Sampling the Leafs and the NHL . . . again

My wife had gone shopping; I’d finished walking the dog. Schoolwork was done for the day. So, I figured, why not: It was the NHL’s opening day; why not give the league and my favourite childhood team another chance. So I tuned in to the Toronto Maple Leafs first game of the season. They were at home to the Montreal Canadiens. Two teams from the Original Six. Historically, the most intense hockey rivalry in Canadian history.

After the light show, the 48th Highlanders, the ceremonial first puck, the first yammerings and plaid jacket of the season from Don Cherry, the team introductions, the a cappella anthem and what seemed like a few hundred minutes of commercials (many of them repeats) by which the CBC was filling its till, we finally got to the actual game.

By the time we’d gotten 11 minutes into the game, there had been two fights and precious little dazzling hockey. This, tweeted a Calgary friend, was Leafs general manager Brian Burke’s style of hockey. “Get used to it,” he wrote. Shortly thereafter, the CBC replayed Burke’s statement from last December: “We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.” (Prediction: The guy has issues that go way beyond the hockey rink.)

I am old enough, you see, to remember when a hockey fight was the result of one player being mad at another for some misdeed or slight, real or imagined, rather than a calculated device for entertainment of intimidation.

I am also old enough to clearly recall the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup. I was sprawled out on the family room floor in the spring of 1967, anxiously counting down the remaining minutes, as the Leafs took Game 6 from the these dreaded Montreal Canadiens — and with it, the cup. Leafs captain George Armstrong, who would show up to sign autographs at the Leamington Fair later that summer, put the game out of reach of the Habs with 47 seconds left in the third period. Dave Keon was the MVP. Tim Horton, Frank Mahovlich, Bob Pulford, Eddie Shack and Johnny Bower were among my other favourites. It was Canada’s centennial year, the world was beating a path to Expo 67 in Montreal, I was graduating from Grade 8 and all seemed right with the world.

It was also the last year I cared passionately about the game. High school brought other interests, sure, but it was the NHL’s expansion from the Original Six to 12 teams in 1967-68, the formation of the World Hockey Association in 1971 (play began in 1972) and the accompanying dilution of hockey talent that all but ended my interest in hockey’s regular season. And this is to say nothing of the hyperinflation of NHL salaries.

With the exceptions of the 1972 Canada-Russia series, the late-’70s Leafs (Darryl Sittler et al) and the glorious run of Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in the mid- to late-’80s, I’ve tended to tune out NHL hockey, preferring to pay attention each year only when the real season begins — the playoffs. The annual World Junior tournament and Canada’s Olympic teams are really the only hockey games I care to watch now, aside from the neighbourhood pickup games on the frozen drainage pond behind behind our house.

I didn’t mind Toronto’s loss last night. It was a fairly good game. But within 11 minutes, I knew that this year, as in most others over the past 40 years, I’d sit out most of the regular season. I tuned out the Broad Street Bullies decades ago. See you at the playoffs.

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