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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Flyers during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto January 14, 2010. REUTERS/ Mike Cassese (MIKE CASSESE)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Flyers during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto January 14, 2010. REUTERS/ Mike Cassese (MIKE CASSESE)

David Shoalts

Leafs hoping to put history behind them Add to ...

A question arrived via e-mail the other day from an earnest young journalism student: "I'm aware that you weren't covering the Leafs when they won the Stanley Cup in 1967, but what differences do you think exist today in media coverage of the Leafs compared to coverage in '67?"



Well, young man, the only thing I was covering in 1967 was the difference in price between a P&B Special hockey stick from Canadian Tire (50 cents, mom's choice) and a $2 Victoriaville (dad said okay if I paid the $1.50). Nevertheless, I think the biggest difference was with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The media? Not so much.



I'm sure there were proportionally just as many cynics in the media 43 years ago. It's just that today there are way more media and way more ways for us to tell you just how bad the Leafs are and just who and what Brian Burke should get when he trades Tomas Kaberle.



As for the Leafs, the biggest difference is winning as any fan of a certain age can tell you. They played their last home game of the NHL regular season at the Air Canada Centre Tuesday night and for the sixth consecutive year that is where the hockey season ended for Leaf fans.



That makes those brief runs of competence in 1993 and 1994 and the seven-year stretch of making the postseason, which ended in 2004, seem faded into the mists of time. 1967? Only if you can remember all the words to Ca-na-da, we love thee, or A place to stand, a place to grow, Ontari-ari-ari-o.



In 1967, Canada was young and the Leafs were old but both considered themselves winners. Canada had its centennial, Expo 67 and a rising young politician named Trudeau. The Leafs had creaky old George Armstrong, Allan Stanley, Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk, who put the finishing touches on a dynasty by winning the Stanley Cup, the fourth for the team in five years.



The Last Good Year, Pierre Berton called it.



Forty-three years later, it is now the Leafs who are impossibly young and optimistic despite yet another finish out of the playoffs. The urge to write them off is strong, fuelled by decades of covering last home stands and their empty promises, but the signs of progress cannot be ignored.



In Burke, the Leafs have a general manager who is building a team with the salary-cap system in mind. Excellence is still a long way off but the Leafs are now at least in a place where they can see the playoffs in the distance.



If Burke can add some important pieces such as a couple of forwards who can score, and subtract a few detractions (hello Mikhail Grabovski), then next year should be a playoff year.



This is the point where the terminally sour Leaf fans check in, grumping that of course they look better, they're playing with no pressure, etc. A lot of the time, I'd chime right in, too, but I can't get that Bobby Gimby tune out of my head.



What makes the closing days of this season different is that you can actually look at the Leaf roster and circle a bunch of names who showed a dramatic improvement from opening night back in October.



Names such as Nikolai Kulemin. On Oct 1, when the Leafs lost in overtime to the Montreal Canadiens, to begin a deadly 0-7-1 start to the season, Kulemin was a healthy scratch. Now Kulemin, 23, has been described by head coach Ron Wilson as the team's "best two-way player."



Luke Schenn, teacher's pet in 2008-09 as an 18-year-old defenceman who held his own in the NHL, spent more than half of his next season in a murderous sophomore slump. But he, too, has played his way back into the good graces of his coaches and the fans.



Jonas Gustavsson, nominated this week as the Leafs' candidate for the Masterton Trophy, the award for perseverance, came to his first NHL training camp still dealing with the death of his mother. Then there were heart problems, a groin injury and the burden of being the No. 1 goaltender when Vesa Toskala flopped again. The arrival of Jean-Sébastien Giguère, though, took the pressure off Gustavsson and he is showing the potential Burke and his scouts saw in him.



Other players, such as centre Tyler Bozak and defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, were playing for the Leafs' farm team when the season started. Now Bozak is the No. 1 centre and Gunnarsson's name comes up in talk about who will move the puck if Kaberle is traded.



A return to the heady days of 1967 is still a long, long way off, but at least the fans are in a position to dream.

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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