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Leafs vs. Sens: A Study In Loyalty

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

9:59 p.m.

Jason Blake collects his own rebound, scoots around the net. It’s Blake’s ninth goal and a reward for the copious confidence shown by coach Ron Wilson. Leafs win 3-1.

It was Armed Forces Appreciation night and more than 500 military members found a warm welcome and a night full of recognition at Air Canada Centre.

On a night whose theme is service, the issue of loyalty has a special poignancy. Tonight marked one of the first times that soldiers could see the esteem and gratitude Canadians hold for them.

I asked former forces head General Rick Hillier this question: what if the politicos are wrong? What if, as has happened south of us, loyalty to the troops means supporting a deceitful, doomed campaign. What if our pats on the back push our people the wrong way.

Hillier, a solider, gave a soldier’s answer. The politicians and the soldiers both have their jobs. Loyalty isn’t measured by the possible result. It is as simple as this: you either have it or you don’t.

They lower the scoreboard at centre ice so the troops and their families can get a picture with a Jeremy Williams, Luke Schenn, Matt Stajan and Andre Deveaux. With five seconds left, Canada scores to tie Russia in the World Junior and all the people who were hanging in the private boxes burst into applause. So do all the people in uniform on the ice.

This is Canada. This is loyalty. You either have it or you don’t.

9:37 p.m.

Pavel Kubina bursts out of the penalty box and delivers a perfect pass to Alexei Ponikarovsky. The goal, his 12th, pushes the Leafs into a 2-1 lead.

Interesting combo. Kubina endured a nightmarish first season as a Leaf and Ponikarovsky took nearly as long as Antropov to find his game. Do not confuse patience with loyalty. Patience is shrewd and calculated. Loyalty does not demand right and wrong. It exists as its own merit. Loyalty means doing the right thing. Patience means being willing to wait for the right result. Wisdom, grasshopper, is the correct blending of both.

9:25 p.m.

Loyalty comes in different forms.

Daniel Alfredsson?s sister in Sweden has a mental illness known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Mental illness packs a double whammy, the effects of the disease or even the treatment and the stigma that comes with admitting the affliction, even though one in five Canadians will suffer a mental illness.

Alfredsson does more than support his sister.

He lent his profile to the Canadian ?you know who I am ?campaign. He works with the Royal Ottawa Hospital. He is striving to eliminate stigma not just in his native country but in the city where he works. The unseen links born of loyalty extend in and out of the game.

8:50 p.m.

I look down into the Senators penalty box. I see Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Phillips, and Brian Lee.

Ten feet over, the Leafs bench. Jonas Frogren, Jeff Finger and the guy who started it all, Mikhail Grabovski whose slash was every bit as the one Spezza delivered in the first period.

The boys have been at it.

Loyalty. It permeates hockey and is notable only in its absence. The surest sign that the Dallas Stars had to dump Sean Avery came when his teammates made it clear they would not defend him. That was far more newsworthy than the tripe about his ex-girlfriends.

Hockey players defend their teammates. Right and wrong has nearly nothing to do with it. Maybe that’s the way it should be.

You have got to be an elite-level jerk to prompt your teammates to do something so unhockey as to not defend you. I can only remember one comparable incident. When Pat Burns coached the Montreal Canadiens, Claude Lemieux was constantly faking injuries. Unable to bear it anymore, Burns grabbed the trainer’s arm when he went to treat Lemieux’s latest non-injury. As Lemieux writhed, Burns merely watched.

Virtually every player on both teams will take a punch in the mouth or a stick across the stick for another teammate. It is what is noble in the game.

8:39 p.m.

So when is loyalty good business?

Well, consider Nik Antropov, tied with Matt Stajan for the club lead in points.

An unending series of injuries to his legs made Antropov the number one candidate for a trade until he blossomed last year with 26 goals. He has 13 this year.

Did the Leafs wait six agonizing years for that breakthrough out of a sense of loyalty? Nope. They saw a six-foot-six player who had little idea of how to be a pro or take care of his body. Antropov was often the first person other teams asked about.

