Dion Phaneuf was named Toronto's captain, the first since Mats Sundin left town. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Most years about this time, I find myself developing a soft spot for a team, one I quietly pull for, one typically cast in the underdog mould.
A while back it was beleaguered Buffalo, after the Sabres lost Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. Chicago became attractive as it showed signs of emerging from a black hole. Montreal felt like a Cinderella story waiting to happen in its centennial anniversary season. And the Flyers helped me win a playoff pool, so I owed them some allegiance.
This year? Turns out I’m headed back to my roots as the hometown Maple Leafs are drawing me in.
This isn’t because I think they’re poised for greatness. Rather, it’s time. Gawd, it has to be time, doesn’t it? Time for them to do something, even if it’s just qualifying for the playoffs. Toronto needs it.
The Leafs haven’t participated in the post-season since 2004, haven’t won or appeared in a Stanley Cup final since 1967. That’s not breaking news. It’s just breaking hearts in hockey’s most fervent fan base. The masses have suffered enough.
It’s not as if Toronto sports enthusiasts can take refuge in another of the home teams. They all bite to varying degrees. No playoffs for the Blue Jays since they last won the World Series in 1993. One playoff round victory in 15 years of existence for the Raptors. Toronto FC has never qualified for the MLS post-season in four tries. The Argos? Does it really matter how you do in an eight-team league?
A return to respectability for the Maple Leafs would not only be good for its fans, but its rivals and the league in general. It’s hard to hate abject failure and you can only take comfort in someone else’s pain for so long. Even the most ardent Schadenfreude revellers must be getting bored with the Leafs troubles by now.
As for the NHL, a vibrant Leafs team grows the bottom line, the way the Yankees and Red Sox do in baseball.
Of course, the Leafs’ task this season of breaking into the top eight won’t be easy, even in the wide-open East. Their defense is deep on paper, but needs to find consistent poise on the ice. Goaltending could be a strength, or weakness, depending on which version of Jean-Sebastien Giguere appears. There’s a decent amount of skill and grit on the wings, but center ice is a throbbing Achilles.
That’s a large part of the reason we picked the Leafs to finish 12th in The Hockey News Yearbook. Clearly, part of me hopes we’re wrong this time.
Sticking with Toronto, there’s a spirited municipal election campaign nearing its climax, but the people remain unclear on how the leading candidates stand on a vital issue: road hockey.
Kidding aside, the street version of our favorite sport is technically illegal to play in Canada’s largest city. While there are no reports of anyone ever being ticketed for playing road hockey in Toronto, law-breakers are vulnerable to a $55 fine.
Former THN graphic designer Matt Blackett, now the publisher and designer of the respected urban magazine Spacing, has been lobbying to get the bylaw struck down and reports some success. He has been working with the City of Toronto transportation staff to decriminalize the pastime, as there are already enough laws on the books to deal with issues stemming from road hockey, such as trespassing, vandalism, excessive noise, etc.
This practical approach is a meaningful one and resonated more with me last week when I had the opportunity to participate in a charity event called “Road Hockey to Conquer Cancer.” I was reintroduced to the joys of the road game in a media vs. celebrity matchup, probably my first road hockey tilt in about 20 years.
At the event, speakers such as TSN’s Pierre McGuire, former NHL standout goalie Curtis Joseph and legendary coach Scotty Bowman, along with highly respected cancer physicians, spoke passionately about their childhood love affairs with road hockey. It’s a shared experience for all us puckheads, and an important one.
The initiative will see a marathon dawn-to-dusk road hockey tournament staged in October 2011 to help raise money for cancer research.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly.
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