All Leafs can do is look forward

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

The emotions were there, dripping from every syllable. Disappointment, embarrassment, regret. Maybe even a little bit of shame.

One by one, the key Leafs came out of their inner sanctum yesterday, facing the cameras and the scribblers one last time before they disperse to the four winds for the summer, and perhaps longer. At times like these the millionaire sportsmen make easy targets.

When you're the Maple Leafs and you've managed to miss the playoffs, there are no penalties, it seems, for piling on. It's open season.

The whole organization is getting whacked, as it should, from top to bottom. It should be pointed out, however, that there is no sense of defiance or contempt. Almost to a man, the players know they screwed up.

We all know, also, that these guys make a fortune to play a game. Some of them earned more during the past eight months of futility than the average working man will earn in a 40-year career of hard labour. So, the boys in blue and white have been paid well for their pain.

Still, it doesn't make that pain any less indelible. This one is going to stick with them for a long time, especially the veterans.

"We're all trying to digest what happened," Darcy Tucker said. "We feel guilty. We feel like we let a lot of people down.

"Obviously it is a failure for everyone," Bryan McCabe said. "It's on all of us. I'm sure John (GM Ferguson) will figure out what needs to be done and tweak it as he sees necessary. But it's a huge disappointment for all of us."

"Sometimes in sports you don't have the answers, whether it's good or bad," Mats Sundin, the captain who always has to try to answer for the team, said. "In professional sports at our level, it's such a fine line between not making the playoffs and maybe playing in the Stanley Cup final.

'I LOVE IT'

"It's tough sometimes but at the same time I love it. I wouldn't change my position for anything. It's the best hockey city in the world and to be the captain of this team is a huge honour. As I've been here longer, I realize that and I cherish it more.

"I like it that hockey is the No. 1 sport in the city where I'm playing. I like the idea that people came to a meaningless game (Tuesday) night and came out of their seats to applaud us."

There is every reason to believe this team will undergo significant off-season changes. Perhaps six, eight or 10 of the players who were on the roster this year will not be back next fall when the team goes to training camp. Nobody can be certain who the coach will be. Or the general manager. Or even the composition of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment board. Those answers will be revealed soon enough.

For the players, at least those who are reasonably certain to be back, there is little doubt the embarrassment of not being in the NHL's 16-team championship tournament should -- and will -- be a rallying point.

"We've got a few extra weeks to think about it," Tucker said. "This is a large off-season in our dressing room. The young guys have to come back ready to go and the veterans have to come back ready to make sure this doesn't happen again. The sting is going to last a lot longer than a couple of weeks, that's for sure.

"There's a lot of reflection after a season when you finish two points short of a playoff spot. Winning a championship is all you look forward to as a player.

"You look around at the faces in our dressing room and you see the faces of guys who have not won a championship. It's tough to look them all in the eye."

Sundin, at 35, is one of those. Unless the Leafs regroup quickly, he will miss the championship boat. He knows he's nearing the end of his career but he doesn't see himself as a trade-deadline rent-a-player, a la Ray Bourque, just to get his name on the Stanley Cup.

"There's something about starting in training camp and seeing it through to the finish," he said. "That's the way I want to do it. And I want to do it here."

Sundin will need help, then. A lot of help. From his teammates, from the coach, from the front office and from the owners.

Starting right now.


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