In the serious, violent NHL, Shack played with a wink & a smile

Published July 28, 2020

I don’t have an Eddie Shack story, per se. Just like I don’t have a Babe Ruth story. Doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the legend.

But at least I saw Shack, who died the other day at age 83 from cancer, play in the NHL. Only with Shack, he didn’t so much “play” hockey as he “committed” it.

Baseball has had more than its fair share of “flakes” and clown princes throughout its history, mainly because the game itself is played at a lazy pace, is non-contact and lends well to goofing around and self-deprecation.

Hockey has had some characters, but so many of them in a psychotic way. Hockey’s flakes have often been guys who you’d want on the ice as much as possible, for off it, who knows what they’d be capable of doing. What else do you expect from a sport where aggravated assault is punishable by a two minute breather?

Eddie Shack played a violent sport in a cartoonish way, and I don’t mean that to disparage him whatsoever. Shack’s hockey world was like the movie “Slap Shot”—over the top with physicality and showmanship.

The ditty, “Clear the Track! Here Comes Shack,” created by hockey announcer Brian McFarlane, didn’t create the persona of Shack; the song was born from it. And it perfectly captured the “bull in a china shop” way that no. 23 roamed the ice.

Shack’s greatest success—personal and team—came with the powerful Toronto Maple Leafs clubs of the 1960s, with whom Eddie won four Stanley Cups. Though he was never a big goal scorer, Shack potted 11 or more goals in five of the seven years he spent in Toronto during the Leafs’ heyday (1960-67).

Shack was also comical looking. Even before he grew the bushy mustache that would become his trademark late in his playing career, Shack stood out for his big nose, stork-like posture and occasional devilish grin on the ice. They listed Eddie as a left winger, but the truth was that you could find him anywhere on the ice at any given moment, often crashing into someone or something.

Sudbury hockey legend Eddie Shack, dies of cancer at age 83 ...
Shack as a Buffalo Sabre, being Eddie Shack

Shack is most closely associated with the Leafs, for his two stints and nine seasons in Toronto. But Eddie was a vagabond for the other eight years of his 17-season era, with short, two-to-three year appearances with five other NHL teams (Bruins, Kings, Penguins, Rangers and Sabres) between 1959-75.

I only saw Shack play in person once—in November 1973 at Olympia Stadium when he was back with the Leafs for his final two years in the league. I don’t remember much of the game, a 5-4 Red Wings win, but I do remember sitting in one of the end zones and being eager to see Eddie take the ice for his first shift. I kept watch for him all evening, and sure enough, Eddie all but climbed on someone’s back and got two minutes for his efforts.

Shack’s legend didn’t end when he hung up his skates. He became one of Canada’s most popular ex-athletes-turned-pitchmen, popping up in a variety of TV commercials, the mustache bushier than ever and his mischievous cackle properly captured by the cameras and microphones. Shack was also beloved for his being approachable at public appearances, signing autographs and engaging with fans for hours on end.

Everything is so serious anymore. Pro sports is not excluded from this truth. Even baseball’s goofballs seem to be fading away with time. We don’t have flakes and free spirits so much as we have immature brats. They don’t make us laugh—they make us roll our eyes.

Eddie Shack wasn’t hockey’s only loose cannon—far from it. But he played a fast, physical, sometimes angry game with a wink and a smile. You got the impression, when you watched Eddie play, that even he didn’t know where he was going and what he was doing—or what would happen next.

It was refreshing, that’s for sure.

Ayres’ unlikely turn in net reminds of NHL’s ‘small sport’ charm

Published February 25, 2020

Only in hockey. Hell, only in the National Hockey League.

You’ll never be watching a Major League Baseball game where the call goes out to the paying customers, “Is there a relief pitcher in the house?” You’ll never see an NFL game paused while a team scurries to find an emergency quarterback in the stands. When’s the last time you saw a spare point guard run down from the mezzanine and get suited up to enter an NBA match?

Only in the NHL.

It was a story that transcended the sports pages last weekend. Forty-two year-old David Ayres, a Zamboni driver and practice goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was pressed into action–even preserving a victory—when the visiting Carolina Hurricanes lost both their dressed goalies to injury on Saturday night.

