TORONTO (Aug. 18) — In the middle of the most abbreviated summer in National Hockey League annals, there remains plenty of chatter about the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mostly on–line, but also on television, as evidenced by a discussion (pictured below) engaged in by the TSN Overdrive panel on Wednesday afternoon.
I can honestly say that I have never, in my years following the Leafs, noticed such hostility, apprehension and distrust within the club’s enormous fan base. That it comes after a first–place romp amid fellow Canadian teams in the now–defunct North Division speaks volumes about the insignificance of the upcoming 82–game schedule.
Without question, the 2021–22 regular season will rank as the most irrelevant in Toronto franchise history. Other than, of course, the act of accruing the 90–plus points required to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament. All other elements — home record, road record, win streaks, losing streaks, short–term injuries, individual accomplishments — will be, in the big picture, virtually meaningless. That’s the environment the Maple Leafs engendered by blowing their 3–1 lead against Montreal in the opening round of the playoffs last May… a remarkable turning point.
For the first time in memory, the cliché “there’s a limit to everything” applies to fans of the Blue and White.
Whether it was losing to the rival Canadiens; spitting up a 3–1 stranglehold on a best–of–seven series for the first time since 1987; a fifth consecutive one–and–done in the Cup tournament — or all three — it exhausted the legendary endurance of Leafs Nation. Auston Matthews can score 70 goals this season and Leaf followers (while admiring the accomplishment) will say, in unison, “yeah, but what about the playoffs?” Same with Mitch Marner compiling 100 or more points. And, applying to whatever scoring level is achieved by William Nylander and John Tavares. Stubbornly retaining the four–man nucleus of the team after half–a–decade of post–season failure will reflect positively on Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas only (and minimally) if the Leafs advance to the second series of Stanley Cup competition; last achieved by the franchise in 2004. Otherwise, heads at the top will finally roll.
Complicating matters will be a return, after the 56–game “pandemic” season”, to the conventional structure of the NHL — a full, 82–game schedule conducted in arenas filled largely to capacity; the Maple Leafs going back to the Atlantic Division with four ultra–competitive rivals: Tampa Bay, Boston, Montreal and Florida. And, with Ottawa expected to rapidly improve. There is no easy path for Toronto to the 16–club playoff allotment. To automatically qualify, the Leafs will again need to rank among the top three teams in the division, or enter through the back door via two wild card positions. Toronto hasn’t missed the playoffs since the 2015–16 season, when it finished last in the overall standings and won the draft lottery, claiming Matthews as the No. 1 selection. Prior to that, fans of the Blue and White were accustomed to making alternative plans after the regular season, given the Maple Leafs of the salary cap era missed the playoffs in 2006–07–08–09–10–11–12–14–15 and 2016. Or, 10 of 11 seasons, qualifying only in the 48–game schedule of January to May 2013 that followed another lengthy owners’ lockout.
As mentioned, the last playoff success occurred against the Senators in the opening round of the 2004 Stanley Cup event. The year Tampa Bay beat Calgary to win its first NHL championship. When Scott Niedermayer of New Jersey edged out a young Zdeno Chara to win the Norris Trophy. When Martin Brodeur of the Devils won his second of four Vezina Trophies. And, John Tortorella of the Lightning ousted Ron Wilson of San Jose to win the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach–of–the–year. In other words, a lonnnnng time ago. Too long for Leaf supporters.
JOE NIEUWENDYK PLAYED CENTER THE LAST TIME THE LEAFS WON A PLAYOFF ROUND, OUSTING OTTAWA IN APRIL 2004. NIEUWENDYK IS NOW 54 AND A MEMBER OF THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME.
DAVE SANDFORD GETTY IMAGES
The irrelevance of 2021–22 will manifest for Toronto hockey fans over the long haul. Yes, as always, ardent followers will live and die with every period and every game. Players, coaches and management will be alternately praised and cursed. For the large segment of people whose entire social lives exist with other anonymous souls on the Internet, Leaf chat rooms will again mitigate solitude and isolation. Old habits do not (and cannot) die.
