TORONTO - The greatest Maple Leaf player of my lifetime, Dave Keon, came from Rouyn-Noranda, Que., and that mattered to almost no one.
He played on Stanley Cup teams with Terry Sawchuk of Winnipeg and Johnny Bower of Prince Albert, Sask., and the only reason I know their home towns is I happened to look them up.
The most famous goal in Leaf history — scored by the limping Bob Baun: He’s from Lanigan, Saskatchewan.
The highlight overtime goals everyone remembers — scored by Lanny McDonald of Hanna, Alta., and Nikolai Borschevsky of Tomsk in Russia.
The thing is, in spite of the loud entertainment and finger-pointing of Saturday night, with Don Cherry shouting about Brian Burke and the apparent Americanization of the Maple Leafs, we don’t really care where players are from. It’s never been important in Toronto. We care what they do. We care how they perform. We care whether the team wins or loses, whether we’re being entertained, whether we believe in the product.
We care about the jersey, just not necessarily the nationality of those wearing it.
It isn’t often you get two figures, so large, so bold, so boisterous butting heads on national television the way Cherry has taken on Burke and Burke, without a similar forum, has responded in his own way. But in this individual battle, Cherry is wrong about the Leafs and Burke has acted inappropriately in his attempts to have Cherry silenced on Hockey Night In Canada.
This is win-win for publicity, lose-lose for point of view.
As commentator, Cherry has every right to be wrong so long as he believes in his opinion. He is factual when he points out there are no Ontario players on the current Maple Leafs. That can’t be argued. But he is certainly challenging credulity when he maintains it is Burke’s strategy to intentionally fill the Leafs roster with American players or players from other countries and provinces.
Do Leaf fans actually care whether Phil Kessel is from Madison, Wisc., or Joffrey Lupul was born outside Edmonton in Fort Saskatchewan? Does it matter that Dion Phaneuf was born in Edmonton and spends his summers in Prince Edward Island?
The real prize of this confounding Leaf season has been the rookie, Jake Gardiner, on defence. He happens to be an American from Deephaven, Minn. He also happened to be the Leafs’ second choice when pursuing an Anaheim defenceman in a deal last season.
The Leafs originally asked for Justin Schultz, playing alongside Gardiner at the University of Wisconsin, but were informed by the Ducks that he wasn’t available. Schultz, by the way, happens to be from Kelowna, B.C. So first choice for Burke was a Canadian playing at an American university, Second choice turned out great in the American Gardiner.
And funny, I haven’t heard a Leaf fan, including Cherry, complain yet about his place of birth.
There are elements to the way Burke has put the Leafs together that are certainly worth questioning and demand questioning. But the least of which is the birthplace of his players, especially considering two of his first-round draft picks of late have been Ontario kids. And yes, it was even worth wondering when he forced Ron Wilson to fire two assistant coaches last summer (both Canadian, by the way) and replaced with Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin, both Americans he was familiar with through USA Hockey and he would argue, in spite of their resume, that they were most qualified for the job. But at the same time Burke the American works in hockey’s highest paid front office with Dave Nonis of Burnaby, B.C., Dave Poulin of Timmins (hometown of Frank Mahovlich), Claude Loiselle of Ottawa and Rick Dudley of Toronto and has added two Ontario chaps, Randy Carlyle and Dave Farrish to his coaching staff as of the weekend.
Cherry was never better, never worse than he was this past Saturday night on Coach’s Corner, passionately and angrily grabbing your attention, bringing you closer to your television set, making you listen, even if you didn’t happen to agree. That’s Cherry at his absolute best. And never mind the holes in his argument.
On the same Hockey Night program a few weeks earlier, the Leafs honoured their all-time leading scorer, Mats Sundin of Bromma, Sweden. Everyone stood and cheered. Among those in attendance that night, the previously honoured Borje Salming of Kiruna and Wendel Clark of Kelvington, Sask.
Salming, from Sweden, remains every bit as popular as Darryl Sittler from Ontario and Clark from Saskatchewan is right there with Doug Gilmour of Kingston as the favoured Leaf of the past two decades.
Don Cherry knows all that. But for him, this is personal and convenient. He has the forum and uses it well, even when his message doesn’t hold up upon deeper examination.