Loyalty is good business when it works but Antropov is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end and the dance between loyalty and pragmatism will be once again renewed. Antropov would bring considerable return at the deadline and the Leafs are unlikely to be anywhere near the top eight. Antropov is 29 in February. It’s hard to believe the Leafs wouldn’t want one of their top point producers back. So does Antropov shake hands and head somewhere else in March with an eye toward returning? He’s an honest kid who has grown up in this city, wearing these colors. Where would the loyalty shown him early in his career lead Antropov?

Steve Moore picks up puck that eludes Ottawa defenceman Anton Volchenkov and lifts a backhander past Martin Gerber. Make it 1-1.

7:52 p.m.

Alfredsson is a spectacular study in loyalty.

A favourite of owner Eugene Melnyk, Alfredsson signed a four-year-contract extension in October that would keep him with the team until the far side of his 40th birthday.

For about $20 million, Melnyk has rewarded a magnificent two-way player and fan favorite who is now beginning the all-but inexorable slide downhill.

The decision must have felt good, but the Senators have committed an awful lot of money to a player who won’t be of much help late in the deal and whose cap impact could negatively impact the team well before then.

Is loyalty always good? If it means paying for past, and not prime performance, maybe not. It’s a particularly risky if you pay for someone the contributions someone made to another team.

7:33 p.m.

Case study number one, a rare bad call by the officials.

Jason Spezza and Dominic Moore brush past each other in the game’s first minute. They tug a little bit, and then Spezza turns and drives the blade of his stick into Moore’s belly.

The situation probably called at least for a double minor, maybe a major to Spezza. Instead, referee Brian Pochmara sawed it off with an unsportsmanlike for Moore and a laughable slashing penalty to Spezza. It’s a bit like when a television cop makes up a crime scenario that will get him home on time.

Now, there was really no harm done and Moore is fine but most nights, Spezza would have put his team in the hole by virtue of a stupid penalty.

Loyalty to the other 19 men on your team, exists inside the game. Spezza, long faulted for his unwillingness to play both ends of the ice, let it slip.

Daniel Alfredsson scores on a power play. Sens lead 1-0.

Pre-Game Entry - 6:55 p.m.

Ran into a nice couple on the way to the rink today.

It’s my habit to stop when I see people looking vacantly at a sign or stepping tentatively into a building.

Out of town people come in two flavors. They are either lost and looking for help or on track and eager for reinforcement. Either way, I oblige.

The couple had a couple of boys, eight or nine, carrying those little plastic sticks. The sticks said ‘Ottawa Senators’ and the boys weren’t going to give them up.

The Ottawa Senators, once a benchmark for regular season excellence and for one splendid spring, a post-season phenom, are wretched these days.

They are last in goalscoring. Their defence is in tatters. They started losing at this time last year and haven’t really stopped. Ken Warren, the Ottawa Citizen’s adroit reporter, figured out the Senators were 28th in the league in points for the 2008 calendar year.

Didn’t matter a bit to the boys. The Maple Leafs, six points ahead of the Senators with three more games played, also inspire a fierce loyalty and they will sell out tonight’s game against Ottawa as they sell out against everyone else.

My nephew is 10 and lives in Ottawa. When he was seven, I took him to meet the Senators. He shook Wade Redden’s hand and I know he was impressed when he couldn’t find a word worth speaking from the moment he walked into the rink until the moment he walked out.

“They’re terrible,” he says now. “I don’t even watch.”

Clearly, there are two kinds of viruses that infect a kid. One leaves them coming back only when the team does well and loudly defaming the club when they don’t. This infection is called the Montreal Canadiens virus.

The infection is everlasting with the second kind. To me, that’s the only one worth having. “It’s not about winning,” I told him. “You have to accept the losing part.”

Telling a 10-year-old about the unrequited love for a sports team is like describing color to the blind. You have to accept the losing. It’s part of it.

No game on the NHL calendar gives us a better chance to ponder that than the one tonight.

Ottawa vs. Toronto: a study in loyalty.

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