Thomas McCole is still haunted by what happened five years ago.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs up 4-1 going into the third period of the make-or-break Game 7 of the first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Boston Bruins, he was riding high along with the 2,000 or so other fans crammed into the viewing zone set up outside Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.
But dreams of a memorable victory were snatched away as Boston came back from the dead, stunning the Leafs 5-4 in overtime and leaving Mr. McCole and everyone else in a state of shock.
“People were walking away from Maple Leaf Square and everyone looked like zombies,” he says.
A lot has changed in five years, though, and with the Leafs locking horns with the hated Bruins in the postseason once again this spring, the die-hard Leafs fan has a secret weapon up his sleeve, or rather his pant leg.
Three years ago, the Toronto native joined with friend and fellow Leafs lover Jake Mednick to create Toronto-based Babsocks, a brand of socks featuring the caricatured scowl of Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who also coached Team Canada to its last two Olympic gold medals in men’s hockey.
So, as well as producing socks in home blue and road white, the pair made Team Canada red ones to coincide with the World Cup of Hockey two years ago. With a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of each pair going to Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the pair branched out even further last fall, teaming with Mr. Babcock himself to produce a black Movember version, featuring the coach with a bushy mustache. The purchase of those socks, which retail for $20 a pair, leads to a donation of $5 to support mental-health programming for minor-league athletes.
Now, as part of this year’s postseason push, the latest Babsocks feature the coach with full playoff beard, to commemorate the tradition of players not shaving until they have hoisted the Stanley Cup. The predominantly white socks also feature a touch of silver to hint at the Leafs’ ultimate goal this spring.
For Game 1 (Thursday’s Leafs playoff opener), Mr. McCole put on his favourite, original blue Babsocks. “But as we inch closer to the Cup, maybe put on the silver Babs.”
While Toronto may have come up short in that game, Mr. McCole isn’t short of confidence, with the Babsocks Twitter account boldly stating on Friday that the Maple Leafs would come back to win the best-of-seven series in five games.
“The Boston Bruins are as good as any team in the league, so if we can win that series, let’s just stop asking questions about where [the Leafs] might finish,” he says.
Every time the Leafs suit up for a game this spring, so do hundreds of Leaf fans around the world, proudly pulling up their Babsocks to show which team is getting their support.
It has grown into quite the community, one that Mr. McCole is still somewhat surprised to be a part of. “It’s just so much fun for us on game day, people sending us photos from all over the country, all over the world, honestly,” he says.
Whether or not the Toronto Maple Leafs hoist the Stanley Cup will be determined over the next couple of months, but for Mr. McCole and Mr. Mednick, the ghosts of playoffs past occupy much of their business thoughts these days.
The company recently signed a licensing deal with the NHL Alumni Association to produce socks featuring the faces of some of the finest players to ever lace up skates. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each pair will now go to the Association, which tries to provide greater quality of life to former NHL players, some of whom are struggling with debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and arthritis, as well as the after-effects of multiple concussions.
The NHL Alumni collection of socks will launch with a roster of about 15-20 legendary players, from Leafs goaltender Johnny Bower, who passed away last December, to former Philadelphia Flyers captain Bobby Clarke.
“The Alumni said they’d get a pair to Mrs. Bower, which is really special,” Mr. McCole says. “I hope the family enjoys the program and continue to celebrate his legend.”
Each caricature will have to be approved by the NHL Alumni Association, to whom former players sign over their image rights upon retirement.
Whatever happens in the playoffs to their beloved Leafs, Mr. McCole and Mr. Mednick will be busy for much of 2018, building a catalogue of former players and the corresponding caricatures, which are designed by a Toronto-based designer the pair tracked down at OCAD University.
They have also enlisted the services of a representative south of the border who will help them with distribution throughout the 24 NHL teams in the United States, the country in which many former legends, such as Mario Lemieux and Gordie Howe, played their entire careers.
“It’s going to be amazing to celebrate the history of the greatest ever players to play the game,” Mr. McCole says.