Poke fun at Toronto’s hockey fans if you must. To them, it matters naught this week because they are playoff newbies. They are, to borrow a sports cliché that is usually taken as a sign of weakness, just happy to be here – just happy to paint their faces like the rest of you and fly little flags outside their car windows.
Angst? Nine years out of the playoffs has pretty much eliminated that emotion for Maple Leafs fans. Truth is, even after David Krejci’s empty-net goal with 1:17 left sent most of the Air Canada Centre crowd scurrying to the exits in a 5-2 loss to the Boston Bruins in Monday’s third game of the Eastern Conference best-of-seven quarter-final, Leafs fans will be more satisfied than you in Vancouver – you with your endless goalie controversy and your underachieving Canucks on the verge of elimination. They have, frankly, less to lose than you in Montreal, with your constant fretting about Carey Price and the hornet’s nest you have stirred up with the Ottawa Senators.
Trailing the Boston Bruins by one game and enjoying the status of competitive underdogs, this is all gravy to them.
Win the series and the Leafs will have shocked the hockey world and can continue the party. Lose, and there is next year – this time, with promise of a better future.
Never mind that the Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967 or that no Canadian team has won the Cup since the 1992-93 Canadiens. Nine years without playoff hockey has seemed like a zillion years in the modern media age. You kidding me? Nobody in Canada has waited nine years for playoff hockey.
Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton – they’ve all been here since 2003-2004 when Pat Quinn’s team lost in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers. Multiple times, in some instances. In fact, every team in the NHL made the playoffs while the Leafs wandered through the wilderness – including the Atlanta Thrashers and Phoenix Coyotes. Winnipeg had its team returned two years ago, when the Thrashers left Atlanta. Think they’ll have to wait nine years? Nope.
And so that’s why fully three hours before game time, a line of Leafs fans packed Bremner Boulevard, and down York Street toward the water, waiting to get into Maple Leaf Square, the area outside the Air Canada Centre that has turned into a pre- and post-game gathering point for Leafs fans.
On Monday, fans holding Leafs flags and dressed in blue and white were serenaded by honking horns and cheers during rush hour, just a block away from the big video screen on the side of the Air Canada Centre, where 2,000 diehards went wild Saturday night after Phil Kessel scored the game winner in a 4-2 win over the Bruins in Boston.
The ACC is among the quietest facilities in professional sports, conventional wisdom deeming the preponderance of sushi-munching Bay Street suits in the Platinum seats as the major reason. Yet anybody wearing a suit to Monday’s game looked woefully out of place. Even the expensive seats were a sea of white and blue – jerseys, not pinstriped suits – and everybody wore the white scarves with blue stripes that were handed out upon entrance. They were into it during the pre-game warmup, the early arrivals standing and cheering the Leafs as they filed out onto the ice and serenading a few stragglers with chants of “Go Leafs Go” as the warmup’s final minute ticked down.
Mr. Kessel has sometimes been booed during his seasons in Toronto. On Monday, the appearance of his picture on the centre-ice video board almost brought down the house, and, when he stepped on the ice for his first shift, he was greeted with chants of “Thank you, Kessel” – normally heard at TD Garden in Boston, referring to the trade that sent Kessel to Toronto for Tyler Seguin.
For once, the Leafs marketing motto “The Passion That Unites Us All”’ is holding true – rather than “The Passion That Frustrates Us All.”
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