The Toronto Maple Leafs, with the 1967 Stanley Cup.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, with the 1967 Stanley Cup. Photo: Postmedia Files

THERE IS HARDLY ANY HOCKEY FAN in the sprawling Greater Toronto Area that can dismiss from mind that moment, in May 20th, 2015, when then MLSE head Tim Leiweke confirmed the news that Mike Babcock would become the new coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The previous season had been – something that fans had already grown accustomed to – a bitterly disappointing campaign for the Leafs, with a pale seventh Divisional place, only above the neighbouring – and equally feeble – Buffalo Sabres but miles ahead of quintessential rivals such as the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators, or Babcock’s previous team, the Detroit Red Wings. It was, indeed, the Detroit Red Wings, whose despised antagonism hails from the era of the Original Six, the latest challenge that the Leafs hovered over, lengthening a winning streak that has rekindled that spark of faith: We hope we lift the Stanley Cup this year.

Just the fact that we can boldly vocalise that hope out loud is a testament to the progression, the continuity of it all, the steady blow of winds of change sweeping past the then-harrowing squad and prevailing, keeping the dreams of a return to prominence consciously awake, the same way many of us would wish for that miraculous magic wand to do the same with our lives. Eyes protruded and faces amusingly grinned as the optimistic fans gathered around the blue-lit LED screens that surround the Air Canada Centre to hear the new coach exclaim: “Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada’s team, and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map.” It was a much-needed statement, a reminder of belief for a city that, hockey-wise, had not seen much fortune come its way over the past fifty years. Of the roaring crowd that stood outside the ACC, solely a slight minority had been fortunate enough to witness Toronto’s last title-match victorious display in May 2, 1967. Many of them – or us – were not even born.

“Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada’s team, and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map.”

Among those who lived and breathed that heroic feat was Johnny Bower. The iconic Maple Leafs legend, who passed away three months ago – on December 26th, 2017 – and was a crucial member of the triumphant lineup, departed the well-earned championship bash with two bottles of champagne, one, which he used in the celebrations of his fiftieth wedding anniversary, and the second, which he didn’t open, as he told the Toronto Star, because it was meant to be popped whenever Toronto won its next Stanley Cup. Bower, who was amongst the oldest goalies to ever play in the finals and beared it all but an easy upbringing in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, patiently awaited five decades, which elapsed in opposite correlation to any prospective signs of an attainable crown.

FIFTY YEARS – or almost fifty one, now – can strike as plenty of time. Back when the Toronto Maple Leafs seized their most recent trophy, the Vietnam War – and the peace-demanding protests that it spawned – were at its peak, O.J. Simpson was a revered running back for the University of Southern California, Kathy Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, contriving a path for women’s equality and participation in sports, and riots had erupted in several U.S. states due to racial tensions, particularly protesting police abuse and brutality. Some issues change, others remain the same. It was almost fifty-one years ago that Toronto and the streets that surround the then-quarters of Maple Leaf Gardens – now home to Ryerson University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre – attested a Champions Parade. No longer was an NHL title the reason that the sprangling blue banners and ripped-and-torn jerseys – ragged down in the ecstasy of celebration – could be found around the bustling spots where fans and opponents gathered on the premises of College Street, Yonge Street, and beyond. Some issues change, others remain the same.

Photo by Juan Gavasa

This is not meant to be an analysis of why, technically speaking, the Maple Leafs have failed to win a title or a detailed play-by-play analysis of any game whatsoever. Neither is this a critique or an evocation of Stanley Cup nostalgia, of which – I must admit – I have none. This is the chronicle of a foreigner – or New Canadian – who happened to be born in a country that sees snow once a year, where Snow Day still implies a celebratory dance, and that, after spending some of his life across the Atlantic, adopted Canada as a home. It was an adoption that was accompanied by a quasi-instant conversion to a devout following of its national sport. Thus, what this is is the narration of an emotional journey, given the – as of now – outstanding Maple Leafs season, a wayfaring into a recollection of memories, beer splashes, trunk conversations and loud jingles all carrying the same underlying message: We hope this is the year.

Back when the Toronto Maple Leafs seized their most recent trophy, the Vietnam War was at its peak.

AS A LEAFS AFICIONADO, THERE WERE NOT COPIOUS REASONS to be confident that the 2016-2017 season could be as thrilling as it was, although, in our own sense, we still held to that belief, even if only deeply inside. It was the one-hundredth anniversary of the franchise, yet our latest closure was not exceptionally impressive. The Maple Leafs had finished last, and we can avouch we had been warned. Besides the remarks that intended to recoup Toronto as the capital of Hockey Nation, Babcock – who has been likened to USA’s former Olympic Coach and Miracle on Ice paramount figure Herb Brooks – dutifully cautioned us of painful times to come. “It usually takes twice as long and twice as hard as you think. I believe that”, said the just-introduced coach as he addressed reporters for his first press conference on his new role.

