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Do the Leafs still matter? They sure do….

Who’s kidding who?  (Or is it “who’s kidding whom…”?) It’s August and unless we are speculating about whether a) van Riemsdyk really is a center after all, b) Carlyle can adapt to his roster reality (or it/they to him) or c) that the Leafs are still hoping to land a big fish before training camp (Marleau, Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Luongo, et al…) it’s a quiet time to talk about the Maple Leafs.  That said, even the muggy summer weather doesn’t really diminish the enthusiasm that people who love the team have—or the optimism that generally abounds at this time of year about where the Leafs are headed.

After all, what’s not to be (if you’re in that frame of mind) positive about? The players are all healthy.  The Leafs haven’t lost a game yet.  Our goaltending just might be better, eh?  And hey, we signed Komarov, and we certainly needed an agitator with Armstrong always injured and now gone. Everyone is excited about van Riemsdyk.  And what about all those kids down on the farm—Colborne, Kadri, and the youngsters we just drafted amid so much hoopla?

As an ever-hopeful Leaf fan, I used to adopt this approach all the time when I was young.  I remember it so well.  I always convinced myself the Leafs would indeed be better next year.  Success was always just around the corner.  Heck, I remember working on forward-line combinations on a scrap of paper within days of the Leafs getting blown out in four straight against the emerging Boston Bruins in the spring of 1969.  (Boston went on to win two Stanley Cups in the next three seasons...) The Leafs didn't have all that much to work with, as they were  a team in transition, moving from "aging" to a more youthful orientation. But I wanted to believe that with a few modifications here and there, they would be good again. That was the season—and the series, that saw the end of the Punch Imlach era when team owner Stafford Smythe pulled the plug on the long-time Leaf GM and bench boss right after the Game 4 loss against the Bruins in Toronto.  It was indeed time for a change and Smythe subsequently hired Jim Gregory, a sharp young hockey executive (in the old Toronto Marlie system, if I’m not mistaken).  It was a good hire, and change almost always inspires hope.

I remained positive.  I especially felt that way after the 1970-’71 season, when the Leafs had future Hall-of-Famer Bernie Parent seemingly well-entrenched in goal and a really good crop of young defenseman—much better than we have now, I would argue.  Big Brian Glennie was highly enough thought of to be selected for Team Canada ’72.  Rick Ley was a mobile, tough-as-nails defenseman who also had offensive flair.  Jim Dorey never lost a fight, it seemed, and was a rugged guy with a lot of talent.  Brad Selwood was a really solid all-around young defenseman, as was Mike Pelyk.  Then there was the skilled but rather enigmatic Jim McKenny, once thought to be the second best young defenseman in hockey behind Bobby Orr (an unfair comparison, but that’s what many thought at the time…).  I was convinced that the Leafs were on their way.

Unfortunately, Gregory traded away Dorey, one of my favourite all-time Maple Leafs (seen at right). Then the World Hockey Association came along and signed Parent, Selwood, Ley and Pelyk (and tough center Jim Harrison as well) away from the Leafs.  Harold Ballard had assumed ownership control after Smythe's death, and "Pal Hal" believed that the WHA would never last. History would prove him very wrong, and largely as a result of his stubbornness, the Leafs went backwards.

Hopes were dashed—but only temporarily.  Gregory  was able to re-build the squad and before long, Lanny McDonald, captain Darryl Sittler (seen in action at left), Mike Palmateer and Borje Salming (I guess we could throw Ian Turnbull and Tiger Williams in there as well) were literally in the prime of their hockey lives.  With the highly-innovative (albeit very defensively-oriented) Roger Neilson behind the bench, the team gave us some exciting playoff hockey in the later ‘70s but at the end of the day, the Flyers or the Habs were always a bit too much for us and eliminated us un the playoffs every spring.

Though things looked more promising than ever after the 1979 playoff ouster against Montreal, Gregory was fired (so was Neilson) and Imlach was brought back by Ballard, the irascible Leaf owner through that frustrating era.  Imlach had actually had a very successful run as the GM of the expansion Buffalo Sabres throughout the 1970s, overseeing a franchise that came close to winning the Stanley Cup in 1975, losing in six games in the finals against the Flyers.  He built some outstanding teams with great young players like Richard Martin, Gilbert Perreault and  Danny Gare mixed in with some strong veterans and gritty guys like Rick Dudley (yes, that Rick Dudley) and former Leaf winger Brian Spencer. But once back in the land of the blue and white, Imlach seemed to morph back into the spiteful Imlach of old.  He  determined that Sittler wielded too much power and authority, and proceeded to tear the roster apart, sending McDonald and others away as soon as he could.

