In 2007, with the Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup drought at 40 years and no end in sight, a disgusted Eddie Shack surveyed the crowd at a reunion dinner of surviving 1967 champions.
“Forty years,” he bellowed. “Isn’t that a bunch of bullsh–? Are you going to call them the Toronto Next Years?”
Well, next year could finally be here in 2018-19, or within a window that the Leafs have finally opened with the kind of meticulous plannig that most perennial NHL contenders have used.
They drafted wisely, eventually bottomed out in 31st place, landed a generational player with some lottery ball luck, while ownership hired the right suits and then stepped back, not obsessed with lost playoff revenue. A decorated club president filled out a high-end hockey office, got an elite coach, free agents trickled in and everything meshed without alienating the massive fan base in the lean years as some up top had feared.
On July 1, their work truly paid off when John Tavares signed a mega-deal, enamoured by the thought of helping end the misery in his hometown at a time when franchise stars almost never change teams.
Have the Leafs ever come a long way.
“Things were so bad,” a 1980s-era Leaf was saying the other day, “that when I came up as a young kid, I asked a veteran for some playing advice. He said: ‘Just go out, skate hard, but make sure you’re arms are flapping. It makes it look like you’re working hard’. I can just see myself trying to sneak by with that today with Mike Babcock and all the video they have.”
Everyone is watching the Leafs now with a three-man Murderers Row at centre and enough overall firepower to overcome a perceived lack of depth on defence, perhaps reaching 300 goals for the first time in three decades. They can concentrate on hockey because the dressing room and front office are no longer a daily soap opera stage.
Noting all the expansion teams that started from scratch, won the Cup and comparing it to Toronto’s half-century without, former GM Brian Burke used to snort “somehow, we’ve defeated the math!” Yet those derisive plan-the-parade jokes aren’t so far-fetched now. The Chicago Cubs have ended their curse, Cleveland has won an NBA ring and, right here in town, the Marlies farm team has a Calder Cup and moved five players on to the Leafs roster who were still there on Monday, prior to final cuts.
Yes, some previous editions of the Leafs have come close. Jim Gregory’s careful drafting produced a strong ’70s contender, but couldn’t overcome the Montreal Canadiens dynasty, nor survive owner Harold Ballard undermining them. Cliff Fletcher and Pat Quinn both assembled veteran laden teams in the early ’90s and 2000s, with four conference finals in total. But their all-or-nothing approach left the prospects cupboard bare.
It took a complete tear-down — The Shanaplan — to make the Leafs the pick of many oddsmakers to win it all next spring, a view shared by many in the game.
“This feels like the Red Wings again,” Babcock bubbled on the first day of training camp.
But Detroit’s four Cups in 11 years were preceded by some playoff misery despite great regular seasons. The Leafs, for all this hype, still haven’t won a post-season series since 2004, never mind survive four in one spring. Expect to hear the mock chant ‘Sixty-seven!’ a few times.
While it still sounds so improbable that they’re going to raise the Titanic after 51 years, so soon after another last-place finish, this team will be contending for a while, the salary cap willing.
If you look around bookshelves in the Toronto area, season preview magazines are adorned with pictures of Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Some have all three stars on the cover. TSN’s lively promo for its regional broadcasts of the Leafs has highlights of the top players, a pile of red goal lights, a roaring fire to depict the power play and a brick wall net where Frederik Andersen stands. On the streets, buses, streetcars and trains, more people have the blue and white gear on, from onesies in strollers to the elderly with a ball cap.
Mike Wilson doesn’t intend to miss a moment of this season. The 64-year-old ‘Ultimate Leafs Fan’, who once held the largest private collection of team memorabilia, will augment his season ticket home attendance by travelling to all 41 road games and hopes to be around for 16 playoff wins.
He’s already set his ambitious itinerary through April 6 in Montreal, tagging along with Toronto fans making similar trips by planes, trains and automobiles or joining up with blue and white supporters in 30 other cities. He’ll keep fans updated through his ULF website and a column in the Toronto Sun.
“I’m just a guy from Scarborough, going out there to hear stories of first or best Leafs memories,” said Wilson. “I collected items for more than 50 years and every one of them had a story. Now I want to hear them first-hand from people in Leafs Nation.
“This is valid research about a club that’s embedded in generation after generation of families. The games were almost secondary back then, it was bonding around the radio in the 1930s, then around the TV and maybe today, one, two or three watch it on a computer.”
On the night the New York Rangers ended their 54-year Cup drought in 1994, a poignant home-made fan sign in the cheap seats at MSG read: ‘Now I Can Die In Peace’. We’ll venture long suffering Leafs supporters hope that when their final horn sounds, they’ll have a smile on their face from a Cup memory or two.
WAITING A WHILE
Longest pro championship droughts in number of years:
Arizona Cardinals 71
*Cleveland Indians 70
Sacramento Kings 69
*Detroit Lions 61
Atlanta Hawks 60
Tennessee Titans 57
Los Angeles Chargers 55
*Buffalo Bills 55
*Toronto Maple Leafs 51
* — Located in one city. Others have changed locations, but not won.
Source:: Toronto Sun – Movies