Thus, for him, finishing last was not a preeminent reason to worry, but – wisely – a concrete indicator that things were progressing. Sure, there would be some pain in the première étape, but he remained optimistic. Last is relative. Last is the distressing symptom of a deep, excruciating transformative process happening internally and externally. Last, for the foremost, is temporary. Last was Leicester City under Claudio Ranieri before it pulled out The Great Escape from relegation on a streak that would make Steve McQueen quiver. A Great Escape that ended with a subsequent Premier League title. Last was Dave Wottle in his emblematic golf cap running the 800 meters in Munich before his remarkable sprint, which in turn earned him the Gold Medal. Yes, last were the Leafs. But that was a season before Auston Matthews-braided jerseys existed north of Fort Erie. Before William Nylander resembled the next Mats Sundin and their 2014 selfie reminded us of that of Michael Phelps and Joseph Schooling.

ANYONE WHO WAS ON THE GROUNDS of the Air Canada Centre on the 23rd of April of 2017 might have experienced two feelings that countered each other. First, the unobjectionable sadness of exiting the most promising season of the last half-decade, but, on the other hand, a sense of pride, that pride – and ultimately, happiness – that comes when you are exiting a dream that you already knew it would be over, but, that, once it is, you have nothing to do but to be grateful for the opportunity of living it. That feeling when despite the loss the fans chant and heads are held high and shoulders shrug to the tune of a beam when sipping another Molson Canadian – as if just exiting an exhilarating rollercoaster whose ending was unknown, but the ride was so intense that you don’t mind it is done because you know: a) it was considerably better than you expected and b) it has made you stronger.

1966-67 Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs.

WE RAISE OUR HANDS AND WAVE, we are among the few, privileged chosen ones to give shape to the colossal Canadian flag – a staple of every Leafs home game. Shivers tremble down the spine as roughly nineteen thousand souls synchronously echo to the tune of Oh Canada. Young-and-old clap, yell, jeer and heckle as seats get wrapped in white and blue. The screens that flicker over centrefield aim to highlight the buoyant cheers. Tonight is the night. Either we make it to Game Seven – that mystical Game Seven – or die trying. Breaths are held and sighs proliferate as the Blue jerseys commence the kick-off on the attack, only to find a solid Braden Holtby. Zack Hyman is denied by the Lloydminster, AB/SK native who has set an impenetrable blockage in the goal line. Leafs keep pressing. Our hearts race. But Holtby stops again and again.

The Washington Capitals have succeeded at something the Department of Homeland Security has not: erecting the New Great Wall. And then it happens. Matthews yields a stunning score. The New Great Wall has been trespassed. We can’t believe what we’re seeing. And then we realise that this is hockey, that Frederik Andersen is Toronto’s new hero, and that for all one knows there is a widespread kinesthesia of anxiety whenever Backstrom or Ovechkin grab the puck. Isn’t it ironic that Washington’s best player is a Russian? (No pun intended, whatsoever). Rows at the ACC evolve into a powerful concoction where “GO LEAFS GO” was the only language spoken and stools merely play the role of jacket-holders.

Anyone who was on the Air Canada Centre on the 23rd of April of 2017 might have experienced two feelings that countered each other: unobjectionable sadness and a sense of pride.

And just as our seat neighbours, Joyce, a jovial lady from Burnaby, BC, who cheerfully invites me for a beer in order to change the topic when I ask her about the Vancouver Canucks to rather talk about something “merrier”, and her husband, Jeff, a football zealot from East London (London, United Kingdom, he remarks) who still believes he will see England win the World Cup in his lifetime, but is less certain about his favourite team, West Ham, winning the Premiership some time, are overcoming their decade-bolstered disbelief and match-day skepticism, and as hardly thin air can percolate through the circumferential territory of the Air Canada Centre, Johansson scores in a blurring play, the puck barely passing through Andersen’s legs in an unfortunate strike of bad luck, extending the game to overtime and – for a minute – sending everyone back to their seats.

Tension heaps as the referee signals the starting overtime, and again, it is Holtby and Andersen, Holtby and Andersen, timely deflecting any shot that comes their way, until Johansson, in another opportunistic intervention changes the trajectory of a puck that sent the white handkerchiefs to the floor and sealed the warehouses, those warehouses that might have been opened after Game 7 and that within them contained boxes with swaggering t-shirts and confetti to highlight – finally – an achievement for the franchise, but that now, will have to wait to be deployed on a title-hungry Maple Leaf Square.