In football, in the event that multiple QBs go down with injury, there is a player on the roster appropriately identified as the “disaster quarterback.” Maybe the most known example of this catastrophe came in the 1965 NFL playoffs, when the Baltimore Colts’ Tom Matte, a running back, dusted off his QB skills from high school and college and went under center, leading his team to a 13-10 overtime loss to the Packers.

But hockey has no such provision. At least the NHL doesn’t. No one on an NHL roster is trained to put the big pads on and go between the pipes.

The practice of calling for a rank amateur to tend goal dates back to the post-war years.

The six-team NHL typically only carried one goalie per squad. And in typical hockey fashion, that meant that if the netminder went down with injury, one of two things happened: The game stopped and everyone waited until the hurt goalie was nursed back to health or he responded to the smelling salts, or the designated emergency spare (every arena had one) would suit up.

Lefty

Ross Wilson was the Red Wings trainer from 1950-82. One of his duties was to make the crude masks that the goalies of the 1960s wore, including for the great Terry Sawchuk. But “Lefty” was also the designated spare goalie at Olympia Stadium, no matter which team needed his services.

Lefty played goalie in juniors and in the minor leagues, so he wasn’t a beer league guy. Wilson got into three NHL games as an emergency spare goalie, and the amazing thing about that isn’t just that it was three games—it’s that it was only three games. But we’re talking an era where Hall of Famer Glenn Hall once started 502 consecutive games.

Wilson’s job as trainer was to patch up the damaged goalie, and when that failed, Lefty was to don the gear and get in front of the cage himself.

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Lefty Wilson

Wilson’s NHL career (you can see it here) stretched from 1953 to 1957, with all games played at Olympia. On Oct. 10, 1953, he suited up for the Red Wings in relief of Sawchuk, playing 16 minutes of a loss, though he surrendered no goals. On Jan. 22, 1956, Lefty slipped on a Maple Leafs sweater and filled in for an injured Harry Lumley, playing 13 shutout minutes in another losing effort. Finally, on Dec. 29, 1957, Wilson became a Boston Bruin for 52 minutes, replacing Don Simmons in a game that ended in a 2-2 tie, stopping 23 of 24 shots. All totaled, Lefty made 32 saves in 33 shots in 81 minutes, for a career GAA of 0.74 and a save percentage of .970.

Not bad for three starts spread over more than four years!

In Wilson’s day, that kind of emergency goalie thing was hardly an anomaly. There was no romance or cuteness to it. It was just the way of the world. Today, Ayres’ turn in net (as well as that of accountant Scott Foster, who at age 36 suddenly became a Chicago Blackhawk) is so abnormal as to put hockey in front of people who normally don’t know a puck from a Ding Dong.

The big time sport with the small time feel

The Ayres and Foster stories are endearing because they underscore how ice hockey has never completely shed its reputation as being a sport played on frozen ponds by humble people who are, as much as you can be in professional sports, the every man. And that’s a good label to not be able to shed.

Hockey, even after the players started getting paid, remains a sport of an unusual dichotomy. The stakes are high but still so much of the game is low key and connects with its fans.

I remember being in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ dressing room at the Joe Louis Arena in 2009 after they beat the Red Wings in seven games to win the Stanley Cup. Not long after the celebration on the ice, I wandered in to find Conn Smythe Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin sitting by himself at his locker stall, the prestigious Smythe Trophy sitting on a card table (!) a few feet away, also by its lonesome. So there Malkin and I chatted, as he sipped orange juice (!), talking about winning the most hallowed trophy in all of professional sports.

Only in hockey. Only in the NHL.

The end of the coaching line for NHL’s Prickly Pear?

Published Dec. 2, 2019

In a sport filled with lines of all sorts, it was one of the most legendary.

“You hate the guy for 364 days,” it goes (and I’m paraphrasing), “and on the 365th day, you lift the Stanley Cup.”

It was uttered by a former Montreal Canadiens player, speaking of iconic coach Scotty Bowman, who led Les Habitants to four straight Cups (among five overall in Montreal) between 1976-79. And Scotty, as the speaker above indicated, didn’t exactly make a lot of friends along the way, amidst all that winning.

Bowman left a trail of disgruntled, offended players in his wake, but a great deal of those dudes are also wearing multiple rings on their calloused fingers. I’m pretty sure they’d tell you that it was worth what Bowman put them through.

