Maple Leafs-Sabres Rivalry Is NHL’s Most Underrated

Though it’s far from the National Hockey League’s premier rivalry, there’s still quite a bit of hockey history between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres, and it’s easy to tell why. Situated just 100 miles apart via Ontario’s historic Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW), the two cities share numerous similarities of both culture and geography. The Maple Leafs are undoubtedly the more marquee team, but the Sabres have a rich heritage of their own.

Given this, it makes sense that the Sabres were chosen to take on the Maple Leafs in the newest incarnation of the NHL’s Heritage Classic series. Though it probably ruffled the feathers of Canadian fans that an American team was being included in an event that had previously been exclusive to the Great White North, Buffalo is so close to the border that the Sabres are practically Canadian as well.

As the teams prepare put on their throwback jerseys and meet on March 13th at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, ON (halfway between the cities), let’s take a look back at the Battle of the QEW and why it’s so compelling.

The Advent: An Instant Toronto-Buffalo Connection

When Buffalo was granted an expansion franchise by the NHL ahead of the 1970-71 season, it was an easy assumption that its team would clash with Toronto’s. The Maple Leafs suddenly had a challenger to their superiority in the Golden Horseshoe region and the newly-christened Sabres set out to prove they could hang with the big, bad Original Six stalwart.

Ironically, the Maples Leafs were a big part of the Sabres’ DNA in the beginning. Former Maple Leafs general manager and head coach Punch Imlach agreed to become the Sabres’ first bench boss, and his prognostication at the 1970 NHL Entry Draft helped earn Buffalo the first overall pick, which it used to select the highly touted Gilbert Perreault. The Sabres’ roster for their first season featured numerous former Maples Leafs, including Floyd Smith (Buffalo’s inaugural captain), Gerry Meehan, Eddie Shack and Dick Duff.

Maple Leafs legend George “Punch” Imlach served as the Sabres’ first ever coach (THW Archives).

It was also Imlach who convinced Tim Horton, a former six-time All-Star with the Maple Leafs, to sign with the Sabres in 1972. One of the darkest days in the history of both franchises was Feb. 21 1974, when Horton was tragically killed in a single-vehicle accident on the QEW in St. Catharines, ON. He was on the way back to Buffalo from Toronto after a game and it was revealed in 2005 that he had been driving while intoxicated. Horton is immortalized thanks to his namesake coffee shop chain and he is the only player to have his number retired by both the Maple Leafs and Sabres.

Related: Buffalo Sabres’ History with Canada

Additionally, the teams had similar home bases. Both Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens and Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium were tiny, claustrophobia-inducing buildings and are remembered for their loud and raucous environments. Neither arena was an easy place to play for visitors and countless memorable contests between the foes occurred at each.

The Hall Of Famers: Andreychuk, Housley And More

Not unlike any other rivalry in professional sports, numerous players have donned both of these teams’ shade of blue over the years. The Sabres selected defenseman Chris Evans from the Maples Leafs in the 1970 NHL Expansion Draft, making him the first to cross the border from one team to the other.

But what might come as a surprise is that a number of Hockey Hall of Famers have worn the uniform of both sides as well. Phil Housley, who was taken by the Sabres in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft and was the anchor of Buffalo’s defense for most of that decade, finished his career by appearing for the Maple Leafs in one game in the 2002-03 season. Kingston, ON native Doug Gilmour was a staple for Toronto for a majority of the 1990s and joined Buffalo in 2000 for parts of two seasons before moving on as a free agent. He returned to the Maple Leafs in 2003 but, like Housley, retired after just a single game due to injury.

Phil Housley #6 of the Buffalo Sabres
Phil Housley is one of many NHL legends who played for both Toronto and Buffalo (Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images).

The most notable example, however, is Dave Andreychuk, who grew up halfway between the two cities in Hamilton and was drafted by the Sabres 10 spots after Housley. In his 10 years with the team Andreychuk became one of the game’s most prolific goal scorers, particularly on the power play. Seeking to improve their goaltending, the Sabres packaged him to the Maple Leafs in 1993 in exchange for Grant Fuhr. Andreychuk played four productive seasons with Toronto before he was traded to New Jersey in 1996. Fuhr, who had been with the Maple Leafs since 1991, struggled with injuries through his three seasons with the Sabres but played a key role by mentoring future superstar Dominik Hasek.

