Less booing, more cheering for Maple Leafs

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

You pay good money at a pro sports event, you have the right to boo.

No one disputes that, especially when the cash goes in a widening hole in the ice that’s been 43 non-Cup years in the making. You can even fling the occasional waffle at the end of the game to underline your disgust as one fed-up and obviously well-fed fan did on Thursday.

But disgruntled Maple Leafs supporters could be unwittingly hurting the players who one day will have the biggest say in turning the ship around. For all the managerial and coaching decisions that have so far backfired and the poor returns from some name players, this is still the youngest team in the NHL. Some kind of learning curve is to be expected and even tolerated. And didn’t people urge Brian Burke to clear the dead wood contracts and build from the bottom up?

The Leafs were nine points out of a playoff spot heading into play Friday, but not far away from where a lot of pundits thought they would end up — in a group of wannabes trying to hang in for an eighth-place miracle in April.

Playoffs don’t look plausible now, but neither will it happen with youngsters such as Luke Schenn, Nazem Kadri and Keith Aulie getting their ear drums assaulted every home game. It’s like the kids are paying for all the club’s post-1967 sins, which included the ruination of youngsters much like themselves in the 1980s.

“I don’t think people should be taking those frustrations out on us,” Kadri said Friday at the MasterCard Centre. “We’re trying pretty hard. When we lose, it’s not like: ‘Oh well, next game’. We want to be a playoff team as much as the fans want us to be. We’re not looking for any sympathy, just maybe a little more support.

“We were starting to get booed midway through the first period (in Thursday’s loss to Philadelphia). At that time we were controlling the majority of the game except for a couple of bounces. It’s pretty tough when they pot a couple when you feel like you’ve been dominating. Then you come in for the first intermission down 2-0, with the crowd against you.

“It gets frustrating obviously, but they have the right. They want to see some wins.”

Kadri and other youngsters had some inkling of what they were in for here if things ever went sour. One of the first things potential Leaf picks are graded on in NHL scouting combine interviews is how thick their skin is to play in the Toronto market.

“I can speak for most of the young guys on this team — they’re mentally tough,” Kadri said. “I don’t know if they let any of that stuff affect their play. They’re pro hockey players now and if someone boos them or throws something at them, they aren’t going to lose sleep over it.

“That’s something Burkie looks for. That’s what I’m talking about when I say everyone in here hates to lose.”

During the club’s early struggles, Schenn has shown maturity beyond his 21 years with a couple of tough-talking speeches to the media, directed to all teammates.

“You can say we have a young team, but the bottom line is getting results,” Schenn said Friday. “We’re frustrated and no one is taking this harder than those in this dressing room. The extra booing doesn’t make it easier, but at the same time, they pay to watch us and they haven’t had a winner here for ... forever”.

Schenn was asked if the team was showing signs of chafing under coach Ron Wilson.

“It’s not his fault,” Schenn insisted. “He’s not going out there and playing for us. Every guy has to look himself in the mirror. To start blaming the coach is the easy answer, I guess, and make him the scapegoat. But everyone in this room is in the NHL for a reason and management believes in every player.

“Consistency isn’t there yet. We only played 20 good minutes against Washington and Boston and caught some breaks (resulting in their only two wins since Nov. 22). But time is running out. We have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and go out there and get results.”

Wilson rarely projects himself as a coach sympathetic to younger players, witness his public scoldings of Kadri and Tyler Bozak this season. But he also gave Aulie the ice time he deserved when veteran Mike Komisarek hit a wall. Wilson is concerned at the psychological toll the fans’ treatment of his greenest players might be taking.

“It can have an effect,” Wilson said. “But when they come into the room later, we (coaches) don’t boo them. We’re trying to be encouraging and trying to show them if they make mistakes, here’s what they are and back that up with a lot of positives and a lot of video.

”If people think we’re not trying or not giving an effort, then they should be vocal. But we had more hits, more shots (forced more giveaways) and had more scoring chances than (the Flyers). But they ended up ahead on the scoreboard.”

Until that situation evens out, Wilson — and the fans — will have to ride it out.

lance.hornby@sunmdia.ca


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