Maple Leafs Time Machine: Re-routing the path to a Canadian Cup

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You’ll hear it a lot this weekend when the Maple Leafs play host to the Edmonton Oilers and next month as the top Canadian teams play their last head-to-head games in this 31st spring since the last Great White North Stanley Cup winner:

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Why can’t the NHL find a playoff format to give the many claimants to ‘Canada’s team’ a break to get further down the Cup trail?

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It took the 2021 pandemic to forge a temporary solution, the Group of Seven staying and playing above the border, with one guaranteed to make at least the semifinal. The underdog Montreal Canadiens used that ticket to meet Tampa Bay for the marbles, but it has been back to an all-U.S. final since.

Toronto, the only Eastern Canadian rep headed to playoffs in April, might only be first-round fodder for Boston or Florida. Out West, current divisional first-place holders Vancouver and Winnipeg could have defending champion Vegas for an opening date, while the Jets could also draw Colorado. Either could see the Oilers in Round 2 to further cut Canadian content chances.

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Not that anyone’s still around to recall it, but for 12 years the league fathers did favour the mother country. A Canadian Division existed between 1926-38 and for two years, it fast-tracked the top three between Toronto, the Ottawa Senators, the Canadiens and Montreal Maroons. Second place took on third, that winner facing the top seed and that victor meeting the American Division titlist for the Cup. From 1929, the two divisions had a cross-over post-season, but all except Ottawa won a Cup under that system.

For those who thought the NHL was an Original Six outfit from 1917 to the ’67 expansion, the existence of an exclusive Canadian Club is a surprise.

“It almost never comes up for discussion,” said Hall of Fame historian Kevin Shea. “Even more obscure is that the New York Americans were in the Canadian Division.”

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That twist came about when the Hamilton Tigers went on strike in 1925 after their owner refused to pay them for the six final contests of an expanded 30-game schedule. Despite finishing first with a good shot at the Cup, the players, led by Wilf (Shorty) Green, didn’t budge and the unsympathetic league gave the Tigers’ NHL license to Manhattan bootlegger ‘Big Bill’ Dwyer.

If Stanley can’t come home, Toronto-based freelancer and former U of T goalie Chris Short has a great solution to hold interest between October and April.

He has long suggested all games between the seven teams in the moose lodge be tracked as a national derby, determined by the highest points percentage club to compensate for the schedule imbalance.

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Winner gets a trophy, perhaps commemorating a Canadian hockey personality or event yet to be recognized, or a banner for their arena rafters. We might even improve on that by reviving the Canada Cup, that half maple leaf memento from the 1970s. There were three versions of it created for the quadrennial best-on-best that Canada dominated, one made from hernia-inducing solid nickel, a lighter model players could hoist and one created for the Russians to bring home when they won in 1981.

Western Canadian squads will end up playing 17 in-house games this season, Winnipeg and the East 15.

“Give the winning team something and maybe in the future some kind of bonus, for them or the leading scorer within the tournament,” Short added.

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In his calculations, Vancouver’s win over Montreal on Thursday, extended the Canucks lead with a record of 10-3 (no overtime), a .769 points percentage and a 1.54 average points per game. Second-place Edmonton’s slight lead on Toronto (.625-.615) and Calgary could be widened with a second regulation win over the Leafs on Saturday with five Canadian opponents still to play.

Winnipeg has won just three of 11, even though it could end up edging Vancouver in overall NHL standings. Ottawa is holding steady above .500, thanks in part to causing the Leafs so much grief, while Montreal has won just two.

Short said in addition to piquing fan interest in Canada for games that might not mean much to the actual standings once playoff spots are decided, the concept could be expanded to an internal competition among the Original Six, Metropolitan teams around New York City, the Sunbelt cities, Midwest clubs or California/Seattle. For the league, it could also enhance sports betting and be an excuse for teams to create another set of alternate sweaters to augment the rivalries.

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ONCE A LEAF

Featuring one of the more than 1,100 players, coaches and general managers who have played or worked in Toronto since 1917.

D Dave Hutchison

Born: May 2, 1952 in London, Ont.

Years with the Leafs: 1978-80, ’83-84

Games played: 163 (regular season and playoffs) 5 G 27 A, 32 pts., 423 PIMS

Sweater numbers: 23, 33

THEN

Hutchison’s lengthy NHL penalty box residency before coming to Toronto included several fights with like-minded Leafs and a memorable stick swinging duel with Dave Williams at the L.A. Forum in the ’75 playoffs.

