GLENDALE, Ariz. (Dec. 4) — It isn’t often that the Maple Leafs’ traveling party, so to speak, has a chance to gather in a friendly, informal setting away from the hockey arena. But that opportunity arose on Wednesday night — thanks to Cliff Fletcher and his lovely bride, Linda — who hosted a lavish party at their spectacular estate in nearby Scottsdale.
This place has to be seen to be believed. It’s a sprawling, one-level mansion perched on an incline that overlooks the lights of downtown Phoenix. It has an enormous livingroom with four televisions built into the wall, enabling Cliff to watch multiple sporting events at the same time. Another room contains a large pool table, and has a fifth TV built into the wall. Photos of Fletcher during his Hockey Hall of Fame induction in 2004 adorn the room, along with portraits of the Silver Fox standing beside hockey immortals Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr.
This gathering — planned by the Fletchers several months ago — was for everyone on the road trip except the players, who have business to attend to tonight at Jobing.com Arena against the Phoenix Coyotes. Everyone else in the Leafs’ party was invited, along with reporters following the club on this three-game western swing. President and GM Brian Burke was on hand, along executives Joe Nieuwendyk, Dallas Eakins and Jeff Jackson, and coaches Ron Wilson, Keith Acton, Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler. The team broadcasters were there — Joe Bowen, Greg Millen, Dennis Beyak, Jim Ralph and Paul Hendrick, along with long-time TV producer Mark Askin, and Leafs' media relations manager Pat Park. They all arrived on a charter bus from the team hotel closer to Phoenix. The Anaheim at Chicago NHL game was on one of the livingroom TVs, and it was a a study in loyalty and friendship to watch Burke so intently rooting for his former club to pull out a last-minute tie against the Blackhawks. But, Chicago scored an empty-net goal to clinch a 4-2 victory.
I drove my media collegaues Sheri Forde [TSN], Rob Longley [Toronto Sun], David Shoalts [Globe & Mail] and Kevin McGran [Toronto Star] to the party in a rental SUV. The vehicle had space for five passengers, necessitating that Michael Traikos of the National Post hop in a cab for a $68 ride from here in Glendale to the Fletcher’s. Traikos had no intention of incurring a similar expense on the way back. Instead, he crawled into the rear hatch-back portion of my SUV and pretended he was a large suitcase. Somehow, he made the return trip to Glendale in one piece.
The Leafs’ party went back to the team hotel on the bus around 10 p.m. That left Fletcher and the rest of us media wags to crowd around a circular table and tell some lies for the next 90 minutes. There is no better host than the Silver Fox, and he has a zillion hockey tales from his 40-plus years in the NHL. Not to mention the memory of an elephant. He recounted the great stories about the 10-player trade in 1992 that brought Doug Gilmour to Toronto, and his frustrating inability to sign free agent Wayne Gretzky in the summer of 1996, when Gretzky badly wanted to finish his career with the Maple Leafs. But, ownership felt the Great One could not generate enough revenue in a maxed out hockey market to justify his addition. It remains one of the most peculiar decisions in recent Leaf annals. Imagine the ‘96-97 Leafs with a centre-ice contingent of Gretzky, Gilmour and Mats Sundin.
It was an exceptional evening at Cliff and Linda’s. Remember, it was the Coyotes that jettisoned Cliff in a managerial purge more than a year ago, enabling him to re-join the Leafs when John Ferguson was fired last January. He won’t admit it, but you can be sure he’d derive tremendous satisfaction from a Leafs’ victory in the road trip finale tonight.
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