Tomas staying put, for the record

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:24 AM ET

He doesn't have the cachet, Czech or not, to start his own donut chain.

In fact, Tomas Kaberle can still walk into a Tim Horton's in the GTA and sip his coffee without being noticed.

But Kaberle is becoming as much a part of Maple Leafs history, in his own quiet way, as the iconic defenceman Horton. This week, he passed Horton in points and in a rare moment of public reflection of his 11 years in Toronto, expressed hope to complete a career triple, retire a Leaf, catch Borje Salming's franchise record for blue-line production and most dear to him, parade down Bay St., with a Stanley Cup.

"I've been lucky to be on the same team and proud to be on the same team, all 11 years," Kaberle said Tuesday night in Montreal after his 459th point, assisting on Colton Orr's game-winning goal.

"I'm only 31 years old, I have a lot of hockey left in me."

That often escapes the best efforts of at several Leafs general managers and an often unappreciative fan base, who have tried to trade him, trash him and at the very least scream at him to shoot on every power play. And yet, the pressure and the past four failed playoff seasons have not pushed Kaberle to ask for a ticket out, as he clings to his no-trade clause even tighter in hopes he'll one day be part of a Toronto championship.

He'll soon be in the top 10 scorers in franchise history, which usually has the reverse effect of guaranteeing you won't end your playing days as a Leaf. But T.O. has been good to him and vice-versa when you get right down to it.

RARELY TAILS OFF

His production rarely tails off -- between 40 to 60 points a year and not more than two games this season without at least one appearance on the scoresheet. Even if the Leafs don't recover this year, he could still be part of a unique clique with Paul Coffey, Brian Leetch and Sergei Gonchar, who all once led the league's defencemen in scoring when their teams missed the playoffs.

You won't find Kaberle's name embroiled in off-ice controversy. In fact, he once co-funded a trip for kids of the far-flung White Dog First Nations reserve to come to a Leaf game, a kind of payback for Canada's help in allowing Czechs to settle here after the 1968 Russian takeover.

Kaberle keeps his nose clean on the ice, an astounding low penalty minutes total of 212 in 764 games that once had Pat Quinn, of all people, touting him for the Lady Byng Trophy.

He arrived in anonymity in 1998 -- drafted 204th, long after most people had left the '96 tables in St. Louis, buried behind 12 other Leafs picks that included first choice Marek Posmyk, a Czech defenceman who wound up playing his only 19 NHL games for Tampa Bay.

"Tomas wasn't very big when we drafted him," recalled Leafs European scout Anders Hedberg. "I think he was listed as 5-foot-11, 170 pounds. But this was not somebody hiding in the bush. He was a good player from a very young age."

The smooth passer came from fine hockey stock. His father, Frantisek, was a star back home and a veteran of the 1976 Canada Cup and the younger Kaberle followed him on to the Czech national team. With his crisp breakouts, Kaberle dazzled at the '98 Leafs rookie camp, with new coach Quinn opening the door on a rebuilding team for anyone who showed flash. Kaberle joined a new-look defence that included fellow rookie rearguards Danny Markov and Yannick Tremblay.

In his first game, a 2-1 win against Detroit, he led all players with nearly 30 minutes of ice time. The Leafs made the semifinals later that season and though Kaberle started that long playoff run in the stands, he was a fixture by the end and assisted on a game-winning goal in the Pittsburgh series. He didn't miss a regular season game for almost three years afterwards.

Now, nearing 800 games, he's been through five GMs, three coaches and inherited Mats Sundin's title as longest tenured Leaf. He's even put a little beef on this year so he doesn't look out of place with fellow alternate captains Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin. Kaberle, by the way, has said he'd take the vacant 'C' if it were offered, having held leadership roles with his national squad.

But will Kaberle get to pass Sundin's mark of 13 seasons or survive four or five more to reach Salming's mark of 768 points by a defenceman?

"Who knows what will happen? It's the NHL and sometimes it's a business. But you guys know my answer, I love to play here. This became my second home a long time ago," said Kaberle, whose wife, Ilona, also wishes to remain in T.O. "I have a lot of friends in the city and this is a great bunch of guys in here.

"It would be awesome to win (a Stanley Cup) with the Leafs. They deserve to win when the last time was 1967. That's a long time and the last few years have not been good.

"You look back at all those great players on that list and it's nice to make history like them. When you get the chance to do those (records), you want to keep it up and hopefully I don't stop."

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NO. 2 AND TRYING HARDER

CAREER DEFENCE POINTS IN A MAPLE LEAFS UNIFORM

GP G A P

Borje Salming 1,099 148 620 768

Tomas Kaberle 764 75 384 459

Tim Horton 1,185 109 349 458

Ian Turnbull 580 112 302 414

Jim McKenny 594 81 246 327

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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