TORONTO (May 18) — Whether in a newspaper column or a blunt email exchange, Damien Cox gets it right.
“Oh my, the horror!” he responded to yours truly, late Monday night, upon being apprised of the subject matter for our telephone dialogue earlier today. In summation, what may befall the Toronto Maple Leafs — and their wildly optimistic supporters — if the unthinkable were to happen: a first–round playoff upset by the Montreal Canadiens. Hockey zealots in this region would likely choose a second world pandemic over their beloveds getting bounced from the initial “Two Solitudes” clash since 1979. Especially given Toronto’s unique posture heading into the Stanley Cup tournament. Not for 58 years, or since the National Hockey League semifinals of 1963, have the Maple Leafs been favored to vanquish the Canadiens in a post–season quarrel (which they did, in five games).
And, probably never, to such an extent, as this spring.
So, really… could it happen?
“Hey, you and I go back long enough to remember covering the Leafs–Detroit first–round series in 1993,” said Cox, the veteran Toronto Star and Sportsnet columnist. “The Leafs were big underdogs going into that playoff round and got throttled in the first two games (6–3, 6–2 at Joe Louis Arena). But, they came back to win (in seven). So, could Montreal upset Toronto in the first round this year? I mean, how can you rule out anything? Realistically, though, of the 16 teams in the Cup tournament, the Canadiens — in my view — are 16th. Had the regular season lasted a few more weeks, Ottawa may have caught them. They have trouble scoring and their No. 1 goalie [Carey Price] has been out for more than a month. With a concussion. From my perspective, this is easily the best draw for the Leafs. If they can’t beat Montreal… well, holy smokes! It will be the biggest hockey disaster in many years around here. That blown 4–1 lead in the third period at Boston (in Game 7 of the 2013 first round) will pale by comparison. There is virtually no reason why Toronto shouldn’t win this series. And, quite handily.”
NOT SINCE 1963, WITH PUNCH IMLACH (LEFT) AND JOHNNY BOWER, HAVE THE LEAFS BEEN FAVORED TO DEFEAT MONTREAL IN THE STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS. TORONTO WON ITS SECOND OF THREE CONSECUTIVE NHL TITLES THAT SPRING.
Damien and I then contemplated the first doomsday scenario: a loss to the Canadiens in Game 1, Thursday night, at Scotiabank Arena. “Under normal circumstances, that outcome would be horrendous… the typical panic and doom. Fire everybody. The team is a joke. That kind of thing,” Cox said. “But, the environment, at the moment, is different from anything we’ve seen. No fans will be in the arena. There’s won’t be several thousand rabid Leaf followers crowded outside (in Maple Leaf Square). The bars are empty right now and people are generally staying home at night. So, the reaction to a Game 1 loss, I think, would be more muted than normal. Of course, the Internet will explode. Social media will go nuts. There will be hysteria on the radio call–in shows. But, it still won’t be identical to when people could move about the city and attend the games. Or, when reporters could interview the players, in person, after a tough playoff loss (all media question–and–answer sessions in the pandemic are via Zoom conference). Which I think may help the Maple Leafs if they do get into trouble at any point in the series.”
Cox so–blatantly choosing the Leafs to prevail may be a shock to those that have followed his splendid career. He’s long been considered among a tiny band of local media wags — which included, at various times, Al Strachan and Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun; Hockey Night In Canada “Canucks fan” Jim Hughson; Globe and Mail wordsmith Cathal Kelly… and, yes, myself — as Leaf “haters.” This view mushroomed with the advent of social media and chat forums. Those that dared follow the Leafs with a critical eye became enemies of the state. So, for Damien to anticipate a Toronto cakewalk against Montreal is likely stupefying to the anonymous multitudes.
It is, in fact, difficult to remember when the Leafs were so–heavily favored entering a playoff round. Certainly not in any of the three series from the spring of 1993, when the Pat Burns–Doug Gilmour–Wendel Clark team upset Detroit; squeaked past St. Louis and lost a heartbreaker in Games 6 and 7 to Los Angeles (with No. 99). The following year came an opening–round clash with Chicago, which finished 11 points behind Toronto in the old Central Division. The Leafs were definitely chosen to win that round… which they did, in six games; Felix Potvin blanking the Hawks in three of them. Then came San Jose, which pulled off a major upset by knocking off Detroit. But, the Sharks were 16 points inferior to the Leafs during the 1993–94 regular schedule and probably shouldn’t have extended Toronto to a decisive seventh match (the Leafs prevailed, 4–2, at home). Even the Conference final against Vancouver was expected to go the Leafs’ way, given a 13–point gap during the season. After winning the opener, however, at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto lost four straight to the Canucks… who then took the New York Rangers to the brink in a memorable Stanley Cup final. So, 1994 was a spring the Leafs were favored throughout.
