in which the maple leafs influence tender minds and the states of a city
during the 1989 to 1993 seasons
IF SOMEONE ASKS ME, “Do you like the Toronto Maple Leafs,” my immediate, disgusted, response would be, “No way.” Now that I’m far enough away from Canada, and in a place that has had one snow day in the last fifty years, one inch of snow that shut the entire city down, and has no obvious allegiance to the NHL and thinks Gary Bettman is the lad who pulls pints at The Mouse and the Droppings, no one is likely to ask me how I feel about the Leafs. Though, someday, someone might because even being far away from Toronto, a city which I still mentally live in a quarter of each day (if not longer) there have been at least two people wearing Toronto t-shirts, and a woman in the Marks & Spencer line who lived in Toronto for a year, a year that she loved, just raved about but “then I moved to Saskatchewan.” Her voice got low after this, conspiratorial, as she pulled my girlfriend aside and said, “I moved there for a man. And let me tell you, girl, I’ll never do that again.” And then she pointed at me and nodded, as if that was all she needed to say. Canada might not have a huge population but there are a lot of us sprinkled over the UK and I’m always bracing myself for the question, “do you like the Leafs?” And now that I’m away from Toronto, outside the claustrophobic, blood rising, emotionally pulsing center of the Leafs, I should be able to breath, to relax, to relish and expand my fixed hatred of them.
I should. But I can’t.
Because not only do I hate the Leafs. I love them.
And nothing the Leafs do seems to stop that. No amount of losing. No ridiculous rise in ticket prices that after all these years really should be a dollar a ticket for the next ten years, and given to ever single Toronto citizen who has proof of Toronto address and further proof of not having voted for Rob Ford. The tickets should be a dollar because of all those shitty seasons of go-nowhere, promise broken promise, draft pick traded draft pick, rookie traded rookie, hero Captain traded to the Quebec Nordiques, hero Captain traded to the New Jersey Devils, hero Captain disappears to the Vancouver Canuck. All loyal Toronto Maple Leaf fans should be recognized for putting their energy, their faith, their blind-belief in a franchise that has done nothing but stomp on them over and over and over and over again like a four nothing loss to [pick team, pick game, pick year, feel disappointment].
I started getting into the Toronto Maple Leafs because I was an undersized, dweeby, kid, with oversized plastic glasses, who spent too much time hoping a TARDIS would appear and take me away rather than learning any proper social skills, and I decided this wasn’t what I wanted to be.
So I put my faith in the Leafs.
I picked the right time. The season was 1989-90. As Wikipedia so enthusiastically proclaims “The Maple Leafs have their first non-losing season since the 1978-79 NHL season.” Gary Leeman scored fifty goals. No longer could people sit around in their basement dens, drinking stubby beers, and asking each other how the Maple Laughs were going to ruin the night. Because 1989-90 was my first season as a Leaf fan I believed anything was possible with this team. They weren’t the Laughs. They were a team that could win, and, maybe, even possibly, here we go because we say this a lot in Toronto…contend for the Cup.
And then in the first round, with the Maple Leafs playing the St. Louis Blues, a team the Leafs beat seven games to one in the regular season, a number that got hammered home at the beginning, middle, and end of the series, the Leafs lost four games to one. Game five ended with about thirty Leaf players in the penalty box and the Blues hugging each other. And while many fans were surely disappointed, in my mind, this was it, I’d backed a winner. No more plastic glasses. Goodbye Tardis. Hello, girls. And maybe even a kiss.
Then the skates fell off. And this always happens. For the twenty something years I’ve been a Leaf fan if there’s any truth behind the team, beyond all the hype, beyond the myth, is that being a Leaf fan is always a cursed, kick to the gut. You start off cheering and you end up crying. You end up stomping around your apartment, texting your friends and brother, trying to find calm in the face of unbelievable sport heartbreak. That’s what it means to believe in the Toronto Maple Leafs. As hard as it is to accept that, I’m not being a fatalist here, because the other truth about Maple Leaf fans is that we never stop believing this is the year. Against all odds, if we’re in the playoffs, this is the year.
During the 1990-1991 and 1991-1992 seasons, there was no this is the year. We got a coach in Tom Watts who rocked a stern mustache and who flipped out if the music cues during time-outs went one second longer past the whistle. There were always shots of Watts yelling, “Shut that fucking music off.” Or staring angrily up at the rafters. As if a few seconds of music could have disrupted the Leafstastrophe which failed to catch the Minnesota North Stars two years in a row.
But a few things did happen, and would matter, and would change the psyche of Toronto Maple Leaf fans. Wendel Clark became captain. Felix Potvin was drafted. Cliff Fletcher became General Manager. And on January 2, 1992, I came home late from school, slightly after six pm, and sports radio was on, as it always was during dinner in our kitchen, and my dad said, “The Leafs got Gilmour.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs may not have made the playoffs that year but that really didn’t matter. In a trade that was so stunning, not because Calgary got ripped off, forget that, not because the Leafs got rid of nobody and brought back a Chosen One, but because it was the Leafs that made the trade. Because the Leafs had won something. Without question.
In sports-speak, when a new GM, a new coach, a new player arrives, you’ll often read, “X will finally bring respect back to the franchise.” Cliff Fletcher and Doug Gilmour actually did that. Wendel Clark is an amazing figure in Toronto Maple Leafs history, but a more predictable story of hope mixed with terrible luck and terrible injuries and loss and tears (his and mine when he was traded). I remember photographs in The Star of Wendel Clark being hung from the ceiling like a Vampire after another injury. Clark loved Toronto but did he ever pay the price for representing it.
