Remember ’67, The Dream Never Dies

It’s been 44 long years since the richest and best supported team in the NHL last won the Stanley Cup.  For millions of hacked off fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs professional hockey just does not seem fair.

But actually, it really is.  Too fair even, you might say.  The whole league is based around a set of rules designed to make the playing field as level as possible.  The NHL’s draft system ensures a fair distribution of quality players and prevents the big teams from consistently dominating at the expense of their less illustrious rivals.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the system of youth player selection in North American sports allow me a moment to explain with an example:

Let’s say that there is a highly talented 18-year old who wants nothing more than to play for his beloved Calgary Flames.   But he cannot simply be signed by Calgary, his playing rights need to be secured by them in an entry draft which occurs every summer for NHL teams.  If this 18-year old is the best available amateur prospect then unless the Flames hold the number one pick he is headed elsewhere.

There are five rounds where teams can select players, with the teams ordered in the draft based on where they finished in the standings the previous year.  The worst team out of 30 receives the top pick; the second worst receives the second pick and so on, with the best team receiving the last pick of the first round of the draft.

There are now subtle nuances involving draft lotteries and Stanley Cup winners to make it slightly more interesting but that is the basic premise.  Alongside the draft system there are also salary restrictions for every player and team which prevent the clubs with the most revenue streams from outmuscling their opponents financially.

I can see the merits of the system.  Especially coming from Scotland where two teams have hoovered up 95% of the support and money and won 40 out of the last 44 league championships.  To us, the idea of an even competition is a completely alien concept.

That said, there is something very peculiar about a situation where the richest and best supported team in the league is one of the worst teams, and has been bumbling around the lower reaches for quite a few years now.

In terms of fanbase the Toronto Maple Leafs are like the Manchester United of the hockey world.   They are also my first sporting love.   As a young boy growing up in southern Ontario I never had any say in becoming a Leafs fan.  The hysteria caused by the resurgent team of 1992-1993 that came within one goal of reaching the Stanley Cup final made it seem like hockey was the only thing that mattered.

The level of support generated in southern Ontario for the hard luck Buds is unmatched, and only historic rivals the Montreal Canadiens can claim to be anywhere near their level in terms of turnover.

Despite this, the Leafs currently hold the dubious honour of having the longest active cup drought, a distinction that was passed on last season when the Chicago Blackhawks clinched their first cup since 1961.  The Leafs last cup win came in 1967 when the league consisted of only six teams.  Since then they have been mostly dreadful, with only a handful of successful seasons to cling to and just one divisional triumph, in the 1999-2000 season.   Years of mismanagement and sheer bad luck have put the Leafs in this unenviable position.

There were a couple of good playoff runs in the late 90s and early 00s, but in recent times being a Leafs fan has been hard to stomach.  They have missed the playoffs for the last five years in a row, and the management’s penchant for signing ageing former greats on ludicrous contracts during the past decade has really come back to haunt them.

Trading away high draft picks (collected as a result of being so poor in the last five years) on a regular basis for puzzlingly bad 30-something players has been a regular feature of the last five years, but even despite all of this the Leafs still command an enormous and boisterous support at every single home game.

While living in Toronto in 2009 I was hoping that the Leafs would have a playoff year and I could relive some of the great times I remember as a kid watching them play nerve jangling playoff hockey.  Unfortunately, the team were terrible and it didn’t happen.

At least, I thought, that would make it easier to get tickets to see a game. But that was not the case either.  The Leafs have sold out every single home game since 2002 and tickets are still incredibly hard to obtain, despite the declining fortunes of the team.

Southern Ontario is a hockey mad place and deserving of a successful team.  A huge amount of great NHL players come from the region, and if in some alternate universe a rule was introduced whereby players could only play for their own home province or state then the cup would likely never fall out of the hands of Toronto or Montreal.  They would end up becoming the Canadian Old Firm, except much more polite.

Fast forward to the present season and we see a familiar story.  It was written off as yet another ‘rebuilding’ year as a mid-season slump dropped the Leafs out of playoff contention but an 8-2-2 run in February has moved the Leafs to within four points of a playoff spot and has fans starting to believe that after five years in the doldrums the young, new look team are on the brink of bringing good times back to Toronto.

Could this be our year at long last? Well, you never know.  For some reason, we all still believe.

Stuart Findlay

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2 comments so far

  1. Paul on

    Don’t forget that part of the motivation behind the draft was to correct for the ‘alternate universe’ scenario you outlined — Montreal, back in the day, would happily snap up every French-Canadian talent, and thus dominated the NHL for many years, which explains their record number of Stanley Cup victories.

  2. Stuart on

    Yeah that’s true, but when it was introduced the Leafs trailed the Canadiens in cup wins 12-11, so since then Montreal has won a further 12 to Toronto’s 2!

    Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want it to happen other than for purely selfish reasons leading to the Leafs winning a cup. If you look at the situation in Scottish football right now you’ll see that a level of domination like that is not healthy at all.


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