“We felt we were only a player or two away from competing now,” Ferguson said after announcing the signing. “We hope this is the final piece of the puzzle.”
The 18-year-old tractor will be driven by Carlton the Bear, the Leafs’ mascot, and pair with Tomas Kaberle on the blue line. Its tires will be fitted with chains to provide traction on the ice.
The signing fueled speculation of turmoil within the club. Some believe Ferguson’s already suspect hockey judgement is being impaired because of his lame duck contract status; others believe he made the signing to spite any “senior advisor” the Leafs might hire, like former Senators GM John Muckler. Others think he’s simply lost his mind.
During the announcement Ferguson said the tractor impressed Toronto in a team workout.
“He came in and did a good job,” Ferguson said. “He beat Hal Gill in a blueline-to-blueline race and he didn’t even have the chains on.”
Some say the signing is another move by Ferguson that will pay small, immediate dividends but compromise Toronto’s future. The seven-year deal is easily the longest granted by the Leafs in the salary cap era and it’s doubtful the tractor will hold up for the duration of the contract, let alone perform at last year’s level.
Last summer, the tractor cut a career-high 93 lawns, but critics have noted its age and the unlikelihood it can repeat last year’s success. Ferguson disagreed.
“Last year, Sidney Crosby was the youngest player ever to win the Hart and I don’t hear anyone complaining about that,” Ferguson told reporters. “He’s a year older than the Troy-Bilt. Maybe Troy will break Crosby’s Hart record.
“Old? Sidney Crosby is old. Go bother Mario Lemieux.”
Reporters peppered Ferguson with questions yesterday. When a Leafs beat reporter asked if the tire chains would damage the ice, Ferguson stared blankly at the floor for a few moments before wetting his pants.
“This interview is over!” Ferguson shouted, his face turning red and seething with rage, before he stormed into a storage closet.
The tractor did provide some laughs -- and possibly foreshadowed the Leafs’ future -- when presented with its jersey. Ferguson draped the no. 43 jersey on top of the tractor, which slipped to the side and was caught in the blades, shredding it to pieces.
“Look out, Ottawa,” cackled a grinning Ferguson. “Troy’s got a mean streak.”
The Troy-Bilt’s signing also means more work for the Zamboni staff. Because the tractor can’t hop the boards for line changes, it must park in the Zamboni area. Leafs captain Mats Sundin said he’ll also use the Zamboni area for shift changes.
“Uh… my hip is fine. I will be completely healthy by the season opener,” Sundin said. “I’m a team leader and I just want to use the Zamboni pad to keep Carlton and Troy company.”
An Eastern Conference general manager who asked not to be named was surprised and confused by the signing, but felt Leafs fans still had reason to be optimistic.
“It’s a lot of money to sink into an aging player, let alone a tractor,” said the GM. “But he’ll do okay [for Toronto]. Defensively, it’s a big step up from McCabe.”
When asked to comment, Carlton the Bear tried starting the wave and threw some T-shirts into the media scrum.