The Battles: From Domi And Ray To Matthews And Eichel

More so than any other reason, the Battle of the QEW is always relevant because it rarely disappoints on the ice. The Maple Leafs and Sabres met for the first time in the NHL regular season on Nov. 18, 1970 at Maple Leaf Gardens, a 7-2 victory for Buffalo. Even though the two have rarely been good at the same time, it’s been a war ever since. As of the end of the 2019-20 season, the Sabres lead the all-time series 117-74-18-10.

Supporters of both franchises are long-suffering. Toronto fans love to point out that the Sabres are yet to win a championship, while Buffalo fans are quick to remind them that the Maple Leafs haven’t hoisted the Stanley Cup themselves since 1967, before the Sabres were even a team. That animosity is amplified by the Maple Leafs’ consistently strong road presence in Buffalo, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to tell whom the home team is in games at KeyBank Center.

The best era in the history of the rivalry was unquestionably the 1990s. It’s the only time that both sides have been consistently competitive, propelled from their doldrums of the 1980s at the hands of stacked rosters. The likes of Mats Sundin and Felix Potvin rejuvenated the Maple Leafs while the dynamic duo of Alexander Mogilny and Pat LaFontaine helped the Sabres keep the scales balanced. The decade also featured the legendary feud between Toronto’s Tie Domi and Buffalo’s Rob Ray, two of the toughest to ever play the game. Well-acquainted before Domi came to the Maple Leafs in 1995, a fight between the two heavyweights was a possibility every time the teams met and fans reveled in watching the two pummel each other.

Tie Domi #28 of Toronto Maple Leafs
Tie Domi’s numerous bouts with Rob Ray took the rivalry to new heights (Dave Sandford/Getty Images).

The decade reached a fitting crescendo when, in the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals, the two teams finally met in the postseason for the first time. With a trip to the Stanley Cup on the line, the interest and attention surrounding the rivalry was at the highest it’s ever been. Tickets sold out within minutes and throngs of fans for the visiting team were present at each game. Even the governments got involved, as a flag for the respective team was placed on the corresponding side of the Canada-United States border on the Peace Bridge. Unfortunately, the matchup didn’t really live up to the hype, as the Sabres dispatched of the Maple Leafs in five games to claim the Prince of Wales Trophy and advance to the Stanley Cup Final (of course, Sabres fans won’t ever forgot what came next).

Both sides have had their ups and downs since then. The Sabres overcame a period of ownership turmoil and the possibility of relocation not long after their run to the Finals. A brief revival in the mid-2000s was snuffed out by managerial neglect and things haven’t gotten any better since Terry Pegula acquired the franchise in 2011. The team hasn’t qualified for the playoffs in any full season under Pegula to date.

And while the Maple Leafs didn’t appear in the postseason themselves from 2004 to 2013, the 2010s were much better to the team. On the shoulders of Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitchell Marner, the Maple Leafs have returned to contention in recent years, though they’re yet to escape the first round. Matthews and fellow American Jack Eichel of the Sabres became the faces of their franchises in the latter part of the decade and helped bring the rivalry out of hibernation. After taking a year off due to the divisional alignments of the 2021 season, the teams are reacquainting themselves with each other this season.

The Future: Outdoor Game Signals A New Era

The 2022 Heritage Classic will undoubtedly be the most unique meeting between these two storied foes. In a way, it feels like this is the first time the NHL has acknowledged that something special exists between Buffalo and Toronto. The rivalry now has a prime international stage to both showcase itself and begin a new chapter. Both teams are currently in different places, as Toronto is looking for a deep playoff run while the Sabres desperately want to return to competitiveness. Matthews will lead the charge at Scotiabank Arena for years to come while rising talents like Rasmus Dahlin and Tage Thompson give the Sabres hope for tomorrow.

The Battle of the QEW is possibly the NHL’s most underrated rivalry and has been for many years. Though its history isn’t as epic as the likes of the Bruins and Canadiens, Maple Leafs vs. Sabres contests consistently result in entertaining hockey and deserve more appreciation. The Heritage Classic should display that firsthand.