But, through it all — and providing the club remains in reasonable contention throughout the six–plus months of the regular schedule — the target and spotlight will unavoidably be on the first round of the playoffs. And, whether the $40 million quartet of Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Tavares can overcome its Stanley Cup ineptitude. By coughing it up against the Habs last May, the Leafs finally put a steel lid on the perseverance and restraint of their loyal followers. While chucking aside the particulars, happy or otherwise, that occur between Oct. 13 of this year and Apr. 29, 2022. Nothing matters now except playoff achievement and advancement. Not a single thing.
OLDEST MAPLE LEAF GARDENS PROGRAM
Amid the dozens of Leafs programs in my collection, the oldest dates to more than 88½ years, in the second season of Maple Leaf Gardens. Feb. 11, 1933 vs. the New York Rangers. The front cover and inside advertisement (above). Fans doled out 15 cents for the 74–page magazine which measured 25 x 17 centimeters, or nearly 10 x 6 inches. The Leafs were the defending Stanley Cup champion, having won their first title in the NHL, which began in 1917–18. These are various ads in the Leafs program, 6½ years before the outbreak of World War II.
IMAGINE BUYING A NEW CAR FOR LESS THAN $1,000 — OR, ROUGHLY, THE COST, TODAY, OF FOUR NEW TIRES.
HOW ABOUT $1.98 FOR A NEW DRESS SHIRT? AND, THAT EXTRA DIME TO WATCH THE LATE MOVIE?
THE RANGERS AND LEAFS CAME INTO THE GAME OF FEB. 11, 1933 WITH IDENTIAL RECORDS OF 17–11–6. TORONTO PREVAILED, 2–1, ON A THIRD–PERIOD GOAL (AT 2:01) BY CHARLIE CONACHER, ASSISTED BY JOE PRIMEAU. CECIL DILLON HAD GIVEN NEW YORK A 1–0 LEAD AT 3:28 OF THE SECOND PERIOD, BUT HAROLD (BALDY) COTTON EVENED THE SCORE JUST 38 SECONDS LATER (ASSISTS TO ART THOMS AND ACE BAILEY). GOALIES LORNE CHABOT OF THE LEAFS AND ANDY AITKENHEAD OF THE RANGERS EACH FACED 16 SHOTS. AMONG THE FUTURE HALL–OF–FAME PLAYERS THAT RECEIVED MINOR PENALTIES FROM REFEREE JERRY GOODMAN WERE KING CLANCY, RED HORNER AND BUSHER JACKSON OF THE LEAFS; IVAN “CHING” JOHNSON OF NEW YORK.
STILL AMONG THE MOST–ELEGANT HOTELS IN TORONTO, THE ROYAL YORK HAD OPENED EXACTLY 20 MONTHS BEFORE THE LEAFS–RANGERS GAME (ON JUNE 11, 1929). VISITING NHL TEAMS STAYED AT THE ROYAL YORK ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY UNTIL THE MID–1970’s.
YES, COAL WAS MOST–OFTEN USED FOR HEATING HOMES IN THE EARLY 1930’s, WHILE A CUP OF BEEF “BOVRIL” SOUP EVIDENTLY CURED THE FLU AND DEPRESSION.
YOU CANNOT BUY A TIE TODAY FOR THE COST OF A “MADE TO MEASURE” SUIT IN 1933. CUSTOM–FITTED SUITS, IN 2021, RANGE BETWEEN $350 AND $1,500. AMONG THE NHL STARS OF THE ERA ENDORSING SPALDING HOCKEY EQUIPMENT WERE HAP DAY (TORONTO), HOWIE MORENZ (MONTREAL CANADIENS), HOOLEY SMITH AND LIONEL CONACHER (MONTREAL MAROONS).