Updated: Jan 16, 2021
By Mike Toth
To be a Leafs fan, or not to be a Leafs fan?
That is the (Canadian) question.
It actually makes a lot of sense, since the Toronto Maple Leafs have long resembled a Shakespearean tragedy.
Crazy old Harold Ballard, a 53-year Stanley Cup drought, getting beat by a Zamboni driver - pick the poison and, just like Romeo and Juliet, there's a good chance the Leafs have gulped it down.
So where does the love come from in my personal love/hate relationship with the blue and white?
Growing up on the ice-cold prairies, "Hockey Night in Canada" was a Saturday night staple, as the entire country came to a standstill when the puck dropped. Unlike the modern media world, however, which offers instant access to any game you want, the Leafs and Montreal Canadians were the only attractions on Saturday night.
The Habs, with their run of four straight Cups in the 70's, were too easy to cheer for.
What was the fun in watching Guy Lafleur and company lay a licking on another hapless opponent?
The Leafs, on the other hand, needed all the help they could get. Following their last Cup victory in 1967, the Leafs suffered through some pretty lean years. You know you're in trouble, for instance, when your biggest star in the early-70's was a young defenseman named Billy Duke.
The only problem?
Duke was a fictional character from a 1971 movie starring veteran Canadian actor Art Hindle, with real-life Leafs blueliner Jim McKenny handling the on-ice scenes. McKenny was actually a pretty good player, but he was no Billy Duke.
In the late-70's, however, the Leafs finally managed to put together a competitive team. They still couldn't beat Montreal, but with a brainy young coach in Roger Neilson, acrobatic goaltending from Mike Palmateer and the ascension of Borje Salming, Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald, the Leafs suddenly became must-see Saturday night TV.
The biggest Leafs triumph from those "glory days" before Ballard messed everything up?
McDonald scoring an epic overtime goal in game seven of a 1978 play-off series to knock off the New York Islanders - a goal that I watched on a battered old TV sitting in the corner of our small town's community hall during the yearly minor hockey banquet. I was a 15-year old goalie back then, but I can't remember if I took home any trophies from that long ago banquet. The roar from the community hall crowd when Lanny scored, however, has stayed with me forever.
Years later, my sports broadcasting career took me to Toronto and, unfortunately, that's where my love for the Leafs began to fade.
Forced to report on the WaffleGate and SaluteGate travesties (Google these beauties if you're not familiar with the sordid tales) and documenting terrible trades that cost Toronto the likes of Tuukka Rask and Tyler Seguin, it soon became clear the Leafs were once again the laughingstock of the hockey world. It wasn't a lot of fun covering those awful Brian Burke-Phil Kessel-Dion Phaneuf Leafs squads in the 2010's. For me, the breaking point came when I got into an argument with Phaneuf, the Leafs captain, in the team's dressing room as I interviewed him after practice.
"You can't be doing that," yelled the Leafs media relations director as he came rushing over. "We can take away your media pass, you know."
"Go ahead," I replied. "Who wants to watch your lousy team anyway? I'd rather watch my kids play."
That was true.
However, it's not the brightest idea to insult one of the most historic sports franchises on the planet - and to do it inside the hallowed ground of their own dressing room.
I'd seen more than enough Leafs games through the media lens over the years. In 2015, I was one of the victims of the Bell Media lay-offs and it was somebody else's job to occupy my press box seat as the Leafs continued to stink.
Fortunately, however, the Leafs got lucky in 2016, winning the NHL draft lottery and landing Auston Matthews, the heir apparent to Alex Oveckin and all of his red lights and Rocket Richard trophies. True, Matthews and the Leafs other young guns (Marner, Nylander, Rielly, etc.) haven't solved their play-off problems yet, but they're definitely entertaining to watch on the tube from the cozy confines of the family room in our Toronto home.
In short, it's like the late-70's all over as my love/hate relationship with the Leafs has started to lean more towards the "love" part again. I even picked five Leafs in the family hockey pool that I cooked up with my wife and two sons - another way of entertaining ourselves during the lousy pandemic.
And if the Leafs finally get it together and actually win a play-off series?
Our family room will produce the same kind of roar that occurred inside a small community hall on the prairies when Lanny scored his big goal back in '78.