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Who says going to Church doesn’t help?

In April of 1962, the Maple Leafs were in the finals, looking to win their first Stanley Cup since Bill Barilko’s famous overtime winner in the spring of 1951.

To Leaf fans now, that doesn’t seem like such a long time when you’ve waited over 40 years for a championship season. But back then, the Leafs had gone through a rough cycle in the mid-1950’s, as the Red Wings, Montreal and then Chicago had built powerful, successful NHL teams that won the Cup from 1952 through 1961. The Leafs struggled in the mid-50’s, until Punch Imlach took over as General Manager in 1958.

In the spring of ’62, I was 8 years old, and I well remember the Leafs were playing Chicago in the finals. The Hawks had won the Cup the year before, eliminating Montreal in 6 games in the semi-finals (Montreal was looking for a 6th consecutive Cup) before defeating Gordie Howe and the Red Wings, also in 6 games.

The Hawks were a tough, strong team, featuring not only Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and of course the great Glenn Hall in goal, but Pierre Pilotte, Elmer "Moose" Vasko, Dollard St. Laurent, Kenny Wharram, Bill “Red” Hay, Ab McDonald and many other fine players.

The Leafs had won the first two games of the series in Toronto, but were badly outplayed in Chicago in games 3 and 4. I remember reading, a few years later, Scott Young’s wonderful book called “The Leafs I Knew”, a compilation of stories he had written while he was following the Leafs as a writer with the Globe & Mail, and his recollections of the years between 1958 and 1963. After game 4, he had quoted Leaf players as saying they had to create more traffic in front of Glenn Hall- essentially had to ‘go to the net’ in today’s parlance.

I wasn’t privy to that kind of “inside information” back then. I didn’t read the Globe & Mail. There were no talk shows or highlight shows. As a youngster rooting so hard for the Leafs, I was just really concerned as the series went back to Toronto on a Thursday night for Game 5. If the Leafs lost at home, I didn’t like Toronto’s chances heading back to Chicago for game 6 against the defending champs. Even at that young age, I knew Chicago fans were crazy, and there were more than 20,000 people crammed into that old building, even though the announced attendance was always 16,666.

Timing is everything, and well, it so happened that in that particular year, the finals fell during an important week in the religious life of my family. As Catholics, Lent was a solemn time of the Church calendar, and this was what was and still is referred to as Holy Week, which includes Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

How did this affect the Leafs? Not at all. But it certainly impacted me, as Holy Thursday mass was considered “obligatory” in those days for Catholics. As I recall, back in 1962 there was one Mass on Holy Thursday and that was it. And, tragically, it felt at the time, the Mass started at 8pm, the same time the Leaf game started that night.

Going at all was bad enough, but Holy Thursday Mass, to a child then, was particularly long and especially laborious and ceremonious. It likely lasted a good 90 minutes, and it seemed much, much longer. I clearly looked unhappy sitting in my pew, when a young friend (a year older, but also a Leaf fan) sitting just behind me leaned over at one point and said, “You’re not the only one that’s not happy…” which pretty much said it all.

But my faith in my faith was restored after we arrived home. I rushed to turn on the TV to discover that the Leafs were ahead of Chicago by a score of something like 6-3. I think the final score that night was 8-4.

Obviously, going to Church had made the difference. At the age of 8, I wasn’t prepared to analyze things any further than that.

The Leafs went on to win game 6 in Chicago a few nights later, with Dick Duff scoring the winning goal late in the third period. I was so excited. I couldn’t believe my Leafs had won.

It was my first Cup.

The feeling was repeated, happily, a few times over the next several years. But as we all know, all good things must come to an end.

Little did we young Leaf fans know that the “end” would feel this permanent.

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