Bryan McCabe is back in town tonight—and like the protagonist in “Boots or Hearts,” he’ll probably be all squint-eyed and confused when he steps onto the Air Canada Centre ice as a member of the Florida Panthers and hears nineteen thousand fans (many of them wearing replica McCabe jerseys) booing him.
McCabe experienced as dramatic a fall from grace as any Toronto athlete since (dare we say) Kelly Gruber. Like Gruber (and unlike, say, Vince Carter), he didn’t really do anything wrong per se. Rather, after doing a lot of things right, he couldn’t replicate his success; throw in a bizarre, well-publicized contract dispute and McCabe became a villain to much of Leafs Nation. How quickly we forget that in 2005/06, Bryan McCabe was one of the few bright spots on a moribund Leaf team. He was rewarded with a spot on Team Canada, despite valid concerns about his defensive play (see: McCabe vs. Keith Primeau, 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs). Still, McCabe’s offensive contributions couldn’t be questioned, and so former Leaf general manager John Ferguson Jr. did what he used to do best: he offered McCabe a gargantuan contract with a no-movement clause.
That’s where things got interesting—and where McCabe began alienating himself from his fans. Instead of biting Ferguson’s hand off, McCabe balked at the offer. His indecision was later attributed to his wife’s health, but even after resigning, McCabe never regained his popularity. He had another productive season in 2006/07, but tailed off the following year. Diminishing returns, coupled with an albatross-of-a-contract, made McCabe expendable, and on September 2—the day after receiving a two million dollar roster bonus—he was dealt (along with a fourth-round draft pick in 2010) to the Panthers in exchange for Mike Van Ryn.
The deal’s worked well for both teams: McCabe is enjoying a renaissance in Florida, while the Leafs are a very respectable 8-5-4 with Van Ryn in the lineup. Still, we’re guessing McCabe will get booed rather loudly tonight—which is a shame, because he really doesn’t deserve to be. We’re convinced his contract dispute was for all the right reasons. Beyond that, he was always a good (and occasionally great) player on some pretty mediocre Maple Leaf teams; that’s how we’d like to remember him. Either way, Mats Sundin should take note of how fans react: whatever McCabe gets tonight, expect Sundin to get ten times worse when he returns as a Vancouver Canuck on February 21.
Photo by Aaron Webb.