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Send in the clowns

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SAN JOSE, Calif. – All that was missing Saturday night was a parade of elephants, the big top and someone wearing oversized, bright red floppy shoes. Otherwise, there was every indication that the circus was in town.

There is no other way to describe what the Toronto Maple Leafs put up with on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute basis from the horde of media assigned to cover the team.

Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr. and coach Paul Maurice have endured a particularly troubling week. Both read and hear each day how their jobs are in jeopardy, how each day is probably their last, and on and on.

Calm, patient and looking downright studious in his stylish glasses, Maurice was diplomatic in response to a question inquiring if it was hard to keep spirits up during such trying times.

"You guys all work hard, and some of you are very, very good at your jobs. But I don't think I've called a lot of you for input on what I should do on the power play for a reason," Maurice said, drawing a big laugh from the assembled throng.

The Maple Leafs are to Toronto and hockey what the Yankees are to New York and baseball. And then some. They say hockey is a religion in Toronto. No disrespect to any higher authority, but given the option of attending church or the Air Canada Centre, I know which building will be bulging at the seams.

Demand for in-depth coverage of the team is validated by the passionate hockey-loving region that is Toronto. And the Maple Leafs are big business. The franchise was valued at $419 million in November by Forbes during its annual study. The New York Rangers were a distant second, $48 million behind the Leafs. The Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks ranked 12th, worth not even half as much as Toronto, at $197 million.

But when the cameras continue to roll, the questions get more pointed, and the written word is so brutal that a little perspective is needed. It doesn't seem like there are a lot of checks and balances in Toronto when it comes portraying what is fact, fiction or gross exaggeration.

"Our society today would rather read something juicy or a rumor," San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. "Everybody seems to have an agenda. You create an agenda by making stuff up and appearing to be smarter than the guys running the show."

Wilson played 64 games spanning three seasons in the late 1970s for Toronto when the team had a couple of beat writers and no 24-hour television network like it has now. Wilson told how he, Darryl Sittler and a number of other players routinely took the train and subway to old Maple Leaf Gardens for games and were not bothered in the least.

Wilson knows that's not possible anymore because of constant scrutiny from the media and the status players have achieved. Toronto goalie Vesa Toskala lives downtown, just four blocks from the arena, but he doesn't walk to games even though he admits it's close enough to do so.

"I think they focus too much on the negative," Jamie Baker said. "And the fans do that, too."

Baker spent parts of two seasons in Toronto from 1996 to 1998. Currently a radio analyst for the Sharks, Baker knows about pressure-packed environments, having played in hockey-mad Quebec, Ottawa, Toronto and laid-back San Jose during his nine NHL seasons.

"Wendel Clark told me after I got traded to Toronto, 'You're always going to be better than you are or worse than you are, but you're never going to be what you are. They're going to build you up and knock you down,' " Baker said.

A native of Nepean, Ontario, Baker lived out the dream so very few Canadian youngsters get to experience. He not only achieved the long-shot goal of playing in the NHL, he got to play for the Leafs. Baker admits that during his first exhibition game in Toronto, he slipped into the bathroom after putting on his jersey to catch a glimpse of what he looked like wearing the Maple Leafs colors.

But when things didn't go as well as Baker would have liked there, he stopped reading the newspapers, stopped watching the reports on television. He learned it takes a real adjustment to deal with everything that comes with playing and performing in Toronto.

"You have to be confident in yourself. It's not like a healthy ego – you're not arrogant, you're not cocky – you have to be ready to handle all that," Baker said. "And you live in a fishbowl."

Here's the bottom line. The Maple Leafs are not a good team. Losers of five straight and last in the Northeast Division, they're in the bottom five in goals against, power play and penalty kill. Toronto plays small, is slow and lacks skill. It's a roster of Mats Sundin, inadequate defense and a bunch of role players.

The Maple Leafs tried to salvage a dreadful trip Saturday but watched as the Sharks scored three times in the third for a 3-2 victory. The predictable outcome capped an 0-3 trek through California and an 0-5 showing against the Pacific Division this season. On pace for 73 points, the Leafs won't come anywhere near qualifying for the playoffs, a third straight year on the outside looking in.

Former NHL defenseman Rob Zettler played in Toronto from 1995 to 1998 when there was similar conjecture – fire the GM (Cliff Fletcher) and gas the coach (Mike Murphy) and trade a high-profile player (Doug Gilmour). The current Sharks assistant coach recognized he had to make certain adjustments.

"When I first got there it was fun because I was picking up every newspaper," Zettler said. "After a while you read both the good and bad, and the good and bad about yourself, and it kind of affects you.

"The best way to deal with it is to shy away from it a little bit and put things into perspective. No disrespect to the media, but you can only take so much," he added.

That's probably how Ferguson and Maurice feel. But if so, they don't show it.

"I see Paul Maurice's response after games, and I can't believe how professional he is," Wilson said. "He handles that like a White House spokesman. I suppose when he's done that's where he can get a job."

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