Add No. 93 to the 7 crew

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

For a generation he was the public face of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He became an enduring symbol of a fleeting moment when the Leafs didn't just worship tradition, they were making it.

He has been described as one of the most beloved players in Leafs history, and last January, Doug Gilmour watched as his No. 93 was lifted into the rafters of the Air Canada Centre.

But, in the showdown between Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. and Jim Balsillie over moving a second NHL franchise into southern Ontario, it might surprise people to find which side Gilmour is on. "We are a nation that loves hockey so why not have another team here?" said Gilmour, who posted a message of support on Balsillie's website, www.makeitseven.ca.

"He (Balsillie) is a businessman who's done well. He's got the money and I don't see why it wouldn't work. I think it's great," Gilmour said yesterday, during an interview at Playtime Bowl, where he was hosting his annual event in support of Special Olympics. "First and foremost I played for the Leafs ... but for hockey fans in this area it would be great. From the Leafs standpoint it would create a rivalry. I'm not here to go against the rules or start fighting with Gary Bettman. All I'm saying is that it could work. I don't see a downside."

Gilmour believes the league should look at Balsillie's offer as an opportunity -- that a move from Phoenix might better, not diminish, the stature of the game. Having teams in every part of the United States might look good topographically but players find performing in a public vacuum like Florida hellish.

"You want to play in a market where the game causes excitement. In Canada or places like Detroit or a Rangers game that special atmosphere is there. Places I played like here, Calgary and Montreal, you feel that.

"When you play in New Jersey, Tampa, Florida or places in California it's not the same ... you want to be where you get that atmosphere. It's uplifting. Overwhelming. Great for hockey."

Perhaps not such a great thing for MLSEL, which envisions shrinking markets and a growing, dissident fan base. And, having Gilmour facing off on Balsillie's side is bound to make a few of the suits at the ACC squirm.

He played for six NHL teams, won a Cup with Calgary, but earned lasting acclaim as a Leaf, helping them to the conference final in 1993 and 1994.

There is no intent now, he says, to start a spitting match.

"The Leafs can't be scared of this," Gilmour said, "because they have such a strong tradition that Leafs fans would still be Leafs fans. Putting another team here is not anything against the Leafs. I don't believe it will hurt the Leafs ... and for all the fans who can't get tickets to the Leafs it would be an alternative."

There wasn't a player, past or present, at yesterday's event who didn't like the idea of a second team in the GTA.

Matt Stajan, who still collects a cheque from MLSEL, however, had to tread carefully.

"Toronto is the mecca of hockey," he said, then grinned coyly, adding: "Putting another team IN CANADA is a no-brainer. There's definitely a market for another team IN CANADA ... whether this is the right place, or right process, I don't know."

Subtle. Perhaps you can read between the lines.

Former Leaf Steve Thomas said relocating the Coyotes "puts the onus on (the Leafs) to be competitive because people can just go down the road and see another team. I think it could develop into a great rivalry -- good for both teams."

Dan Daoust played eight seasons and 522 games in a Leafs uniform and says: "It wouldn't take anything away from the Leafs because they're just a Canadian dynasty. That isn't going to change. What it might do is motivate the Leafs ... I'd love to be able to go to a playoff game here."

Gilmour prepares for his second season as coach of the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs with aspirations of returning to the NHL. Would he step behind the bench of Balsillie's team?

"We've had discussions ... it could be them. It could be the Leafs. It could be whomever.

"But would I work for him? Yes. One hundred per cent."


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