TORONTO-Vincent Damphousse fired a shot that resembled a knuckleball as it handcuffed Edmonton Oilers goalie Bill Ranford and wound up in the net, giving the Toronto Maple Leafs a 3-2 victory March 10. The goal was the 300th this season by the Maple Leafs, a figure that leads the National Hockey League.
Nobody calls them the Maple Laffs anymore. The talk show callers actually want to know about Damphousse passing Frank Mahovlich as the highest scoring left winger in club history.
OK, it's still a yuk that club officials can only find one of the Leafs' 11 Stanley Cup banners because owner Harold Ballard took them down during a sprucing up of Maple Leaf Gardens and painters reportedly used some of them to cover seats.
It's also a har-de-har that the only banner available says "1965 Stanley Cup Champions," and Montreal actually won that year.
"People don't make jokes about us now; they respect us," said Damphousse.
The Leafs lead hockeydom in offensive firepower this season. They could finish with 350 goals. And even if they give up that many, they've caught the attention of the Toronto fans.
The Leafs have been perhaps the NHL's most exciting team as they have gone form laughable to laudable. They have a real chance to win the Norris Division playoffs and reach the NHL's Final Four.
It used to be that in looking down the list of the top NHL scorers, you'd need a miner's lamp to find anyone from Toronto. Now, there are three among the league's top 25-Gary Leeman, who could become the second 50-goal man in Toronto history (Rick Vaive is the only other), Ed Olcyzk and the aforementioned Damphousse, who might total 100 points.
Leeman, who was drafted as a defenseman, has been one of the NHL's most underrated players. Olczyk is good for 90 points every year. But the 22-year-old Damphousse is only now reaching star status.
While he was a first round draft choice, the sixth player taken in 1986, he did not become a legitimate star until this season. Damphousse and Jimmy Carson were the only players in that '86 draft to jump directly to the NHL, and the Toronto selection learned quickly that you have to crawl before you can walk. He scored 21 goals as a rookie, but tumbled to 12 in 1987-88.
"It was a terrible year. It was very frustrating," Damphousse said. "I had to come back the third year and prove something. I was a fourth-line player and knew I had to come and do it all again."
First-round choices don't find automatic stardom in the NHL. For every Mario Lemieux, Ray Bourque and Dale Hawerchuk who fits immediately, there is a Morris Titanic or a Danny Geoffrion. Hockey may be the only team sport that can spit out a 21-year-old player and call him a bust if he hasn't made prime time by that tender age.
"They're pretty young when they come in (to the NHL), and there is a lot of pressure. You can really hurt their confidence. But if you're strong mentally you can get over it," said Damphousse, who needed work on his strength, but not his head or heart.
"It usually takes three, four years for young players to come to the top," said Toronto Coach Doug Carpenter. "I think Vinnie is one of those people. He's expecting more resposibility. Instead of looking up to other people, he now sets the example. We have four 20-year-olds in our lineup. They look to him for leadership along with, say, Leeman."
Carpenter said that Edmonton's Mark Messier, a legitimate candidate for most valuable player honors this season, is a perfect example of this late-blooming theory.
"He's awesome, but even hestruggled for 2 1/2 years," Carpenter said. "There is the expectation with all great kids that they'll lead a team out of the woodwork. It's a high expectation and being able to fulfill it is too much of an obligation to put on them. But it's the law of the land."
Indeed, hockey says 18-year-olds should be able to play. But from among last year's draftees, who survived to play on an NHL team this year? If you looked at lineups in March, the answer was no one.
New York Islanders winger Dave Chyzowski, the second pick in the draft, asked to be sent back to his junior team in Kamloops. He was the only '89 draftee who played more than a couple of games in the NHL this season.
In Damphousse's breaking-in period, he went from 46 to 48 to 68 points. His 85th point this season erased Mahovlich's Toronto scoring record. The Big M had 84 points (48 goals, 36 assists) in 1960-61. He later had seasons of 89, 93 and 96 points for Montreal and a 49-goal campaign for Detroit.
The climb has been gradual for Damphousse. In fact, he might not even have made it to Toronto his first year if the Leafs hadn't been crying for bodies.
He received on-the-job training at left wing, and it was a crash course. On many nights, he was roughed up. But that hasn't happened this season.
Damphousse said he felt 10 feet tall whem he broke Mahovlich's mark.
"I remember his brother Pete more when I grew up in Montreal watching the Canadiens," Damphousse said with a smile. "Frank played a little bit with them, too. I saw him some on TV; he was pretty spectacular. I don't think I'll ever compare to him. He's a Hall of Famer. He's a legend."
Damphousse will settle for people who know how to spell his name. It's a tight fit on the back of a jersey, but it's one of the best fits Toronto has made.