The Leafs have won three of their last four encounters before heading south to play the NHL’s Florida-based teams. This will take us to the upcoming outdoor game at BMO Field in Toronto on Sunday afternoon, New Year’s Day.
It’s not the first time the Leafs have played in such a game, but it will be the first time they have done so when there is this much excitement and genuine optimism about the team’s short-term future.
Anyone following their fortunes under Mike Babcock seems to feel the Leafs are oh-so-close to making major strides—if not necessarily in the standings this season, then certainly in terms of their ability to play with most any team in the league on any given night.
Longer term, fans believe the team will improve significantly. With a few more roster tweaks between now and this time next season, we may be talking about a playoff spot—and being a team that few will want to play in the playoffs. (A lot will depend on Andersen’s netminding, of course, the continued development of at least most of the young players on the roster and avoiding the injury bug…)
But what I’ve really been thinking about as we look ahead to Sunday’s game are my own (albeit somewhat fading) memories of playing on the local river and ponds where I grew up in southwestern Ontario.
As I’ve written here before, going back to when I launched Vintage Leaf Memories in September of 2009, I was raised in a (very) small town outside of Windsor, across from Detroit. Like everyone who loved hockey in that part of Canada, there were primarily three teams people seemed to cheer for: the “local” NHL team—the Red Wings, the “Flying Frenchmen” from Montreal (mine was a rural, predominantly French-Canadian community) or the Leafs. As not everyone was a Leaf supporter, the long winter-time bus rides to elementary school were especially difficult on mornings after the Leafs had lost a Wednesday or Thursday night game against the hated Habs.
My Dad and brothers were all Hab followers, devotedly so. But I nonetheless chose another path, and have always followed the Maple Leafs.
In any event, in the early to mid 1960s when a was still quite young, I usually had to find older kids to play hockey with, which I liked. It made me feel like a big guy. Depending on the weather, it was usually about this time of year (Christmas season, during the school break) when we were sure that the ice on the river or nearby ponds was/were strong enough for us to play.
Like thousands of other kids in different parts of the country, we would (as needed) shovel the snow to clear off enough space for a good-sized rink—and a good game of hockey. The piled-up snow became our “boards” and usually kept the puck in play, though we often had to dig the puck out of the snow bank or chase it a mile down the river if a shot missed the net and skipped over the bank. We would normally set up a pair of boots, a couple of broken sticks or two small chunks of hard ice, at opposite ends of our “rink”/playing surface as nets. (If we were lucky, one of the local kids would own a net, and would be willing to bring it down to our game. If we had two nets we felt almost like big-leaguers. They didn’t have to be “regulation” size; any nets were great.)
We had rules, of course, and always tried to “balance” teams to make them competitive. We were all pretty realistic about our abilities. We wanted to compete and win, but mostly we wanted to play and have fun. And as much fun as outdoor games were, it’s not fun to lose 10-0 all day long, so we would switch teams up if one team was struggling.
One of the rules was that there was usually no forechecking allowed. In other words, given the modest size of our self-made “rinks”, you had to give the other team the opportunity to get to about center ice before you could try to get the puck away from them. This gave each side a bit of skating space so the other team could build up speed and make plays.
The most important rule was “no lifting the puck”. This may seem odd today, in a world where everyone in the NHL shoots a hundred miles an hour and kids practice their shots all the time while playing in indoor rinks (and in in structured leagues with lots of protective equipment). But back then playing outdoors, most kids played without shin pads and certainly never any shoulder pads. (I usually wore small elbow pads, though, because falling on your elbows on the hard ice was, well, still pretty painful.)
The beauty of the rule was that no one was trying to use a slapshot—again because no one wore much equipment and we also didn’t want to constantly chase the puck all over the place. We had to stickhandle, and when you got close to whoever was in goal (usually we took turns—some kids were actually pretty adept at keeping the puck out of the makeshift net) you had to try and deke past the goalie. So it was good fun because we had to pass a lot and stickhandle our way to scoring or setting up a goal most of the time. (I should add that I always had more energy when our team had the puck and had a chance to score—backchecking against the wind was not my favourite thing…)
I will say it was an extra special treat if someone who actually played goal (and had goalie equipment, which was the coolest thing in the world to see as a kid) showed up. It made scoring goals a heck of a lot tougher, though we might tweak the rules a bit to help out the shooters. We still could not slap the puck. (On those rare occasions where two goalies were available with their equipment, well, it was the best thing going. Those games were the best—and the most fun of all. It felt like a real hockey game.)
I don’t recall, at least in the really early days that I played, that I ever wore a helmet playing outdoors. I just always wore my trustee “toque”, which kept my ears warm, though what most of us really needed was something to keep our feet warm. We would play for hours, with few breaks, often having to shovel the snow/ice shavings a few times a day to keep the ice surface playable.
On occasion, as I got older and if we were playing near a buddy’s house and we all knew one another, nearby parents would on occasion have us over for a quick hot chocolate, then it was back outside and across the road and down the bank of the local river for another game. That's a nice memory, too.
I also distinctly remember what it felt like to pull my skates off on the days we had played for hours in the bitter cold. It was painful, but a nice kind of self-satisfied pain.
To my original point about we locals cheering for one of three NHL teams, I would say that of those kids who had an NHL replica sweater back then, it was usually a Leaf or Montreal jersey. That was cool, too, of course. I can’t say I remember (again, we’re talking about the early to mid 1960s, pre-NHL expansion) seeing many Red Wing, Boston, Chicago or Ranger jerseys. I won’t say none, but they would have been pretty rare, as I recall. I’m not sure if they were even widely available back then where we lived.
I had one “NHL”-style jersey as a kid, and it was a Christmas present when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. It came from Eatons, the then popular and historic Canadian retail store based in Toronto. My parents must have ordered by mail or something, I’m not sure. But it was a white “away” Maple Leaf jersey (Toronto home jerseys back then were always blue) so having the type of Leaf jersey you almost never saw on television (except in the payoffs when Toronto was on the road) felt pretty special at the time. It’s not like I wore it very often because I soon outgrew it, but that’s a wonderful memory as well.
I don’t recall wanting to "be" any particular Maple Leaf or NHL player back then, though like many Canadian kids at the time, I was a big fan of Leaf players like Dickie Duff, pictured above (though he was traded, unfortunately, in February of 1964) and of course Davey Keon.
My guess is many of you who were kids back then also played outdoors at least on occasion, and no doubt have your own memories of outdoor games, hockey jerseys as Christmas presents and maybe even wanting to play like a Frank Mahovlich, Henri Richard, Bobby Hull or later, Bobby Orr. For many of us, that was all a great part of being a kid.
We’re all looking forward to seeing the Leafs play in another outdoor game at a time of year when hockey is so much fun—and the weather feels like hockey. I‘ll also spend some of the time recalling just how much I enjoyed playing the game years ago on our local river—and also remembering feeling about as happy as a kid can feel…even when I was shoveling snow with frozen feet.