Team Canada, represented by Washington's Guy Charron and Robert Picard among others, battles Finland today in its opening assignment at the World Ice Hockey championships in Prague. However, the team closest to the hearts of patriotic Canadians will be playing closer to home, right here at Maple Leaf Gardens.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, one game from Stanley Cup elimination, challenge the New York Islanders in the sixth game of their bitterly contested quarter-final series. Since Ilsander fans jeered the Canadian National Anthem at Nassau Coliseum Tuesday night, the series has widened into an international incident, with the Islanders' Canadian mercenaries caught in the middle.
New Yorkers chanted "Lets go Islanders" through the first half of "O Canada," then booed until they heard the first notes of the Star Spangled Banner. For television viewers throughout Canada, it must have sounded like a declaration of war.
The principal impetus of the fans' act was furnished by Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard, who probably would not object to the start of hostilities, as long as he could stage a few battles in Maple Leaf Gardens and sell souvenir rifles and grenades.
The U.S. anthem is played in Vancouver and Montreal when American teams visit, but Ballard refuses to do so here and has been quoted as saying, "I think it's a waste of time. People don't come here for an organ recital."
The intimidation tactics of Leafs like Dan Maloney and Tiger Williams sometimes makes an impartial observer wonder what they do come for, at $15 top. But there hasn't been an empty seat, regular season or playoff, in 30 years, so there is no doubt Ballard has exploited a lucrative formula.
A winning formula is still proving elusive and Coach Roger Neilson emphasized the power play and penalty killing at yesterday's workout, thereby indicating that the Leafs plan a return to the mugging motif that characterized their two victories here.
Although critics suggested that too much emphasis on physical hockey was largely responsible for the Leafs' meager nine-goal output in five games, Neilson's videotape search for a flaw in his club during Tuesday's 2-1 overtime loss in New York produced the ratioable that "we didn't hit enough. There were a number of times in the game when we should have hit more and didn't."
The Leafs, who hit enough for anyone, appeared tired and listless yesterday, following Tuesday's bruising game and the charter flight from New York. Denfenseman Ian Turnbull who scored Tornoto's only goal, was unable to stifle a gaping yawn while listening to Neilson's power-play dissertation.
They should perk up when the 16,485 faithful appeal to their patriotism tonight. The big question that hangs over this series, however, is whether the survivor will be in physical condition to tackle Montreal or Boston in the next round. With Toronto planning to escalate the conflict, the likely answer is no.
The Leafs professed not to be discouraged by Tuesday's loss and goalie Mike Palmateer, permitted to watch yesterday's practice after his magnificent 38-save effort, said, "We don't really care that we have to do it in seven games and not in six. It's only upsetting when you think 'We're totally beat. We can't win.' Well, we haven't been beaten yet."
Johnny Bower, age 53, the hero of the Leafs' last Stanley Cup triumph in 1967, performed Palmateer's duties and lifted a few frustrated forwards' spirits by allowing some pucks to slip past.
Neilson's spirits rarely require a boost and he said, "We still think we can win in there (the seventh game would be played Saturday in Nassau Coliseum). First, of course, we have to make sure we win here."
Besides adding some touches to the inffectual Toronto power play - "It's reached the point where both teams' penalty killers know everything they're going to do" - Neilson was considering tactics to combat the Islanders' faceoff shenanigans.
Toronto centers held about a two-to-one edge in faceoffs through the first four games, so on Tuesday New York Coach Al Arbour had his centers in action before the drop of the puck, trying to create double waiveoffs and thereby forcing wingers to handle the draws. It worked frequently, with accompanying delays.
"There must have been 20 guys thrown out of the faceoffs," Neilson said. "They were trying to get our guys thrown out and the linesmen went along. I'll see how tomorrow's game goes.I could always put two centers out there."
The one man he would like to put on the ice is defenseman Borje Salming, but the Swede remained in Wellesley Hospital, both eyes covered while physicians awaited a reduction in the hemorrhaging behind his right eye. The eyelid was cut and his nose broken by the stick of New York's Lorne Henning on Sunday.
The hospital has been flooded with flowers, cards and gifts for Salming, in addition the security force has been struggling to cope with visitors, mostly young females, who have been trying to enter Salming's room. Only his wife and fellow Swede Inge Hammarstrom, of the St. Louis Blues, have been permitted entry.
All the gifts provided by rabid Toronto fans were not directed exclusively to Salming. A firm that specializes in undergarments gave all the players shorts decorated with maple leaves. Better they might have supplied bathing suits, an Islander supporter quipped, for use on next week's vacation in Florida.