Is Canada Ready For the Leafs?

TORONTO (Oct. 14) — For the past 38 years, a vast dichotomy has prevailed between fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs and those loyal to other National Hockey League teams in Canada.

With respect to Toronto and Montreal, this division dates to the beginning of Stanley Cup competition in 1893. Only when the NHL began to traverse the country, however, did the breach widen. That occurred in 1979, when World Hockey Association survivors from Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec City were absorbed by the established league, joining Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. It heightened when the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary for the 1980–81 season; then again when the Ottawa Senators were “re–born” as expansionists in 1992. Suddenly, all regions of the country — save for the Maritime provinces (New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island) — had an intimate foothold in the NHL.

Prior to the second wave of modern expansion, which brought Vancouver into the league for the 1970–71 season, loyalty was divided between Montreal and Toronto — Quebec being the demarcation point. Generally, those in la belle province and eastward supported the Canadiens; Ontario and west the Maple Leafs. Given the geographic disparity, Toronto was considered “Canada’s” team; Montreal the domain of French–Canadians (particularly in Quebec and New Brunswick). As a rule, that hasn’t changed. Watch a Leafs game in western–Canada and it’s often difficult to decipher the home and visiting club. There will always be, it seems, large pockets of Blue and White fans from coast–to–coast. What is different is that each province — Quebec and westward — now has its own team; Ontario and Alberta with two apiece. The partisans in each Canadian city despise the Maple Leafs… and Toronto, in general, for its national predominance. C’est la vie.

Overwhelmingly, since 1979, the partisans rejoiced. For more years in the past 38 than most can remember, the Leafs were a laughingstock. Toronto may have shown the way with diversity, commerce and culture but its NHL club reeked. In that, there was much consolation; even delight. Hockey zealots from St. John’s to Victoria chuckled and snorted at Hogtown. It became a national obsession; Leafs ownership and management, unavoidably, the accomplice. A club saturated with deference and wealth could do no right.

So, what happens now?


With the Maple Leafs, at last, on an upward trajectory, is the Canadian conscience prepared for change? Can the hockey community from coast–to–coast accept a Toronto team as cutting and spectacular as the city it represents? Or, will humor and satire morph into national despair? We could obtain a partial answer tonight in Montreal, where the Leafs and Canadiens square off in the first of four Atlantic Division showdowns.

As an aside, this peculiar NHL schedule features another Toronto at Montreal game five weeks from tonight (Nov. 18). But, the Habs do not appear at Air Canada Centre until Mar. 17; then, again, in the season finale on Apr. 7. Even in the years when the Leafs resided in the Western Conference — Toronto and Montreal playing twice per season (home and away) — the Canadiens always came to town earlier than St. Patrick’s Day (the latest visit being Feb. 28 of the 1997–98 schedule). So, the current hockey calendar is rather unique.

Could the Leafs, tonight, continue to make their mark in a most unusual way? The last time Toronto won a game in Montreal, Ted Harris and J.C. Tremblay formed a defence–pairing for the Canadiens. Or, so it seems. The actual date was Oct. 1, 2013 — nine visits ago to the Bell Centre; the Leafs, in the interim, wearing an 0–6–2 collar (0–10–4 overall against the Habs, dating to a 5–3 win, at the ACC, Jan. 18, 2014). A triumph by the visitors tonight could therefore enhance the culture–shock initiated by Toronto’s 26–point climb, a year ago, in the NHL standings. What might TV viewers be contending with when they tune into The Connor McDavid Late Show at 10 p.m. Eastern (Ottawa at Edmonton: Game 2 of the Hockey Night In Canada double–dip)?

Better yet, is the country prepared for Toronto and Edmonton to lead the way in the foreseeable future? Teams that have missed the playoffs on a combined 19 of 20 occasions since 2006–07. Draft lottery victors in 2010–12–15 and ’16. The Leafs and Oilers have never been on the rise, simultaneously. Throughout the Oilers Stanley Cup dynasty (1984–90), the Leafs were pitiful; rotting away in the final life–years of owner Harold Ballard. When Toronto briefly rose to prominence with Pat Burns, Doug Gilmour and Co. in the springs of 1993 and ’94, Edmonton was a playoff spectator. Similarly from to 1999 to 2004, when Pat Quinn and Mats Sundin had the Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup tournament; twice in the Conference final. The Oilers, during that span, missed the playoffs twice and lost in the opening round on four occasions.

For the first time since Edmonton joined the NHL in the 1979 WHA merger, the Oilers and Leafs possess, arguably, the most–dominant young skaters in the league — McDavid and Auston Matthews. A Toronto–Edmonton Stanley Cup final in the ensuing years is hardly difficult to envision.