Scotty was a master of the good old-fashioned tactic of messing with your head, to hear his former players say it. And Bowman didn’t just pick on the third and fourth liners. In Detroit, no less than Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan could count themselves among Scotty’s victims of his cranial craft.

But Bowman won. A lot. Nine Stanley Cup-winning teams had Scotty Bowman as their coach, across three franchises.

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Today’s NHL not conducive to Babs’ style

But Bowman’s tactics might not play today. In fact, they probably wouldn’t. Just ask Mike Babcock. Actually, ask those who played for him. It won’t be a G-rated conversation, to warn you.

Babcock got the ziggy in Toronto a couple weeks ago, the Maple Leafs in the throes of a six-game losing streak and the players near revolt. It wasn’t supposed to end that way in Toronto, but with Babs, that’s the chance you take when you hire a man of his ilk.

The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, a fact that most hockey fans in Toronto know more readily than their wedding anniversaries or their kids’ birthdays. And today, some four years and change after hiring Babcock, the Leafs are arguably no closer to sipping from hockey’s chalice than before they pulled a Brinks truck up to Babs’ house.

Leafs braintrust, led by, ironically, Shanahan, was drinking a cocktail of desperate and urgent (enabled by deep pockets) when they inked the free agent coach away from Detroit back in the summer of 2015. It wasn’t a bad move, really.

Babcock, at the time, was the hottest coaching commodity in the NHL, despite the Red Wings’ downward trend when the Leafs reached out. He had three Cup Finals under his belt, winning one and coming extremely close to winning another on two occasions, in Detroit and Anaheim. He won at the international level as well, being the only coach to capture gold medals at the World Junior Championships (1997), the World Championship (2004) and the Olympics (2010 and 2014).

His coaching success was clear and not to be argued. Now, as far as his methods…well, that’s where your non-G-rated conversations begin.

Alienating, shaming players

In Toronto, it came to light that Babcock’s treatment of rookie Mitch Marner in 2018 was beyond reprehensible. The coach asked Marner to record the slackers on the Leafs roster, but then Babcock went public with those identified, telling the so-called slackers that Marner was the source. Babcock subsequently apologized to Marner, but the damage had been done.

Babcock’s relationship with Leafs star Auston Matthews wasn’t warm and fuzzy, either, which makes Matthews the rule rather than the exception.

This column isn’t designed to post a laundry list of those who Babcock offended and how (just Google Mike Commodore/Mike Babcock for some fun). It’s to openly question whether Babs will ever coach again in the NHL.

The expansion Seattle franchise has been mentioned on the Interwebs as a possible destination for Babcock, whose hefty, eight-year contract was swallowed by the Leafs with four years remaining on it.

I suppose an expansion club could be interested in hiring a big name like Babcock, but does his toxicity extend so far that even a newbie team would stay away?

The pundits in Toronto who cover the Leafs (plus the fans, who have been through hell and high water with that franchise) have hinted that Babs’ style and strategies are outdated and no longer a winning recipe in today’s progressive NHL. That’s not even taking his prickly nature into account.

Mike Keenan, sort of a Scotty Bowman Lite, was the Billy Martin of the NHL—taking his act across damn near half the league, where at each stop it would inevitably flame out after a short shelf life, despite periods of genuine winning. Keenan’s poor relationship with players, especially the stars, finally caught up to him until finally no NHL team would give him the keys to their dressing room.

Not even winning the Cup in 1994 with the Rangers could keep Keenan in employ, as he resigned later that summer after a contract dispute with GM Neil Smith.

Mike Babcock doesn’t have to coach anymore. He is likely set financially at age 56. Maybe we’ll see him someday in a TV studio as kind of a Barry Melrose type.

But if Babcock wants to coach, it might not matter. Unlike Bowman and, to a degree Keenan before his act tired, teams might not be beating down Babs’ door as they would have in 2015. While Babcock did lift the Leafs a notch or two, his teams in Toronto went 0-3 in playoff series.

The NHL’s Prickly Pear may have pissed off his last player.

In Toronto, Babs continues his own hat trick: Win, Anger, Annoy

Published Jan. 13, 2018

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967. They haven’t even appeared in a Finals since ’67. For most of these past 50 years, the franchise hasn’t really been all that close to sipping champagne from the silver chalice that is Stanley.

