Sunday, April 5, 2015

Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL, 1998-99)

1998-99 Regular Season: Leafs vs. Chicago Blackhawks
     1998-99 was a memorable season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Maple Leaf Gardens, the Leafs iconic home for the past 68 years, was closing midway through the year, replaced by the Air Canada Center.
     Since it's grand opening in 1931, the Gardens had been home to not only the Leafs, but also pro basketball, pro wrestling, rock concerts, boxing, you name it. It saw the highs of 11 Stanley Cup championships to the nadir of the Harold Ballard era of the 1970s and 1980s. The building had become not just a legendary sports arena, but a Canadian cultural shrine.
     The Maple Leafs were coming off two straight disappointing seasons by the time 1998-99 rolled around. The team had slumped after making two straight conference finals in the early 1990s, and missed the playoffs altogether in 1997 and 1998. 
     Major changes were made for the upcoming year. Montreal Canadiens goaltending legend Ken Dryden was named President/GM. Dryden, in turn, hired former Vancouver Coach Pat Quinn as Leafs head coach. Dryden then made a big splash in free agency by signing star goaltender Curtis Joseph to shore up the "last line of defense". And to top it off, the Leafs switched from the Western Conference to the East, joining up with arch-rival Montreal.
     1998-99 was a huge turnaround for the Maple Leafs. Now in the Northeast Division, Toronto soared to a 45-30-7 record, good enough for second place. Their 97 points were just six behind division leader Ottawa. Mats Sundin again led the team in offense, scoring 31 goals and 83 points. He was joined in the 30-goal club by Sergei Berezin, who scored a career-best 37 goals. Four others scored at least 20, and as a team, the Leafs scored 268 goals, a huge jump from the paltry 194 they scored the previous season.
     Toronto had a decent defense that year with Curtis Joseph playing the lions-share of games. CuJo was in net for 67 games, going 35-24-7 with a 2.56 GAA and 3 shutouts. Three other goaltenders were used that year, with Glenn Healy getting into the second-most games (9).
     This program, of course, is from the last NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens, played on February 13, 1999. The Leafs played the Chicago Blackhawks, who were also the opponent in the first NHL game at the Gardens. Chicago had a horrible season, losing 41 games and finishing only 7 points ahead of the expansion Nashville Predators. It was the beginning of the long decline of the franchise during the "Dollar Bill" Wirtz era. That night, however, the Blackhawks looked like world-beaters, embarrassing the Leafs on national TV, 6-2. Longtime NHL enforcer Bob Probert made history, scoring the last NHL goal in Maple Leaf Gardens history. I watched that game, and thought the Leafs looked nervous and distracted. Any other night, and they probably would have handled Chicago.
     The post-game ceremony was excellent. Led by Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean, the Leafs brought back former players from each decade, even the 1930s. Even Doug Gilmour, by then a Blackhawk, was part of the festivities. A highlight of his famous "behind-the-net spinorama" goal in 1993 against St. Louis drew loud cheers, and a few laughs when the camera showed current Leaf Curtis Joseph wincing. There was also a "C'MON TEEDER!" cheer for Ted Kennedy, who was ill and couldn't attend. In the end, 1930s Leaf Red Horner presented current Leaf Mats Sundin with a Gardens flag, telling him to "take this flag to our new home, but never forget us". 
     The Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since 1995-96, and drew the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. It was a low-scoring affair, as Flyers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck shut out the Leafs in Game 1 and kept them scoreless through the first two periods of Game 2. Toronto was able to pull off a dramatic win in Game 2, and eventually eliminated the Flyers in six games. In Round Two, the Leafs drew the Pittsburgh Penguins and again needed six games (two of their wins in overtime) to knock off the Penguins. In their first conference final sine 1994, Toronto ran into Dominik Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres. Buffalo knocked off Toronto in five games to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to Dallas in six.
     Bought this program on eBay awhile ago. Always wanted a copy, since it was a historic night. It has 178 pages, loaded with pictures of current and former Leafs and all the major events that happened at Maple Leaf Gardens. It's incredible to think how many hockey legends, bands and pop culture icons have performed there. Rock icons like The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Queen performed at the Gardens. Muhammad Ali fought there. Even Queen Elizabeth appeared at a Maple Leafs game. And, of course, great hockey stars such as Syl Apps, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Frank Mahovolich, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky have played there.
     Since closing in 1999, Maple Leaf Gardens sat empty for years before being bought by Loblaws and converted into a grocery store. There's still hockey played there, too, as an arena was added near the ceiling. I'm glad they found a use for that building. Would have hated to see it become an eyesore like Tiger Stadium did.

Sources:
National Hockey League Statistics: 1998-99 (from hockeydb.com)
"The Final Game: February 13, 1999, Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Chicago Blackhawks", 1998-99 Toronto Maple Leafs Game Program
  

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