When the Chicago Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup in TD Garden evening a after a surprising end to the 2013 NHL Playoffs–a game that happened exactly six weeks after and in the same arena as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ unexpected collapse in the 3rd period of their final game of the postseason–the universe regained equilibrium after decades of being set off-balance by the Leafs’ 1967 Stanley Cup championship team.
By hoisting the cup, Corey Crawford will batter down the barriers keeping the Leafs from again grasping hockey’s holy grail.
Yes, the Blackhawks’ win might actually break the curse that has made all of the Leafs’ efforts to follow-up that 1967 championship futile.
Why does Chicago winning bode well for the Leafs? Why does this championship lift the curse while the Blackhawks’ 2010 championship team did nothing to end the Leafs’ playoff drought let alone the team’s failure to win the cup?
The 2010 Blackhawks were not the equals of the franchise’s 1966-67 team whereas the 2012-13 roster was a closer reiteration of the squad ousted from the 1967 playoffs by the Leafs. Furthermore, the hockey gods required the Leafs to be eliminated from the 2013 Playoffs (in humiliating fashion, I might add) as restitution for the hubristic actions of the franchise’s 1967 team.
Before disregarding this explanation of events since 1967 as grandiose Leafs apologism, consider the longstanding tradition of curses that have plagued sports teams.
A brief overview of curses in sports
Perhaps the most noteworthy curses in sports history have plagued the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox respectively.
The “Curse of the Billy Goat” has prevented the Chicago Cubs from winning the National League Pennant since 1945. That year, the Cubs organization booted Billy Sianis from a World Series game between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs because the stench of his billy goat became a noisome nuisance for fans. Sianis responded to his ejection by saying that the Cubs “ain’t gonna win no more,” which has been interpreted as him placing a potent hex on the club.
Cubs fans have made numerous attempts (mostly involving the unethical treatment of animals) to break the curse, but all efforts have failed up to this point. Like many other efforts at hex-hacking, the latest incident involved a mutilated goat. On April 10 2013, a parcel containing a severed goat’s head was dropped off at Wrigley Field. The package was addressed to the Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts. Most observers assume that this grisly gift was intended to break the curse, but if watching The Godfather has taught me anything, it’s that a beheaded barnyard animal should always be interpreted as a threat. Perhaps the deranged fan behind this act mistook the movie Rookie of the Year as a documentary and sent in the head to demand that Henry Rowengartner–with or without his injury-induced pitching prowess–must be reinserted into the Cubs lineup.
One curse that has since been lifted is the “Curse of the Bambino” in which the Red Sox suffered an 85 years of futility in Major League Baseball as a result (supposedly) of selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. From that point onward, the Yankees became perennial World Series contenders while the Red Sox either looked on from the sidelines or suffered (often humiliating) defeats in the playoffs.
Attempts to break this curse included staging a comic exorcisms and recovering a piano owned by Ruth that Ruth himself had supposedly plunged into a pond near his cottage. These actions reveal two bold assumptions about the nature of sports curses: by having a hokey exorcism performed by Father Guido Sarducci, who is best known for making appearance on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment, the Red Sox suggest that the malevolent forces behind curses appreciate being ridiculed in ceremonies that mock them as well as controversial religious practices. By trying to find and raise Ruth’s piano from Willis Pond, Bostonians suggest that the Babe hated being sold to the Yankees almost as much as the mere thought of freeloading fish playing ragtime tunes on his beloved piano.
Had Babe Ruth been given a chance to direct the film, Finding Nemo would have been a lot more like The Terminator.
The Leafs and hockey curses
The Leafs have been plagued by a hockey hex in the past. Some refer to the “Curse of Bill Barilko” as the cause of the Leafs’ cup drought from 1951 to 1962. In 1951, Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko scored his final NHL goal in overtime to clinch the cup for the Leafs in game 5 of their series against the Montreal Canadiens. That summer, he disappeared while on a fishing trip. Shortly after the Leafs next hoisted the cup in 1962, the remains of Barilko were found. This curse is an oddity as it was lifted before its parameters (finding Barilko’s remains and giving them a proper burial) were fulfilled. We could, of course, account for the backassward conclusion of this curse by saying, “who said hexes had to make sense?”
The curse that has plagued the Leafs since 1967 is is particularly potent because that season was intended to end another hex–the “Curse of Muldoon.” Allegedly fabricated by sportswriter Jim Coleman in 1943 in order to break his writer’s block, the story behind this hex is that former Blackhawks head coach Pete Muldoon sought vengeance after being fired by cursing his former team never to finish first in the NHL’s standings. That curse went unbroken until 1967, the year that a powerhouse Blackhawks squad clinched the top spot in the league’s rankings.
Muldoon also coached the Seattle Metropolitans to their one and only Stanley Cup championship in 1917, so it’s probably no coincidence that he just happens to have coached in the United States’ two most cursed cities in terms of sports.
Since 1967, the Leafs have become the only Original 6 team that has not won the cup since the NHL’s first expansion ahead of the 1967-68 season. Indeed, the Leafs haven’t even appeared in the Stanley Cup Final since then.
So why was the Leafs’ defeat of the Blackhawks in 1967 such an upset? Frankly, the Leafs had no business winning a postseason game let alone the cup that year. Their 10-game losing streak in the 1966-67 season was expected for a team that was passed its prime. The Leafs’ later 10-game winning streak and playoff success dumbfounded hockey writers of the era.
