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Brunnstrom signs!!!!!!!!!!!!


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TORONTO (May 7) -- I blame it all on Pierre LeBrun. In fact, Pierre blames it all on himself. Sometime in December, LeBrun -- after doing a bit of ground-breaking research -- went on the Hockey Night In Canada "Satellite Hotstove" and told viewers about this kid in Sweden who might become a conversation topic in the weeks ahead. Until that moment, the only people on earth seemingly aware of Fabian Brunnstrom were his coaches and teammates with Farjestad of the Swedish Elite League; LeBrun; agent J.P. Barry, along with Mr. and Mrs. Brunnstrom and siblings. Three months later, Fabian Brunnstrom has become the white-knight fantasy of the entire hockey world -- an overwhelming segment of which hasn't seen anything beyond a short YouTube video clip of the 23-year-old in action. "It's my fault," LeBrun confessed as we awaited luggage at Pearson Airport after a flight last week. "I went on TV, mentioned this guy, and look what's happened."

Indeed, Pierre. With the penultimate phase of the Stanley Cup playoffs about to begin, the pursuit of Brunnstrom has become an utterly breathless topic. No hockey player in recent memory has been the focus of as much wining, dining, and half-baked guarantees as this apparent late-bloomer from the land of the three crowns. Given that Brunnstrom will not be subject to the NHL draft, it's possible that Wayne Gretzky was the last free agent to drum up this amount of intrigue. And, we're talking 30 years ago. The difference being, of course, that talent scouts were drooling over Gretzky before the Great One developed body hair. Brunnstrom was a complete unknown to just about every person in North America until LeBrun's now-fabled TV missive. Can he possibly be worth all the fuss?

Clearly, circumstance is the overriding issue. While he chaperoned Brunnstrom through various and sundry parts of the NHL, Barry could merely dream about the financial bidding war his client would have provoked in the days before the entry-level salary system. As it is, Brunnstrom will function in the restraints of the so-called "rookie cap" -- which begins at a modest $850,000 per season. That's pocket change for most teams, and a ridiculously tiny portion of the overall cap figure. If this guy can actually play, he'll become the WalMart of the NHL. If he's another mega-hyped, run-of-the-mill prospect, he'll be remembered as a victim of the overkill that pervades our society.

Brunnstrom apparently began the week by narrowing his search to four teams -- Detroit, Dallas, Montreal, and Toronto. Which is the base-equivalent of reducing a car search to a Mercedes, Porsche, BMW, and a Jeep. If the Maple Leafs prevail in this bidding war, Jeff Jackson and Cliff Fletcher should go into SWAT negotiations. Imagine your selling point being that your team is so devoid of personnel, there is an immediate spot available in any part of the roster. Which is essentially the pitch Leafs have made to Brunnstrom -- along with the usual rigamarole about Toronto being the hockey capital of the world. "He'd fit right in with our player group," said Fletcher earlier this week. That, alone, should send Brunnstrom fleeing in horror.

Apparently, the Leafs had Swedish hockey legend Borje Salming do a recent sales job. But, what in the world could Salming tell Brunnstrom? That he was the last Maple Leafs player to be named to the NHL's first all-star team... 31 years ago!? That no Toronto player has won a major individual trophy (Hart, Norris, Calder, Art Ross) since Brit Selby was named rookie-of-the-year in 1966? That the club has now missed the playoffs three years in a row for the first time since the 1920s? Or, that the Leafs won 11 Stanley Cups in the first 40 years of the franchise (1927-67), and none in the next 40 years (1968-2008)? If Salming was speaking the truth, these are some of the highlights he'd be mentioning.

Of course, Detroit, Dallas and Montreal offer Brunnstrom what the Leafs cannot: The opportunity to join organizations with a demonstrated committment to winning. It might take him a bit longer to break into the front ranks of players on the Red Wings, Stars or Canadiens, but he'll never have to question the motives of his employer. Condominuims and soccer teams will not be essential topics of development. The other teams have full-time general managers, and coaches that Brunnstrom is assured of playing for next season. They have combined to win 14 Stanley Cups since the Leafs last made an appearance in the championship round.

This isn't to suggest that the Leafs cannot, or will not, break into the 21st century one of these days. If ownership makes the proper GM hire -- and follows through on its pledge to grant the new manager full written autonomy in hockey matters -- perhaps the Blue & White will be viewed legitimately by their hockey brethren. In recent years, Toronto has been the butt of inside jokes all through the NHL. Just as the Maple Leafs were back in the Harold Ballard era. But, it doesn't have to stay that way. A competent, secure GM could surround himself with quality personnel and execute the type of developmental plan that is common among winning clubs in the post-lockout NHL. Philadelphia is proving this season that it doesn't require years and years to reverse a bad situation.

And though much of Toronto's hockey allure is self-proclaimed, this city does have an underlying spark that is waiting to be ignited. It's the reason that so many top hockey people are hoping to be interviewed for the Leafs' GM vacancy. It's the reason Brian Burke was willing to walk away from a lifetime of job security in southern California, before the Anaheim Ducks told him to stay put. And, it's possibly why Fabian Brunnstrom and J.P. Barry have included Toronto in their short-list of destinations.

As Doug Armstrong said to me the other day -- echoing what others have long suggested -- "there could be no better place to win in the NHL than Toronto." Problem is, it's been so long since the Leafs have won anything, that few people alive can tell you what it feels like. The potential, though, is ever-lasting. And, that's the lone consideration for the anonymous figure from Sweden, who has prompted so much chatter in recent weeks.

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