Such was not the case in the majority of the 13 playoff rounds under Pat Quinn between 1999 and 2004. Even when Toronto eliminated Ottawa in four consecutive clashes (2000–01–02–04), the Senators were considered on a par with Toronto, or slightly ahead. At no time during the Quinn era were the Leafs close to such an apparent lock as against Montreal in the upcoming best–of–seven affair. So, if the incomprehensible occurs, and the Canadiens prevail, what will be the fallout? “At that point, everything will justifiably come under review,” said Cox. “We’ll have to look closely at Kyle Dubas and wonder if he truly can assemble a Stanley Cup contender. Sheldon Keefe will be heavily criticized. And, who knows how a fifth consecutive defeat in the first (or qualifying) round of the playoffs will reflect on the top players? To me, the Leafs haven’t had anything close to a duo like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for as long as we can remember. If they can’t score against the Canadiens, it will be a travesty.
“Unless there’s a significant injury — or, heaven forbid, a COVID–19 outbreak — there will be no excuse for the Leafs losing to the Habs,” concluded Damien. “It’s been ages since Toronto has carried this type of playoff onus.”
IT’S ONLY FAIR: Now that Harnarayah Singh, the Punjabi voice of Hockey Night In Canada, is set to call his first Stanley Cup series in English — Singh and Louie DeBrusk will work the Edmonton–Winnipeg opening–round clash for Sportsnet — it is incumbent upon Chris Cuthbert and Craig Simpson to take a crash course in Singh’s native language; don turbans, and return the honor by calling a post–season game in Punjabi. Similarly, Ron MacLean, Elliotte Friedman and Kelly Hrudey should be adorned in the religious headwear while conversing in the Toronto studio during intermissions. One exception is rink host Kyle Bukauskas, whose vertical coif would likely not accommodate a turban. Alright… I’m being silly. It’s my way of congratulating Singh, pictured below at Rogers Place in Edmonton, for the historic assignment. And giving Rogers Communications props for a groundbreaking decision. Harnarayah is an exceptional broadcaster, a knowledgeable hockey man and a true pioneer in his field.
The Indo–Aryan audience of Hockey Night should proudly celebrate this accomplishment. As should we all.
From my collection — Part 4
It was the most–humiliating hour of the Maple Leafs Stanley Cup dynasty under Punch Imlach. Those who recall the game need to be approaching 70 years old. But, it still resonates. Jan. 18, 1964. A Saturday night at Maple Leaf Gardens. Three months and one week before winning their third consecutive championship, the Leafs were demolished, 11–0, by the last–place Boston Bruins. There are stories of people emerging from movie theaters… restaurants, after dinner… curling rinks… and hearing of the massacre on Carlton St. A photo of the old sports–timer at the Gardens (above), showing the final score, accompanied the Globe and Mail’s coverage of the game on Monday (Jan. 20). Don Simmons endured the entire humiliation in goal for the Leafs (Johnny Bower was injured). Imlach tried to replace him for the following night’s game in Chicago, but didn’t have sufficient time. Simmons played again… and blanked the first–place Black Hawks, 2–0. Globe columnist Dick Beddoes wrote about the Boston beatdown, below. The Leafs finished the 1963–64 season 30 points ahead of the Bruins (78–48).
It’s not just a rumor. The Leafs did win the Stanley Cup in 1967, as evidenced by the front cover (above) and inner–page (below) of the Globe and Mail on May 3 of that year. Toronto beat Montreal, 3–1, at Maple Leaf Gardens in Game 6 for its fourth NHL title in six seasons. And, as you probably know, its most–recent triumph.
Sports front and second page (above) of the old Toronto Telegram the day after the Leafs won the 1967 Cup. And, part of the game story (below) by hockey writer George Gross. The Telegram published until Oct. 30, 1971, when it folded. Two days later, on Nov. 1, came the first edition of the Toronto Sun, with the majority of Telegram employees. Gross was the first sports editor of the Sun. Columnists Jim Coleman and Bob Pennington covered Game 6 of the Maple Leafs–Canadiens series and wrote about it (at bottom) for the May 3, 1967 Telegram.