Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner, left, and Luke Schenn, right, take out Montreal Canadiens forward Erike Cole, centre, during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
MONTREAL - In this sports tale of two cities, there are no best of times.
It's been only the worst of times lately for the teams in Canada's two biggest cities. Now, after a winter of despair on the ice rink, this weekend offered ample reminder that in Montreal and Toronto, this is hardly a spring of hope.
Teams from those two cities squared off in a pair of games Saturday—first, in a Major League Soccer matchup and, later in the day, a meaningless Habs-Leafs contest that finally ended a season of darkness for both hockey clubs.
The teams involved in these games had something in common: they're all bottom-feeders.
All four franchises were hoping to climb away from their respective league and conference basements—although the hockey teams, at this point, probably had more incentive to lose because it might produce a better draft pick.
Montreal swept the matches, as the Impact beat TFC 2-1 and the Habs downed the Leafs 4-1.
For Habs fans, this mercifully marks the end of what could be the franchise's worst finish since the start of the Second World War.
With the Canadiens finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference, Montreal fans have had little to cheer about this year, aside from seeing their team possibly inherit its best draft position in a generation.
For Leafs fans, regrettably, this was just another hockey season.
They've suffered through numerous dismal finishes since 1967—the last time Toronto won a Stanley Cup, which occurred just a few weeks before the Beatles released their Sgt. Pepper album.
This season offered no mercy, with the Leafs finishing barely ahead of the Canadiens. Toronto missed the playoffs for the seventh year in a row.
Heading into the season, expectations for both clubs were high and NHL schedule-makers probably hoped the final-weekend tilt would be a critical battle between old rivals jockeying for playoff position.
Oh, how the once-mighty have fallen.
"That makes you sad," legendary NHL sportscaster Dick Irvin said when asked about the historic franchises ending the season with a meaningless game.
"My father coached both teams at one time in his life and it's very strange how the two franchises have fallen on evil times."
The two also-rans split the season series 3-3.
While there was little on the line for the Leafs and Habs, Saturday's soccer match between two winless MLS sides was a key showdown to avoid the league cellar so early in the season. The Montreal Impact scored a goal in each half for their first ever victory in the MLS.
To be fair, the Impact are an expansion team just six games into their inaugural MLS season. The five-year-old Toronto FC, which sits in last place, doesn't have the benefit of such an excuse.
There was also significant interest in the game because it was the first regular-season match between the teams since the Impact joined the MLS.
Despite the poor results from both teams, more than 1,000 soccer fans made the trip to Montreal's Olympic Stadium from Hogtown.
A leader for one of Toronto FC's supporter groups had predicted a good match between the new rivals—even though he doesn't think either team has a realistic chance of making the playoffs.
It's also about bragging rights between competitive towns.
"Now that we're out of the (CONCACAF) Champions League, this is going to be the biggest game for us (for) the rest of the season," said Sean Gallagher, a member of The North End Elite before attending Saturday's game.
"Whether we're playing for something or playing for nothing, playing against Montreal is a huge game for us."
He said the Leafs and Habs should consider an approach sometimes used in soccer to foster rivalries, regardless of how poorly the teams rank in a given season.
If they can't win a Stanley Cup, why not make another trophy?
"I would set this up as actually a regular championship—have a trophy made, make this a big deal annually until both teams can leave their slumps," Gallagher said of the Leafs-Habs regular-season finales.
Saturday's game was the fourth time in five years the teams met in the last game of the regular season.
Those who participated in the franchises' glory days would love to see the old competitive spirit revived.
NHL Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich, who won six Stanley Cups with the Leafs and Canadiens, recalls the intense wars between the teams in the 1950s and '60s as "electrifying."
At one point, in the mid-to-late 1960s, one of those teams won the Cup eight straight times.
But today Mahovlich hardly watches either club, in part because they have lacked star power for so long. He prefers to follow players like Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby.
"Gosh, it's a shame," Mahovlich, who has sat in the Senate since 1998, said of the demise of both the Habs and the Leafs.
Mahovlich, also known as "The Big M," was a member of that '67 Leafs team—the last to bring the Cup to Toronto. Fans in other cities have long mocked the Leafs with chants of "'67, '67" to remind them of their championship failures.
But supporters of the Canadiens, who haven't won a Cup since 1993, aren't in much of a position to mock anyone after this year.
The team had one of its worst won-loss records in decades. And the bottom-feeder status in the Eastern Conference is arguably the team's worst finish since 1939-40, when the Habs won just 10 of 48 games and were last in the then-seven-team NHL.
The next season Dick Irvin Sr., who had just led the Leafs to the Cup finals, took over as head coach in Montreal.
"He played a big part in the turnaround; four years later they won the Stanley Cup," Dick Irvin Jr., 80, said of his father, whose teams were led by, among other stars, a high-scoring winger named Maurice (The Rocket) Richard.
Irvin Jr. had an optimistic outlook, all things considered, before Saturday's game.
"So, here they are, two teams playing out the string—it might be the best game of the year, you never know," he said.
In that spirit of optimism, dreams of triumph will persist with the Toronto Blue Jays, who still have a chance to reclaim some glory for Canada's cosmopolitan punching bags.
The Jays' 162-game season is just underway.
And for Major League Baseball fans, every April carries its own spring of hope.
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