For some time it has struck me that we can essentially break down the NHL season into several sub sections: first there is training camp, where virtually everyone has a lot of jump and looks really good early on. Optimism abounds. The kids all look great, and we hear the stories about players who are “quicker and faster this year”, who’ve added muscle or worked on their agility or whatever.
Then, the exhibition games begin, and there are always surprises—a free-agent pick up who looks better than expected, a longtime minor-leaguer catching the brass’ eye as he tries to earn his NHL opportunity. There is usually a low round draft pick or two who stands out as well.
You then reach the point where we are now, when the rosters are (almost) set, and the regular season is around the corner. In the case of ever-cautious Leaf fans, we tend to look at the first block of ten or twenty games and say: we’ll assess where we’re at that point to determine if the signs are encouraging, or something less than that.
Of course, there is the long and never ending sub part of the season where one game just kind of leads into the next, and even the players sometimes hit a wall. But by March, if your team is in contention, we’re into a very crucial aspect of the season. We begin at that point to see the kind of hockey that will have to be played if a team hopes to have any success come spring. This is the mad dash to make the playoffs.
Finally, the last chapter is the testing ground we call the playoffs, a goal the Leafs have only achieved once in more than a decade.
So starting with training camp, there are a lot of “mini seasons” throughout the long and draining NHL season—for the Leafs, and for everyone else.
But all that said, there is still something unique and a bit special about the first game of the season—opening night.
This year it’s the Leafs and the Habs, and that seems to have been a staple in these parts for the past few years when we kick off a new NHL season. Interestingly, over the past number of years I’ve kind of looked at Montreal as a nice team, one that could skate but was not a real threat. They seemed to lack size and I never really believed they were a serious contender.
Yet I’ve been proven wrong, because with Price in goal, Subban on defense and a lot of forwards who can play a two-way game, they have in fact become a pretty good and consistent squad in the Eastern Conference.
Now, I have no idea if Wednesday night’s encounter with the Habs at the ACC will be a harbinger of things to come. We can expect that Mike Babcock will have the Leafs ready to play. I’d be surprised if they laid an egg, in terms of effort.
One of my favourite “opening night” early life hockey memories goes back to the 1960s, but doesn’t involve the Leafs directly. It was the first night of the 1962-’63 NHL season. The Montreal Canadiens were a couple of seasons removed from their monopoly of the NHL championship, when they won five Stanley Cups in succession between 1956 and 1960, but they were still a formidable outfit.
As I have written here many times before, having been raised in a family where everyone was a devoted Hab supporter, I naturally went in another direction and fell in love with the Maple Leafs in the late ‘50s.
On this night, the Bruins stunned Montreal by a score of 5-0. I was 9 years old at the time, and didn’t see the result until I read the morning newspaper (the Detroit Free Press) before I went off to elementary school the next morning. I remember vividly that there was a picture in the sports section from the Montreal game the night before. And I read about goaltender Bob Perreault earning the shutout. Perreault had a cup of coffee in the NHL in the 1950s before starting that year with the Bruins, but for the most part had (and would continue to have for years afterward) a very solid minor league career. In that game, he stoned the hated Habs on opening night, and made my day- and created a lifelong memory. (That's a great old Harold Barkley photo from that game, above right, with Montreal's Jean Beliveau on Perreault's doorstep.)
The Bruins still struggled that ’62-’63 season. And that 5-0 score was actually a bit of a harbinger of things to come for the Canadiens. Why? Because Montreal went on to meet the Leafs in the semi-finals in the spring of ’63. Toronto won the series in five games, knocking off Montreal 5-0 in Game 5 at Maple Leaf Gardens. Plante was in goal for the Habs that night, as he had been in the opening game loss to the Bruins. It was also Plante’s last game in a Montreal uniform, as he was dealt to the Rangers in a blockbuster deal later that summer.
The Leafs went on to win their second of three Cups in a row in the spring of 1963. In fact, that was, in my view, the finest all-around Leaf team in my lifetime. They had great goaltending with Bower along with the outstanding defense corps of Baun, Brewer, Stanley and Horton, and a nice mix of skill and speed, youth and experience—and plenty of toughness throughout the roster. They finished first in the overall NHL standings—something they had not done for a long time previous to that and haven’t done since.
So for me, opening night is always about memories. How the team plays may mean something; it may not. This Leaf roster is not star-studded, but I sense most Leaf supporters are not so concerned with what this team does in 2015-’16 as much as wanting to see things move in a direction that gives hope. We all know some good “kids” are on the doorstep. The organization has a very versatile management team in place and one of the finest coaches in the business.
So we’ll see, eh? Maybe this team will surprise us.
Let’s get started.