One of my favorite Gordon Lightfoot songs was released in the mid 1970’s, entitled simply, “Summertime Dream”. It’s one of those perfect, upbeat summer songs, which brings to mind childhood, hope, fond memories and relaxing times.
For modern-day Leaf fans, living through another summer of hockey hope, a “summertime dream” would be for the team to become what it once was—a perennial contender, a team that fans can be proud of and not the constant butt of jokes stemming from 40+ years of too often undistinguished performances.
While my list is certainly not comprehensive, there are certain franchises in sports that simply matter more than most. In soccer, it is arguably Real Madrid and Manchester United. In baseball, it’s the long-hated Yankees. Football’s Green Bay Packers have meant something, even through their lean years, because of the legend build by the late Vince Lombardi. The Dallas Cowboys are still often called “America’s team” though it's been almost twenty years since their last Sper Bowl victory. In basketball it’s the Celtics and the LA Lakers.
When it comes to hockey, the Leafs are that team for many Canadians and for many hockey fans around the world. Like the Montreal Canadiens, they represent a bit of history, great players, memorable characters and storylines surrounding the organization and (until the last 40 years, in Toronto’s case) a record of true success.
I—and I’m sure most long-time Leaf supporters—don’t follow the Leafs because they care about the Teachers Pension Plan profit picture. Or for that matter about Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment as a corporate entity. We care because we love hockey, and at some point in our formative years, we developed an allegiance to the blue and white.
For me, it happened in the late 1950s, when names like Eddie Chadwick, Bert Olmstead, Dickie Duff, Frank Mahovlich and George Armstrong meant it was winter, Saturday night and the Leafs were on a small, old, black and white TV screen. It so happened that the Leafs mattered back then, even though most of the 1950s were not a great era for the team.
But they were one of the so-called “original six” franchises, they were based in Canada, and they played in the biggest English-speaking city in Canada. It helped that team owner Conn Smythe facilitated the building of Maple Leaf Gardens seemingly overnight back in the 1930s, and it became the temple of hockey for many fans for generations.
I remember the first Leaf Cup of my lifetime so well. The Leafs beat Chicago in six games in the final, and even though I was only 8 at the time in the spring of ’62, it seemed to mean the world to me. They went on to win three Cups in a row, with one of my early ‘favorite’ Leafs, Dave Keon (pictured at right with captain George Armstrong after the Cup clinching game in 1963) one of many key players in the team’s rise along with Kelly, Pulford, Baun, Brewer, Horton, Stanley and those mentioned above.
Since those sometimes idealized days, life has became, as it does for all of us, much more complex and worrisome as the years wear on, but there was—and still is—something special about this team.
This must be why so many of us think about them, even though the team is now populated by millionaires and controlled by corporations who own billions. Though we, as “fans”, can’t relate to players the way folks could back in the 1950s (when, for example, someone like “Rocket” Richard lived next door to "regular" people in the same modest Montreal-area home for thirty years and worked in the summer to supplement his income) we still somehow care. We dream, we hope, we continue to believe that there will be a time when we can experience what Black Hawk fans just did. That is, that moment when we can, as a fan, say we’ve lived through the worst of times, now we can celebrate—quietly, loudly, however each fan chooses to enjoy those “little” life moments which distract us from more serious concerns.
Cheering for a sports team is so obviously inconsequential in the totality of life. But the issue is not one of importance. It’s a question of the little joys that bring meaning to life when it is often so difficult, when more important things in our life don’t go so well. Then, we turn to sports, we turn to “our team”, and we dream the dream.
Those little memories, like the last Leaf Cup some of us remember well in Canada’s long-ago Centennial year, last forever.
Yes, the Leafs still matter, if only because there are enough of us who, for each our own private reasons, still care.
Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Blog