Game Day: Toronto, Montreal and the thrill of history
Players change, the years march forth, but rivalry is crystallized by time.
And if the last century is a reliable guide, tonight's game will be filled with nail-biting excitement and raw emotion. Because when Toronto and Montreal face-off on a Saturday night, when Hockey Night in Canada flickers into living rooms from coast to coast, these teams play no other kind of game.
The Habs have emerged as a powerhouse this season. The Leafs, riding a two-game winning streak, will have their gloves full. And the Bell Centre will be a madhouse as fans for both sides exchange cheers and chants and taunts.
Speaking of history and milestones, tonight marks the NHL's 50,000th game. It is also Brian Burke's 1,000th game as a general manager. And if all of this wasn't enough to set the mood, the Leafs have made the trek to Montreal this weekend with their fathers.
Final score predictions? Let's hear them.
I will simply point something out. Right now, Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur are on a tear. And heading into this season, each of them scored more lifetime points against Montreal than against any other team in the league.
The same goes for Tomas Kaberle. Make of that what you will.
I was in a cab yesterday when news broke about Pat Burns.
"He was the best – the best," said the driver, shaking his head as the AM radio crackled with the bulletin. "This is very sad."
After a lengthy and courageous battle with three different cancers, Patrick Burns died yesterday and the hockey world lost a first-class ambassador and one of the greatest leaders the game has ever known.
What can you say about Burnsie?
For an entire generation of Leaf fans, he was the first coach we associated with "winning." He wasn't just a bench boss who changed lines or called time-outs. He was as much a part of the team as any of the players we worshipped.
As his illness advanced, Burns became more reflective.
Last March, while delivering remarks for the announcement of the Pat Burns Arena now under construction at Stamstead College, he said this:
"I probably won't see the project to the end, but let's hope I'm looking down on it and see a young Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux… I know my life is nearing its end and I accept that. As for my career, I always said to my kids, 'You don't cry because it's over, you're happy because it happened.' That's the main thing. I'm happy it happened.”
As the cab snaked along Yonge Street in traffic, I looked out the window and felt a tremendous sadness. But I also felt a tremendous gratitude: We should be so happy Pat Burns happened to us.
And so when I think of Burnsie, I will forget the illness that took him too soon and instead remember his contagious smile and zest for life. I will remember the way he defended his players the way a lion defends its cubs.
I will remember the way he smirked and muttered to nobody in particular one night in Chicago after Jim Cummins was taking liberties with the Leafs and then found himself receiving end of a Tie Domi smackdown.
I will remember the way he charged across the bench to get at Barry Melrose. I will remember the way he once patted Wendel Clark on the helmet with a tenderness that bordered on familial. And I will remember the way he pumped his fist while grinning and glancing upwards toward Cliff Fletcher after the Leafs between Detroit in a Game 7 none of us will forget.
A video that was released after that season was titled The Passion Returns. Pat Burns, as much as anyone else, was responsible for returning this passion to Leafs Nation.
In advance of tonight's game, and with a heavy heart, I leave you with this video of Burnsie's memorable return to Montreal all those years ago:
PHOTO: TONY BOCK/TORONTO STAR