As a long-time collector of Toronto Maple Leafs memorabilia – so much so that he had a Hockey Hall of Fame-designed basement in his Toronto home to showcase about 2,000 pieces before selling most of the collection to the Museum of Canadian History in Gatineau – Mike Wilson knows all about the history of one of the NHL’s oldest teams.
But at 64 and now retired after more than 40 years working on Bay Street, Mr. Wilson wanted to know what it was about his favourite hockey team that appealed to so many Canadians.
Why would people drive five hours through a snowstorm to watch the team play in Minneapolis on a Tuesday night? Or to only schedule weddings in the off-season or drop $250 every year or so to buy their favourite player’s jersey?
So he decided to attend every Leafs game in the 2018-19 season – all 82 of them – at home and on the road to ask Leafs fans about their No. 1 passion.
“It’s turned into something much bigger than I expected it to be, that’s for sure,” Mr. Wilson said after returning from watching Toronto’s road swing through California last month, where the team won all three games it played there for the first time in more than 20 years.
The “Ultimate Leafs Fan” – so christened in a headline by another publication a number of years ago – originally wanted to embark on his journey during the Leafs’ centennial year in 2017, but he was still working at the time. Earlier this year, though, he again brought the topic up with his wife, Debra Thuet, and he was somewhat surprised when she insisted he do it.
The Leafs helped him obtain tickets to all the games at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, while a friend with connections with the other 30 teams helped him secure entry into the road venues.
Mr. Wilson quickly discovered that family has played a central role in the creation of what is now called Leafs Nation. Sometimes the connections stretch across borders, whether it’s a kid from Connecticut who switched to the Leafs once the now-defunct Hartford Whalers left town because his mother was born in London, Ont., or a California native covered in Leafs tattoos because his mother was born in Ontario’s capital.
“That’s what makes it so unique … this family bonding,” Mr. Wilson says. “It’s not about the championships, although that’s important to some people, but it’s more about what this meant to people’s families and how they stuck together and this is what I’m uncovering as I go along.”
The journey has picked up steam of late, with more than a third of the regular season concluded.
While some of the wins, such as the back-and-forth overtime road victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Canadian Thanksgiving Sunday, or the 5-0 victory in Pittsburgh over Sidney Crosby and the Penguins last month, have been more about what happens on the ice, Mr. Wilson has tried to find Toronto connections wherever he has gone.
In San Jose, he sat down for a chat with the Sharks head coach, Peter DeBoer, a native of Dunnville, Ont., and a die-hard Leafs fan growing up who was eventually drafted by the team 237th overall in the 1988 NHL entry draft. While some would have been disappointed to be taken so low, Mr. DeBoer told Mr. Wilson that “getting drafted in the 12th round by the Maple Leafs means way more to me than getting drafted in the sixth round by somebody else.”
In Los Angeles, he met a guy who grew up in the High Park neighbourhood of Toronto where he had Leafs legend Borje Salming as his next-door neighbour. As a good friend of the Hockey Hall of Famer’s son, the man would often be engaged in street hockey games with the Swedish superstar, as well as regularly attend games as his guest at Maple Leaf Gardens.
“This was a memory,” Mr. Wilson says. “He’s in his 40s now and he will remember this for the rest of his life and his most prized possession in the world is a game-used, team-signed stick from Borje Salming.”
During the first game of the season, at home against the rival Montreal Canadiens, Mr. Wilson said he met a man who was seeing the Leafs live for the first time in his life because he could never afford to go. But his friend brought him along for the experience because the man had watched games with his father throughout his life, and even when they weren’t watching it together, the first thing each would say to the other the following morning was, “What was the score?”
“And when his father passed,” Mr. Wilson says, “his last words to his son were, ‘What was the score?’
“And here’s this guy telling this story … and the tears are streaming down his face and I’m trying not to cry [but] it was just such an emotional moment.”
Though Mr. Wilson was determined only to focus on Leafs fans, a chance encounter with a fan of another team gave him insight into the broader phenomenon of the deep-rooted hockey fan.
Mr. Wilson got the opportunity to talk to Canadian actor Jay Baruchel, who was promoting his book, Born Into It: A Fan’s Life, which gave a glimpse into the actor’s upbringing as a die-hard Canadiens fan.
Initially, Mr. Wilson wanted nothing to do with it.
“I don’t need some Montreal guy telling me about Rocket Richard and Henri Richard and Jean Beliveau,” he says. “I [didn’t] want to hear it, but [his PR people] said, ‘No, no, he’s not like that at all.’ ”
After the two chatted, Mr. Wilson realized that Mr. Baruchel is actually much like him, save for his preference for a different-coloured hockey jersey.
“His Dad was a die-hard Canadiens fan, so the games were on every Saturday night and it was Montreal,” he says. “That was embedded in him and he carries that forward. So we’re on the same path as far as that goes.”