Leafs: 'Long way to go'

ROB LONGLEY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

There were free Maple Leafs tickets to be had at the Air Canada Centre yesterday.

Sadly, for long-suffering fans of the team, there were no money-back guarantees for the 2008-09 season to go with them.

"We may be taking a step back to take three steps forward," Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher said bluntly, moments after helping launch a surprise ticket giveaway for a Leafs pre-season contest in September.

"Hopefully, we'll grow as a team, but we're going to have so many new members on the team when we drop that puck in Detroit on opening night.

"It will be the start of a process. Hopefully, it will go quicker rather than slower when it happens."

UPHEAVAL

It already has been an off-season of upheaval for the Leafs, one in which Fletcher blew up the coaching staff and hasn't been shy about parting ways with some veteran players.

But with no significant acquisitions yet for the roster to be delivered to new coach Ron Wilson, Fletcher knows he isn't in a position to oversell optimism, either.

"You are going to see a team that is younger and a team that is going to play a very enthusiastic and aggressive style," Fletcher said. "But we're not kidding anybody. We have a long way to go to become the Detroit Red Wings."

In its own way, yesterday's promotion was a swift bit of marketing for the Leafs. On one of the slowest sports news days of the summer, the Leafs trotted out a handful of players past and present, as well as officials from the soft drink company helping to make it a "free" game.

Around 800 fans crammed into the galleria area of the Air Canada Centre -- though that number started to swell as word leaked out about the giveaway -- and all were given tickets. Hoping to fill their home rink with fans who rarely get the opportunity to see the Leafs live, the team has added a fifth pre-season contest, a Sept. 22 date against the Buffalo Sabres. The rest of the tickets for that game will be distributed through various other promotions.

Of course, hard-core fans would be happy to trade that good will for a good season.

"Hopefully, we can get this building where it needs to be (in terms of noise)," Leafs centre Matt Stajan said of what will undoubtedly be a louder venue than players are used to most nights. "Get the fans making it a tougher place to be for the road team."

Stajan, who recently signed a two-year contract extension, admits there will be an adjustment period as the Leafs move forward, but recognizes that status quo wasn't cutting it.

"Obviously, we fell short (the past three years)," Stajan said. "It's not acceptable to do that year in and year out, but hopefully we can change that this year. There is new blood in the dressing room, a new coaching staff and a new system. There is lots to look forward to.

"(Fletcher) came in here to make changes and he has done that. There are a lot of new faces coming in, including coaches. It's tough to see some of your friends and teammates go, but you knew that was going to happen.

"I think Cliff has stuck to his word and hopefully the changes are made for the best and we can get back to the playoffs."

While Fletcher has kept busy since the end of the season, he is not going to suggest that the acquisition of tough guys Ryan Hollweg and Jamal Mayers and some other minor signings are enough to immediately make the team a contender.

And as passionate as the fans were yesterday, Fletcher knows what comes with it.

"Everyone here is well aware and sensitive to the frustration the fans are having out there from missing the playoffs the last three seasons," Fletcher said.

"We try to listen to everything everybody has to say and then move forward in a positive fashion."


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