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Studying The Boo Birds

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Is it just me, or did booing Bryan McCabe not work so well?

All he did was score the winning goal in overtime, Tuesday and take home first star honours, which prompted more boos that, it should be noted, did little to change the final score of Florida 4, Toronto 3.

You only boo the ones you loved. Leaf fans were mostly enraptured with McCabe over eight pretty productive seasons. Towards the end, though, his own goal in Buffalo was all too symbolic of an over-financed, under-productive team.

The Leafs are back in Buffalo today, the boos no doubt still ringing in some ears, and with Mats Sundin coming back to town February 21 with Vancouver, the discussion on booing bears revisiting.

Hall of Famer Larry Murphy was booed out of town in 1997 and traded to Detroit for future considerations (basically, a bag of pucks without the bag). The Leafs were in the middle of a return to earth after their two final four appearances and Murphy, who made well over $3 million, seemed as good a culprit as any.

He played 67 playoff games in Detroit and won two Stanley Cups over four years. Things worked out just fine for him.

Hockey players are people and people don’t change much. The Bryan McCabe who beat the Leafs with a howitzer from the face-off circle made the same reckless, lame backhand passes through the middle in the third.

Larry Murphy, likewise, had always been what he was, a slow but canny offensive defenseman who got a good portion of his points on the power play where he had an uncanny knack of never, regardless of circumstance, surrendering the blue line. He rode that particular skill set to the Hall of Fame. There must have been something to it.

One thing we do know is that constant booing from Toronto fans has had mixed results on visiting players. McCabe had the time of his life, Tuesday. There is no record of the gracious Murphy so much as frowning when he returned to Toronto.

That isn’t to say it can’t affect a player. The boo-birds chased Murphy out of town.

In 2005, the Baltimore Orioles’ Rafael Palmeiro played in Toronto after serving 10 days for a steroid suspension. At a congressional hearing on steroids, Palmeiro had loudly proclaimed he had never used drugs and the hypocrisy of his stand infuriated Jays fans into the most vicious, protracted booing I have ever heard.

Palmeiro couldn’t have hit a beach ball. He tried sticking things in his ears. It was the Mother of All Booing.

Jays fans booed Rafael Palmeiro because they thought he was a two-faced lying hypocrite. Imagine the reaction if he had played here.

The relationship between athletes and fans is a bit like a marriage. You think you know the person in the blush of infatuation but time passes, faults magnify, and the player you admired so passionately seems indifferent, even contemptuous, of your attention.

Sometimes, as it was with Palmeiro, it’s a fair analysis. Sometimes, as in the case of Murphy, it isn’t. He had shortcomings as a player but he wasn’t any different when he walked in the door than when he left.

McCabe, for all his defensive shortcomings, agreed to waive his no-trade clause and returned a good player in Mike Van Ryn. How that makes him a more dubious character than Pavel Kubina or Tomas Kaberle, two players who justly exercised their contractual right to stay in Toronto, is a mystery to me.

All of which brings us back to the player who brought nothing in return.

So tell me, which covenant did Mats Sundin break?

Didn’t he try hard enough?

Was he careless on the ice?

Was his defence shoddy?

Did he take too many nights off?

At the end of the day, was he something that he hadn’t been at the beginning?

What grievous moral failing taints Mats Sundin? That’s the question up for discussion all the way to Feb. 21.

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