Back in the 90s and very early 2000s, CBC ran various montages during the Stanley Cup Playoffs featuring the song, “The Chance May Never Come Again“. It was, essentially, hockey’s version of “One Shining Moment” and romanticized the game in a way we don’t see that often anymore.
In the song is a line, “though the flame burns bright, in an instant it’s gone.” For some reason, I’ve always remembered that, especially in the context of sport.
Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs and, for better or worse, it encapsulates what cheering for this team is all about. It can be a constant tightrope walk between blind optimism and harsh reality.
Insert Michael Scott saying, “I am ready to get hurt again.”
It wasn’t always like this, though.
There was something so pure about being a sports fan when I was a child. Everything was great. Everything was exciting. There was no such thing as questioning lineup decisions, or wondering why certain trades were made.
Every player was a hero and they were mimicked on the playground, in the street, in the gymnasium, and on the carpet in front of the television.
There were no bouts of heavy breathing or raised anxiety levels. There was joy within the chaos.
The Leafs have a long history and no shortage of people to tell you about it. Whether it’s the analysts on TV, callers on the radio, family members, neighbours, kids at school, rival fans, hecklers in the stands, or a stranger at the mall who notices you wearing a Leafs hat.
It’s a fan base composed of many extreme extroverts, basically.
The go-to line is always something in reference to the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup – 1967.
Sadly, no one hates the Leafs more than their own fans. It’s like a sibling relationship though, where you’re the only one who can make fun of them, but the moment someone from “the outside” picks on them, you step up and defend them.
It’s very weird, but you can’t pick your fandom.
As a young boy still wearing jerseys I had to grow into, why would I care that the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup was in 1967? I only became a fan in 1997. Don’t put that burden on me. I wasn’t alive back then.
Every year I’ve been a fan of this team, it’s felt like another weighted vest is added to my person. It’s a weight that contains all of the team’s shortfalls and playoff perils. It’s everything since 1967, whether I like it or not.
And, quite frankly, I don’t want it anymore. I don’t want the weight of 54 years on my 29-year-old body.
We, as a fanbase, need to stop doing this to ourselves.
It is an encumbrance. It is a burden. It is a mental link to past traumas, robbing us of present joys.
And you know the franchise can feel the burden, too. In the last few years, you can feel them wanting a blank slate.
Four years ago, they released a video montage that played during an intermission in the arena. It chronicles the history of the team and doesn’t hold back on showing footage of “fans” wearing bags on their heads.
The main message at the end of the song, as emphasized by the lyric, “this time we’ll get it right”, is just that.
This time, they’ll get it right.
Now, maybe I’m just a sucker for a sports montage, or maybe I’m too far up the blind optimism tree, but I actually believe it.
The Leafs next chance at “this time” begins tonight, with Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens, which means over the past week, a lot of words have had to fill the empty spaces in every medium accessible to
Every angle of, “Can they do it??” was taken, as references to past failures were sprinkled in for our own paranoia.
This is a team that, for the first time in a long time, actually looks the part.
If you close your eyes and picture Scott Oake interviewing players with their families on the ice after winning the Stanley Cup, you can see this cast of characters there. At least, I can. And it’s not a lie to myself, or a vision of the impossible.
I’ve followed sports long enough to realize that the champion of a league doesn’t become champion by accident. They have the required pieces, as well as a pretty good run of things going well for them.
It’s not fair to burden this team, or ourselves – the fans – with 54 years of “stuff”.
This isn’t about the past.
This isn’t about 1967.
This isn’t about 1979 and the Leafs and Canadiens last playoff matchup.
This isn’t about Ballard’s Bunker at Maple Leaf Gardens and decades of cynicism perpetuated by a franchise who cared more about making money than winning games.
This isn’t about 1993 and Gretzky’s high stick on Gilmour that wasn’t called.
This isn’t about 1999 and moving to a new arena that had more seats, but less noise from the fans.
This isn’t about 2002 and Arturs Irbe’s big goalie pads.
This isn’t about 2004 and the Leafs last playoff series win.
This isn’t about 2008 and pugnacity, testosterone, truculence, and belligerence.
This isn’t about 2010 and waffles being thrown on the ice.
This isn’t about 2013 and a 4-1 collapse.
This isn’t about 2017, 2018, 2019, or 2020 and the first round exits.
This isn’t about “draft schmaft”, bags on heads, or the years without a Captain.
None of that matters right now. It can’t. It is an unnecessary weight that will only hinder progress.
This is about 2021.
This is about getting Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza a Stanley Cup.
This is about Auston Matthews being the best goal-scorer in the NHL.
This is about Mitch Marner and William Nylander forever looking like children playing a game they love.
This is about adapting to the playoff style of hockey and actually having a player on each line – Hyman, Foligno, Nash, and Simmonds – who are unafraid to hit somebody.
This is about T.J. Brodie and a defence that doesn’t panic with the puck.
This is about Jack Campbell, whose positivity is infectious.
This is about a young coach and a young GM, who, dare I say it – have done a great job.
And yes, this is absolutely about John Tavares and the Maple Leaf bedsheets he used to sleep in.
That’s what this is about.
Everything else can be put in a storage compartment.
I’ll end with this:
“Leafs Forever” has been the motto of this team for the last few years, appearing everywhere from its Twitter hashtag, to the tarps covering the seats in the stands.
At the closing ceremonies of Maple Leaf Gardens in 1999, before the Leafs moved to the then-named Air Canada Centre, Anne Murray sang her version of The Maple Leaf Forever.
The song was originally written by Alexander Muir in 1867 and was inspired by the large maple tree that stood on his street.
This is where I make a symbolic connection between trees and the Maple Leafs hockey club, but I trust you can make that link on your own. If not, think about how they endure, provide life, and regrow what was once lost. You’ll get there.
When the puck drops tonight – it’s about right here and right now. The past will always be there to haunt us if we let it, but we can’t build forever if we don’t reside in the present.
It’s not about 1967, or every year since then.
It is about 2021 and these…our Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Within my heart, above my home, the Maple Leaf forever.”