The Toronto Maple Leafs and I

In the far-flung year of nineteen hundred and ninety-three, there was a big celebration in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square. Thousands of hockey fans gathered to show their appreciation for their favourite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The storied National Hockey League team had only just re-emerged from being a sad joke for decades under the mismanagement of former owner Harold Ballard. Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays had seemingly assumed ownership of the city’s sports fans. But on this day, following their defeat to the Los Angeles Kings in the Campbell Conference Final, each member of the hockey team seemed overwhelmed by the affection the fans were throwing their way. One of them even uttered, “We didn’t win anything.” Perhaps the day was best explained by then Mayor June Rowlands who, in her introductory remarks, thanked the team for “reminding us that Toronto is a hockey city.”

That may seem simplistic, but it’s true. No matter how many championships the Blue Jays, Raptors, Argos or Toronto FC win (and they’ve all won their share since the Leafs won their last 54 years ago), it’s hockey that really fires up the imaginations of Toronto’s sports fans. It certainly works that way for me.

Given the current state of the Leafs, though, it seems I can’t afford to invest so much of my energy and emotion into them. It’s for my own good.

I wish it weren’t so. There aren’t many things I like more than walking around the city in Leafs regalia, prompting calls of “Go Leafs Go!” from other fans. It makes this big metropolis feel a lot cozier. When the Leafs are in the playoffs, it feels like all of Toronto is caught up in the drama and excitement of the games.

The Leafs captured my heart in 1993. I didn’t pay them any attention throughout the 70s and 80s, and it seemed very few people I knew did either. My parents never watched professional sports, although my mother did tell stories about babysitting for a family who would give her Leafs tickets, and she would always take my grandfather. My mother still speaks fondly of Dave Keon. Even though I never saw her watch hockey in the 70s and 80s, I distinctly remember her talking about Darryl Sittler with some other boys in my Wolf Cub pack during a drive home.

In 1991, I started journalism school at a university not far from Maple Leafs Gardens, which was still the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the time. Two of the fastest friends I made in my studies were massive Leafs fans. Still, they didn’t convert me to fandom right away. Since the late 80s the Toronto Blue Jays had been honing their baseball club into a championship contender, winning the American League East division in 1991. The next season they went even further – they won their first World Series trophy. My friends and I watched the victory in the campus pub, and I revelled in the euphoria of it all, dancing in the streets and exchanging high-fives with strangers. If sports could bring this much joy to a city, then I wanted more.

One of my friends invited me to my first Toronto Maple Leafs game in October 1992. I’m pretty sure the opposing team was the Chicago Blackhawks. My buddy had renewed faith in the team ever since a huge trade on January 2, 1992 which brought Doug Gilmour, Jamie Macoun, Kent Manderville, Ric Nattress and Rick Wamsley to the team. They only missed the playoffs by a single point that spring, and hopes were high. That first Leaf game seemed, to me, a much smaller operation than the Jay games I had attended in the three-year-old state-of-the-art SkyDome. Goalie Grant Fuhr managed to get the win, but before long he was forced to miss a large swath of the season due to injury, which created an opening for someone who may still be my all-time favourite Leaf. Felix Potvin arrived in goal with the utmost of calm, effortlessly making save after save. He was only six months older than me, and he had utterly mastered his craft. He quickly assumed the nickname of “Le Chat,” because he was as cool as a cat.

The 1993 Leafs were a perfect example of team playing as a single unit. Once Fuhr was traded to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Dave Andreychuk the line-up was complete. Sylvain Lefebvre, Bob Rouse, Dave Ellett, Todd Gill and Macoun made up the most solid defensive corps that the Leafs would see for decades, leading the team to finish the regular season with the second fewest goals scored against them. They were the perfect example of a team built from the net out. Still, they went into the first round of the playoffs as the underdog to the high-scoring Detroit Red Wings, and sure enough, they lost the first two games badly. But when the series went to Toronto for games 3 and 4, they won both to tie the series. Game 5 got off to a bad start, with the Leafs down 4-1 seven minutes into the second period, but they didn’t give up. Ellett put a pair of goals past Tim Cheveldae to make it a one-goal game heading into the third. Captain Wendel Clark tied up the game halfway through the third by ricocheting his shot off the helmet of a Red Wing player and into the net. It was thrilling, setting up a nail-biting overtime period. When veteran player Mike Foligno scored the winning goal for the Leafs, the effect was orgasmic. I still count that as the greatest hockey game I’ve ever seen, and it serves as a reminder that the Leafs – the Leafs – can overcome a three-goal deficit. It took them two more games to eliminate the Red Wings, but they did it.