The hockey old-timers in Toronto can recall, vividly, the slapstick ownership of Harold Ballard in the 1970s, which wasn’t much different than Darkness With Harkness in Detroit over the same time frame. The Leafs and the Red Wings were mostly league fodder in those years—it’s just that in Toronto, the Leafs were fodder with more panache.

Mike Babcock sat at the rostrum in Toronto in the summer of 2015 and glared, steely-eyed, at the media and the television cameras. It wasn’t his scowl; it was his regular face. If Babcock was a food he’d be a prickly pear.

Babcock had just been introduced as the Man Who Was Going to Save the Toronto Maple Leafs—from themselves, really. The Leafs were a long-running league joke when Babcock left the sinking ship that was the Red Wings to hop aboard another that had already capsized in Toronto.

Babcock grabbed the money—who wouldn’t—but at least in Toronto, the Leafs organization knew they needed bailing out. President Brendan Shanahan, so smart it’s scary, was beginning his reclamation project and knew that in order to speed things up, he may as well hire the best coach in the business.

Babcock was brought into Toronto with pomp and circumstance rarely bestowed upon anyone involved with hockey, which is very niche and has always struggled to find folks who have acquired a taste for it. It’s the sushi of sports.

With his scowl, er, regular face, Babcock minced no words when speaking directly to the fans the day of his introduction.

“There’s going to be pain,” he said, and it wasn’t a warning. It was fact. “Make no bones about it. There’s going to be pain.”

Just like that, Babcock dashed the hopes of any Leafs fans who thought he was going to swoop in and bring their team to Cup contention in short order. Enjoy my hiring, he said, but now you just sit and wait. This is going to take time.

Well guess what?

Babcock is in Year Three and already the Leafs are becoming a force in the Eastern Conference.

Sure, drafting a franchise player like Auston Matthews in 2016 didn’t hurt. Neither did getting rid of yesteryear’s franchise player, Phil Kessel. Everyone who knew that a puck isn’t inflated knew that Kessel, long rumored to be a coach killer, wouldn’t last long under Babs. And, Kessel didn’t. He was traded to Pittsburgh not long after Babcock was hired.

There was indeed some pain in Toronto after Babs was hired, but it didn’t last long.

The Leafs went from 68 to 69 points in Babcock’s first season, but then leaped to 95 points last year after Matthews’ arrival and secured a playoff berth (first round loss to Washington).

This season, the Leafs are battling with the Boston Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division, which is being turned into a runaway by first place Tampa Bay, aka Stevie Yzerman’s team.

So we have ex-Red Wings galore here: Shanny, Stevie and Babs. And they’re all passing their old team as if it was standing still.

But there is some enjoyment in all this for Red Wings fans, albeit in perhaps an eye-rolling way.

In Toronto, the fans are a little annoyed with Babcock. So are the players.

Sound familiar?

The fans think he falls in love with certain players and gives them too much ice time and not enough to the fans’ favorites. The players couldn’t wait for their union-mandated five-day vacation to arrive earlier this week. They could use a break from the coach’s scrutiny.

Babcock is, in many ways, the Scotty Bowman of his time.

Neither man will ever be held up as a cuddly teddy bear by their players. Neither will be accused of being a “players’ coach.” Neither will be missed by many players when they leave for their next project.

But they will win.

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Babcock did it with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks when few thought it was possible, getting to Game 7 of the 2003 Finals.

He did it with Detroit, and even though the Red Wings were set up to win when he arrived, how many times has that been the case but the team doesn’t actually win? A Cup was won in 2008 and almost again in 2009.

Now Babcock is taking on perhaps his most daunting challenge of them all in the NHL and he’s winning yet again. And he’s ticking people off again. Typical.

But Shanahan, who as I mentioned is as cerebral as any hockey man I’ve met, doesn’t care about the ticking people off part. He played for Bowman, don’t forget, and Shanny and Scotty had their moments.

It also didn’t hurt Shanny’s cause that in addition to hiring Babcock, he brought in Hall of Fame GM Lou Lamoriello to add yet another brilliant hockey mind to the organization. Shanahan’s hiring of Lamoriello wasn’t merely payback for the latter drafting Shanny as Lamoriello’s first-ever draft pick in 1987 with the New Jersey Devils.

But back to Babcock.

