It was like the ghost of Harold was toying with them.
A tying goal by Mats Sundin in the dying seconds to force overtime and then another tying goal in the shootout by the captain. A win against the Montreal Canadiens could have righted this listing ship. They teased the fans again but down she went.
It's like the Maple Leafs are jinxed -- more aptly, their embattled general manager, John Ferguson.
Sometimes a trip down to a Maple Leafs game has less to with the hockey and more to do with the drama and politics. That was a good hockey game but you can safely say last night was one of those nights. The only thing missing was old Harold Ballard and his famous private bunker.
"Don't worry, he's here and laughing at everybody," teased Stephen Brown.
And it was poor Ferguson looking for a bunker.
"Lots of tension here, Scrawler," says one of my security pals on the way in. "Be careful."
Of course, all of this was a result of Mike Zeisberger's scoop on the front page of the Sun yesterday where Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Richard Peddie said it may have been a "mistake" to hire such a young GM in Ferguson four years ago.
You didn't need a body of salt water for 2,000 km to find the sharks. The smell of blood was in the air as the fabled Habs skated into town and beat the Leafs in a shootout.
Kind of merciless, actually. Almost goulish. Who says they don't have public executions in Toronto anymore? "It will happen after this game," yelled one fan about the severing of Ferguson's professional head.
"No, they will wait until Atlanta," added another.
"Fire Fergie, fire Fergie," yelled Mississauga teens Greg Gordaneer and Justin Auty, who were sporting a sign saying Fire JFJ.
Old Ballard, dead 17 years, would have loved this. "We didn't have Stanley Cups to enjoy back in those years so we enjoyed the drama," said lifelong Leaf fan Brown, 51. "It's not really fair but I guess it,s kind of like that now, too."
Fans definitely have opinions. "Fire Ferguson," said Ben Kiflu, who is the parking lot attendant outside the Air Canada Centre. Same goes for Rachel Toye and Tara Parsons, who, at ages 23 and 21, have not only never seen a Stanley Cup, but were joking they are not even sure that the Leafs have actually ever won one. "I think it's a myth," Rachel said.
Many fans said "blow it up" while others are like me and would prefer to give Ferguson the rest of this season to turn it around. I don't believe in firing somebody in the first period so I don't believe in firing someone at the one quarter pole.
Interesting to see the Leafs, brass circle the wagons. Both classy former captains Doug Gilmour and Darryl Sittler were sitting with Ferguson in his private box (modern day bunker). Hockey guys don't much like when people pile on. But the nation is restless.
I am hoping the likeable Ferguson will be able to look back at this and laugh. Any Leafs fans from the 1977-78 season remember all too well how Ballard fired then-coach Roger Neilson, only to hire him back a few days later.
The coach refused to wear a bag over his head as Ballard had suggested.
"I swear it's the curse of Ballard," joked Brown, a school teacher by trade. "Just look -- the power was out all over downtown and these guys couldn't find any scoring power in the shootout. Please don't tell me Harold didn't have something to do with it."
If you think Peddie's quote was controversial, just look at what Pal Hal said back in the day -- as chronicled in a funny Pulp Press book called Quotations From Chairman Ballard by Alan Safarik.
On women journalists in the locker room, Ballard said: "I told them once, if you want to go in there, you can, but you've got to take your clothes off too."
On meeting Billy Graham at the Gardens: "Geez, preacher, I would love to have part of your racket. All the cash and no invoices."
On removing Queen Elizabeth,s portrait from Maple Leaf Gardens: "What the hell; she doesn't pay me, I pay her. Besides, what the hell position can a queen play?"
On the unpleasantness of trading players: "We'd like to dispose of our garbage -- but whose going to take it off of our hands?"
On the use of video as a coaching aid: "The game's over, for Chrissake. What are you going to learn from those goddamn things now?"
On business: "I'm not running that place just for the fun. This is a business."
On the press: "Don't hurt your toes jumping back on the bandwagon" and "You can't believe anything those guys write; they're all smoking marijuana up there."
Ferguson might need some of that stuff before his tenure is over because the fans have got the munchies for a Stanley Cup. But don't feel too bad, John. At least you don't have Harold Ballard to deal with. But, of course, if you believe if ghosts, maybe you do!