At the end of a long January school day, my friends and I would run down to the frozen pond. Sticks and pucks in hand, it was our traditional after school hockey game. We never missed one, no matter how cold it was.
As we would run down to the ice, everyone would yell out their favourite team,
“Lets be the Boston Bruins!”
Another would yell, “Lets be the Edmonton Oilers”
“I want to be the Montreal Canadiens!” another would bellow.
This would continue day after day. It seemed like we would never get tired. We played for hours as the Canadiens, or as the Oilers, or as the Boston Bruins. Someone would be Maurice Richard. Another boy would be Wayne Gretzky. Another, Booby Orr.
One day a good friend of mine asked, “What team do you want to be?”
I thought about it for a while. Nothing came to me. I did not know who my favourite team was! All I knew were the teams we played as on the pond after school. Sure, it was fun to be those teams, but it didn’t feel quite right.
“I don’t know who I want to be.” I said.
“Choose your favourite team!”
“I don’t know who my favourite team is.”
“You need a favourite team to be a hockey player.” the boy instructed.
I walked home that night determined to know who my favourite team was. After dinner, Grandpa was sitting at the fire place watching the flames dance and crack.
“Grandpa?” I asked.
“Who is my favourite team?”
“Well, what team do you like the most? What team do you want to go all the way and win the Stanley Cup?”
“I don’t know. My friends say Montreal win will, or Edmonton will win, but I don’t believe them”, I told him.
“Who do you think will win then?” Grandpa asked.
“I don’t know any other teams.” I said
He turned to his side table where his newspapers laid. After fumbling through some of the papers, he folded the page and showed me a picture. There it was! My favourite team. Clad in blue and white, simple and refined. The bold white maple leaf crest stood out like a badge of honour.
“Who are they?” I asked, almost stunned.
“Those are the Toronto Maple Leafs!” he exclaimed as a smile came to his face. A smile unlike any other I had seen before.
“Tell me about the Maple Leafs.”
“I asked my dad the very same question when I was your age. He told me about players like Charlie Conacher, Joe Primeau, and Busher Jackson. They were known as the Kid Line. No one could stop them,” he told me. He was getting far too excited for someone his age. He continued, “ Conn Smythe owned the team and he built the greatest rink anyone has ever seen. He called it Maple Leaf Gardens. Our very first year there we won the Stanley Cup!”
“Wow.” I was stunned.
I was thrilled to know who my favourite team was, but I needed to know more. Grandpa had said that his dad told him about the Kid Line and Maple Leaf Gardens. There had to be more. I decided to ask my dad for more stories about my new favourite team.
“Dad, tell me about the Maple Leafs”
“I asked Grandpa the same question when I was your age. Do you know what he told me?” The smile was appearing on his face as well.
“About the Kid Line and Conn Smythe and Maple Leaf Gardens?”
“Yes, but also about Ted Kennedy who wore number 9, and number 10, worn by Syl Apps, Our goalie wore number 1, Turk Broda. He could stop anything. Televison was invented and everyone would gather around to watch the Maple Leafs and listen to Foster Hewitt call the play-by-play. Grandpa also told me about the Detroit Red Wings, who needed to beat us only one more time to win the Cup, but we didn’t lose another game. In fact, we won four straight to win the Stanley Cup! Kennedy, Apps and Broda helped us win 3 Stanley Cups in a row during the 1940’s. In 1951, Bill Barilko scored in overtime to win another Stanley Cup. Maple Leaf Gardens was so loud Grandpa thought the roof was going to burst off! Bill Barilko would die in a plane crash that summer. The Leafs wouldn’t… go ask your big brother about the Maple Leafs.”
So I picked up the phone and called my brother.
He picked up, “Hello?”
“Tell me about the Maple Leafs” I said.
“I asked Dad the same question when I was about your age.”
“And he told you about the Kid Line, Maple Leaf Gardens, Ted Kennedy, and Bill Barilko right?”
“What happened to Bill Barilko?” I asked.
“He died in a plane crash after that Stanley Cup, and the Leafs did not win again until 1962. That was the first of three in a row! We were coached by a man in a funny hat named Punch Imlach.” I could hear the excitement building in his voice. “Our captain wore number 10, George Armstrong. We had a big tall defenseman named Tim Horton. In goal was a man nicknamed “The China Wall”, but most people called him Johnny Bower. Bobby Baun broke his ankle, but still scored a goal to help win the 1964 Stanley Cup. Our top scorer was The Big M, his name is Frank Mahovlich. In 1961 he nearly scored 50 goals!”
“What else?” I asked, wanting to know all.
“What happened in 1967?” my brother had me hooked.
“In 1967 we won the Stanley Cup for the 11th time! It was the last time that the NHL would have only 6 teams. Canada turned 100 years old that year!”
“Wow. Tell me more”
“We played the Montreal Canadiens in the finals. Everyone thought our team was too old to win the Stanley Cup, but we proved them wrong. In the final game, with Montreal’s net empty. Punch Imlach put all of our old players on the ice. We won the faceoff. We passed the puck to captain George Armstrong, and he shot it into the empty net. The crowd went crazy! When the final bell rang the Cup was presented to the Maple Leafs at centre ice.”
“Wow, I want to be a Toronto Maple Leaf!”
And I still do. Even today, as I sit here as an old man in front of the fire place and I watch the flames dance and crack. Even though the equipment may change, the jersey may change, and the players may change. What never changes is the blue and white maple leaf.
These days, I can sit down with my grandchildren and tell them about Conacher, Kennedy, Armstrong, Maple Leaf Gardens and the Stanley Cup but, I also get to tell them about Darryl Sittler’s 10 point game. About Rick Vaive who was the first 50 goal scorer the Leafs ever had! I tell them about Wendel Clark, who would deliver a crushing check at one end of the ice then come down and score at the other with one quickest shots you have ever seen. I get to tell them about Doug Gilmour who brought the passion for the Maple Leafs back to Toronto. And I get to tell them about the Maple Leafs’ new home, the Air Canada Centre. It’s the best arena in the league I tell them.
Now when someone asks me who my favourite team is, I can tell them without a second thought…
The Toronto Maple Leafs.