By Doug Doucette
Maybe you’re like me.
I know that we’re out there. I know that there are thousands of us–millions of us, even.
We’re the lifers–the die hards–the fanatics–those of use who have blue and white blood coursing through our veins. No matter what.
It’s a part of life–it’s a way of life. Win or lose, this is where we are. This is where we live. This is our lives.
I was born in 1985 and even though I was a Leafs fan before I even knew how to walk, my first vivid hockey memory wasn’t a Leafs moment. Not exactly.
It was the 1989 Stanley Cup final, and I found the guy who I knew, even then, would be my favourite player of all-time. As a four year old, maybe I didn’t know that people could have the same name as me. Or maybe there was just something about the way he played the game that captivated my young eyes.
He was a fresh faced twenty five year old, who hadn’t even lost his front teeth yet, wearing #39 for The Calgary Flames.
It would be another three seasons before The Leafs would acquire Doug Gilmour from The Flames in 1992. I think it was really that day, January 2nd, that my heart and soul was truly turned over to the Blue and White.
It was the first time that I could remember getting that feeling in my stomach, when it looks like everything is going to go your way. And I won’t pretend that my attachment to Gilmour was serendipitous, or really anything more than pure coincidence. I didn’t know that things would turn out for Gilmour and The Leafs the way that they did, but because they did, it made my connection with him and The Toronto Maple Leafs that much more special to me.
It added to a fire that was already burning, a fire that hasn’t stopped burning since. It’s only grown despite the many ups and downs this franchise has gone through during my tenure as a fan.
A little more than one year later, on May 1st, the flame grew brighter. It was the seventh game, the first overtime, in the first round of The Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Leafs had dropped the first two games to the Wings, and it looked like they were in over their head against a team who would go on to dominate for the next two decades. Even after taking the lead in the series after three incredibly close games, when the Wings forced a game seven in a decisive 7-3 victory, it felt like it would be a hard fought, first round exit for Toronto.
Maybe lost in the lore of what would happen only a couple of minutes into the extra frame, was Gilmour’s late goal to tie the game with under three minutes remaining in the third. And then, just like that, there was life–there was hope.
“Gilmour, to Bobby Rouse.” Joe Bowen started, only moments after the line had nearly converted on several close plays.
Bonsie already had that playoff crackle in his voice. He fought for breath, every word that spilled out, came with the same kind of gut wrenching anticipation that I felt in the pit of my own stomach.
“Shot–scores.” he exclaimed. “Nikolai Borschevsky scores for Toronto. The Leafs win! The Leafs win! The Leafs win!”
If you’re anything like me, just reading those words brings back that same feeling you had the first time that you heard them.
And after that, weren’t we all Nikolai Borschevsky at some point? Either on the pond, or in the streets, dreaming of scoring that goal, dreaming of being the hero. He was a kid that came out of nowhere that season and would soon after disappear back into obscurity, never to be heard from again–and somehow, he lives on in our hearts and memories forever because of one goal, in the first round of the playoffs, over twenty-five years ago.
It was only two days later that the feeling in my gut returned, that the flame in my heart and soul swelled, glowing brighter than ever before. In game one of the second round, in the second overtime–Doug Gilmour, single handedly, thrust a dagger into the heart of The St. Louis Blues; the team with which he’d broke into the league.
“Gilmour! Solo job! And he’s won it.” Bob Cole shouted over the roaring crowd at Maple Leaf Garden.
“The best player, wins the best game, in the best fashion.” was the call from legendary broadcaster, Harry Neale.
Gilmour had been The Leafs’ best player, almost since the day he’d arrived–and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone to see him explode in a moment of sheer dominance when the team needed him the most. But that moment was like the first, in a long line, that cemented Dougie’s place among the greats in Leafs history.
And of course I know how it turned out.
Of course we remember the sting of defeat.
Of course, we all share a common disdain for stupid Kerry Fraser and his stupid perfect hair.
When someone brings up those moments–I don’t think about the high stick. I don’t think about Gretzky dominating us in game seven. I don’t think about Montreal being the team that eventually hoisted the Cup that year.
And when I hear the emotional calls of Joe Bowen during those moments, I get that feeling the same as I did back then. The same feeling I had as an eight year old boy, watching his heroes, on the team he lived and breathed for, try and do the improbable.
So, you’ve stayed with me this long, why not just follow me down the rabbit hole a little bit further and see if we can’t get that feeling in the pit of your stomach in shape for another playoff run.
Following the 92-93 run to the conference final and a repeat appearance the following season, which resulted in a loss to eventual runners up The Vancouver Canucks–things got bleak in Leaf Land.
The one thing we had to hold on to in that time was a trade that many devastated many life long Leafs fans which sent Wendel Clark out of Toronto and brought in a young Swede named Mats Sundin.
Of course Mats was coming off a couple of pretty good seasons in Quebec and anyone could see the potential was there, but we had no idea what we were truly in store for.
A pair of first round exits and a pair of last place finishes muddied Mats’ welcoming party. In 1997, after Gilmour was shipped out, Mats was given the captaincy. It would take until the following year for him to bring The Leafs back to the playoffs.
They would go back to the conference finals once again, on the back of the strong play from Mats Sundin and Curtis Joseph. But it was an unlikely hero that sent them there, eliminating The Pittsburgh Penguins, two minutes into overtime, in game six.
Garry Valk, who was always a blue collar player, lay on the ice face first and found a way to shovel the puck past a flailing Tom Barrasso.
And sure, we went on to be completely demoralized by a super human goaltender in the conference finals.
And no–it doesn’t take the feeling away whenever you see the clip of Valk, sprawled out at the top of the blue paint, the puck on his backhand, with just enough strength to put it home.
