Once upon a time—a very long time ago—I wrote a brief letter on a page I tore out of a school scribbler.
It was the night before Christmas in 1946.
I was an eight-year-old, in Grade 3 in the old Brown School at the head of the street where we lived, and I had just started paying attention to NHL hockey after three seasons seeing games in the old arena in downtown New Glasgow.
“Dear Santa,” I wrote. “Please bring me a Montreal Canadiens sweater. I want to wear it to school so my teacher will know my favourite team. Thank you, Hugh.”
The following morning, when I ripped open the parcel under the tree, I learned that life doesn’t always unfold the way we want.
A Toronto Maple Leafs sweater was looking back at me.
I was still too young to be thinking what you think I was thinking. Instead, I just sat there on the floor, trying to understand what went wrong.
Then I began opening other parcels.
Some years later, I learned that Zellers down on Provost Street was the only place in New Glasgow that had hockey sweaters when Santa dropped in. They were the old wool type—all of them blue and white. Not one with any red.
I didn’t realize for some time that old Saint Nick’s substitute would affect me for the rest of my days. This coming Christmas I will have been a Leaf for 75 years.
Before returning to school, I was already starting to think Toronto.
They had a great goalie in Turk Broda, a great captain in Syl Apps, a promising teenager in defenceman Bill Barilko, talented forwards like Howie Meeker, Harry Watson and Bud Poile.
And there was another youngster—centre Ted (Teeder) Kennedy. I want to emphasize him because, not only did he become captain a couple seasons later, he became my first real sports hero. I loved that guy for the next 10 years.
Yes, a blue-blooded Leaf was created that Christmas on Temperance Street.
I started reading all I could about Kennedy and discovered he had been traded to Toronto by Montreal. That made me even happier that there was no red in my sweater.
I learned much more.
As I paid closer and closer attention, I became aware that the Leafs were collecting a lot of cups.
That year, I also found out the Stanley Cup was hockey’s most important prize, as well as the biggest and heaviest silverware in sports.
And, wow, the Leafs were winning it over and over.
That first winter, they got the silverware. They won it again in 1947-48, and again in 1948-49. It was the first time ever that a team won three straight NHL titles.
They lost in 1950 but, sure enough, in ‘51 they added another crown to their collection—their fourth in five years. That was the time, when I was 12, that Barilko, by then 24, scored the clinching goal in overtime.
Sadly, just as I was becoming a teenager that spring, I learned the lesson that athletes, like anybody else, could die tragically.
Four months after his Stanley Cup winner, Barilko and his dentist took a weekend fishing trip to Quebec. On the return flight, their plane crashed. The bodies wouldn’t be discovered for 11 years.
Not only did the Leafs not win during those 11 years, when the team did succeed again in 1962, it was just six more weeks until the plane’s wreckage and the two bodies were located.
For me, a lot changed between 1951 and 1962.
I had completed school and university, I had gotten into the newspaper business full-time and, on the side, I had become a regional scout for, of course, the Leafs.
In that childhood period between 1946 and ’47, and ‘50-51, I listened to the Leafs on my bedroom radio. Television didn’t exist.
During the next great era—1962 to ‘67—Toronto added four more cups. This time, I was at Maple Leaf Gardens, right in the middle of the dressing room celebrations, following three of the four victories.
The four cups in that decade didn’t just happen. They were won because of major stars like Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon, Johnny Bower, George Armstrong and Tim Horton.
By then, I should have written to Santa Claus again, this time thanking him for bringing that eight-year-old kid a Leafs sweater. There had been eight Toronto cups in just 21 years.
That was the best of times.
I never did send the thank you—perhaps a reason why the Leafs haven’t captured another cup in this drought that’s entering its unbelievable 55th year.
And, oh, what a drought it’s been.
There were other excellent stars in blue and white, leaders like Darryl Sittler, Rick Vaive, Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour. Even with them, though, the years were filled with disappointments.
Leaf history became really bleak.
I don’t believe any hockey fan—for the Leafs or otherwise—hasn’t heard the grim pronouncement that Toronto’s last title was way back in Canada’s centennial year. Or the predictions (including my own) that there’s slim hope the nightmare will end in 2021-22.
A double whammy.
To make it sound even worse, I did some math the other day and came up with some numbers that are almost embarrassing.
On this Wednesday, Oct. 13, I can whisper that the last Leafs championship went into the record books 19,887 days ago.
And it’s getting worse.
Nobody in the Leaf empire—not even the late Harold Ballard—can stop another horrific milestone in early February.
When it arrives, it’ll likely be stormy, the Stanley Cup absence in this country’s biggest and proudest city will reach a rather ridiculous 20,000 days.
Scary, Toronto fans, but it’s the worst of times.