It’s rather humorous, to me, that a fan base that contains many folks who weren’t even born the last time the Leafs won the Cup, are crabbing about Babcock’s style and doling out of ice time. The man is resurrecting the franchise and is the best thing to hit the ice in Toronto since George Armstrong and Johnny Bower, and they’re complaining?

Even the media in Toronto, which has been subjected to the Ice Follies for a long time in that town, are questioning Babcock’s methods —with Matthews, of all people.

As for the players griping, that’s to be expected and is par for the course.

And to nobody’s surprise who knows even a thimble full of info about the NHL, Babcock looked at the Leafs’ bye week begrudgingly.

“As a young coach I would have wanted them to take their skates to the Bahamas, find some ice and skate,” he told Sportsnet.ca. “You and I both know that’s not happening.

“I think you pick the battles you can. We’ve got a good sports science team, they’ll give them information on how they can help themselves and go from there. We need the points.”

Mike Babcock was smart enough to know when to leave the Red Wings, and even smarter to choose Toronto, money notwithstanding. If he brings a Stanley Cup to that city, all will be forgiven—from the fans to the media to the players.

It’s like what one of Scotty Bowman’s players said about him during the Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1970s.

“For 364 days a year, you can’t stand the guy. And on the 365th, you raise another Cup over your head.”

The hockey denizens in Toronto, bereft of any greatness for 51 years, ought to zip it and let the genius do his work.

Maple Leafs Latest Original Six Team to Play the Fool

The two goalies were 79 years old between them. Their captain was 36. Their best defenseman was 36 as well. One of their top centermen was 39 years old. Another defenseman was 40 years old.

The 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t a hockey team, they were a senior center. The official team drink was Geritol.

This gang of grizzled veterans surprised the hockey world 48 years ago and won the Stanley Cup.

It was the last season of the Original Six before expansion doubled the size of the NHL for the 1967-68 season.

The ’67 Maple Leafs, with their aging legs, managed to plow through the Chicago Black Hawks in six games in the semi-finals before dispensing of the defending Cup champions, the Montreal Canadiens, also in six games.

Terry Sawchuk (37) and Johnny Bower (42) shared goaltending duties. Captain George Armstrong (36) didn’t contribute much offensively (nine goals, 24 assists) but he was practically Mr. Leaf. Marcel Pronovost (36), a former Red Wing, led the Toronto blue liners in savvy and smarts. Another former Red Wing, Red Kelly (39), who was a defenseman in his Cup-winning days in Detroit, had turned into a center in Toronto and chipped in 14 goals. Allan Stanley (40) was a defenseman who did the team’s dirty work in a very clean way (20 penalty minutes).

The 1966-67 Maple Leafs averaged over 28 years in age, by far the oldest team in the league. Yet they wheezed and gasped their way to the Cup.

The story of the ’67 Maple Leafs comes to mind because they are still the last Toronto team to win the Stanley Cup, and that 48-year drought doesn’t seem to be nearing an end anytime soon.

Today’s Maple Leafs are stumbling through the NHL. They recently experienced a 12-game winless streak, which is almost unheard of in today’s NHL of parity.

Toronto, at the time of this writing, is 23-29-5 and seventh in the eight-team Atlantic Division, ahead of only the wretched Buffalo Sabres, that once-proud franchise on the other side of Lake Erie from Toronto.

The nearly half century that has elapsed since the Maple Leafs’ last Stanley Cup is grating on the nerves of fans in Toronto. The only other NHL teams that have a Cup-less streak nearly that long are the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres, still looking for their first Cup since becoming members of the league in 1970.

But the Canucks and Sabres are relative NHL newbies compared to the Maple Leafs, who started playing in the league when ice was something folks used to keep their refrigerators cold more so than skated on.

The Maple Leafs not only haven’t won the whole thing since those old men did it in 1967, they haven’t really come close.

The Leafs made the NHL’s Final Four in 2002, losing to Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals. And they made it that far in 1993, bowing to the Los Angeles Kings, but aside from those two years, the Stanley Cup has been as elusive for the Maple Leafs as the Nobel Peace Prize has been to Al Qaeda.

From the slapstick days under the ownership of Harold Ballard in the 1970s and 1980s to the futility of today, the Toronto Maple Leafs long ago supplanted the Red Wings as Original Six team-turned-laughingstock.