That year’s edition of the Leafs wasn’t loaded with skill or flash. The team was all about pluck and hard work. They just didn’t know how to give up. They faced many obstacles during those playoffs. There was losing the first two games of the first round to Detroit. There was the infuriatingly solid play of St. Louis goaltender Curtis Joseph in the second round. No matter. They readjusted and overcame, coming within one goal of defeating the Los Angeles Kings in the third round and advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. They were loaded with heart, and they are the group I think of as the true embodiment of teamwork.

The next season, General Manager Cliff Fletcher began playing with the team’s chemistry. Veteran forward Glenn Anderson was traded for veteran forward Mike Gartner, which, to me, was like trading a quarter for two dimes and a nickel. The Leafs again advanced to the third round of the playoffs in 1994, but lost to the Vancouver Canucks in five games, who had clearly shown themselves to be the stronger team.

The years that followed carried a lot less magic for me. Clark, Lefebvre and Landon Wilson were traded to the Quebec Nordiques for Mats Sundin, Garth Butcher and Todd Warriner. With Clark and Lefebvre, a lot of the team’s hard scramble character and commitment to defence left. Gilmour was eventually traded, and that annoyingly good goalie from St. Louis was brought in, precipitating Potvin’s exit. I still actively followed the team, even if I wasn’t as enthralled with them. Sundin proved himself one of the sport’s elite figures, and assumed the captain’s role. When Pat Quinn joined the Leafs as both coach and general manager, it seemed like a good move since he was behind the 1994 Canucks who eliminated the Leafs.

But this was the era before the NHL brought in the salary cap. Because Toronto is such a lucrative hockey market, Quinn, along with the team’s board of directors, would sign and trade for whatever players they felt would excite the fanbase and sell merchandise. And it worked. Along with Sundin jerseys, you still see Joseph, Gary Roberts, D’Arcy Tucker, Alexander Mogilny and Tie Domi jerseys from that time. Sometimes this approach led to on-ice success. The Leafs again advanced to the third round of the playoffs twice in the Sundin era – in 1999 and 2002.

One of my problems with this approach is that these squads didn’t feel like teams as much as they felt like collections of individuals. As big of a Leaf fan I am, and as skilled a player as Alex Mogilny is, I’ll never think of him as a Leaf. He was probably the most skilled winger with whom Sundin played in Toronto, but I didn’t feel being a Leaf meant anything more to him than his years as a Buffalo Sabre.

On January 11, 2003 I saw the Leafs play against the Bruins in Boston. For a long time it stood as the worst game I ever saw in-person. Mogilny scored the only two Leaf goals, but by this time we were loading up the roster with soon to be Hall-of-Famers like Jyrki Lumme and Ed Belfour. The Bruins put six pucks behind Belfour. Everytime the Bruins score in Boston the announcer calls out the scorer and the assists, and after announcing the time of the goal lets out a shrill “Woo!” Then all of the Bruins fans respond in kind with “Woo!” By the fifth and sixth woos that night, my buddy and I, clad in our Leaf sweaters and getting hit with peanuts, wanted to teleport away. It was clear to me that just because the names on the team might be big, it didn’t mean they were playing as a team.

The other problem with this mega-name approach was that the Leafs weren’t developing young talent within their own organization, choosing to trade away prospects and draft picks for proven stars instead. A good example is trading away a fourth-round pick for forward Ron Francis in the spring of 2004. That may not seem like a high price to pay, but Francis proved to be at the very end of his career, and the Carolina Hurricanes ended up parlaying that pick into pieces that contributed to their 2006 Stanley Cup Championship.

By the middle of the 2000s, Toronto’s participation in the NHL Entry Draft had become a cruel joke to me. The Leafs’ farm team, the Toronto Marlies, was full of talented prospects supposedly auditioning for their chance to graduate to the big club, and that chance would rarely ever come. These players would always be sent elsewhere in exchange for some star who made his name in another market. A profitable team like the Leafs, in a hockey-mad market like Toronto, had a bottomless supply of funds with which to attract big-name stars, so why invest the time and effort to develop young talent they’re just going to export elsewhere?

Fortunately, that approach was going extinct. The NHL, after a year-long war with the Player’s Association which saw the total cancellation of the 2004-2005 season, instituted a salary cap, which forced the Leafs to rethink their entire approach to team building. No longer could they endlessly throw money at high-priced free agents to pad out a quality roster. Now they were under the same salary cap as the most rickety franchises in the league like Arizona. Still, they didn’t change their habits right away. In the 2005 NHL entry draft, the Leafs used the 21st overall pick to select a goaltender named Tuukka Rask. A year later, Leafs General Manager John Ferguson Jr. traded Rask to Boston for another goaltender named Andrew Raycroft. Toronto got little more than one season out of Raycroft and missed the playoffs. Rask is still a Bruin, and has led his team deep into the playoffs year after year, becoming a true thorn in the Leafs’ side.

