Leafs' alumni make up for losing club

LANCE HORNBY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 6:40 PM ET

The figurehead princes of Leafs Nation appear two or three times a week, making fabulous money from fervently loyal subjects.

Going on 43 years without a Stanley Cup and five without a playoff appearance is sufficient grounds for a public revolt, but this unique dominion also has a working parliament to keep the peace and respect almost 100 years of team tradition, known as the Toronto Maple Leafs Alumni Association.

In this lean era and without a recognized star player, it’s the veterans who get the biggest roar on the big board at the ACC, be it the maskless Johnny Bower taking a puck in the face, frizzy-haired Darryl Sittler capping a 10-point night or even grainy footage of plodding defenceman Brad Marsh circling centre ice at the Maple Leaf Gardens to celebrate being a game star 20 years ago.

Unlike other teams, you’ll get to see some Leafs in the flesh, too. In the course of a year, chances are the TMLA will have one of their members at the local minor rink, the golf course, opening a supermarket, visiting a far-flung native settlement or even riding alongside Canadian troops.

That’s the long reach of the 200-member association, whose service varied from one Leafs game to more than 1,000, with an unwritten obligation to give a little something back. For a fan base burned by what must seem like four decades of unrequited love, it can seem like a job for life.

* * *

Mike Pelyk disembarked from the Hercules after the long journey to Afghanistan, weighted by flak jacket and helmet, unsure of what greeting to expect at the dusty base in Kandahar.

Oh, there were soldiers coming out to surround him all right, but many weren’t wearing army jackets, rather blue and white sweaters, slinging rifles with one arm and holding Sharpie pens in the other for him to sign.

“I looked at (Leafs’ exec) Tom Anselmi, he looked at me, and we both asked how the hell all these Toronto jerseys got here,” said Pelyk, past president of the TMLA. “But they’d all been brought by them from home. It was incredible to see.”

* * *

Not sure what good he could do upon retiring in 1994, Bob McGill grabbed a box of Leafs souvenirs one day and made an unannounced visit to his local hospital in Newmarket.

“I signed a book and a card for a patient whose young son was sitting with him. Years later, a guy came to me at my gym and said: ‘You visited my dad years ago and it really meant a lot to him’.

The father was at the hospital a long time but recovered and now his son is a real die-hard Leafs fan and a good friend of mine.

“I think it’s more important to get out there and help people when things aren’t great for the team. When you help the sick or underprivileged people, they don’t care if the team is winning or losing.”

* * *

As the co-ordinator of the TMLA office, Adam Jancelewicz gets some unusual calls.

“We get women asking to go on a date with Wendel Clark or someone who wants Doug Gilmour to come to their kid’s birthday party for four hours,” Jancelewicz said with a laugh. “But we do our best. If we have to say no, it’s because these guys are truly busy with a lot of other requests.”

* * *

Four children who were born around the time Pat Burns joined the Leafs are now going to prestigious Canadian universities, thanks in part to scholarships provided by the TMLA.

Rachel Meyer from Toronto’s Riverdale C.I. is at Waterloo along with Matthew Michael from Welland.

Brittany Vandyken from Cambridge is attending Brock and Marko Arezina from Stoney Creek is at McMaster.

“We named the scholarships after (the late cerebral coach) Roger Neilson,” TMLA president Mark Osborne said. “I know he’d be happy at that.”

* * *

Every year the TMLA is asked to send a rep to a golf tourney near Cape Breton, N.S.

“You figure by now Cape Breton must have given up on the Leafs,” Pelyk said, noting it’s nearer to Montreal Canadiens’ turf and other clubs have put AHL farm teams in the area. “But we sent Bob Nevin and Dick Duff there with some hockey cards and swag and the people went crazy. They kept saying: ‘Thanks for not forgetting us.’”

Leafs fans will not forget it seems, though every Original Six team except the Chicago Blackhawks has won a Cup since 1967, as well as 11 of the 24 expansion clubs.

“I think this team recognizes it has a social responsibility because of what it is,” Pelyk said. “Sure (MLSEL) is about profits, but you can pursue that while giving back, too.”

The TMLA blueprint is considered a model by clubs such as the Colorado Avalanche, whose alumni association is just in the early stages of getting organized.

“It takes a few years for any of us to get acclimatized to not playing,” Osborne said. “You learn you miss the camaraderie of teammates as much as anything. We invite guys to get active as soon as they feel they’re ready. We’re not taking anything away from the older, more well-known Leafs who won the Cups — I’m sure some people wonder who Mark Osborne is — but we want to be active in the community and I know (current GM) Brian Burke want us out there.”

TMLA’s ranks include centre Gary Collins, who played only two 1959 playoff games to early 1970s, defenceman John Grisdale to the recently retired Tom Fitzgerald. Osborne also is trying to get ex-coaches and trainers involved. When the public isn’t anxious to see the old Leafs, they’re often called upon by their own team for club functions or game-night appearances.

“Clark and Bower are always in demand,” Jancelewicz said. “But some ideas don’t work and the odd person making the request is upset with us.”

Logistics have prevented willing players such as Borje Salming and Tiger Williams from being more active, but Pelyk, Mike Gartner, Dave Hutchison, Mark LaForest and Kevin Maguire have been to Afghanistan on joint visits with the NHL alumni.

“A very humbling experience,” said Pelyk, who took part in ball hockey games and dined daily with the troops, handing out boxes of TMLA T-shirts and hockey cards. “It becomes important for us to give them some sort of break from the 24/7 grind. It shows them they’re not forgotten sons and daughters.”

He bristles at the theory that because the Leafs easily fill the ACC every night, management and players don’t really care about winning.

“Everyone would love the team to do better. But because they lose doesn’t mean the weakest cog isn’t trying his best. They’ve had some good teams and they’ve won some playoff series. Hey, 20 players don’t sit around after a game checking their bank accounts. No one on any team wants to be known as the slacker.”


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