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Nothing quite like opening night for the Leafs and the NHL…

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.

That year, in early October, the Habs visited the Bruins at the old Boston Garden in a mid-week contest for their first game of the NHL season. The Habs were still loaded, with guys like Jean Beliveau, "Boom Boom" Geoffrion and Dickie Moore up front and Jacques Plante in goal. The Bruins were a team in transition, having finished last, I believe, the season before. To provide some context, this was before the Bobby Orr years, and a few years after the Bruins were a pretty solid club that had made it to the Cup finals a couple of times in the mid to late 1950s.

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.


  1. Great post, Michael - and a fitting start to the season!
    Although I normally pretty much follow your "Fan's template", going through the various stages of grief with the Leafs, this year is already different for me. I have no expectations of success. Zero. Zilch. Nada. When management says this year will not be judged solely by wins and losses, I know we're in a for a long winter, since wins and losses are precisely what pro sports are about! The feel-good stuff about learning and developing belongs in the minors.
    We've been warned, repeatedly, by the coach to prepare for pain, and I've done that. I've enrolled in the School of Diminished Expectations. In fact, I don't think we could have a season that'd be worse than the one I envision. So if it's not so bad, I'll enjoy it all the more! (Kind of like enjoying how good it feels when you stop banging your head against the wall - something I've done plenty over the last few seasons!)
    But having said that... I'm still eager for the season to begin! That's what bleeding blue and white will do to you! Go figure.

    1. We're on the same page, Gerund O'- we can enjoy the season more if the expectations are realistic.

    2. So with no expectations it will be easy to enjoy a glass of a favourite beverage that is full this season eh Gerund? :)))) I am with you there.

  2. I enjoyed the game tonight. I wasn't sure that I would even watch since I wasn't able to get excited about the preseason. But I guess if you're a real fan you can't turn away once the games start counting.

    Despite the loss I thought it was a good effort. I would definitely prefer to see that level of play on a consistent basis, even if it results in a loss more often than not, than a dominant effort followed by a game where the team doesn't bother to show up (for example, every Leafs team since 2003, as well as a handful between then and 1993).

    I'll even take it a step further and say that was a winnable game. Like you, I'm a Reimer guy. As I said I haven't been paying much attention until now, but I understand Reimer has been the stronger goalie so far this year. He'll be starting at least 2 of the first 5 games, so I hope when he gets his opportunity he'll run with it. I don't think he would have given up that soft first goal, and that would have completely changed the complexion of the game this evening.

    1. Yes, it's difficult to get excited about the exhibition games, but a new season pulls us back in, Oliver.

      I think we all believe the effort will be there this season. Babcock won't be shy to make changes if guys aren't working. I'm guessing, as you suggest, both goalies will get a chance to stake their claim in the early going.

  3. Last nights game pretty much followed what most of us have expected I believe. Good work ethic which is a very nice change over last years schmazzle. A system that is a work in progress as players learn but is based off how the game is played these days and will help long term without a doubt. And hiccups like a mix of a bad goal and great tending all in the same game. I would add a lack of scoring punch but in reality they never had that after November last year either. Plus last night the arguably best tender in the world showed why that he is once more.

    I swear they had the puck more last night than in any 10 games total last year and held the lead in shots if not scoring chances through two periods. The lack of experience in the new systems showed in the 3p when the Habs stepped up their game but you don't learn a new system over night. It takes time.

    I am with Gerund in that I have no expectations other than what I noted above. Overall I enjoyed the entertainment of the game which is a lot more than I can say for most of the games last year so I can live with that.

    1. It feels like the key thing here, Pep, is that the organization seems to know where they want to go. They have absolute confidence in Babcock, and ultimately the players who will be part of the squad when they become a contender will be Babcock's kind of players.

      In the meantime, we will likely see a lot of what we saw last night: lots of effort, not always the end result.