In the 1970s it was the Red Wings that couldn’t get out of their own way, missing the playoffs every year but once between 1970 and 1984.

Today the Maple Leafs are that Original Six team with the iconic logo that have become the Chicago Cubs of hockey.

The Maple Leafs and their fans are finally getting sick of having snow sprayed in their faces by the rest of the league.

As each day passes with Red Wings coach Mike Babcock not signing a long-term contract extension (his current deal expires after this season), Toronto’s hockey fan base and media gets more sugar plums dancing around their heads with the thought of Babcock bolting Detroit and coaching the Maple Leafs.

Babcock, for all the success he has had in Detroit, is a borderline hero in Canada, from Prince Edward Island to British Columbia.

The hockey fans in Canada love the Olympic Gold Medals (two) Babcock has won for their country. He’s also won a World Junior Championship gold medal while coaching Team Canada, as well as an International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship for the country with the Maple Leaf on its flag.

And, of course, Babcock is a Stanley Cup champion coach and a three-time Finalist.

Nowhere is Babcock more idolized from afar than in Toronto, a city whose hockey fans would be delighted to see Babcock not only coach a team wearing the red-and-white Maple Leaf flag, but also one sporting the blue-and-white Maple Leaf on the jersey.

The Toronto media is perhaps even more smitten with the idea of Babcock coaching the Maple Leafs than the fans.

Column upon column has been written, touting the benefits of a Babcock-coached Maple Leafs team. The Leafs fired Randy Carlyle after a 21-16-3 start and his replacement, Peter Horachek, has gone 2-13-2 since taking over.

Babcock is the one man, the scribes in Toronto think, who could deliver the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1967. The fans mostly agree.

But Babcock’s tardiness in re-upping with the Red Wings shouldn’t be confused with a desire to coach elsewhere. He has it good in Detroit and he knows that. He works for a terrific owner, has a good relationship with his GM and his family has firm roots in Northville.

In Toronto, Babcock wouldn’t be hired to just make the playoffs a few times. He’d be brought in to win the whole shebang, and sooner rather than later. Patience is already razor-thin in Toronto; even someone with Babcock’s name and resume wouldn’t be given a very long leash. It would be the shortest honeymoon since Cher and Gregg Allman’s.

Whether Babcock would choose to turn his cozy home and hockey life upside down to work in the pressure cooker of Toronto, which is Canada’s New York when it comes to hockey, is highly debatable. In fact, it’s worse—it’s damned unlikely.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs continue to wander around, lost in the NHL’s frozen tundra with no Saint Bernard in sight to rescue them.

The Original Six have taken turns acting the fool over the last 20 years or so.

First it was the New York Rangers, who went 54 years (1940-94) between Cups. Then the Red Wings took over, going Cup-less from 1956-96. The Boston Bruins didn’t win a Stanley Cup between 1973 and 2010. The Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup in 1961 but not again until 2010.

Even the venerable Montreal Canadiens haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993.

But the Toronto Maple Leafs are now firmly entrenched as the Original Six team with the most ignominious past.

Babcock joined the Red Wings when the team was rich with talent, very used to winning and was a Cup champion as recently as three years prior to his hiring.

If he went to Toronto this summer, none of the above would apply to the Maple Leafs. Not even close.

The Maple Leafs need help, no question. But they’d better look elsewhere than Joe Louis Arena’s coaching room for it.

Game 74: Red Wings-Toronto Enotes

There is more than a subtle bittersweet feeling whenever you see Darren Helm excel on the ice.

You can’t help but wonder might have been.

What might have been, if Helm, the speedy Red Wings center, wasn’t so gosh darn injury-prone.

What might have been, if the Red Wings could insert Helm into the lineup with impunity, with any semblance of regularity.

Unfortunately, Helm has been injury-prone and he has missed a wealth of games over the past two seasons-plus.

There’s no use crying over spilled milk, but when Helm does what he did tonight in Toronto—score his first career hat trick, and in the manner that he did it—it’s hard not to wonder if the Red Wings’ place in the standings would be higher than it is now.

But for now, they are high enough.

Helm’s three goals led the Red Wings past Toronto, 4-2, as the Maple Leafs have picked a lousy time to go on an eight-game losing streak—all in regulation, by the way.

Helm scored in just about every way imaginable as he used his many tools.

