By: Dan Grant
I’ve never written about hockey on the Same Page. I’m more often involved in basketball and baseball, with occasional dalliances into broader culture. So it might surprise some of you to know that hockey is my first love. I grew up obsessed. I watched every game, had every card, played ice and ball hockey for hours on end. Hockey is a huge part of my life and a huge part of how I defined myself when I was growing up. I think I have trouble writing about it because of this.
Before we get started, just know that I count myself among you, Leafs fans. I always have and I always will. I’ve been here through the past nine years of disappointment and misery, barely able to watch at times. I was there when Sundin and Joseph couldn’t quite get us over the hump, through no fault of their own. I was there during the terrible Mike Murphy years of the late 90’s. I was there for the exhilaration and bitter disappointment of two straight conference final losses in the early 90’s.
I have no memories, however, of the godforsaken 80’s, when surly owner Harold Ballard turned one of the league’s most historic franchises into a miserly joke. The banners at Maple Leaf Gardens were all removed. Beloved captain Darryl Sittler and future Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald were shipped out of town for peanuts. The franchise was decimated, by design. For all the pitfalls of the past nine years, we didn’t have an owner deliberately sabotaging the franchise (although it may have seemed like it at times). So it’s good for us to remember, as bad as things have been, they have been worse, and we have come back. I’ll say that again. Things have been worse, and we have come back.
Like the past ten years, the Leafs made only playoff appearance in the 1980’s. This was after a fantastic late 70’s team, featuring the aforementioned Sittler and McDonald, but also featuring Hall of Famers Tiger Williams and Borje Salming, Leaf greats Ron Ellis, Ian Turnbull and Mike Palmateer; the late 70’s were full of hope. Just like the early 90’s were; just like the early 2000’s were.
On April 30th, the Toronto Maple Leafs return to the National Hockey League Playoffs. We still don’t know if they’ll be taking on the storied Montreal Canadiens for the first time since 1979, but it seems likely. The team is young, fast and tough. The team features young and likeable stars for the first time in years. The team has played the Habs tough, beating them in three of four outings, and quite handily too.
I know excitement is running high and it should be. The city needs this playoffs, like an oasis in the sporting desert. It is past time. It is deserved. So let’s not ruin it.
I want everyone to take a deep breath and remember that we’ve been there before. We’ve been through the glory of playoff victories and the agony of playoff defeats. Nine years isn’t such a long time. But in terms of the world, well, things are different. Twitter, Facebook and other social media have exploded to the point that we can be saturated, if we choose to be. The blogosphere will let any person with a computer and an opinion spew forth whatever they think is valid (irony!) with no checks or balances.
We need to remember why we’re here. We’re here to support our Leafs. When they win, they need us honking horns and the CN Tower lighting up for every goal. They need the atmosphere to be electric because the city has been somehow lifted by their successes. I know we can give that to them. I expect nothing less.
But when they lose, and make no mistake, they are going to lose a game or two (or three or four) they need us to be there for them. They need us to be right back in the saddle for the next game, bleeding blue and white and ready to support their every little victory and forgive their every little defeat. They don’t need writers and fans (the line is blurry these days. Irony again!) searching for an angle, scathingly picking apart every move, though that is what they’ll certainly get on some days, because of the 24/7 sports and infotainment environment we’ve created. That’s for the regular season and the off-season. And that’s fine, it’s part of the gig. Right now, however, they don’t need that. They need unconditional love from us.
I understand why that might be hard. If you’re 20 years old now, the last time the Leafs were in the playoffs you were in sixth grade. You’ve been through two lockouts and a half a life of incompetence. I get it. It sucks and it’s hard. It sucks hard, in fact. It might be that you don’t even care anymore. And if you’re 50, you’ve been through the Ballard years, three lockouts, and 46 years without a Stanley Cup. You probably still care more than you’re letting on, but after years of disappointment, you’re at best cautiously optimistic and not expecting much.
I understand both of those viewpoints. I respect them even. But it’s the playoffs. It’s time. Check your baggage at the door and turn on the game. Watch it with your family. Watch it with your friends. Watch it with a stranger at a bar. But watch it. And remember, when you’re hurting about the past nine years, when you’re hurting about Sundin and Joseph, Gilmour and Clark, Sittler and McDonald, remember that the Toronto Maple Leafs have won 13 Stanley Cups. People disparage that because there were only 6 teams in the league but can you imagine the quality of rosters there would be if the league somehow shrunk to 6 teams today? If it was so easy to win it back in the Original 6 era, how come the New York Rangers didn’t win in the 27 years before expansion, after their victory in 1940? Same for the Boston Bruins after 1941? The Blackhawks only won 3 times in the entire Original 6 Era. Those Cups were a fantastic achievement and something to be treasured.
So remember, yes, we’re the Leafs of the past nine years. But we’re also the Leafs of Bower and Broda. The Leafs of Kelly and Ullman. The Leafs of Mahovlich and Keon, of Armstrong and Horton. The Leafs of Conacher, Apps and Primeau. The Leafs of Conn Smythe. We’re not a doormat. We never will be, no matter how much losing takes place. We’re not the winless Canucks, rioting in the streets. We’re not the Ottawa Senators, who lost their team for sixty years. We’re not the Flames who came from Atlanta or the Oilers who came from another league.
We’re the Toronto Maple Leafs and we’ve been here for the past 90 plus years. We’ve been battling the Canadiens for just as long. Let’s act like we’ve been here before.
Go Leafs Go.