A few hours ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs were officially eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Washington Capitals.
I am not mad. I am not sad. I am not heartbroken or numb. I am not going through the normal symptoms a fan experiences when their team has been eliminated.
I am okay.
This is why:
Let me take you back to May 4, 2004. On that day, the Toronto Maple Leafs faced the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of their second round series.
The Flyers had a 3-2 series lead and the Leafs were playing at home, trying to force a Game 7.
Where was I? I was on a four-day overnight field trip to the middle of nowhere, where I stayed in a cabin in the woods. I missed the game. I was not a happy camper. Literally.
At that point in my life, I was 12-years-old and already planned my days around watching sporting events on TV. I’d like to say that has changed in the last 13 years, but it hasn’t. So when I found out I was going to miss Game 6, I wasn’t pleased.
My only hope was for the Leafs to force a Game 7.
I remember being told that the Leafs had lost in overtime and were eliminated. No one told me, but in my head, I already knew Jeremy Roenick scored the winning goal. A few days later when I got home, my premonition was confirmed.
I missed the last game of the season. I missed watching the raucous crowd. I missed seeing Darcy Tucker run Sami Kapanen into the boards so hard that he didn’t know where the bench was when he got up.
But I got over it pretty quickly. You know why? Because the Leafs always made the playoffs. And they’d be there the following season.
There was always next year.
As it turned out, there wasn’t going to be a next year. The 2004-05 season was cancelled.
When hockey finally returned to my life a year later, the Leafs were different. They were old. They were slow. They weren’t good anymore. The playoffs were a mere suggestion, rather than a guarantee.
Mats Sundin eventually left and things got bad.
Being a Leafs fan was like being your own punchline. Wearing a Leafs jersey to school was no longer a sense of pride, but rather an invitation for others to tell you what you already knew – the Leafs sucked.
In university (circa 2010-11), I watched Leaf games in my room with other Leaf fans who resided on my floor. We left the door open so the rest of the hall could hear us scream when the puck went in the net.
We wore our Leaf jerseys to hall meetings at 10PM, just because. Don’t get me wrong, the Leafs still weren’t a good team, but that didn’t matter to us. We bonded over our passion and loyalty for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In 2013, the unthinkable happened. The Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Finally, I could wash away that memory of being in the woods while the Leafs lost Game 6 to the Flyers.
And when they took the Boston Bruins to Game 7 and held a 4-1 lead with ten minutes left, I had never been so excited in my life. Oh my God, we’re actually going to win this series.
Oh. My. God.
Then it happened. Three goals by the Bruins. Tie game. Overtime on the horizon.
I felt sick. I probably would’ve thrown up on the spot, but I didn’t want to miss overtime.
Even if you don’t know what happened next, you probably do. The Bruins won the game in overtime. I was numb. I couldn’t move. I stayed on the couch for two more hours, unable to stand.
It felt like I was being hit by a bus, over and over and over, but no one was coming to my rescue.
Just when the Leafs had earned back the respectability they had lost since 2004, it was gone. All the jokes came back. The mockery came back.
“4-1” is all anyone had to say to a Leaf fan to get under their skin.
But it was okay. You know why? Because there was always next year. And the die hard Leaf fan in me thought this was the team I had been waiting for. This was the team that would make the playoffs, year after year, just like I had been accustomed to in the early 2000s.
It was all a lie.
They didn’t make the playoffs the following year. Everything fell apart. Again.
By 2014, I couldn’t sit through a Leaf game anymore. In my heart, I still loved the team. But they were hard to watch. That carried over to the following season.
The Leafs finished last in the NHL and (finally) received the 1st overall pick in the 2016 Draft.
Excellent. We could go through a proper rebuild – something we should have done when Sundin left.
Hello, Auston Matthews.
The Leafs went into training camp this season with no expectations. Actually, the only expectations were that they would be extremely young, inexperienced, and probably not very good.
They had more rookies in the lineup than I’ve ever seen in my life. The Leafs have never been good at developing prospects, so to say I was skeptical would be an understatement.
And then the first game of the season happened. Auston Matthews scored four goals against the Ottawa Senators and all my trepidations went away. The Leafs were back, baby. The Leafs were back.
But even then, I didn’t think playoffs were possible. And I didn’t even care about reaching the playoffs. I just wanted to watch a team that I could be proud of and see potential in. That’s all.
I got way more than that. This team became must-see TV. They were young, skilled, fast – oh man, were they fast. They were also extremely likable.
We had Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews singing “Livin’ On A Prayer” on the bench during a stoppage in play, like it was karaoke night and we were all invited.
We had Willie Nylander skating circles around opposing defensemen before making passes we didn’t know were possible.
We had Zach Hyman being a bull in the corners and scoring shorthanded goals. What? When have we ever scored shorthanded goals?
We had Connor Brown showing off his speed and scoring 20 goals while all the focus was on everyone else.
Nazem Kadri grew up. Tyler Bozak became a veteran. JVR did the shot between his legs thing a lot. Matt Martin was a bulldozer. Frederik Andersen brought back flashes of a former #31.
Behind the bench, Mike Babcock lured us in with his lovable Canadian accent. And high above the rink, Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello put us at ease every time they were shown during a broadcast.
At times this season I caught myself thinking, “How did this happen?” I came to the conclusion that it’s best not to ask questions and just go along with it.
This team, that no one expected anything from, made the playoffs. Their learning experience was about to go to the next level.
The Washington Capitals had the most points in the NHL this season and last. Welp. That being said, they are known for choking in the playoffs.
Well then, step right up, Toronto. And step up, they did.
After three games, the Leafs were leading the series 2-1. Late-season call-up Kasperi Kapanen was quickly becoming a fan favourite with his knack for big goals.
Oh, he is also as fast a Formula 1 car. That’s my scouting report, at least.
Kasperi Kapanen – the son of Sami Kapanen. Remember I said Sami was drilled into the boards by Darcy Tucker in Game 6, back on May 4, 2004?
Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
Anyway, the Leafs lost the next three games and bowed out last night.
But as I said, I am not mad. I am not sad. I am not heartbroken or numb.
I am proud. I am excited. I am optimistic.
The Leafs pushed the Capitals to the limit. And I know, that’s a terrible cliché that gets used too often in sports, but it’s true. Five of the six games went to overtime – all six games were decided by one goal.
What more could I ask for?
Over the last ten days, it has been so much fun cheering for this team and watching the young kids battle their facial hair challenged faces off.
The future is bright for the Blue and White. I can sleep easy tonight.
“Within my heart, above my home, the Maple Leaf forever!”