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Blue & White Need Not Be So Blue

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
John Iaboni has been covering the Maple Leafs and the NHL for nearly 30 years. For the last 12, he has been the managing editor of the team's game-day magazine and now you can share his exclusive inside access.

May 6, 2004

(TORONTO) -- The action was quick, direct - and the right thing to do.

Less than 48 hours after the 2003-04 season ended for the Leafs, general manager John Ferguson rid the organization of a potential off-season albatross. Instead of lingering doubts about the status of Pat Quinn, Ferguson dispelled any notion of change by endorsing his head coach.

"Pat's got a deal through this season and, hopefully, far beyond it," Ferguson said, reeling off compelling reasons Quinn ranks as one of the NHL's top coaches and why his record speaks for itself.

Yet, despite all this, some quarters continue to insist Quinn is in a "lame duck" situation because his pact wasn't extended beyond the final year of the current pact. Look, folks, if players are expected to play their best in the last year of their contracts, why should coaches be any different?

Quinn knows how it works. He's been a coach, GM and president. He's been hired and fired. He acknowledges he's working for a new contract. If an extension comes so be it and if it doesn't, well, life goes on. Besides, didn't Jacques Martin get his contract rewritten during the 2003-04 season by the Ottawa Senators? And look what happened to him after the Leafs bounced the Sens in the post-season. He went from lame duck to job security to dead duck rather swiftly, wouldn't you say?

Another thought that comes to mind is this: If Quinn operates next season with the one year remaining on his deal are the players going to deliver less for him? I mean, will Mats Sundin, charging in on goal during a third-period offensive thrust, stop in mid-stride and think 'gee, Pat's a lame-duck coach.' I don't think so.

Finally, who's to think that as time progresses Ferguson and Quinn won't hammer out another deal? When Ferguson took over as GM last August, he pretty well had to stick with Quinn.

Now, one year later, after first-hand knowledge of collaborating with Quinn and with the power to pursue someone else, Ferguson is quite comfortable to retain him behind the bench. They've worked well together and Quinn is Ferguson's guy.

That's not the way it's unfolded elsewhere. Don't forget, when Brian Burke took over as GM of the Canucks in 1998, he inherited Mike Keenan as head coach.

Burke immediately let Keenan know that he preferred hiring his own coach. So it was farewell to Iron Mike and hello to Marc Crawford. Faced with a similar situation, Ferguson obviously has trusted Quinn enough to resist any such consideration.

"I have a year to go and what drives me in this job is not the fact that I have one, two, five or whatever number of years," Quinn said. "You work to help this team to be the best it can be."

In his six seasons with the Leafs, Quinn says he's worked with different teams that provided ample excitement with a crowd-pleasing approach. Unfortunately, he adds, the club's goal for a championship continues to elude them but therein lies the great challenge that remains before Quinn and Ferguson.

Quinn loves the fervour that exists for the Leafs. While second-guessing and bandwagon jumping are part of the pressure cooker, Quinn says those forces only drive him more. Quinn and Ferguson, even in this age of labour uncertainty, firmly believe the Leafs have a core that isn't far off from achieving hockey's Holy Grail.

So blowing up what's been built to start all over isn't likely to happen. The club will pursue the free-agent route while shoring up from within. It's interesting in the aftermath of the Leafs' elimination to Bay.

Perhaps Ponikarovsky and Antropov will never develop as Modin has done. Perhaps they'll have to do so elsewhere. But I'll say it again, we'll know the seriousness of the Leafs as Stanley Cup contenders only when the players they develop from within emerge as major performers in conjunction with players acquired via trades or as free agents.

I, like you, wished that Quinn had played Stajan more in the post-season, but the Leafs didn't acquire Francis at the trade deadline in order to sit him. Besides, imagine if Quinn had gone with Stajan over Francis and the Leafs met the same fate. Quinn would have been roasted for sitting the future Hall of Famer.

Only in Toronto
does such fodder dominate because, bottom line, the Leafs matter all year round. My only hope is that come this autumn, the hockey chatter revolves around the Leafs' player moves or from the armchair quarterbacks who'll scrutinize Quinn's tactics.

That would mean another hockey season rather than a labour disruption. Now wouldn't that be nice?

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