Leaf buzz returns

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:27 AM ET

Just now, the long gloomy winter of '04-05 seems a vague and distant nightmare.

To refresh your memories, that was the winter when hockey left us all high and dry, with the NHL and its players hell-bent for self-destruction.

Wish I had a nickel for every person who, when asked, snorted: "Hockey? Couldn't care less. Don't miss it a bit."

Liars.

Opening night at the Air Canada Centre always is an event of great anticipation for the return of hockey season and of the Maple Leafs, but never has the pent up demand for the game of our lives reached such a level as last evening.

The buzz began on the street hours before game time. It eventually found its way in to the building itself and then into the arena itself. The appearance of the 48th Highlanders ratcheted the mood up a notch.

Then, the capacity crowd erupted in an explosion of sound when Stompin' Tom Connors, guitar in hand, came walking out to join his band to sing his famous Hockey Song. The crowd roared and clapped from the first note to the last.

LIKE A PLAYOFF GAME

On a day when the leaves haven't even begun to turn color, this crowd acted as if they had tickets to a June playoff game and the players responded in kind.

While the new-look NHL goes through its growing pains, a steady parade of players to the penalty box is going to be the norm rather than the exception. And, unlike during other crackdowns over the last half-dozen years, the parade won't stop until the players get the message.

That won't stop players, coaches and even the odd general manager from squawking to the league. That's been an effective way of getting the officials to relent in the past.

"We're going to be hearing it from players and coaches," said Colin Campbell, the NHL's director of hockey operations, said in a radio interview yesterday.

"We've got to be sure that this doesn't affect enforcement. We have to be sure we don't respond to it.

"We have to set a standard of consistency and we've got to keep battling to maintain it. When these guys complain, we have to be sure to hang tough."

One sore point that is going to earn Campbell an earful, no doubt, is the league's zeal in calling players for diving. It's easy to understand that diving has to be watched very carefully, because in an environment where any and all obstruction is being enforced rigidly, the temptation for the offended team to embellish is enormous.

But it's hard to determine when a player is faking and when he has been legitimately knocked off balance.

Last night in the first period, Leafs' Darcy Tucker was dumped after a whistle by Ottawa tough guy Brian McGrattan. In that exchange, Tucker is giving away 60 pounds. Was it a dive? Not likely. But the league would rather err in that way than encourage any budding thespians, so Tucker served two minutes.

In the first period, after Bryan McCabe's power play goal had staked the Leafs to a 1-0 advantage, Eddie Belfour's brilliant play kept the Senators from scoring, though he did make one save with his glove well inside the goal line. In the second period, in spite of the NHL's best efforts to create an atmosphere where offence dominates, the Senators had only one shot at Belfour, a long, harmless shot by Mike Fisher with only 2:40 left in the period.

DIDN'T MATTER

The result didn't much matter this night, though. Enough people were satisfied just to get a real hockey fix for the first time in 18 months. On this night at least, the perpetual angst of the Leaf fan was overwhelmed simply by the look and feel and passion of the game itself.

Hockey's back and, be truthful now, you care, don't you?


Videos

Photos