How might that sit in Montreal, where the longest championship drought in franchise history is sure to reach 25 years next spring? Or, in Vancouver, where the Leafs (and Toronto) are most–virulently despised?


These are questions our hockey nation has avoided (or scoffed at) for the better part of four decades… yet is now grappling with — albeit agonizingly.

Is the rest of Canada prepared for the Maple Leafs?

Probably not.

1967–68 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS MEDIA GUIDE

The Maple Leafs opened their 1967–68 schedule 50 years ago tonight with Bobby Hull and the Chicago Black Hawks in town to face the defending Stanley Cup champion. It was the year of the Great Expansion in the NHL — the league doubling to 12 teams by adding the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues. At the ’67–68 season opener — and for the only time in memory — the Leafs handed out copies of their new media guide to fans entering the Gardens. Here are some of the contents… and legendary Leaf names from that era:

  
FRONT AND REAR COVERS OF THE 1967–68 LEAFS MEDIA GUIDE.


FRONT COVER FOLDED OUT (ABOVE). AND, BACK–SIDE OF THE FOLD–OUT (BELOW).


  






  


50 YEARS AGO TONIGHT (Toronto Star Photo)


50 YEARS AGO (LATER) TONIGHT

The Los Angeles Kings played their first NHL game on this date in 1967 — hosting Philadelphia at the arena in Long Beach, Calif. (20 miles southwest of downtown L.A.). The Kings won, 4–2. Among my coveted items of hockey memorabilia (and despite a pair of gouges on the front cover) is a program from that initial match (below), which featured veteran goalie Terry Sawchuk, who went to the Kings in the 1967 expansion draft after helping the Maple Leafs win the Centennial championship.

  

NIGHT–TIME  VIEW OF LONG BEACH ARENA, AS IT APPEARS TODAY.


CANADIAN ENTREPRENEUR JACK KENT COOKE (1912–97) OWNED THE LOS ANGELES KINGS FROM 1967 TO 1979. HE BUILT, IN SUBURBAN INGLEWOOD, THE ARENA IN WHICH THE CLUB PLAYED BETWEEN DEC. 30, 1967 AND THE END OF THE 1998–99 NHL SEASON. THE LOS ANGELES FORUM (AS IT APPEARS TODAY, BELOW) WAS RECENTLY CONVERTED INTO A MODERN CONCERT VENUE.



PROGRAM LINE–UPS FROM PHILADELPHIA–LOS ANGELES GAME 50 YEARS AGO TONIGHT.


WHILE THE FORUM WAS STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION, THE KINGS SPLIT THEIR FIRST 17 HOME GAMES BETWEEN THE LONG BEACH ARENA AND THE LOS ANGELES SPORTS ARENA. THE LATTER (BELOW, BOTTOM–LEFT) STOOD KITTY–CORNER TO THE GIANT L.A. COLISEUM FROM ITS OPENING IN JULY 1959 TO DEMOLITION IN SEPTEMBER 2016. AS SEEN IN THE TICKET ORDER–FORM (ABOVE), THE MAPLE LEAFS PLAYED THEIR FIRST ROAD GAME AGAINST THE KINGS AT THE SPORTS ARENA ON NOV. 9, 1967 (A 4–1 LOS ANGELES VICTORY). PHILADELPHIA ALSO OPENED THE NEW FORUM, ON DEC. 30, 1967.


RECENT PHOTO (ABOVE) FROM INSIDE LONG BEACH ARENA. AND, A RARE PHOTOGRAPH (BELOW) FROM A KINGS GAME AT LONG BEACH — NO. 2 IN FRANCHISE HISTORY: OCT. 15, 1967 vs. MINNESOTA NORTH STARS. GARY BAUMAN IS THE MINNESOTA GOALIE. THE KINGS WON, 5–3.


EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

One comment on “Is Canada Ready For the Leafs?

  1. As a lifelong Leafs fan I’m very excited about the Leafs. They’re better and have more raw talent than they’ve had in a very long time. At the same time Leafs fans should not get ahead of themselves. The start to the season has been pretty good but there are still obvious weaknesses on the team.

    The game against New Jersey last week was an example of how youthful mistakes can make a team look bad. Maybe they underestimated their opponents? The third period on Saturday in Montreal also showed some signs of immaturity. The Leafs were outplayed and were held together by Anderson between the pipes. All this to say, I’m with those who feel growing optimism, I’m just don’t think the Leafs have arrived yet.

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