Tuesday, November 19, 2013

ClubberSpeak: Ask Jim Lang

((HT: Jim Lang Blog))

Letters, he gets letters, he gets lots and lots of letters...

So, we divulge...

It is time to open up the mailbag and answer some of your questions. Without further delay, here we go.

Courtesy of David in the United Kingdom:

“What are you best stories from the covering the Leafs as close as you did a few years back?”

Hi David, thanks for the question.

There are a number of things that stand out.

While he was far from a household name during his time in Toronto back-up goalie Mikael Tellqvist was very popular among his teammates and a sincerely nice person. Many times “Telly” just wanted to sit and talk about anything but hockey. Tellqvist was a self-admitted game show addict and absolutely loved “Deal or no Deal”. He even admitted to me once that when he wasn’t starting and sitting on the bench he would play along to the in-game trivia they would show on the video scoreboard at Air Canada Centre or any other arena.

When he did play there was little debate about whether or not he was a back-up. In the 2005/06 season Tellqvist had a 3.13 goals against average and a save percentage of .895. But having said that “Telly” did have his moments of glory. The one game that really stands out took place in Boston on November 17th, 2005. Tellqvist had got shelled pretty bad by Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals in his previous start. But on that one night in Boston Tellqvist was outstanding, making 31 saves as the Leafs beat the Bruins 4-1. (By the way, the goal scorers that night were Nik Antropov, Eric Lindros, Darcy Tucker and Mats Sundin.) Because Tellqvist played so well he was being interviewed by Paul Hendrick after the game and was the last player to enter the dressing room. I was with the rest of the traveling media waiting outside when Tellqvist walked by us and entered the room. The second he walked in all you could hear was the rest of the team yelling “Telly” at the top of their lugs and celebrating his victory. It was one of those moments were it wasn’t about the fame and the money, it was about competition and being happy for a teammate who stepped up and had a big game.

Towards the end of that 2005/06 season the relationship between Head Coach Pat Quinn and General Manager John Ferguson Junior had completely fallen apart. As it turned out Quinn was weeks away from being fired by JFJ and eventually replaced by Paul Maurice.

Whatever ability the two had to co-exist ended in late March when the Leafs lost two games in three days in Montreal. It was a quirk in the post lock-out schedule that had the Leafs playing the Habs at the Bell Centre in Montreal on Thursday, March 23rd, and then again on Saturday, March 25th.

Mikael Tellqvist started both games and the Leafs proceeded to get pounded 5-1 on Thursday and then 6-2 on Saturday. During the loss on Saturday night Jason Allison broke his hand in a fight with Mathieu Dandenault. Now that year under Ferguson he had a rule that he, only he, could update the media on player injuries. Sure enough that Saturday night in Montreal Quinn walks into room after the game and starts telling the assembled media who got hurt and the nature of their injuries. The whole time JFJ was standing outside the room unaware what Quinn was doing. I always thought of it as Quinn deciding to himself that if he’s going to out, he’s going to go out his way.

Just over a month later Quinn was fired and that led to the wildest news conference I have ever been a part of. John Ferguson Junior stood up on the podium and was hammered with questions over Quinn’s firing and the direction of the team. Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun roasted JFJ on a spit that afternoon and Howard Berger got into a screaming match with a news reporter during the question and answer period.

The other thing that always amazed by working on the Leafs beat is just how well their fans traveled. It didn’t matter what city we were in you could always guarantee that there would always be a healthy contingent of Leafs fans in the opposing building. Not long into Paul Maurice’s tenure as Leafs Coach the team had a road game in Columbus. It was Friday, October 20th in 2006 and Doug MacLean was still the GM of the Blue Jackets at the time. The Leafs won that night 4-2. The goal scorers were John Pohl, Mike Peca, Kyle Wellwood and Bryan McCabe. Andrew Raycroft made 23 saves for the win. What made the game special was the legions of Leafs fans who made the drive to Columbus and helped filled the building that night. I even ran into a die-hard outside the Leafs team hotel wearing a Dave Keon sweater.

In my experience I found Buffalo and Montreal to be the best cities for the sheer volume of Leafs fans who would make the road trip to see them play. Going to Montreal for a Saturday night game needs no explanation. It is one of the finest cities in North America and say what you about the Canadiens, Saturday night at the Bell Centre is something all hockey fans should experience at least once. While Buffalo might not be as exotic as Montreal, a Leafs versus Sabres tilt on a Friday night at what is now called the First Niagara Center is no less exciting. For many Leafs fans it is easier and a lot cheaper to get tickets to a Leafs and Sabres game in Buffalo. That means the fans that go and real die-hard fans and it makes for an incredible atmosphere in the building.

The one player I enjoyed talking to the most on a daily basis during my time on the Leafs beat was Wade Belak. Wade a truly decent human being and had time for everyone. He was the funniest player on the team and on a day when nobody else was in the mood to talk, Belak was always there with a quote that would help you make your deadline.

Needless to say I was shocked and saddened when I heard about his passing. I miss Wade Belak and I hope he is somewhere up in hockey heaven, sitting in a dressing room and cracking jokes.

Keep the questions coming in to shermanfirefly7@gmail.com

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