First, he used his speed on the penalty kill to bust loose on a breakaway, then when that attempt failed, Helm stuck around in front of the Leafs net, batted down a pass in midair from Joakim Andersson, and flipped a backhand past Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier to tie the game, 1-1, about three minutes into the second period.

For his next trick, Helm camped in front of Bernier and in a rare play, broke his stick deflecting Jakub Kindl’s slapshot past the Leafs netminder for a 3-1 Detroit lead as the Red Wings scored three times in a space of less than five minutes.

Finally, Helm showed his soft hands as he squirted free for another breakaway, using a nifty backhand-to-forehand move to deposit his third puck past Bernier to give the Red Wings a 4-2 lead at 8:38 of the third period.

The Air Canada Centre crowd booed the Leafs lustily as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

Toronto actually led 1-0 but the Leafs have scored the first goal of the game just twice in their past 10 contests, and neither time did they win. The Leafs are two points behind the Red Wings (34-26-14) for a wild card berth, but Detroit has two games in hand.

Jimmy Howard made 25 saves for Detroit, which snapped a three-game losing streak.

And while every victory these days is to be savored, it’s also OK to admire Helm and be wistful and imagine him healthy all year. Chances are, the Red Wings wouldn’t be scrambling for a playoff spot with eight games to play.

BOX SCORE

BOTTOM LINE: The Leafs are playing with hardly any confidence these days, and it showed tonight.

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: With eight games to play, it stands to reason that the Red Wings need at least 10 points to feel safe as far as the playoff race goes. That would give them 92 points, and it’s hard to imagine that not being enough to qualify.

Game 38: Red Wings-Toronto Enotes

Play 1221 as your four-digit.

The Red Wings won a shootout tonight. Beware; this may be one of the signs of the apocalypse.

In a thrilling game between two Original Sixers, the Red Wings forged a lead, blew it, fell behind, came back to tie it, then went 2-for-2 in the shootout, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs, 5-4 at the Air Canada Centre.

Daniel Alfredsson and Pavel Datsyuk scored in the shootout, while Jonas Gustavsson, who had an uneven night, denied the Leafs twice.

Datsyuk scored in regulation, and he was joined by a cast of young supporting players. Joakim Andersson, Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar all scored goals for Detroit.

The Red Wings led, 3-1, after 20 minutes but a bad second period enabled the Leafs to tie the game, 3-3.

Toronto went ahead in the third period when a good, old-fashioned net crashing shoved the puck by Gustavsson. David Clarkson was given credit for the goal at 8:32.

Tatar banged in a rebound of a Jurco shot from the point to tie the game, 4-4, at 13:44.

The Red Wings (17-12-9) got a much needed extra point from Toronto (18-16-4), who is behind Detroit in the Atlantic Division.

But more importantly, the Red Wings ended their shootout drought, which had extended to 12 attempts. You could tell that a huge weight was lifted from their shoulders as they all gathered around Datsyuk to celebrate his shootout winner. Lots of smiles.

BOX SCORE

BOTTOM LINE: An exciting, up-and-down hockey game. A little bit of everything. Nice to know these teams still have three more meetings—the next of which is the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: The Red Wings got tons of energy from the kids: Tatar, Jurco and Riley Sheahan were all terrific all night. They pressured the Leafs’ defense and generated countless scoring chances. It was an exciting glimpse into the future.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Phil Kessel

What: Detroit at Toronto
When: Saturday, December 21, 7:30pm (TV: CBC; NHLN-US; FSD)

Phil Kessel

If you’re going to trade a 36-goal scorer, you’d better be sure you’re getting something in return.

On September 10, 2009, the Boston Bruins traded RW Phil Kessel to the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was a calculated risk.

Kessel had just completed his third season as a Bruin and was, at age 21, on the cusp of greatness. Kessel scored 11, then 19, then 36 goals in his first three seasons after being drafted 5th overall by the Bruins in the 2006 Entry Draft, a product of hockey-rich University of Minnesota.

The Bruins took that risk, dealing Kessel and a 1st round draft choice for Toronto’s 1st and 2nd round choices in the 2010 Entry Draft. The Bruins used those picks to draft Tyler Seguin and Jared Knight, respectively. Seguin turned into a bright young star, but he has since been traded by Boston to Dallas, a deal that occurred over the summer.