If you think hard enough about it now, you can take yourself back to the first installment of The Battle of Ontario. You can specifically recall individual battles, you can vividly see the blood soaked face of an irate Darcy Tucker.
If you close your eyes, you can hear Joe Bowen’s call in the final minute of a deciding sixth game in the first instalment. His words come out in staccato as the Senators make one final push to tie the game and potentially see a seventh.
And when it was over, in his playoff rasp, he proclaimed “Bless you boys, what a game.” And it was.
The true, once and forever voice of The Maple Leafs was at it again in the 2002 Conference Final. The Carolina Hurricanes would go on to win the series in the extra frame of game six, but they were twenty-two seconds away from sealing the deal with a 1-0 victory in regulation.
‘Canes net minder, Arturs Irbe, was making a super human bid for his second shutout of the series. In fact, at that time, he’d only surrendered five goals to The Maple Leafs in the entire series. As the seconds ticked away, despite the best efforts from The Leafs, it appeared as though they weren’t going to find a way to solve The Hurricanes’ trap, or the unorthodox Latvian.
Leafs goaltender Curtis Joseph was on the bench for the extra attacker. There was a scramble in the slot, Mogilny passed the puck out to Kaberle from behind the net, Darcy Tucker took a stab at it from Irbe’s right, and the puck slid through the crease. Mats Sundin, with defenders on his back, and stick blades all around, pulled the puck off of Irbe’s pad and shoveled it into the empty net.
“Don’t tell me about heart, and dedication, and resilience.” said an emotional Bowen.
And we were all emotional then.
The Hurricanes, who had drastically outplayed The Leafs the entire series, would of course go on to win in overtime, but that moment we were all suspended. Gravity did not apply to us then.
The Leafs have won exactly one playoff series since that heroic run in 2002, a hard fought seven games against the Ottawa Senators. We’ve shared some tough times in those two decades, but the moments of sheer enjoyment haven’t gone by the wayside.
On October, 14, 2006 Mats Sundin put together one of the most remarkable regular season performances that I’ve seen in my lifetime. He came into the game with 497 career goals. He’d already scored two and added an assist when the 4-4 game went to overtime.
Early in the extra frame, already short handed after a late penalty by Darcy Tucker, Sundin would steal the puck from Alex Tanguay and lead a lackluster one on two into the Flames end. He stepped over the line and sent a cannon of a slapshot over the left shoulder of Miikka Kiprusoff.
Sundin finished the game with a goal at all three strengths, and had the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishment with his entire team as they poured over the boards, unconcerned with the gutsy effort in the win, only proud of their captain for yet another all-time moment.
The feeling went dormant after that. We watched long time fan favourites become villainized by fans and media. We watched half hearted attempts at rebuilding, or retooling. We watched a team that wasn’t good enough to compete, but wasn’t bad enough to secure one of the many franchise players who went high in the draft. That is, until we went through Brendan Shanahan’s scorched earth.
On April 30th 2016, without a general manager, Brendan Shanahan stood shoulder to shoulder with Kevin Cheveldayoff while Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly turned over the card that would show which club would have the opportunity to pick first overall and select franchise centre Auston Matthews.
Obviously, we know what happened. We all stood back and listened to Bruins fans, Habs fans, and Senators fans suddenly preach about The Leafs history with developing high end players, about how Matthews was, after all, overrated.
And then we watched as Matthews stripped Erik Karlsson of the puck and scored his second of four goals in his debut. We watched on social media as current and former players commented, in disbelief about how good this kid was, not how good he was going to be.
We knew we had a core of young players in Nylander, Marner and Rielly that Matthews would join, but most of us didn’t believe the team would be ready to step into the light as a competitive team for another year or two. We’d accepted our fate as a team that would be tough to play against, but would ultimately fall short.
As the 16-17 season went on, it became obvious that The Leafs weren’t going to fall out of the picture without a fight.
Even when goaltender Freddie Andersen went down in the last week of the season, with only waiver claim Curtis McElhinney behind him to get us there, they fought on.
With only days left in the regular season, it came down to a tilt against perennial cup contenders, The Pittsburgh Penguins.
And you remember the seeing eye shot that Connor Brown managed to tip from inside the circle to take the lead.
You remember Joe Bowen’s “Holy McElhinney” call when the journeyman back up stretched the limits of his body to stonewall none other than Sidney Crosby.
You remember the Auston Matthews empty netter that punched the ticket.
“We’re going to the playoffs baby.” said Joe.
No one gave The Leafs a chance to beat the first place Capitals. And maybe winning the series wasn’t the only way to be victorious then.
Kasperi Kapanen couldn’t manage to score in his first stint with the Leafs in the previous year. He wouldn’t manage to score his first career goal until that run in with his former team, The Penguins. You would think, tying that game would be the biggest goal of the season for him, but in game two of that series he put home the tying goal in the second period, and then won it in the second overtime.
If you’re like me, you can still see his reaction as he circled back behind the net pumping his arms and mobbing the set up man, Brian Boyle.
For what feels like an eternity now, we’ve been in this mode where we look a little further down the road. And when we hit another speed bump, we look a little further and a little further still. Our own pessimism gets the best of us from time to time, and more than most of us would like to admit.
And make no mistake, the future is still very bright for this club, but the time for hope and expectation is on our door steps.
And if you are like me, you pour everything you have into rooting for this team. All we have as a connection from year to year, from generation to generation are those moments. The ones that have a strange way of warming your heart and threatening to bring a tear to your eye.
And it’s okay to be emotional, and it’s okay to get frustrated, because you are a true fan–and being a fan means that you get to be unreasonable. It means that you get to dream bit. It means that you get to share in the victories the same way that you’re crushed by the defeats.
Being a fan means that you get to have hope when all reason for hope has fled.
Go Leafs Go.