Still, I had hope that the Leafs were going to make use of the players they drafted. Their top pick in the 2004 draft was a goalie named Justin Pogge. On my birthday, December 22, 2005, Pogge got his first NHL start playing in net for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He even won that game! Although Pogge didn’t go on to have a long career in the league, that game felt like the dawn of a new age to me.

In 2008 they used the fifth overall pick to draft a defenceman named Luke Schenn. I hoped and prayed he wouldn’t be traded. The opposite happened – he made the team out of training camp. I was thrilled, and immediately became a big Schenn supporter. I bought his sweater, and followed his career even after he was traded for James van Riemsdyk in 2012. Schenn went on to win a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning last year.

Since Luke Schenn’s arrival, the Leafs have assembled some of the league’s brightest stars through the draft. Nazem Kadri was one of my favourites until he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche. After him we got Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Rasmus Sandin, all of whom, as I write this, are still with the team. That’s how teams should be built – draft young talent, develop them through your system, and forge them into the best versions of themselves. That’s how the Lightning have currently reached the status as the most fearsome team in the NHL. By building through the draft, the Leafs should be on their way to getting somewhere similar. They should be…

For more than the past quarter century, I have been frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the Leafs’ defensive corps. Over that time, I’ve seen goaltenders like Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour, James Reimer and Frederik Andersen thrown to the wolves, forced to face what is perennially among the highest number of shots allowed on a net in the league. Three years ago, Kyle Dubas’ ascension to the General Manager position filled me with dread that the Leafs’ defensive ineptitude would either continue or worsen. Ever since Dubas managed the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, his philosophy about defence was clear: Build the team’s speed and mobility, and get blueliners who can quickly exit the defensive zone. It sounds reasonable until you realize your opposing teams are trying to hem the puck into your defensive zone. That reality was made undeniable last summer when the Leafs fell to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the post-season. It’s not enough to just pass the puck forward; you have to prevent shots on goal and you have to make life hell in your own zone for anyone in an opposite-coloured sweater.

To his credit, I believe the loss to Columbus forced Dubas to evolve. Out went low-impact players like Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, and in came more responsible and gritty players like T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian. Once hockey returned this January, the results spoke for themselves. The shots on our goal were way down, translating into fewer goals against and an easier time defending a lead.

So, the 2021 Toronto Maple Leafs did so many things right. They’re a team largely built through the draft, and formed, for the most part by players who developed through their system. They have morphed into a very responsible team in their own end. So, it was reasonable for fans to raise their expectations and demand that this team win their first playoff round victory in 17 years.

But they didn’t.

This year’s playoff defeat is the stuff of legend. The Leafs had the Montreal Canadiens against the wall for three straight games, and couldn’t find it within themselves to finish them off. The problem to me, at this point, is clearly intangible. It’s a lack of killer instinct.

It’s not a lack of talent. Marner finished the regular season among the top five players in scoring. That wasn’t a fluke. Matthews is taking home this year’s Rocket Richard trophy for most goals scored in the regular season. Not a fluke either. Jack Campbell’s goals against average throughout the first round was considerably lower than Carey Price’s, and his save percentage was nearly identical. Rielly, Brodie, Bogosian, Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin all did a great job limiting the shots on Campbell to get the Leafs that early series lead. They all just need to figure out how to finish the job.

My problem is that many of the players on the current team have been there for five years, and if they haven’t figured out how to muster up that killer instinct by now, I’m not sure I can trust them to ever figure it out. So, I have reached a point where, in order to protect my sanity, I have to be less emotionally involved with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

No longer will I be that guy in a Leafs sweater every game day throughout the regular season. Instead, I’m here on record vowing to not wear any Leafs regalia until Game 1 of the second round of the playoffs. I’ll still watch the games. I’ll still be a fan. I’ll just be a less rabid one. It’s for my own good. My heart can’t take much more of this emotional roller-coaster ride.

I get the sense that a lot of Leafs fans are in a similar mindset as me right now. Just remember that it’s not the job of the Toronto Maple Leafs to make you happy or take care of you; that’s your job. Think of yourself as a little kid. That’s who you’re responsible for protecting. Would you allow that little kid to keep hanging out with someone who keeps letting them down year after year?

If putting more distance between yourself and the Toronto Maple Leafs sounds sensible to you, I encourage you to do so. If the Toronto Maple Leafs want to close that distance, they know what they have to do.