As our collective blue and white hockey pulse is activated in a significant way with pre-season games starting Tuesday night, I thought it would be timely to re-post one of the very first pieces I did for Vintage Leaf Memories. The story takes me back to when I was not even five years of age, in the late 1950s. "Choosing" my favorite team was a pretty big deal in my family, and it was a very big deal for me.
A year after I first wrote this, the Vintage Leaf Memories site has grown quite a bit and more people may now be in a position to see this piece and share their own memories, about how, why and when they became a fan of the Maple Leafs. Take a moment and send your reflections along.
This is a story I cannot confirm, but it was told to me by my father so many times it simply has to be true.
The context for this recollection is important. I was born in 1953, the last of 5 children, a family which included two older brothers.
My dad was an ardent Montreal Canadiens supporter. He was born in 1910, and while he was not a Montrealer or Quebecer by birth, he was born into a French-speaking community in southwestern Ontario, and his French-Canadian heritage was very important to him. So was his religious faith. Those two things seemed to merge in his passionate support of the “Les Habitants”. Dad saw the Canadiens as representing French Catholic Canada, and he perceived French-Canadian Catholics as an often disrespected minority. It could be argued that the team, in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, reflected the values of French Canadians, to a certain extent.
Dad followed the exploits of the great Canadiens’ stars over the years, from Howie Morenz and Aurel Joliat to Toe Blake and Doug Harvey. But Dad felt most loyal to Maurice Richard, the fiery offensive star of the Canadiens. The Richard riots of the spring of 1955, while partly borne of the stupidity of non-hockey fan hoodlums, did reveal an “us against them” perspective from the point of view of Quebecers. (Richard had been suspended for a violent incident he was involved in near the end of the regular season. NHL president Clarence Campbell made the controversial decision.)
My dad was among many who felt that the suspension of Richard for the rest of the regular season and the entire playoffs that spring was far too harsh a punishment. He, and many others, believed that had a player other than Richard been involved in the incident, the suspension would have been for many fewer games.
That season, as a result of the suspension, Richard lost his last legitimate chance to win a regular season point scoring championship, as he was passed by his teammate, Bernie Geoffrion. Even some Montreal fans booed Geoffrion as he accumulated enough points to surpass Richard, which demonstrated their particular brand of loyalty toward the "Rocket".
Montreal won the Stanley Cup five years in a row, between 1956 and 1960. Richard retired at training camp the following September, leaving his remarkable career on a winning note.
So it was this environment into which I was born, from a religious, sports and rooting interest perspective. My Dad was beyond a rabid supporter- cheering for the Canadiens meant far more than simply rooting for a “team”. It was a cause.
Somehow, though my two older brothers followed in his footsteps, at least in terms of cheering for a particular hockey team, I was “allowed” to follow a different path.
As the story goes, I was between my fourth and 5th birthday, likely approaching my 5th birthday in September of 1958- smack in the midst of Montreal’s five Cups in a row dynasty.
Dad was shaving as he often did, in front a very small mirror which was connected to my mother’s pull-out ironing board in our tiny kitchen. I apparently approached him, he said, with a question. It was a very simple and obvious question, but given my father’s rather narrow view of a variety of subjects (as I came to discover in later years) it was actually fairly penetrating.
“Dad, is this a free country?”
According to my dad, there was a slight pause, as he knew something was up, and he said “Yes, it is.”
I evidently pushed the envelope a little further.
“Does that mean I can cheer for any hockey team I want to?”
The pause was much longer this time. “I suppose so.”
I took my chance at what I must have perceived as an opening.
“Well, then, I want to cheer for the Maple Leafs. Is that OK?”
The longest pause yet. There was no going back.
“Sure,” he claims to have said. “We’ll have more fun that way.”
In fact, as the years went by, it wasn’t easy or fun at all. We never argued or anything along those lines. It was far too serious for the typical bickering that sports fans do when discussing their teams. Our disparate loyalties were rarely even outwardly acknowledged.
In the 1964 semi-finals, I remember the April night so well. Dave Keon (shown above scoring a playoff goal against Terry Sawchuk in the early '60s), my favorite player, scored three goals in game 7 to lead the Leafs to the win over Montreal. I was listening to the game on the radio (it was blacked out on television where we lived, because the Red Wings were playing game 7 in their series that same night), while my dad was listening in another room.
I remember crying because I felt so badly for Dad, that his team had lost. And then I felt guilty, because I was being disloyal to the Leafs. I actually went to my mother and asked her if it was OK that I was being disloyal to “my” team, because I felt so badly for Dad.
Thankfully, in one sense, most of those early 1960s playoff games were blacked out because of our proximity to Detroit, so we rarely were able to watch Montreal-Toronto games together on the only TV we had in the house. We generally listened on the radio, but in different parts of the small house.
As I look back, I don’t regret the choice I made at the age of 4 or 5. In the short term, it was a decision that led to many happy “fan” moments and great memories, including four Stanley Cups.
Despite the 40+ years that have passed since the last Cup, I still like my decision.