“When I got traded to the Leafs (three years later) I had fought Tiger at least three times, but he was the guy who picked me up at the airport,” Hutchison said on the phone from Dorchester, Ont. “Hey, I had nothing personal against him or anyone else. We fought for the crest on our sweater.

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“Much later, I became great friends with a guy like Bob Probert. What’s that they say about birds of a feather?

“Bob, Tiger and I and a lot of guys went with the (Leafs and NHL Alumni) to Afghanistan to visit the Canadian Forces. We hit it off. When you’re all playing for a team, it’s the same.

“Whenever I speak to kids and they’re unsure about the direction in their lives, I suggest the Forces.”

Hutchison, like Claire Alexander and Jack Valiquette, is a past winner of the Leaf Alumni’s Carl Brewer Award for community service. Hutchison, a former London Knight, years ago arranged for the Leafs slo-pitch team to come to Dorchester, for a game, which morphed into his golf tournament as a means to send kids to Disney World Florida and raise funds for cancer research

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NOW

The irony of a career 1,600 penalty minute man putting on a referee’s sweater for the Alumni’s far-flung road games is not lost on Hutchinson.

“I bust our guys pretty good out there,” he laughed of a recent visit to Timmins where the Leafs and other ex-NHLers played the Gold Diggers from a mining company in Detour Lake for charity. “I called a Rick Vaive goal back and he was mad, probably because I asked the crowd’s opinion first. I’m mic’d up and do play-by-play as we go along.

The team have upcoming games in Parry Sound and St. Thomas, the latter where Joe Thornton is expected to play.

“Gary Leeman and Frank Corrado are part of the group and we like having Dave McLlwain because he can still skate pretty good.”

Dave and wife Alanna have three kids and five grandchildren, counting himself lucky that the wave of post-career chronic traumatic encephalopathy and related problems of NHL enforcers have not clouded his retirement years. He was distressed to have lost good pal Dan Maloney, the former Leafs player and coach in 2018 after years of declining health and our conversation took place a couple of days after Chris Simon’s death.

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“I had more than 100 fights and certainly had concussions. But my brain is fine. The alumni has a relationship with the (Canadian branch) of the Cleveland Clinic and once or twice a year they do all the scans on us.

“I know others have not done well. It was later discovered Probie (who died of a heart attack at 45) had CTE, but he’d had headaches and got hooked on the pills the team gave him to combat that. Derek Boogaard took them to alleviate headaches, too. It’s all how you respond, but sometimes the headaches don’t go away. You’re in a dark space.”

Keeping happier memories of his friends sustains Hutchison, who bought Probert’s classic Chevrolet Chevelle from wife Dani amid his own passion for cars and motorcycles.

Hutchison also keeps his real estate business going part-time.

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FAVOURITE LEAF MEMORY

Hutchinson and Lorne Stamler were acquired in a major arms deal with the Kings. It saw three scrappy Leafs go to the coast, Brian Glennie, Kurt Walker and Scott Garland, but lined up. Williams, Maloney and Hutchison on the same tough team.

All three ventured well into triple figures in penalty minutes in the 1978-79 season. After a trade to Chicago for Pat Ribble as Punch Imlach broke up the Roger Neilson Leafs in his second coming as GM, Hutchison came back for 47 games in ‘83-84.

“I loved Toronto and playing for the Leafs. Walt McKechnie told me there was no better, safer feeling then facing off with the Flyers in the Spectrum when he could look to his wing and see Maloney and look back and see me.”

THE WEEK IN LEAF HISTORY

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Saturday marks 106 years since Toronto Arena’s Alf Skinner recorded the first hat trick in a Cup final game, in a 6-4 losing cause to the Vancouver Millionaires … Sunday is the anniversary of two 50-goal seasons, Rick Vaive’s first ever in franchise history in 1982 and 12 years to the day later, Dave Andreychuk … Next Wednesday will be 31 years since Doug Gilmour broke Darryl Sittler’s single season points record, eventually finishing with 27 … Born March 26, 1929, in Lloydminster, Sask., Bob Hassard. On Nov. 1, 1952, Hockey Night in Canada went on live TV for the first time, joining a Leaf game in progress, catching Hassard celebrating his goal scored seconds earlier.

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