Illustration by Malcolm Jones
As summer wanes and autumn beckons, millions of Canadians of a particular persuasion get ready to board the annual nine-month, 82-game roller coaster. That is the lot of the hometown hockey fan, especially if you carry the torch for a certain Toronto franchise decked out in blue and white.
Every year it’s the same. When the leaves fall, the Leafs rise, and along with them the hopes and dreams of diehard fans across the country. I confess to being a member in good standing of Leafs Nation. I’ve been a stalwart Leafs fan since I was a toddler. I’ve been told my first word was not ‘Mama,’ but ‘Mahovolich.’ Apparently my eyes would light up upon hearing the dulcet vocal stylings of Foster Hewitt.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m just another deluded, demented, deranged Leafs fan. But hear me out. I concede that since 1967, when the Leafs last won the Stanley Cup, Leafs fans have endured bleak, lean years. (And yes, I’m quite aware that it’s now been 50 years since captain George Armstrong scored to seal that victory. Thanks so much for reminding me.)
Oh sure, there was the odd (and I do mean odd) encouraging season when we could briefly pull the paper bag from our heads, feel the sun on our faces, and at least experience a novel inkling of pride. But they were few and far between.
Real oldtimers will remember the Leafs’ miraculous Stanley Cup comeback over the Detroit Red Wings in 1942. This was just before the NHL almost stopped play because of the Second World War, when 74 of the league’s 120 players signed up or were ordered to report for duty. Three of the Leafs’ four defenceman—Rudy (Bingo) Kampman, Wally Stanowski and Bob Goldham—enlisted. To Leafs fans across the country, Hewitt’s play-by-play radio broadcasts offered a brief escape from the stresses of wartime.
Yes, there are Leafs fans everywhere in Canada and the same can be said for Leafs haters. If you came of age in Canada before 1970 and followed the NHL, you were almost certainly either a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens. If you lived in either Toronto or Montreal, or even Ontario or Quebec, your allegiance seemed quite straightforward. But in other parts of the country, you actually had a choice. If you embraced the Habs, well-played, my friends, as they have had a pretty good run. (You can tell a Habs fan by the smug look of one whose team has snared quite a few Stanley Cups and perennially gone deep into the playoffs.)
If, on the other hand, you sided with the blue and white, well, let’s just say we’re now clinging to our sanity by our fingernails.
Of course, as more Canadian teams joined the NHL—Vancouver in 1970, Edmonton, Quebec City and Winnipeg in 1979, Calgary in 1980 and Ottawa in 1992—Leafs fans outside of Toronto defected to the new teams in droves. But there are still many of us blue-bleeders hanging on to the hubris, hyperbole and hope that each new season brings.
And we’re more excited than ever after a 2016-17 season that surpassed all expectations, even those of the most rabid Leafs fan (an honour for which I am always in the running). With a new coach and crop of young talent, the annual refrain of “this could be our year” actually prompts serious consideration rather than the unadulterated ridicule it triggered in past years. Leafs fans everywhere are walking a little taller—sometimes even strutting—as we pine for the start of this year’s campaign. Our young guns are stepping up and leading the team. The old names of Bower, Keon, Ellis and Stanley that used to echo through Maple Leaf Gardens have been supplanted by chants of Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Zaitsev. That only one of those rookies is Canadian matters not. The Stanley Cup? That matters a whole lot.
I cannot begin to fathom what would happen in Toronto if the Leafs somehow pulled off the miracle and won the Cup in 2017-18. My heart might not be able to take it. There’s always a danger in filing the paperwork and securing the parade permit early—call it premature administration—but there is optimism in the air. Now if only it could be reflected on the ice. Go Leafs, Go!