Photo by Juan Gavasa

THE CLOSING SCENE CONTRASTED substantially with the festive spree experienced two weeks from then, when the Maple Leafs had emerged triumphant from that crucial match that had earned them this playoff berth – against all odds. It was a game where expectations were dashed and yet we managed to prevail. For roughly eight minutes, the bar where I was bearing witness to this prowess – Irish Embassy, on the corner of Wellington and Yonge – stood in silence, sporadically clapping at the ‘GO LEAFS GO’ shout that shyly emanated from the ten screens that linger over the oak wood panels and alcohol-filled cabinets. It was an atmosphere that also held some resentment in it, primarily, after the first goal scored against us was from Phil Kessel, a former Leaf whom I vividly remember from my inaugural visit to the ACC, whose #81 covered the stands that now clamor against him. Worsening the wound, the subsequent score came from Crosby, Sidney Crosby, the Canadian Olympic hero, and after that Guentzel sent Pittsburgh leading and we thought all playoffs illusions were gone and subsided into bleak drowsiness.

Yet, the bar, aided by the unguarded contribution of countless Steam Whistle Pilsners reinduced a state of self-inflicted optimism, of not-previously-seen rapport between everyone wearing Blue – doctors, lawyers, waiters and waitresses, bartenders, truck drivers. At that point it didn’t really matter. As long as you were not wearing Black and Yellow. Silence evolved into embraces after Kasperi Kapanen tied, and even more as Connor Brown set us in the lead, and just when Pittsburgh mounted a high-pressure attack and the leveling – and subsequent OT – seemed tremendously feasible, Matthews racked up the tally on an empty net to secure the victory – and with it, the likeliness of a postseason spot. Fervor was such that even the Guitar Man for the night is beside us on a Billy Joel-performing roll, and after singing the bar out with “Piano Man” he sends a heartfelt dedication to all of those who gave up after Guenzel’s hit-on-target, a line from Joel’s classic “Vienna”: Don’t you know that only fools are satisfied?

That team spirit is what keeps kids up at night trying to become the next Wayne Gretzky, or Sidney Crosby, or, now, Auston Matthews.

WATCHING THE LEAFS ON THE ARENA AGAINST THE DETROIT RED WINGS last weekend, which was, by the way, another impressive revival rally, one can conclude that that spirit embedded in Billy Joel’s song is ever-present when Toronto enters the court. Babcock’s team continual breakthrough is evident on and off the field, illustrated by a colossal stunt with Kapanen and Brown, again, on target, and Nylander and Kadri hitting the spot to clinch the comeback and yet one more impressive performance by Frederik Andersen. It was a victory that reminiscenced halcyon days and that brought me back to Blueberry Hills, a now-closed student diner in York University from where I saw my first Maple Leafs match ever one-too-many winters ago, where my fandom began. That team spirit, the undefeatable semblant bestowed by what Babcock called Canada’s national team was a firm memento that hockey is about more than just winners and losers, about more than glory and defeat, but – like life – an enticing journey. It is what keeps kids up at night trying to become the next Wayne Gretzky, or Sidney Crosby, or, now, Auston Matthews. It is the sport they play on frozen ponds when the winter is rough, as I evidenced on a February stroll through the Toronto Islands. Hockey is that beacon of refuge when times are tough and all one can do is say to oneself: We hope this is the year.

And maybe this is the year. Perhaps Herb Brooks is supporting us from Heaven, and Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Tyler Bozak will become the Rizzo Eruzione, Rob McClanahan and Buzz Schneider of our era. Perhaps Kurt Russell is relishing in his seat at the opportunity to, in a few years, bring to the largest megaphone of all – Hollywood – the life of another hockey titan whose major accomplishment might be yet on the making. Hopefully, and just hopefully, the magic wand will travel five-hundred miles west from Lake Placid and give us this decade’s Miracle on Ice. It is, after all, and once again, Spring. When trees sprout leaves with their finest foliage – foliage that endures the summer and beyond. And with the rising sun returns the belief that everything is possible. The belief that this might be the year that Johnny Bower’s family, In Memoriam, finally pops that bottle of champagne. That Joyce and Jeff can rejoice on the triumph of one of their teams – albeit their adopted one. And that the tightly-sealed warehouses on the premises of the Air Canada Centre finally can let the confetti and spangled banners flow, before the wait, that Long Wait, turns fifty-one. With all there is, 2018 holds the promise to be that year, and there is surely more than one future Canadian version of Al Michaels hoping that we’re right.