Off The Post – July 24, 2008

A resolution to the impasse with Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe might not come to fruition until training camp is well underway. McCabe is adamant about not waving his no-trade clause while it’s clear that general manager Cliff Fletcher wishes to move his highest paid defenceman as part of his rebuilding movement. A buyout is not feasible at McCabe’s $5.75 million salary over the next three seasons.

The 33-year-old defenceman has endured some criticism over his refusal to lift his no-movement clause, not unlike the manner that his team’s captain, Sundin, absorbed much verbal jabs upon rejecting a potential deal at last spring’s trade deadline. While Sundin rightly had many defenders among level-headed media pundits and Leafs fans alike, all of whom pointed out that Sundin was merely exercising a right granted to him in a contract offered to him by management, McCabe appears to have fewer supporters and will likely see a diminishing number of allies the longer the stalemate progresses, which is unjust. McCabe is more often that not vilified for poor decisions with the puck in his own end and appears more of a liability than an asset now that teams have been able to shut down his once-lethal power-play point shot. He remains an adequate NHL defenceman at best, but clearly playing below the standard that his $5.75 million annual paycheque dictates.

Nevertheless, the circumstances under which he signed his contract, including the no-trade provision, are identical to those under which Sundin inked his deal. Thus, observers who are quick to absolve Sundin of any insinuation of disloyalty to the team must also be as willing to grant the same courtesy to McCabe – regardless of the level of his on-ice performance, and regardless of how many goals he accidentally scores into his own goal.

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Elsewhere, Toronto fans have been treated to the addition of an extra pre-season game to be held at Air Canada Centre, which will be played September 22 against the Buffalo Sabres. Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher announced that – in partnership with Coca Cola Zero – the game will be free of charge. Tickets were dispensed among scores of fans present at ACC for the announcement, with the remaining tickets to be distributed among a series of promotions and contests.

While the game will be meaningless in terms of standings, at the very least an opportunity is presented for die-hard Toronto fans to take in a game in person, since much of the Leafs season ticket base is comprised of corporate seat-holders, with any remaining seats being priced outside of an affordable price range for the average patron. As a result, many Leafs home games are played under an aura of almost funereal silence, despite consistent sellouts in excess of the official rink capacity of 18,819. The corporate mindset ofthe patrons in the lower bowl of the ACC, the sub-par on-ice product, and the pacifist nature of Toronto sports fans are all contributing factors in the low-decibel crowds observed at 40 Bay Street. Those with vivid memories will recall that this is the same city in which the Toronto Blue Jays’ designated hitter Dave Winfield took an initiative to entice the home crowd to get louder with his “Winfield Wants Noise” campaign when the team was winning the first of its two World Series, back in 1992.

Leafs defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo is looking forward to playing in front of thousands of true-blue hockey fans. “As an athlete and as a player, you enjoy playing in front of that type of atmosphere, where you have that ’seventh man’ on the ice and you really take advantage of home ice,” he said.

Forward John Mitchell, who had 12 points in 19 playoff games for the AHL Marlies last year and is expected to compete for one of the Leafs forward positions, concurs that having fewer corporate suits in the stands for one game will create a much more hockey-friendly aura about the building. “I think you’ll see a lot of the avid fans, maybe not a lot of businessmen coming to the game, but more just the crazy fans that want to get into the game, fill the seats and get this place rocking!”

Finally, it does seem appropriate that the sponsor of the “Fans First Game” is Coca Cola Zero, given that the number of calories in the product is equal to the number of championships delivered by the franchise in the past forty-one years.
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Flames captain Jarome Iginla and two-time Olympic gold medalist Cassie Campbell conducted their week-long hockey school in Calgary earlier this month. Iginla recalls his battles against newly-signed Leafs defenceman Jeff Finger, against whom he faced during several divisional games between Calgary and Finger’s former team the Colorado Avalanche.

“He battles and he competes with an edge,” assessed Iginla.  “He’s a younger guy and moves the puck well. What I remember playing against him, we got into a few battles in front of the net and competing down low and stuff….and you could tell he likes to play that game and likes to compete. It’s something that we went at, a little bit.

“Every team needs a certain amount of puck-moving and feisty guys and in-your-face guys. It happened, being out on a scoring line for us, that we happened to see a lot of the competitive, feisty in-your-face style guys, and I’ve seen my share of him already!”

Meanwhile, Campbell sees the gap between the North American womens’ teams and the European womens’ teams closing very quickly as a result of last April’s World Championships held in China, during which Finland earned a bronze medal and the surprising Swiss finished fourth.

“I think have definitely changed,” she said.  ”We had a lot of upsets in China.  Switzerland upset Sweden, Finland upset the U.S., and the U.S. upset Canada twice. There was some great hockey, I think it was the best World Championships that I’ve ever seen, as far as competition. I think it’s unfortunate that Canada lost, but I know they’ll regroup and focus for next year. But I honestly think it’s a four or five team race in 2010 and I don’t think there’s a guarantee of a Canada-U.S. final anymore.”

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Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, a regular column at TMLfans.ca