That got he ‘80s off on the wrong foot, for sure.  But, as bad a decade as that was for the franchise (I don't think we won a single best-of-seven playoff series in the '80s, but I might not be remembering correctly...), we drafted a host of promising young players who always made me think things had to get better soon.  There were the kid goalies, Ken Wregett and Alan Bester.  Wendel Clark was a tremendous revelation, of course, a first overall pick who was a real difference-maker for us.  But it was more than just those guys.  There was Russ Courtnall and Gary Nylund and Gary Leeman.  (I shouldn’t forget Rick Vaive and Billy Derlago…and of course, a then young Steve Thomas.)  But the team remained stuck constantly in neutral.

Then in the early ‘90s, another new General Manager (Cliff Fletcher) brought us Doug Gilmour and Pat Burns.  What a run that was in  the playoffs in ’93 and ’94.  But just when we were “this close”….we fell back and suddenly, through the Mike Murphy era (not Mike’s fault) it felt like we were starting over again.

Then Pat Quinn came aboard and brought a confidence and stability (I won't say "swagger", but the now over-used term could well have been applied to Quinn's teams...) to the organization that we had been lacking.  Quinn led a great run that Leaf fans surely must look back on and feel nostalgic about now, though many complained at the time that it wasn't enough.  Under his stewardship, the franchise made it to the playoffs every year from 1999-2004, winning a ton of playoff games and some big playoff series along the way.  Flags were flying and fans were honking car horns in the streets every year in the springtime.  Yet despite getting to the "final four" twice, in ’99 and 2002, we just couldn't quite make it to the end of the race. (2002 was particularly disappointing for me, and many other Leaf fans, I'm sure...)

Almost a decade later, in Brian Burke's 4th year in charge, we are now talking re-build, youth and patience again.  But fans still want to believe.  Why?  Because the Leafs still matter to a lot of people, not only across Canada but throughout the hockey world.  They will always matter.  And we will get better.  I choose to believe that.

The franchise that we know now was largely built in the throes of the early ‘30s Depression under the guidance of Conn Smythe, and it has been a Canadian—and hockey—institution ever since.  No, we haven’t won a Cup in 45 years, and yes, that hurts, but the legacy is still strong and proud. I have a feeling that more people, young and old, follow the Leafs passionately than ever before.  I could be wrong but I just sense that there is no drop-off in interest.  The “losing”, if anything, only makes the team’s supporters even more keen for a championship.

I’ve posted variations on today’s theme here in the past.  If you’re looking for quiet summertime Leaf reading, check out my memories on how I became a Leaf fan, and thoughts on why people still care about the Leafs.

It may be August and  NHL hockey may seem like it’s a million miles away.  But Leaf fans live - and wait - in hope.  We think hockey twelve months of the year. They will be in a position to compete before long.  It will happen.

Like the New York Mets baseball fans kept saying in 1969, the year of the "Miracle Mets"—“Ya gotta believe…”.

Hopefully you’re enjoying the summer.  Before long, I think we'll have something concrete to talk about.   In the meantime, I'd enjoy it if you took a moment to share your thoughts on why you became (or are) a Leaf fan, and why you feel they still matter...


  1. It was Bobby Orr's last season in the league, with Chicago, I believe, that my Uncle asked me if I wanted to go to a hockey game...I was 7 or 8 and had no clue that he didn't have tickets. I remember being thrilled at the long subway in from Kipling station, and in my mind's eye still picture the walk down the slick city streets at night to Maple Leaf Gardens.It seemed we waited forever at the will-call window looking at stacks of green and grey banded tickets,wondering why we couldn't use one of those unclaimed seasons seats,till someone(neither I nor my Uncle can recall who),stormed out of the Gardens ranting about those S.O.B's...and shoved a pair of ducats into my Uncle's hand. Shortly after that I found myself sitting in the Golds behind the net, marvelling at the Dominion score clock, the bright TV lights, and gazing up at the rows of seats that seemed to go on forever. I remember being more interested in my bag of corn chips than the game. In those days it was possible to literally walk right through the Visitor's bench, and for some reason my Uncle crazily urged me to bother Orr for an autograph, but of course this 7 year old was too shy. There was a giveaway that night of a Darryl Sittler Molson Cup poster that my Uncle urged me to go get signed by some cantankerous old man sitting in what I later realized to be 'Ballard's Bunker.'I recall proffering the poster, which hung on my bedroom wall for years before meeting the usual unknown fate of childhood memorabilia, to 'Fattie' as my friend Liz calls him, which was signed with nary a glance but of course a snarl. Surely had this 7-year old known, Ballard's scrawl would have been eschewed for that of the ever present King Clancy. Although the initial hook of that visit was the spectacle that was NHL hockey, it later morphed into true Blue and White fandom via the rare emotional highs and many lows of the subsqeuent years.

