As a long-time (old-time? Or as someone posted here recently, “ancient”) Maple Leaf fan, I can’t help but harken back to times when the franchise was doing quite a bit better, in terms of championship results. For me, it is nostalgic and rather heartwarming to remember those wonderful days for the Leafs—and for hockey. I don't pretend the game was always better in those days, though I certainly loved a great deal about the sport back then. (Click on the various highlighted phrases today to see some related stories…) Oh, I know the game—and the league itself—has changed radically in many ways. It is unquestionably faster and harder-edged than ever before, a game played by many large men in essentially the same-sized playing surface and space they utilized fifty or more years ago. Thus, we have the rash of injuries that we see now. (Part of the increase is also that we know a lot more now, of course, and are finally treating injuries more wisely…)
Nowadays, you have to win four, often grueling, best-of-seven series. When I was a kid in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, if you won two playoff rounds, you were the Stanley Cup champions. (Above, I've included a classic old photo from when I was not quite 9 years of age. The Leafs had just won the Stanley Cup in Chicago in April of 1962, the only time in my lifetime they ever won a Cup on the road. In that photo we can see Dickie Duff, wearing number 9 and the "A" on his jersey. Bobby Baun is on the left wearing number 21. Goalie Don Simmons is on the far left and that is Red Kelly, I believe, on the far right...) That said, I wouldn’t want young hockey fans to think it was a cake-walk in those days. Though there were only six teams, they were truly the best players in the world at the time, though it was indeed a smaller hockey universe, for sure. The best Europeans weren’t playing here yet, and the Americans were just growing the game south of the border. While the pace of the game was different (the Canadiens and maybe the Blackhawks being the exception, teams that could really skate…) it was still tough and rugged going, with players using wooden sticks and tiny pieces of equipment that couldn’t be given away based on today’s fancy technological standards.
I saw earlier today that they named the nominees for the NHL's Ted Lindsay Award, and having seen Lindsay play as a youngster, I know how big a heart players like “Terrible Ted” played with in that era. They truly weren’t playing “for the money”. A guy like Lindsay (shown at right in a 1950s photo while still with the Red Wings) would do anything to win, and he wielded his stick liberally to carve out space on the ice for himself—and also to set anyone on the other team straight who did him “dirt”, as they said in those golden days of hockey. It was just a different game.
So while it was a world apart from what the game is today, it was still special to watch hockey in the springtime in those glory days. The season ended in those days in late April. Can you imagine? Heck, when the Leafs won their last Cup in 1967, Game 6 of the finals against Montreal at Maple Leaf Gardens was played on May 2. And people thought that was late. Then came expansion, and the new 12-team league and the season (and the playoffs) have just gotten longer and longer since.
I still believe that the hardest championship to win in sports has always been the Stanley Cup. These days, you have to endure an 82-game season playing a highly-physical sport, and then, if you make the playoffs, you have to play up to another 28 games under intense conditions just for a shot at winning the championship. No other sport demands as much, in my view.
won it all since 1967 (see the great old Harold Barkley photo at left, which shows then Leaf captain George Armstrong battling for possession of the puck with Hab forward and ex-Leaf star Dickie Duff and Terry Harper in the middle...), as I’ve tried to chronicle here in the past at VLM, the Leafs haven’t always been “lousy” in the intervening seasons. There have been years when I thought the Leafs had a shot at doing something special in the springtime. 1971 was one of those, and things looked good for a while, but the Rangers were too tough to overcome in the end. (I know, I know, it was only the quarter-finals; but if we could have just got past New York…)
I also liked how good the Leafs looked against the Flyers in the playoffs in 1977, but the gates suddenly came crashing down and that dream died quickly, too. A year later, an upset of the emerging New York Islanders gave us hope that the Leafs could do some damage, but Montreal was just too tough for the Leafs to handle in the semi-finals.
It wasn’t until the magical spring of 1993 that we came legitimately close again, before losing in that dreadfully disappointing 7th game against Gretzky and the Kings.
In 2002, I thought, I honestly thought, we were on our way to the finals under Pat Quinn. I still don’t know how we lost to the Hurricanes in the semi-finals. But we did, sadly. We were so close.
And now, we have gone almost a decade since our last playoff series victory (2003). We haven’t even been in a playoff game since 2004. But after being lost in the desert, I believe we are close enough to be able to say that, as discouraging as things felt as we crawled to the end of the 2011-’12 season, some of the pieces that the Leafs will need are in place (along with some expected additions) to at least get to the playoffs next spring. Once there, as the old saying goes, anything can happen, right?
I just cannot conceive that this management team will allow another season to pass without making the playoffs in the not-very-strong Eastern Conference. Oh, I get that, when watching these playoffs, the current Leafs sure don’t play like the Flyers, Devils, Bruins, Rangers or Capitals. But things can change quickly in this day and age, and there’s no reason to believe that the Leafs can’t at least raise their level of play come playoff time, just like all these other good teams do in the spring. The checking is so much tougher, yes. There isn't much space out there. But the Leafs will have to respond just like all these other teams do. And under Carlyle, hopefully they will be ready to play just that way- gritty, tough and hard-nosed all over the ice, including in front of both nets.
First, though, they have to get to the dance. If you’re so inclined, let me know, after watching the playoffs to this point, what you now sense are the one or two things the Leafs need to add most to get into the same class as the clubs I mentioned above. (I provided some thoughts on this a while back...)
In the meantime, I’ll enjoy looking at the pictures of the team’s halcyon days, when a Cup was at least in their grasp pretty much any given spring.