As most Toronto native will tell you, being a Maple Leafs fan has had its ups and downs since the last Stanley Cup was landed in 1967. Its been the last nine years that’s been the toughest for me since I started following the Leafs in 1983. Hockey had come to my attention, and I have family in Toronto, so it was a no brainer, the Leafs it was!
In days before the internet & TV coverage of the NHL in the UK, us UK Leafs fans were reliant on getting the daily scores that were tucked away in the scores section of the sports pages of our newspapers. You might get lucky and have the standings published, but otherwise it was a case of following the Leafs 2 day old scores. But, follow them I did. It did start to create a bond with the Leafs however. If I was lucky, the (very) occasional NHL game might appear on US Armed Forces Radio. I’d discovered AFRTS when I became interested in the NFL. My listening was dominated by the NFL, baseball & College football, until one magical night, when I tuned in just after midnight, it was the NHL! Not just the NHL, but it was the Bruins at the MAPLE LEAFS! Sadly, the wait to finally hear a Leafs game ended in disappointment, as the Leafs lost 7-2 at Maple Leaf Gardens. But, I wanted more!
With the advent of the internet (I didn’t get connected until 1997) it mean I could at last follow the Leafs a lot closer. Suddenly, the players’ name became familiar, I was getting up to date box scores, the current standings. Excitement indeed! But for some reason, it took a bit longer to make another amazing discovery. NHL via online radio! I had been on the NHL website on a Friday night when I spotted a link on the scoreboard page for audio. I clicked on it, and hey presto, I was listening to live NHL! Its an exciting game at the best of times, but getting it on radio? Fantastic! Of course, I clicked through the schedule, and the next night was sorted. It was Hockey Night in Canada. It was the Leafs!
The next few years were spent getting familiar with an improving Leafs squad. It was a period where we had Sundin, Roberts, Tucker, players who became legendary to me. The Leafs were regularly making the playoffs, coming agonisingly close at times to finally landing another cup. All these games took their toll at times. 7pm starts of course mean 12am over here. I’d even found myself tuning into other games awaiting the 3am starts when the Leafs were out in Vancouver. Generally, I at least made sure I caught the Saturday night game. Games against the Habs & Senators were special of course, but New Jersey were a big foe of the Leafs back them, and any win over them – or one down the QEW in Buffalo also went down well.
The Playoffs were always special though. The excitement of them takes some beating. Going head-to-head with the best teams in the league – superb. It was in the 2000-01 season that my relationship with the Leafs deepened. I went to Toronto on holiday the end of November/start of December. I’d get to see the Leafs on TV, and with a decent start time! The holiday got off to a great start. While waiting at Pearson Airport for my Mum’s flight from LA, I was watching the sports news…headlining in Toronto was the Leafs’ 6-1 win the night before in Montreal! I was here, and the Leafs were winning!
Needless to say, most nights were spent watching the Leafs. I’d been down to ACC to have a look round, and to visit the shop there – some Leaf wear was a must! But a day or so after arriving, I was talking Leafs with the concierge of the hotel we were staying at (Days Inn on Carlton Street, just a couple of doors down from Maple Leaf Gardens) and I asked if he could get a couple of tickets. He could! Oh, I was a shade excited! It was a matchup between the East’s top seeds (at the time) Toronto, and the West’s top seeds, St Louis. It started brilliantly, with Mats Sundin snapping a scoreless skid, and the Leafs leading 5-0 in the third. Then collapse. The Blues scored 5 times in the last 15 minutes to sent it to OT. Just 30 seconds into OT, the Blues won it. I was deflated, but it didn’t detract from the excitement of it all. I had a great time in Toronto, but it was back to listening to games online again!
2 years later, I met Jane, who lived in Basingstoke and had a season ticket to the hockey team there. Before we became a couple, I promised I’d take her to a Leafs game. Less than 12 months later, we were married and were on our way to Toronto for honeymoon – in February, right in the middle of the hockey season! Would you believe it – a couple of weeks before we went, I managed to land a couple of tickets for a game at ACC! We warmed up for it was watching the Leafs at Montreal on the Saturday night on TV (a 5-3 Leafs win) and were ready for it the next night. Sadly, the Leafs were flat after their win in Montreal, at lost to Nashville 4-1. But I’d delivered on my promise! We’d seen the Leafs!
Following the Leafs got easier with ESPN America broadcasting the NHL in the UK, which meant HNIC every Saturday night, which meant the Leafs. I lost touch with AM640 but I could SEE the Leafs! Saturdays meant no bed until 4am thanks to HNIC. It was tiring, but worth it to follow the Leafs. Sadly, ESPN America lost the broadcasting contact, so I went back to AM640, and now TSN1050 & 590 for my Leafs fix. The last few years have been tough for Leaf fans, but even tougher when you’re taking in hard losses at 3am!
This week has seen another chapter start with the Leafs and me. Playoff hockey for the first time in 9 years. Impossible not to stay up late (or is that early?) and follow the series vs the Bruins (where listening and watching the Leafs all began for me.) The series losses were tough, particularly game 4, but games 5 & the thrilling win in game 6 at ACC last night were worth it. Tonight, I just can’t miss game 7. I’m optimistic of course that the Leafs will pull it off recover from a 3-1 series deficit for the first time since the 1940s, and advance. They’re playing well right now, and there’s another Kessel related twist to come I hope.
For now though, even though I’m about 5,000 miles from Air Canada Centre, its GO LEAFS GO!