  2. Respectfully, Michael I disagree. The excitement just isn't there amongst my circle. My brother and I are both die hard leaf fans, both have center ice and neither of us has missed more than 10-20 games total over the last 6 years. We debate every move they make or don't make. As it stands right now both of us haven't even talked about the Leafs all summer. The JVR trade was meh, big deal, one struggling former first rounder for another. Both of us are probably going to cancel center ice and save the 200$

    I still read blogs, but rarely comment anymore. More to the point I glance at headlines but rarely read the reports. To sum it all up for the first time in years I'm really ambilavent about the Leafs. Much like I lost interest in the Jays after the world series and 17 straight years of mediocracy, that is where I'm at with regards to the Leafs. I'm too young to ever remember the Leaf's winning and now I mostly see more years of bottom of the league play coming. To be fair if they suddenly started winning I would probably get back on the bandwagon but a couple of more years of suckitude and probably that will change as well. I never thought I would say it but to me right now the Leafs are irrelevant, they are not movers and shakers in the league they are an afterthought. I think you has a post a while back where you asked if this team was anywhere else would anyone care. Well I think the possibility that even in Toronto with this team the time is coming when a lot less peple will care. I know it has already started with myself.

  3. What a great post, Sean. I so enjoyed hearing your reflections from being 7 years old and seeing a near-retirement Orr. Wow. And Ballard. (Yes a Clancy autograph might have been better!) Outstanding memories.

    Thanks for sharing that Sean.

  4. I think I really understand what you're talking about, Willbur. In this particular post I'm trying to be hopeful, I guess. Deep-down, as a long-time Leaf observer, I'm well aware of the longstanding mediocrity and, as you suggest, the reality that the Leafs aren't really a "player" in the league right now. Elite NHL'ers don't ever choose to come here. Management has an attitude I don't like. So I get it.

    But again, I'm trying to be hopeful. I feel what you're saying, and as you say, a few wins and people will likely bounce back. But we've seen false alarms before, and a lot of fans will no doubt be like you and your brother: "show me" first!

    The Leafs, as an organization, should read posts like yours to really understand what a lot of people are feeling.

    Thanks Willbur.

  5. To be honest Michael I understand wanting to be hopeful. Really I'm not mad or even pissed off about the lack of success anymore. I just expect the leafs to be bad and it doesn't even bother me anymore.

    In my line of work I see hundreds of people every week a great many who are Leaf fans and we used to chat about them quite regulary. I can't remember the last time I talked the Leafs at work. This whole summer has gone by with no conversation at all. That is what I sense amongst Leaf fans not anger but apathy and that is worse.

  6. The grand canyon that opened up between victory and defeat began when Jim Gregory was fired.
    There is such a thing as a hockey man, and there is also such a thing as a great hockey man. In many cases, they are not just born with those skills; they are coached and mentored.
    We could have managed to carry on and be strong after the fall of 1971, if we had some wisdom at the top, but alas, we did not and everyone knows the direction we headed after that. South!
    I agree that the 'brass' in the Leafs organization should read these posts. I am almost envious of Sean Delville because we didn't have corn chips in my day. I'm sorry that the great grand pooh bah (another self imposed nick name,)was not nicer to you, but I am glad that you and your uncle got to see a game from the former reds.

  7. It is really quite an interesting exercise to examine why you are a fan of one team and not another.

    For me it comes down to a couple of things. My dad would sometimes, 2 or 3 times in a season, find a way to get tickets to see the Leafs at Maple Leaf Gardens. Spending that time with my dad without any distractions was very special to me. Chatting about the play, cheering when a goal was scored, having a couple of beers and complaining about how much they cost. These are some of my favourite memories.

    As time went by, and we moved on to the ACC, I realized that my dad wasn't as big a Maple Leafs fan as I am. He got the tickets to spend time with his son.

    The fact that if we had lived in Manhattan, I would have grown up a Rangers fan doesn't make me love the Leafs any less than I do. It makes me admire what my dad has done for me even more.

  8. I completely agree Willbur, that if apathy is what a lot of fans are feeling, that is way worse than "anger".

    I know people expected more (so did I) and we haven't seen the results yet. We're into a major "patience" mode before the team is really on a level with the good teams in the East, much less the West....

  9. Thanks Elizabeth...Elizabeth is part of the Smythe family, who "lived" the day-to-day reality of the Leaf legacy. This is an individual who knows exactly what we're talking about when we reference what it means to be a Maple Leaf and everything it has represented over the years.

    As you cite, Elizabeth, Jim Gregory was raised in the Leaf "system" and was a fine man and a fine GM. It's a shame he was dismissed after the 1979 season.

    Thanks for posting Elizabeth- I know Sean will appreciate your reference to his "visit" with Mr. Ballard! At least, as you say, he got to sit in the old "reds" at Maple Leaf Gardens!

