In my youth, I loathed the Habs with a passion. I mean, I really, really hated them. (Timely thought, since we were playing them Wednesday night.) That feeling takes me back to the late 1950s and early 1960s. Why? Montreal in those days was so good, so talented and won so much, I couldn’t stand it. (I was raised in a household of steadfast and passionate Hab supporters, so that might have been part of it for me, too…) And while I wouldn’t say they were, overall, ever a truly dirty team, once they struggled for a few years after their five Cups in a row in that late ‘50s era, they did go through a time when they were maybe not able to ‘protect’ their stars like Richard and Beliveau as they had before. Once they brought up John Ferguson, a rugged winger from the minors, he leveled the playing field right away. Suddenly they were super-skilled and mean. That probably made me dislike them all the more, because I recognized what difference-makers guys like Ferguson (who was at times a dirty player) and big Ted Harris were for Montreal.
I maintained my hatred for the ‘blue, blanc et rouge’ throughout the next decade, but I also found room in my hockey heart to come to despise two other teams in the ‘70s—the “Big Bad Bruins” and a bit later, the “Broad Street Bullies” in Philadelphia. Both of those teams had talent (any team with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito or Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent had some talent, for sure) but why did I dislike them so intently? Both teams, previously soft and easy to beat most nights (the Bruins pre-1967 and the Flyers in the early years of expansion) had become tough—very, very tough. They were physical, finished their checks and could also fight. And in that era, both teams were headliners when it came to dirty play—vicious use of the stick, among other things.
I wasn’t alone. Unless you actually cheered for those teams, they were pretty much universally despised by hockey fans. And while, as a Leaf fan, I envied their Cup wins and their toughness, I maybe as much hated that my Leafs weren’t quite tough enough to stand up to the Bruins and the Flyers. It’s not that the Leafs didn’t try to match up against those teams (we had individuals who sure tried their best to) but we just couldn't beat them except on sporadic occasions during the regular season. We lost to the Bruins in the playoffs in 1972 and 1974 and to the Flyers in 1975, 1976 and 1977 though, in fairness, we really went toe-to-toe with Philly the last couple of years that we met in the playoffs.
My long-winded point is simply this: the Leafs are seemingly becoming one of those teams that other squads hate to line up against. The first goal in the Montreal game Wednesday night at the ACC was telltale. Brown won a board battle and simply by being at the right place and the right time, McLaren was credited with a somewhat fluky goal for the good guys to give the Leafs an early lead.
Those who check in fairly regularly at VLM know I’m not the world’s biggest fight guy. I accept that it has been part of the game, but there’s a part of me that wishes that it wasn’t. That said, I’ve always, as a fan, appreciated the value of physical hockey. Bert Olmstead (seen right in his hey-day with the Habs before he joined the Leafs in the late 1950s) and Bobby Pulford were to Maple Leafs in my early days as a follower of this franchise that stood out for me as classic grinders (before that term was used in the hockey world). Olmstead was particularly abrasive in the corners and Pulford loved to finish his checks, much like Komarov nowadays but even nastier.
In the ‘70s, players like Bob Gainey (Montreal) and Terry O’Reilly (Boston) epitomized flat out aggressive play. They could hit and stop you cold and could fight, too. Neither, though was a dirty player in my mind, though they were certainly intense and passionate (and played for the aforementioned teams that I couldn’t stand).
And this is what I see developing with the Maple Leafs right now. We don’t have anyone who plays as well as O’Reilly while at the same time being as tough as nails like O’Reilly was. And Gainey was one of the best all-around hockey players I’ve ever seen, so I’m not suggesting we have someone of that ilk just now in the Leaf lineup. But in the broad sense, doesn't it strike you that we are a team that irritates (Komarov, McClement, Kadri) and also can hit and grind in the corners and throw down if the moment comes when that is required (Orr, Brown, McLaren)?
I admit, when I heard we had picked up McLaren on waivers, I didn’t bat an eye. I never thought Orr would play here again. Yet here I sit, typing that they are somehow part of a mentality that is making skilled Leafs Leafs play freer and better most nights, while they keep the opposition honest.
What I see unfolding next is fans of other teams beginning to detect what is going on in Leafland. That is, that we have a team that once upon a time was easy to play against (like the Bruins and Flyers I mentioned above) and now no longer is. And those opposing fans will hate that. They will see we are no longer a pushover and aren’t an easy two points on the NHL schedule. They will also note that we have skill, too, in guys like van Riemsdyk, Lupul, Kessel, Kadri, Frattin and Grabovski, along with grit and the aforementioned nasty streak—and yes, the willingness to fight.
I’ve already noticed that teams aren’t enjoying playing the Leafs. It’s not that we are necessarily out-‘skilling’ or out-chancing the opposition every night, but all it takes is two or three plays where we want the puck more (like the Brown-McLaren play mentioned above) and a close game (that’s all we seem to play most nights this season) turns in our favour.
We don’t have a “reputation” yet—it takes longer than 21 games to develop that, usually, but I don’t believe that is far off. I think we’re close. I don’t want us to be a dirty team, or fight constantly. That’s not my point. The game has always been about skating, passing and shooting for me. I love speed and a player that sees the ice and makes plays, like Kadri’s tremendous pass to MacArthur to set up the second Leaf goal against Montreal.
But you also need teamwork, players who work for each other, who will do the tough jobs and are willing to do the little things that win games. That’s the kind of team I’d like to see. Skilled, fast, physical, unified. If other teams don’t like the Leafs, or their fans don’t like the Leafs, so what?
And won’t it be fun to be on the receiving end of “hockey hatred” from fellow fans across the Eastern Conference? We had that in the Quinn years.
And it was nice.
By all means I hope you’ll post comments today but I won’t likely be able to respond to your posts until later in the day on Thursday….I won't be near a computer during the day on Thursday.
It’s not surprising that the Habs were ready for the game Wednesday night. The Leafs had won the first two games in the season series and that last game in Montreal was not one the Habs would let sit.
Mark Fraser is winning me over just about every night he plays. But I posted on him recently so I won’t focus on the play of the rock-solid defenseman. So many little things he is doing well.
I know some fans will question the Mike Bown major, but for me, that’s certainly not why we lost the game. We usually win the little battles, as I posted above. Not so much Wednesday night when Montreal had a lot of jump.
Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Bozak were all minus 4, though it was a night of odd goals, which was part of the reason for line’s bad number. (Bozak complained about the draw that led to the third Montreal goal, but the Montreal center was ready, so I can’t say for sure Bozak had a valid argument…) I don’t think Phaneuf was as good as he had been lately but he wasn’t alone.
On to the Island.