Now, Toronto Maple Leaf fans, we’ve been waiting for 54 years.
And that, I assure you without malice, is a very long time—a sizeable chunk of anyone’s time on this globe.
But that’s the official updated time measurement since the Leafs last won a Stanley Cup championship. Let’s just call it two generations and be done with it.
Commentators on the Sportsnet channels and Sportsnet radio network have been making quite a fuss that it’s been 17 years since the Torontos survived a playoff series. That’s true.
But heck, if you triple that time frame, you still don’t get all the way back to the last champagne celebration at Maple Leaf Gardens.
It sticks out in my mind because I was there that victorious night in 1967, as I was for similar bashes in 1963 and ‘64.
A bit scarier for me is the realization that I’ve just completed my 75th season as a Leaf—and yet, I confess, the franchise’s ongoing failures still hurt.
My only things left to remind me of the three Stanley Cup victories I attended are the four-digit number in my email address and the fact the Leafs are still the defending champions of the NHL’s Original Six.
After so much time, both are a stretch.
I’m just fortunate that my lifetime supporting Toronto’s club hasn’t been without success. I’ve actually savoured no less than eight cup triumphs.
All eight occurred many moons ago—four between 1947 and 1951 when I was in elementary school, four more in the 1960s when I was scouting for the Leafs.
Since those oh-so-long-ago days, it seems appropriate to use the title of Johnny Tillotson’s hit, It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin, because Toronto’s 2020-21 hopes were so high.
This was the team—with young stars and key veterans—that was supposed to make us forget half a century of misery.
So what happened?
Why have the Leafs disappeared again, back home watching other teams playing for Lord Stanley’s mug?
And what do I say now?
A TV commentator I heard the morning after the curtain fell suggested the best approach for any analyst would be to let the dust settle for a week or so, or simply stick your head in the sand for the summer.
Okay, I’ve tried that.
But I admit, I was almost tempted to ignore what transpired and simply write a column on another subject.
That, however, is not the journalistic way.
Since Toronto’s elimination at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, I’ve appreciated the advantage of writing for a weekly newspaper instead of a daily. It has allowed me more time to meditate, more time to find excuses for this latest collapse.
But I must mention something. My old newspaper ignored the final chapter of the Toronto-Montreal finale altogether. There was nothing to read about the Monday night result.
Nothing in its Tuesday edition—understandable because of its normal early deadline. What shocked me, though, was that there was no story the day after that. Or the day after the day after. Hello, sports department? Is anyone home?
It was game seven, the game everybody was talking about the next day. I was confronted with comments, even a few laughs, at Sobeys, at the drugstore, wherever I ventured, probably because I was wearing my Leafs hat. Should have changed to my Blue Jays one.
How could I ignore mentioning the Leafs downfall? I couldn’t.
Instead, as I sat at my desk, eating humble pie, I concentrated on a Canadiens team I never believed could eliminate the Leafs.
So it was time to praise the Habs. It was time to consider if they could carry their impressive play further along the playdown road.
By the time this column reaches print, the Canadiens could be enjoying another unexpected showing against Winnipeg.
Meanwhile, I’ll stage a burial for the ‘20-21 Leafs, provided mourners wear masks and stay two metres apart.
Toronto did well during the North Division schedule. It was the best team from the Queen City in recent decades.
When you have goal-scoring leader Auston Matthews, setup artist Mitch Marner, proven leader John Tavares, scoring threat William Nylander, and two-way asset Zack Hyman, and you add veteran sparkplugs Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza and Nick Foligno, you’re a legitimate contender.
The Leafs were that, until the Habs showed up.
NHL playoff hockey is different from NHL regular season hockey. It’s when true leaders work harder, do everything harder, perform as though there’s no tomorrow.
The Canadiens did a grand job adjusting to a plan that wins. And that’s when the script changed direction.
Suddenly, two old opponents reversed roles. Suddenly, the results were being written by guys like Nick Suzuki, Brendan Gallagher, Corey Perry, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Tyler Toffoli, Eric Staal and Shea Weber.
The biggest key was the goaltenders. Jack Campbell did a decent job for Toronto, but it was the old star and future hall of famer Carey Price who produced the final result.
And so, as the Canadiens boarded a plane for Winnipeg, the Leafs were left to lick their wounds.
Excuses flowed in Toronto—especially in the media—like water pouring over Niagara Falls.
I couldn’t help but smile when sports commentators observed that the current Leafs lacked the guts and fortitude of long-ago Leafs like Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker and Bryan McCabe.
Instead, being old enough, I was thinking of the stars in the ’60s, players like Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon, George Armstrong, Red Kelly and Tim Horton, as well as pillars of the 1947-51 period like Teeder Kennedy, Max Bentley, Howie Meeker, Sid Smith and Turk Broda.
The bottom line always exists: post-season teams must adjust to the playoff style of hockey. This year, the Canadiens did it, the Leafs didn’t.
And I swallowed my pride.