And he’s a perfect vision of Toronto the Good but Suffering. It’s like Rob Ford who os doing his part for the vision of Toronto Suffering. Most people I know hate Ford as much as I do, and I suspect that the reason there’s so many condos going up is because architects are trying to facelift Toronto’s ugly, to bury our secrets under all these mixed use buildings. But when I was growing up, Toronto had a different voice. There was a short man at the corner of College and Yonge, not a hundred feet away from our heart, Maple Leaf Gardens, who nasally screamed, “Newspapers. Newspapers.” And two brothers with pencil mustaches scalping Leaf tickets with sales pitches like, “Seeya Britt Hull. Seeya Britt Hull.” Toronto is many things, and one of those is the beer drinking bully-buddy Ford. Hate him, don’t vote for him, I applaud both, but Toronto can’t ignore that it is him as well. He’s like the Casper the Unfriendly Ghost, still lurking around even though Toronto is trying to get fit, trying to wear a nice suit, and network, and drink lattes, and forget about Uncle Bobby who gets a little too tight at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and Friday and Monday, and ends up on the front lawn wrestling his older brother, Doogie. That’s part of why Rob Ford won really, because nostalgia for our past made us forget those ugly lawn fights and forget that while we didn’t mind having a pop with a guy like Ford, by the time the stubbies were down to the foam, we felt kind of uncomfortable about what he was saying and doing and we would never have another drink with him let alone vote for him as Mayor. The other reason we have Ford is that the gravy refrain was a pretty brilliant slogan that spoke easily to people even as Ford refused to show up for debates or take responsibility for anything and was a bit of a rich kid growing up who never had to wonder where his gravy was coming from and, as we’d learn, who may or may not have a Crack problem. And Ford is, like the Leafs, and like Toronto, one of those unbelievable sad spells of losing and losers that the city goes through.
But GM’s like Cliff Fletcher and players like Doug Gilmour, they make us forget our losers and our losses. They make us think, even for a few seasons, that Toronto can win it all, and that we’ve buried our ghosts for the right reasons and not for the five hundred square feet or the oh so cute three hundred micro-condo reasons that are happening everywhere in Toronto right now.
The moment when everything changed for Toronto Maple Leaf fans in my lifetime, the moment that started us marching out in force, in unity, in car honking frenzy, after every playoff win, was the moment after Nikolai Borschevsky scored the overtime goal in game seven against the Detroit Red Wings in the 1992-1993 season. That was a pure sports moment, a playoff series in overtime, at the furthest edge of itself.
For the first two games of the series Detroit killed the Leafs. The Leafs were spiraling. One reporter actually questioned Wendel Clark’s sexuality and his desire to win. And then the Leafs go out and win the next three. And game five’s overtime goal was a thing of beauty, scored by Mike Foligno, whose post goal scoring trademark was to jump in the air, and whose helmet was shaped like a space dome. That Leaf team was a real character team. The movie slogan would be “the kind of characters that made loving them easy, losing with them heartbreaking.”
In that game seven overtime against Detroit, the undersized Borschevsky goal changed how we saw our Leafs. We’d been going nowhere in hockey and suddenly we were pushing back. And that’s why, in the third round, against The Kings, there wasn’t any question we were going to win. We just knew that the Canadians and the Leafs were going to meet in the finals and finally, the losers of Leafs past, the losers of Toronto, were going to be slain.
And then Kerry Fraser became the most hated man in Toronto for years to come.
I’m not going to go into details about Fraser because really, after all this time, even if there was evidence that he’d been handed a wad of cash on the ice from Wayne Gretzky after the highstick, that doesn’t explain the game seven loss. That doesn’t make up for the decades of losing. And Fraser’s an easy way to forget what we all know, even subconsciously, that if there’s a way to lose, the Leafs are going to give it a try. That’s part of our franchise. Even if (hope hope) this is the year, we really need to win five championships in a row to escape the pit of poltergeist losses that, first Maple Leaf Gardens, then the Air Canada Centre, are built on top of. Big money and big losses. That sums up the Maple Leaf Franchise right now.
Two other memories of that glorious season:
In game six against the Los Angeles Kings, Wendel Clark scored the tying goal with less than two minutes left and I started screaming. I’m sure the rest of the city did as well but I’m not sure the rest of the city lived with their parents. That game six was in LA and when Wendel Clark scored it was almost two am. My father, such an obnoxiously light sleeper that even the sound of a VCR recording a show while the television was off would keep him up, burst into my room wearing this shit colour brown terry cloth kilt that he wore at night so he didn’t expose himself, yelling that I should keep my voice down and people are trying to sleep and have I lost my mind. I was frothing at this point because I believed that we were going into overtime to win and told him as much with expletives. He swore back at me then left because, I guess, he being older and more Leaf-wise, knew that I’d get my comeuppance and there was nothing he could say or do that would be a better punishment then for me to finish watching that game.
The second memory is after the Habs won the Stanley Cup. Harry Neale was in the dressing room being sprayed erotically by Champagne bottles held between Habs players’ legs. He’d interviewed every player and was standing alone, with the season over he was clearly lost. He said, “I guess there aren’t any players left to interview,” when who should appear from the right hand side of the screen but none other than former Leaf, Gary Leeman. Neal shrugged and began interviewing Leeman. And somewhere, some evil force, let’s call it Satan, had a little chuckle at the Leafs.
…end of the 1st