It’s Safe To Be Excited About The Leafs Again

(Somewhere outside the Air Canada Centre before Game 2 of the 1st round between the Maple Leafs and the Bruins)

There is a buzz in the air tonight as the square fills with excitement. After all, it’s been nine years since Leafs fans had a reason to proudly wear their shirts and shout with purpose. Almost nine years ago to the day Jeremy Roenick thrust a dagger through the hearts of Pat Quinn’s blue and white squad, sending them on a downward spiral that would last almost a decade. The young ones can barely remember watching a Toronto playoff game, and the older ones, they’ve seen too many they’d like to forget.

It’s like riding a bike, being back in the 1st round. Almost a decade has passed but the nerves, the excitement, the anticipation all swell up inside you all over again. For a brief moment you may even forget that it has been nine years since the Leafs played a meaningful hockey game. A little older, a little wiser, and a lot less concerned with the successes and failures of a professional sports team comprised of millionaires, but the feeling is still there. The real estate the Leafs occupy in the hearts of many Torontonians is not for sale, even under the worst of circumstances. Believe me, regarding sports, we know the worst of circumstances like no other.

As people enter the square, there are low expectations. Leafs fans wear the sentiment we’re-just-happy-to-be-here on their faces. I wouldn’t expect fans of another hockey team to understand how after nine years of no playoffs the Leafs can pile thousands of people into a confined space outside their home rink before Game 2 of the 1st round – a game that is not even being played in Toronto. But really, where else would we be? The Leafs run this town, and they always will. That’s just the way it is in Toronto. I’m sure it would be the same in New York with the Yankees or in Boston for the Red Sox after years of disappointing results.

It’s nice to be back in the playoffs, but the Maple Leafs are up against the Boston Bruins, a division rival that absolutely destroy them every time the two teams meet on the ice. Game 1, a 4 to 1 beating that could’ve been 10 to 1, was exactly what many expected, or feared, depending on which side you’re on. Leafs fans hoped it was just a team of playoff rookies experiencing nerves, but given the recent history between the Bruins and the Leafs, there were many reasons to believe the team that wears blue & white for sky and snow would struggle just to win a game against the B’s. In fact, after Game 1, a logical human being could’ve reasonably believed that when the Bruins suited up for their 5th playoff game of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it would take place in the 2nd round against another team. Although, I’ve learned long ago that logic and Leafs don’t mix.

The crowd is buzzing with optimism over the Leafs second playoff game since Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and HD TV changed the way we enjoy sports. Wow, the playoffs are much better with these new toys.

You have to admire the people in the square for even showing up after Game 1 and the nine years leading up to it. But then again, why wouldn’t they? They’ve been waiting a decade just to see a playoff game, may as well enjoy the Leafs return to the post season and hope for the best.

To franchises and their fans that make the playoffs a few times a decade, you wouldn’t understand. You’d have to live through nine years of no playoffs to truly know what it feels like. It can numb you and make you bitter. It can cause you to second guess every single move the organization makes. And it can definitely trick you into thinking that you don’t care anymore. But you care. You’ll always care. Even if you truly don’t care as much because now you have a mortgage to pay, children to raise, and career objectives to accomplish – for some absurd reason, you still want them to win just as much as you did when you were a worry free child. It’s hard to explain to anyone that’s not a sports fan.

The square is filling up with blue and white shirts worn by those who have waited forever for this moment, and those who have jumped happily onto the bandwagon, knowing nothing about hockey or the Maple Leafs, yet, unable to ignore the buzz that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Toronto. The diehards don’t like that, but it’s bigger than you, diehard. The Leafs are for everyone. They are for the city of Toronto and all the fans around the world. And this crowd is pumped. There is a sense of entitlement with the Leafs, within the city, which is maybe why members of Leaf Nation get ridiculed so much. What else do you expect? Although the Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since the NHL was a league of 6 teams, it cannot be denied how important hockey is in this city.

The second oldest franchise in the National Hockey League is loaded with history. It’s been a while since the most recent one, but the franchise’s 13 Cups is still the second most behind the Montreal Canadiens. This is the city that houses the Hockey Hall of Fame, only blocks away from one of hockey’s most legendary cathedrals, Maple Leaf Gardens, which can still be seen in its silver form when the Conn Smythe is awarded to the playoff MVP at the end of every Stanley Cup tournament. I guess you could say the history here goes back to ancient times in hockey terms.

The Phil Kessel Trade.

