by Tony Rose
Before I begin my initial post and provide reasons why Leafs fans can hold their head high, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am a diehard Toronto Maple Leafs fan and have been my entire life. Let’s just say I remember the 1962 cup well. I was 13 at the time and for those of you who are not mathematically challenged you can figure out how old I am. My dad started me on the Leafs when I was a snot-nosed kid in 1955; I guess it was no coincidence that I became a fan because we got our first television set that year. Being one of the few lucky households that had one, we had an attendance record that rivalled any neighbourhood living room. Every Saturday night just like clockwork, all of my neighbourhood friends would come over to watch the game.
The early years and especially the 60’s boasted some great Leafs and it was an outstanding time to be a Leafs fan. The team consisted of real characters and men willing to do just about anything to win, after all they were wearing the blue and white and proud of it. Some that stood out in my mind were players like Al Arbour. Al wore thick rimmed glasses which made him one of few players in league history to do so while playing, and he was also the last. George Armstrong affectionately called “The Chief” because of his Irish-Algonquin heritage, a man who personified leadership and hard work. We watched Bob Baun’s heroic game winning goal in overtime of game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup finals. After being carried off the ice on a stretcher in the 3rd period with what turned out to be a broken ankle, Baun returned to the ice, and as heroes and legends do, scored the goal that forced a game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings. To further solidify his hero status he refused to let doctors examine his leg knowing he would not be allowed to play. He was on the ice for every shift broken ankle and all in game 7. He would not be denied this time at winning the greatest prize of all and his extraordinary effort led to the Leafs 3rd consecutive Stanley Cup.
Johnny Bower, known as the “China Wall” would stop the puck with his face if he had to and there were no goalie masks back then. Tim Horton, known as “Mr. Muscles”, and yes, it’s the same Tim Horton that started the doughnut shops you know and love when you’re looking for that morning brew to start your day. Dave Keon, (I’ll write about him in the near future) wore number 14 proudly for 15 years with the Leafs, and is widely known as one of the greatest players to ever wear a Leafs uniform. Amazingly, his number is neither honoured nor retired, what a shame (that’s another full story in itself). Bob Nevin, known more for his playmaking ability cost my father $152.00 in a hockey pool at work (a fortune at the time) by scoring a goal the Leafs didn’t need to win in the last few seconds of the game , a little poorer but happy the Leafs had won. Eddie Shack, “Clear the track Shack” was one of the most exciting and entertaining players to ever play the game and truly earned his nickname “The Entertainer.” Even their head coach Punch Imlach was a true drill sergeant who was loved and hated by everyone all at the same time, if that’s even possible. Each player was a hero to us in his own right. Each player wore their jersey with pride and the fans were supportive and looked at these men in awe. Yes, those were the best of times to be a Leafs player and a Leafs fan.
So what happened? Why has this once proud and unstoppable juggernaut deteriorated so badly over the years to the point where some fans wear paper bags over their heads in disgrace? Why are some so-called fans and foes alike going out of their why to bash the Leafs on the Web and in print at every opportunity? Some even find ways to manipulate statistics and percentages as to why the Montreal Canadiens are better or that the Detroit Red Wings have a better winning percentage over the last 15 to 20 years. They’ll list draft choices that have gone wrong, show trades that have been exceptional for the opposing team but a complete bust in Toronto. Yes it’s all true; the Leafs have stunk for a very, very long time and as an intelligent Toronto Maple Leafs fan I get it. We fans as a whole get it, we know the failures all to well, and to answer the question “WHY?” is really pretty simple and out in the open.
When there was no “cap” the Leafs threw buckets of cash at players that had passed their prime but had the big name. Eric Lindros, Brian Leetch, John Anderson, Owen Nolan, Phil Housley, Jason Allison and Mathieu Schneider to name a few that come to mind, all for the sake of victory now. And at the opposite end of the scale some players were acquired that made us jump out of our seats as they performed like true all-stars. Doug Gilmour played with everything he had every shift every night. We watched the heart and soul of Wendel Clark. Darryl Sittler a true talent. Gary Roberts, tough as nails. Tie Domi, who never backed down from a fight no matter how big his opponent was. And Mats Sundin, the Leafs all time scoring leader did likewise in many-a-game he played in. But for some reason, whatever team was iced over the last 40+ years was doomed to fail, either because there was no chemistry or just not enough talent and some may argue no talent at all. So there it all is, a formula that guarantees failure which was headed by mismanagement from the President and GM, to the coaching staff, a very poor scouting system and some real bonehead trades and acquisitions.
This is not something the fans did through non-support, to the contrary we support on a scale that no other NHL team can boast. We are often faulted for this unprecedented support with those individuals quipping that we as fans are making whomever or whatever corporation owns the Leafs at any given period very rich. I say more power to them! At least I know there won’t be a blackout in my lifetime like there is in Quebec and Winnipeg without NHL hockey. My team is strong and healthy and will stay that way for many years to come.
I am a Leafs Fan and loyal to the bitter end. I may not have supported my team over last few years by buying the few available tickets, jersey’s or other paraphernalia in protest but in my heart the Leafs will always be my team. Fan loyalty should not be measured by wins and losses. To say you follow your team only when they win makes you a pathetic fair-weather fan. Ask a Manchester United fan to change allegiances to Chelsea or Arsenal, try and convince the “Tifosi” of the Formula 1 circuit that follow their beloved Ferrari to switch to McLaren, or a Green Bay “Cheesehead” to stop wearing green and gold. It just can’t be done!
So no matter what you hear or see, fair-weather fans and foes say or do, follow your heart and hold your head up high. Be proud of the blue and white, our day will come and sooner than you may expect. There is a light at the end of this very long tunnel.
The future looks bright for a change in Leafland. Brian Burke, Ron Wilson and a new scouting staff have put together one of the youngest teams in the NHL (a Leafs rarity). Players like Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak , Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, Jonas Gustavsson, Christian Hanson, Viktor Stalberg and Nazem Kadri amongst others renew the hope that one day we will sit on top of the NHL standings.
At that point, our heads will already be held high next to the “Holy Grail” Lord Stanley’s Cup.