Kessel, meanwhile, hasn’t stopped scoring for the Maple Leafs.

Kessel has popped in 136 goals since the trade, with a high of 37 occurring in 2011-12. He is lethal on the power play, and has added 24 game-winning goals since becoming a Leaf.

Kessel is known for his hard, heavy shot and his playmaking, especially for a winger. Kessel had 45 assists in that 2011-12 season.

Kessel’s streak of four straight 30-goal seasons only came to an end because last year was truncated by the lockout. Still, Kessel was able to fire 20 pucks into enemy nets in 48 games, which projects to over 30 goals in a normal, 82-game season.

This season, Kessel has 17 goals and 15 assists in 37 games—another 30-goal season looks to be on the horizon.

Kessel wears no. 81 for the Maple Leafs.

The Thought of Skating Again Still Doesn’t Move Yzerman

The Detroit Red Wings-Toronto Maple Leafs alumni games are less than a month away. The rosters are pretty much set. You can view them by clicking here.

Naturally, the names bring back fond memories and some “Oh yeah!” moments—guys you kind of forgot about but that you’re glad they’re going to suit up, all the same.

Red Wings fans shouldn’t get their hopes up about one big name showing up who isn’t on the announced list.

If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t put any dough on number 19.

Steve Yzerman is seven-plus years into retirement and rarely has a professional athlete eased into his non-playing days more smoothly than the former Red Wings captain.

Yzerman skated off the ice for the final time as an active player in Edmonton in May, 2006, his team eliminated by the Oilers in a first round playoff upset.

He says he’s been on skates once since then. Once.

The mantra has been consistent for Yzerman. Once he peeled off the sweater and hung up the skates, that chapter of his life was finished, complete with “The End” after it for good measure.

I hit Yzerman with the question twice, a few years apart.

The first time was at the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame Dinner in October, 2006. He was just five months into retirement at that point, feeling his way in his new job as a member of the Red Wings front office.

Yzerman was at the dinner to see his old boss, Jimmy Devellano, get inducted.

I caught Yzerman after the dinner.

“So, you miss it?” I said, or something like that, about his playing days.

“Not at all. Perfectly happy,” he said.

A few years later, Yzerman was taking part in a teleconference, talking about his role as part of the executive management team for Team Canada, prior to the 2010 Olympics.

I was one of the questioners, and I again asked him about putting on the skates. As in, had he done so?

“No,” he said flatly. “I don’t miss it. I really don’t. I think I put on skates once, and that was enough.”

STEVE YZERMAN

Yzerman, now the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, was a TV guest during the first intermission of a Red Wings-Lightning game last month. FSD’s Mickey Redmond tried to get a yes or no answer from Yzerman about whether he was going to play in the Alumni Game at the end of December.

Yzerman was non-committal, but I think it was just a polite way of saying no. He alluded to other commitments he had around that time, GM-related.

Certainly he didn’t wax wistful, nor did he seem to miss skating. He re-asserted to Redmond that the skates continued to gather dust.

Yzerman is the rare pro athlete who doesn’t seem to be pulled back by the camaraderie and the locker room brotherhood, especially after being a part of it for over 20 years.

His feelings about retirement clash with those of former teammate Darren McCarty, whose new book, “My Last Fight,” just hit the stores and some excerpts of which have been published by the Detroit Free Press.

McCarty, like so many others of his brethren, openly misses everything about playing—the travel, the practices, the pranks. Winning four Stanley Cups wasn’t too bad, either.

I remember talking to former Red Wings player and coach Bill Gadsby about this. Gadsby played in the 1950s and ’60s. When I spoke to him in 2006 for a magazine piece, Gadsby told me that even at his advanced age (over 70), he still missed practices in addition to the games. And Gadsby never did win a Stanley Cup.

Not Yzerman. He took the skates off and with them, he took off the player’s cloak forever.

It would be wonderful, of course, if no. 19 in the blood red sweater stepped onto the ice to do battle against the Maple Leafs alumni—some of whom Yzerman played with and against, as several listed on the Toronto roster also played for the Red Wings when Yzerman did—namely Darryl Sittler, Dave Williams, Steve Thomas and Bob McGill.

But will it happen? Will the Red Wings coax Steve Yzerman into the gear one more time?

Don’t get your hopes up.