Phil Kessel in Boston prior to trade
Phil Kessel in Boston prior to trade

I have no idea what the Phil Kessel trade means to Boston Bruins fans, but I know it’s fairly significant here in Toronto. To set the scene, Mats Sundin had recently split and Leafs fans were finally coming to terms with the patience required to build a team through the draft. Hey, if the Leafs were going to continue missing the playoffs for the next while, at least we could be excited about some high draft picks, maybe even a top 3 if we were lucky. We psyched ourselves up to lose, basically.

Insert Brian Burke, and his belief that a team could rebuild very quickly through trade and free agency. I’m not saying he was right or wrong, but I will say that if you look at the teams that won the Cup since Burke was hired as Leafs GM, not one of them built a winner without drafting and developing the majority of their core, then adding trade and UFA pieces when the right ones came along. But I get it. This is Toronto. Ticket prices are expensive, and the people who fork out the big dollars to sit in the ACC want to see a quality product on the ice. I understand why Burke had to do it. In getting Phil Kessel, he acquired a very lethal scorer, worth the price of admission. And Kessel has been every bit the superstar he was expected to be. Leafs fans never really blamed Phil for the trade, but he was guilty by association. It’s hard to find anyone who still feels that way though.

At this point, Phil Kessel is loved deeply in Toronto. And for the most part, I think everyone on this side of the border has no interest in even talking about the deal anymore. It’s done – and you won’t find too many people in Toronto who aren’t very happy Phil is a Leaf.

The 1st period is over and the buzz at Maple Leafs Square has turned to loud optimism, helped by a few drinks and a scoreless 1st period in which the Leafs held their own. Compared to Game 1, and most regular season meetings against the Bruins over the last three seasons, that 1st period was the best piece of hockey the Leafs have played since Mats Sundin was flanked by Gary Roberts and Alexander Mogilny taking breakout passes from Brian Leetch.

This is the power of professional sports. The Leafs miss the playoffs for nine straight seasons, get blown out of the water in Game 1, yet, Leaf Nation is jacked up for a second period in TD Garden against a team that by all accounts can flip a switch in the blink of an eye and send James Reimer to goaltending oblivion, or wherever Andrew Raycroft is.

I know, it’s just Game 2 of the 1st round, so why the big fuss? Why the long write up? Many years of disappointment is the short answer. I’ll say this: Don’t compare the Leafs to other franchises over the last decade, because what’s happened here will go down in history as one of the most torturous eras endured by an organization in NHL history. I wish it upon no franchise.

You probably saw the game so I won’t go into thorough detail about the 2nd period of Game 2, but I will tell you that when Joffrey Lupul scored on a Matt Frattin centering pass to give the team in white a 2-1 lead, Maple Leafs Square and the rest of the city took to the air in one massive leap propelled by nine years of built up anticipation for a tiny taste of playoff hockey.

Joffrey Lupul
Joffrey Lupul is off to a hot start this season (Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE)

It had to be Lupul to score it, if you think about it. His story – what he battled through to play again, how he was written off, and that intense fist pump he pounded into the air at the ACC when he scored in the 1st period of his return from injury earlier in the season all represent what Joffrey Lupul is about. His uphill climb is in some ways, a small scale version of what the Toronto Maple Leafs are up against moving forward, as they try to restore themselves as a franchise that will be taken seriously again.

The crowd at Maple Leafs square is nervously noisy in the 2nd intermission. The excitement of a well played middle frame by the road team fades back into fear of the Bruins, combined with fear of what the Leafs may do to screw this up, as they have done a lot in recent years.

The traumatized Leaf fan inside of me came into the playoffs thinking, I hope they show signs of progress and play with heart – just don’t get embarrassed. I wasn’t expecting them to win the series, but the standard issue 8-0 beating I’d come to expect from the Bruins over the last few years was not going to pass for acceptable. Me, like many other Leaf fans, just wanted to see that we were on the right track – that we could skate on the same ice as a real Stanley Cup contender. That moment came in the 3rd period when Phil Kessel blasted in on Rask, after cradling a beautiful long distance saucer from Nazem Kadri. He finished with a goal scorers’ authority, giving the Leafs a 3-1 lead. Then, Maple Leaf Square, went insane! Toronto had been waiting nine years for Phil’s breakaway goal. Kessel’s tally held up as the winner, and the chants of “thank you Kessel” came from the other side this time, and they were sincere, not sarcastic.

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Nine years.

We waited nine years for a memorable Leaf game. That’s a long time to wait. Before that, the most memorable Leaf moment of the last nine years was when John Madden scored twice to force a shootout in a game between the Devils and Islanders. There’s a lot of work to do, but it’s nice to be excited about the Maple Leafs again.