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Don Cherry vs. Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke: The new battle of Ontario

Don Cherry is a man of the people. The people of Ontario. He visits local rinks, talks to Hockey Dads, has young players tugging at his loud jacket like he's the mayor of Hockeyville.

Don Cherry also feels that Ontarian hockey players are a cut above the rest. Like Albertans feel about their local beef or New Yorkers feel about their bagels or Russians feel about their blondes.

On Saturday night, Don Cherry blasted Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke for failing to properly honor the Ontario hockey player with representation on the Leafs' roster, as the current incarnation of the Leafs — more on this in a bit — has zero Ontario-born players among its numbers … and eight Americans, much to the chagrin of Cherry, who doesn't want to live in a world where Milwaukee has more representation on the Toronto roster than Mississauga.

His comments sparked a weekend of controversial debate about the importance of geographic bias on NHL rosters, the direction of the Leafs and how vital Ontario-born players are to success in the League.

As usual, for every salient point Cherry made, there was a head-slapping inconsistency or foolhardy assumption to counterbalance it. But he wasn't completely wrong in his critique of Burke.

Here's Cherry on Saturday night's Coach's Corner, ranting on Brian Burke and the Leafs:

For the video impaired, Cherry said:

"I heard your interview with Burke, and he said, 'We got a tough time here. Every team has five guys come in from Ontario.' Now I'd just like to tell ya … there's more people that come from Ontario hockey, players come from Ontario than any other place in the world. Anyone wanna argue with me? I'll tell ya. Let me just give ya … I wrote it down, had to write it down … Vancouver has four. Pittsburgh has six. St. Louis. Beautiful team. Surprise team. Nine! Last year, Boston had seven from Ontario, this year they have nine. Chicago won it in 2010 and they had seven.

"Every team in the National Hockey League has a guy from Ontario except one. GUESS WHO IT IS?! IT'S ONTARIO'S TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS. Now, if you want American college guys. If you want Americans, you got the team. It's the only organization in the world, in Canada, that cheers when Canada loses. It's an absolute shame. There's 40,000 kids in the GTHL. … This guy has none!"

A fair point. Young players in Ontario would no doubt love to have one of their own to look up to as a Toronto Maple Leaf. These young players need a role model. You know, being that there are only 2,087 players in NHL history that were from Ontario …

Ron McLean, bless him, made the point that some teams have excelled without the benefit of Ontario's superior hockey DNA comprising the majority of their roster. The Detroit Red Wings, for example, mine talent from Sweden. The 1989 champion Calgary Flames had Americans such as Gary Suter and Joe Mullen. Burke has a competitive advantage in being able to sign U.S. college free agents — why not use it?

"Yeah, it's a great advantage. Wonderful advantage!" said Cherry. "Not makin' the playoffs four years in a row. WONDERFUL ADVANTAGE!"

Alright, let's pump the brakes here. Cherry's initial point was a good one: Teams all over the NHL make personnel decisions based partially on geographic significance. Montreal loves its Quebeckers. Minnesota loves its local boys. Jeff Halpern of Potomac, Md., is a Capital. Jim Dowd of Brick, N.J., was a Devil.

But that last statement from Cherry would seem to indicate he believes Brian Burke has his team at a disadvantage with a lack of Ontario-born players … and large number of American players. Ditto his calling out the Ontario player totals from successful teams and recent Stanley Cup champions.

Does Grapes have a point? Here's the tale of the tape, featuring NHL Ontarians vs. NHL Americans on current rosters (via team websites), as well as their point totals for the season:

Team Ontario-Born Players USA-Born

Players

ONT/USA +/- Points in 2011-12 (place in NHL) (Through 3/5)
Florida Panthers 10 2 8 74 (14)
Boston Bruins 9 4 5 79 (8)
St. Louis Blues 9 7 2 89 (4)
Chicago Blackhawks 8 5 3 79 (9)
Colorado Avalanche 8 4 4 72 (17)
Los Angeles Kings 8 8 Even 72 (16)
San Jose Sharks 7 4 3 73 (15)
Calgary Flames 6 4 2 70 (19)
Nashville Predators 6 8 -2 83 (5)
New York Islanders 6 7 -1 65 (26)
New York Rangers 6 8 -2 91 (1)
Pittsburgh Penguins 6 7 -1 81 (6)
Anaheim Ducks 5 5 Even 66 (24)
Buffalo Sabres 5 9 -4 68 (22)
Carolina Hurricanes 5 8 -3 62 (27)
Edmonton Oilers 5 3 2 56 (29)
Columbus Blue Jackets 5 7 -2 47 (30)
Ottawa Senators 5 6 -1 76 (11)
Philadelphia Flyers 5 4 1 79 (7)
Tampa Bay Lightning 5 6 -1 68 (21)
Vancouver Canucks 5 6 -1 90 (2)
Detroit Red Wings 4 3 1 89 (3)
Phoenix Coyotes 4 2 2 75 (12)
Washington Capitals 4 6 -2 69 (20)
Minnesota Wild 3 6 -3 66 (25)
Montreal Canadiens 3 6 -3 60 (28)
Winnipeg Jets 3 7 -4 70 (18)
New Jersey Devils 2 5 -3 77 (10)
Dallas Stars 1 5 -4 75 (13)
Toronto Maple Leafs 0 8 -8 67 (23)

The first bit of intrigue here is that there are 17 teams in the NHL that have more American players than Ontario-born players. Some of these teams (GASP!) are even quite successful. But there really doesn't seem to be much correlation, at least this season.

• • •

On Monday, Cherry was back at it on the Leafs' lack of Ontarians, appearing on Sportsnet Radio's Brady And Lang:

"Go back to 1993, eh? All the guys: Tucker, Dougie, Andreychuk, I could go down the [list] … they're all from Ontario," said Cherry. "I was talking to Darcy Tucker about this, and he said 'We had to play good, with all our families there and everything'. With the Boston Bruins, we had half the guys from Ontario, and we could hardly get their minds on the game [in Toronto] the night before."

It was correctly pointed out that GM John Ferguson Jr. was the one who drafted players like Jiri Tlusty and Justin Pogge and a slew of other non-Ontario players.

"Ferguson was worse!" said Cherry.

"What really ticked me off [about Burke] was that I'm out with the Ontario guys. The kids were comin' up to me last night and saying, 'Thanks Grapes for sticking up for me.' I was flabbergasted. And I still say [Nazem] Kadri should be up here. And [Colton] Orr, if he wasn't hurt, should be up. … We were promised tough, truculent players, and we never got it. I had to say it. I was a little carried away, I must admit, but it's how I feel."

Cherry was then asked if he felt that Ontario kids shy away from playing in Toronto because of the pressure, with Rick Nash and Eric Staal cited as an example.

"When you think of it, I'll tell you one thing, if you had that team 14 years ago you wouldn't have any trouble gettin' Nash here or gettin' Staal here. It's not Toronto; you don't want to go to Columbus or teams that have been out of the playoffs. If you want a chance to win the Stanley Cup when you're a free agent, that's the team you want to go to. Not Toronto."

• • •

As usual, Cherry's rant produced a pastiche of different points, some on target and some flying wide like a Dion Phaneuf shot from the blue line.

The Toronto Maple Leafs don't have Ontario-born players. Superficially, this is true; technically, this is not true. According to Derek Zona Chunklets of The Copper and Blue, the Leafs have 13 players in their system from Ontario. That's more local players than any other team in the League.

Brian Burke has a bias against Ontario-born players. Again, the facts don't bear this out. Burke has drafted eight players with ties to Ontario as Leafs GM. He also targeted John Tavares in the 2009 draft, hoping to move up to snag him. The Leafs instead selected Nazem Kadri a few picks later. Ontario's own Nazem Kadri.

It's important to have Ontario-born players on the Leafs. This is a bit more subjective, but we agree with Cherry. First, because it does matter to young players that they have NHLers to look up to; and seeing a guy who played in your youth leagues and grew up in your neighborhood making the show with a team that you root for is a hell of a motivator. Second, because even though the pressure is greater on players who are playing back home, so might the motivation to excel.

But Cherry answered his own question on Monday: There are plenty of Ontario-born players in the NHL who might consider returning home to play for the Leafs. But not when the Leafs are [expletive] terrible. When they turn the corner, some of these players will come home. There's no question there's something special about the "local boy makes good" angle in seeing an Ontario native lead the Leafs.

Superficial as it is, it does make the victory all the sweeter.

It's just too bad Cherry was so tart about Burke that the point was muddled.

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