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Toronto Maple Leafs season already full of bizarre incidents

TORONTO - Jiri Tlusty's intimate Internet experience is just the latest in a bizarre set of story lines for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.

It's only been six weeks since the regular season started but the 7-7-5 Leafs have had no shortage of material for Canada's largest media market.

"You could probably write a movie on this year already and it's only November, with all the topics and headlines," Leafs tough guy Wade Belak said Wednesday.

A little recap for those not consumed by the daily goings on like Leaf Nation:

-It begins in the summer where legendary coach Scotty Bowman is courted to become a "senior advisor" for GM John Ferguson. He declines.

-The opening of training camp is marred with news that newly acquired forward Mark Bell is sentenced to six months in a San Jose jail to be served after the season. Soon after the NHL suspends him for 15 games.

-Newly acquired goalie Vesa Toskala is soundly and repeatedly booed during pre-season games for his shaky performances.

-The Leafs drop the first two games of the regular season to mighty Ottawa and the front page of a Toronto newspaper declares, "Leafs: Wait 'Til Next Year."

-Winger Jason Blake shocks teammates and fans with the news that he will bravely continue playing despite being diagnosed with a form of leukemia.

-Winger Alexander Ponikarovsky sustains a knee injury after colliding with teammate Chad Kilger in practice.

-Bryan McCabe re-directs a puck into his own net in overtime to hand the Buffalo Sabres a victory. A Toronto newspaper headline reads "Bryan McKlutz."

-During a 7-1 home loss to the Washington Capitals, some fans at the Air Canada Centre take a break from booing the Leafs to chant, "Let's Go Raptors."

-New York Rangers pest Sean Avery and Leafs winger Darcy Tucker engage in a pre-game altercation last Saturday night. The overhyped fallout in the Toronto media is highlighted by a radio report that claims Avery spouted cancer-related taunts to Blake. Avery strongly denies it and threatens legal action against the radio station.

-And, finally, the team went into damage-control mode late Tuesday night after naked pictures of 19-year-old Tlusty found their way onto the Internet. It was front page news in a Toronto newspaper on Wednesday.

What else can happen to this team?

"We always talk about this roller-coaster ride that this team is on, but this year seems especially unusual," agreed Leafs head coach Paul Maurice. "We've had just some of the strangest things happen around our team.

"And strange games included. It's on and off the ice."

In between all the unusual events has been a constant theme, the future of GM John Ferguson and the debate as to whether the Leafs are on the right course.

It's no wonder Mats Sundin's blistering start to the season has barely been reported on. Who has time for hockey stories?

"I think this team should be located in L.A. with the stars, with the gossip magazines," said Belak.

"I guess it's part of playing in Toronto," he added. "I think it's just getting worse every year. I've been here six and half years and probably aged 30 years."

Leafs media relations director Pat Park has been with the team for 19 years. Never before, in his estimation, has the media glare been this bright.

"I would say so," Park said. "With new media and the Internet, the news is out faster and the demand has increased for coverage. And who knows where it's headed?"

All six Canadian NHL cities get lots of coverage. But because Toronto is the largest city, it gets the largest media contingent. The country's three all-sports TV networks are based here as are four daily newspapers. Throw in all-sports radio, hockey bloggers, and other media types, and it's a good 20-50 people every day at the rink.

The thirst for stories is at an all-time high. Enter Tlusty.

"Some of the stuff is ridiculous," said Belak. "What they're talking about now (Tlusty), honestly, who really cares? What does it have to do with hockey?"

Leafs veteran Darcy Tucker spent 15 minutes Wednesday answering questions about Tlusty. Not one single reporter asked him about Thursday's game at Boston.

"I've seen a lot during my career in Toronto, let's put it that way," said Tucker. "But I think when you're younger it bothers you a bit more. As you get older, you realize what's today's news is tomorrow's waste-paper basket.

"You just deal with it day to day. Every day the sun comes up."

This season, however, seems to have taken things to new heights - or lows. Maybe it's because the Leafs have missed the playoffs two straight seasons, but there seems to be a negative undercurrent.

"The questions I'm getting this year are quite a bit different than the questions I got last year," said Maurice. "Just in terms of the edge that seems to be with them. We were talking about it this morning obviously with Jiri's situation, but I look down at the standings and we're sitting in sixth place - I know we've played more games than some teams - but we're sitting there in sixth for a hockey club that most experts picked to be somewhere around 12th.

"And yet, what do we talk about? If you were allowed to put a different spin on things, you might think there are a lot of great things going on. But clearly there hasn't been a lot of talk of that."

Still, Maurice says he embraces the environment.

"The fact of the matter is, and this is probably a really good thing, no matter what the obstacles or the adversity this team has faced, its expectation is to win the Stanley Cup every year.

"And that brings with it a different tone."

One can be sure young Tlusty, who didn't meet the media Wednesday, now understands more then ever what kind of hockey market he plays in.

"We've been good with Jiri, just showing him our support and telling him not to worry about it," said Belak. "We all laugh about it now. There's worse things out there. It's not a big deal. It's just unfortunate that a young kid like that has to be exposed to it so early, he's only been up for a month."

Said Tucker: "The mistake that he made was very understandable, he got taken advantage of by somebody."

Just don't expect any salacious pictures of Belak to show up anywhere.

"There might be pictures of me raking leaves or something," he said. "I don't go out, I live a pretty sheltered life."

Probably not a bad idea in the NHL's craziest market.


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