  10. Isn't it something, Jim, when we come to appreciate even more (upon reflection) what time with our Dad/parents meant to us? And as importantly, what it meant to them.

    I'm with you...I have wonderful memories of watching sporting events with my Dad, and it was a huge influence in my life.

    As for becoming a Leaf fan, location mattered, yes. But way more important was your relationship with your Dad.

    Thanks for sharing that memory today Jim. Much appreciated.

  11. Michael, I completely understand where Wilbur is coming from; I do believe that there is a strong apathy in Leaf land right now and I would be very concerned if I worked in their head office. The Leafs cannot afford to have another year like last year with the pent up excitement and then utter disappointment (almost betrayal) in the way they finished last year.
    Having said that, I’m much more positive about the Leafs as I do believe that they still matter and are a popular choice by fans who love the sport.
    Last year it was pointed out to me by my partner, who is British and came to Canada in her late forty’s to live with this hockey nut, that when the Leafs are on the road the Maple Leaf jersey can be seen in every arena – coast to coast – throughout the NHL. Not just one jersey by dozens of them at each game. I don’t believe there is another team that has the same following (outside of their home city) like the Leafs do – maybe Detroit – and for that reason alone, the Leafs still matter.
    It is by far the most recognized jersey and team in the NHL. What Liverpool is to soccer Toronto is to hockey – it’s a franchise steeped in history and is still relevant to many hockey fans across the globe. And like Liverpool, the Leafs has had its high’s and (current) lows but it is still a team worth watching and following.
    I’m hoping that this coming year will start of another positive chapter just like the 60’s, 70’s and 90’s were to the organization. Go Leafs Go!

  12. So well said (and I think the Liverpool comparison is apt), David.

    And it's true- Leaf jerseys are on display everywhere. This site alone (and I'm sure all other Leaf sites) receives visits from well over a hundred countries around the world, further demonstrating that interest in the Leafs is very widespread, still.

    That was a great post. Thanks David.

  13. Brief followup-I was never able to take my daughter to a game at the Gardens,but we did attend a free taping of Battle of the Blades just before the Loblaws/Ryerson renovation.We sat in the Golds and were able to sneak home a now prized souvenir- a wooden armrest that fell off the seat-still painted red on the underside!
    Although it was nice to be able to have a last visit in its original state, I wish I had been able to wander around and explore the building.I've seen pics but hope someone somewhere took a video document of the original interior.Anyone aware of that please post a link here.

  14. A Youtube search turned up the answer to my own query:

    The quality isn't great at times,but still nice to see. Enjoy.

  15. "I'd enjoy it if you took a moment to share your thoughts on why you became (or are) a Leaf fan, and why you feel they still matter..."

    They still matter to me.

    I hate to admit it, but I some days I don't have that much to it happy about. Most of my family and relatives are dead, but no matter how badly the Leafs perform, they still provide with moments of happines.

    Believe it or not, for me the matters of family, happiness and the Leafs are closely related.

    I grew up and had an incredibly happy childhood as a Leafs fan living on the Prairies. My dad was a Leafs fan. He hated Montreal with a passion. To him the Leafs were like noble Christian soldiers. The team from Montreal and maybe even the officials were demons and cheaters who might be in league with the Devil.

    I can still vividly remember the Saturday ritual for myself as a young boy...a bath before Hockey Night in Canada and then watching the start of the Leafs game in my pajamas with my hair still slightly wet from the bath.

    My sister and I would seemingly take turns sitting on my father's knee as the game would progress. Then the magic moment would happen...his favorite player, Dave Keon, would get the get the puck.

    In his 60's era brush-cut, my dad would encourage us, "Come on kids...clap for Keon!" And on this command my sister and I would rise up and stand clapping as Keon would speed down the ice and into the offensive zone.

    I can still remember them smell of usual pregame Saturday meal: a hint of roast beef, potatoes, carrots and gravy still lingering in the air.

    I can remember the sound of my mother's voice from the kitchen gently warning, "Stuart, don't get those kids too excited or they will never go to bed."

    Even with the recent lack of success, watching a Leafs game still provides me with some of that magical feeling...that warm happiness from childhood...back to a time when I was innocent and blissfully unaware of all that was wrong in the world.

    Combine the game with a good meal and a cold beer and it's often still the highlight of my week.

    Even if the Leafs lose consecutive games, I just lean back into the soft couch, still feeing quite content and remind myself:

    “So now is a bit like the Ballard era...I have survived worse.”

  16. You always contribute interesting posts and I really appreciate them, DP, but for a host of reasons, this is your best yet on VLM.

    Your description of the family Saturday nights getting ready to watch the Leafs is touching, and I"m certain it will touch and connect with any Leaf fan who has experienced something similar- whether in the 1960s or more recently.

    Thanks DP.