) In the mid-'90s, it seemed that the Leafs had finally made it out of their Ballard-era doldrums, twice advancing to the semifinals under wizardly GM Cliff Fletcher and superhuman captain Doug Gilmour. It took a superhuman effort by Wayne Gretzky to keep the Leafs out of the 1993 final series, but there would surely be more chances as all those high first-rounders from the dismal '80s blossomed.

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Then the wheels fell off the pumpkin, so to speak, and the curtain was drawn to reveal that Fletcher hadn't pulled a sweet deal since snookering his former employers in bringing Calgary's nucleus to Toronto. All the first-rounders had been traded, Felix "The Cat" Potvin had used up his lives, and even Dougie was past the point of being able to carry the team on his five-foot, nine-inch, 165-pound body's shoulders.

Something had to be done, and a true rebuilding was soon under way. The team would be fashioned around the younger Mats Sundin, players would be allowed to develop in the farm system and come to fruition at just the right time, ex-cop coach Pat Burns would be replaced with less-authoritarian ex-assistant Mike Murphy. Dougie would be traded to New Jersey. (At least Princeton Torontonians have the consolation of being able to follow the still-stellar efforts of one of the gutsiest players, and greatest Leafs, in League history.)

Toronto still hasn't won a Cup since a Syl Apps was on its roster rather than Princeton's. But then, neither has Chicago; the Blackhawks remain the longest-suffering team, their last sip of champagne predating Toronto's by three years. Maybe Hall-of-Fame scholar and Leafs President/GM Ken Dryden can turn around the fortunes of a team that has broken more hearts than all but the Boston Red Sox (my favorite baseball team, as it were). Then I'll have something to celebrate at this time next year besides the completion of my thesis.

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