Dubbed the “over the hill gang” by their oft-detested coach Punch Imlach, the Leafs were essentially the aging members of a dynasty that had won three cups earlier in that decade ( in a threepeat from 1962-64). So with many players in or on the brink of entering their 40s, the 1967 Leafs became the oldest team in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup.
In contrast, the Blackhawks went 41-17-12 in the 1966-67 season: while Stan Mikita won the Art Ross, Hart, and Lady Byng trophies as a Hawk in 1967, his teammates Denis DeJordy and Glenn Hall won the Vezina by allowing the fewest goals among NHL goaltenders that year. Aside from Dave Keon snagging the Leafs’ one and only Conn Smythe award that year, Toronto’s only other accolade was winning the Stanley Cup after upsetting the Blackhawks by eliminating them in the first round of the playoffs.
This defeat should rank highly in the greatest playoff upsets in NHL history. Aside from the players already named, the Backhawks also had Bobby Hull, who had just recorded his second 50+ goal season, and a young Phil Esposito whereas the Leafs had little more than aging stars. While the team had some players in their 20s like Dave Keon, the majority of the “over the hill gang” were in their 30s and 40s. Neither the young, old, or in-between members of the Leafs cracked 30 let alone 50+ goals that year.
No single player epitomized the team’s identity as a geriatric group than Johnny Bower who, at 42 years old, holds the record as the oldest goalie ever to win the Stanley Cup, and he should hold the record as the oldest goalie in the NHL playoffs. That honour is usually given to 44 year-old Lester Patrick who, as head coach of the New York Rangers, had to mind the net in the 1928 playoffs when his starter was injured.
Patrick’s “return” to the game lasted less than a single match, so his extraordinary case should be included in a footnote accompanying Bower’s listing in the hallowed tome of hockey records as the oldest goalie in playoff history.
Lester Patrick should, however, be given the record as “coach least willing to concede that defeat is an acceptable outcome of a game.”
The 2012-13 Leafs’ heartbreaking playoff collapse breaks the “Curse of 1967)
In many ways, the 2012-13 Leafs are the polar opposite of the last Toronto team to win the Stanley Cup. While the 1967 Leafs was the oldest team to win a championship, the 2013 Leafs were the youngest team in the 2013 playoffs. Whereas the 1967 Leafs consisted mostly 30 and 40 year-olds, the 2013 Leafs only had three players above the age of 30. Most importantly, where the last championship team prevailed despite the odds against them, the 2013 Leafs collapsed despite the odds in their favour. Prior to the 2013 playoffs, no team in NHL history had given up a three-goal lead in the 3rd period of a Game 7.
It’s fitting that the Boston Bruins, another Original 6 team, beat the Leafs in the 2013 playoffs since the Chicago Blackhawks (divided from the Leafs by the current conference system) were unable to do so. The Bruins repaid the Leafs on Chicago’s behalf for eliminating the Blackhawks from the 1967 playoffs, and then were themselves eliminated by this year’s Hawks.
So why does this victory lift the curse when Chicago’s 2010 championship did not? There are two reasons: the Blackhawks weren’t as dominant in the season prior to their previous championship, and the Leafs didn’t get humiliated in the 2010 playoffs.
The 2012-13 Blackhawks are more like the 1966-67 iteration of the franchise than the 2010 Stanley Cup champions. As in the 1966-67 season, the Blackhawks were the most dominant team in the league as evidenced by them winning the Presidents’ Trophy and, more importantly, losing only seven games in regulation as they posted a 36-7-5 record in the regular season.
Furthermore, breaking the curse wouldn’t be complete without having the Leafs’ playoffs end in an upset as the 1966-67 Blackhawks’ cup run had ended. This aspect of the curse was more difficult to fulfill as, like the franchise’s last championship team, the Leafs weren’t expected to make the playoffs. Prior to the beginning of the lockout-truncated 2013 season, commentators from TV networks such as TSN as well as Sportsnet and from magazines such as The Hockey News generally agreed that the Leafs were unlikely to play in the postseason. At the onset of the playoffs, most analysts probably would not have considered the Leafs getting eliminated by any Eastern Conference team let alone the Boston Bruins (a team that has dominated the Leafs in recent NHL seasons) as an upset given the low expectations for Toronto to contend.
In order to raise expectations, the universe conspired to make the Leafs not only even up their series with Boston after trailing 3-1 but also push the Bruins to the brink of elimination by notching a 4-1 lead at the start of the 3rd period in Game 7. Only after the Leafs made such strides toward winning their first playoff series in nearly a decade could commentators conclude that this underdog’s eventual elimination was a huge meltdown.
So Leafs Nation, whose members are still despondent after their team’s postseason was cut short just as it was about to be extended, can take comfort in the knowledge that this awful loss was the first step toward the team’s next championship: that humiliating defeat allowed the Leafs to square up their debt to the hockey gods who were offended by the Leafs’ vainglorious victory over the Blackhawks in 1967. When the Blackhawks hoisted the cup in 2013, they also lifted the “Curse of ’67″ from the Leafs’ figurative shoulders.
This picture, depicting James Reimer prostrated in the crease following the overtime goal that ended the Boston-Toronto series in 2013 playoffs, offers the unlikeliest of good omens for Leafs Nation.