Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Habs Fan's Leafs Appreciation Confession

( Robert L Note: I figure the above title is attention grabbing in a sense, but misleading in another, however don't expect this lifelong Canadiens supporter to profess a Leafs Love with what you are about to read. I just thought I'd clear that up right away.)

I appreciate the Toronto Maple Leafs as worthy Montreal Canadiens rivals.

I became a Canadiens fan just prior to the dawn of the 1970's when the NHL was about to become a 14 team league. Reared on Habs lore, myth, and legend by my father via dozens of great tales, I grew up anticipating seeing great battles with the Leafs in my time.

Sadly, such battles never materialized. Since then, such battles have restricted themselves to regular season contests for the most part. There have been only two playoff meetings in my lifetime after I was five years old, when the Leafs last met and defeated the Canadiens in Canada's centennial year of 1967. Both playoff meetings, during the Habs dominating dynasty years of the 1970's, were absent of any drama as the Habs were just too strong for not only the Buds, but for the entirety of the NHL at the time.

Since then, I have been waiting and waiting and waiting for them to meet in the playoffs again, just for the thrill of the experience.

It came within a game of happening in 1993, and I recall being of the opinion then, that it didn't matter which opponant the Habs in waiting would face in the final, be it the long time rival Maple Leafs or the Wayne Gretzky led Los Angeles Kings, I could not lose in wishing for a passionate final.

As we all remember, the Habs on a mission, disposed of those 1993 Kings in a swift five game final to claim their twenty fourth Stanley Cup. In hindsight, I often wish the Leafs would have made it then, as it turned out to be the last time the Canadiens and Maple Leafs could have met under such circumstances, in a Stanley Cup final.

In the mid 1990's, former Habs goaltender turned Leafs president Ken Dryden, convinced the NHL to move the Leafs into a more geographically suitable division, where they can now battle the Habs for a place in the standings through 8 regular season meetings.

Dryden's successful proposal was both a good and bad thing, as it increased the chances of both teams meeting in a playoff round, while eliminating the possibility that they can meet in a battle for Lord Stanley's mug.

Admittedly, since that realignment, neither team has shown the goods to get to the final. It is now a further farfetched notion that either team could have their act together coincidently in the same season, to even make such a scenario possible. The best both teams could achieve would be a meeting in a conference final, which isn't quite the same for older fans.

Put me down as one fan who disagrees with conference based playoffs, as it eliminates so many great rivalry possibilities and the Habs and Leafs chances of meeting each other to play for the Cup. It wipes out not only their prospective meeting for all the marbles, but it has in the past deprived hockey fans of seeing the Red Wings and Avalanche, for but one example, beat each other down for the right to inscribe their names on the Holy Grail of hockey silverware.

All hockey fans lose with this narrow setup.

Getting back to present reality with the Leafs and Habs, no one team has quite dominated the other in the last ten years, and that is probably the way it should be, because what is the sense of a one sided rivarly?

There is always a great anticipation of drama in even the most inconsequencial of matchups between Toronto and Montreal.

Two seasons ago, the Canadiens virtually knocked the Leafs out of the playoffs, with back to back trashings too late in the season for the Leafs to recover. Last season, the Leafs returned the favor in what could be billed as the strangest game ever played.

As of this writing, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs seem to be heading in opposite directions. The Leafs are a club mired in identity and discipline crisises while the Habs stand third overall in the NHL (albeit fourth in their conference due to divisional leader seedings), with only Ottawa and Detroit having more points.

Plainly stated, the Habs are exceeding most expectations while the Leafs are likely still trying to figure out their Jekyl and Hyde natured team.

Over the past few seasons, the Habs have sturdied their lineup by drafting smartly and grooming their prospects patiently while awaiting results. The plan seems to be paying off.

In Toronto, there is no such plan in place, as the salary capped out Leafs must battle with the production from high priced free agents that have so far failed to make the team appear as the contenders their GM John Ferguson pertains them to be. The youth waiting in the wings of the Leafs organization is nothing to speak of.

With all history considered, recent and bygone, this is where both organizations stand in regards to each other right now.

Appropriately, it also brings me to my present Habs fan relationship with the Maple Leafs, and it is a contradictory one.

When I look at standings and see that Toronto, as well as our Habs are both in the playoff picture, I envision (salivate is too strong a word) that a playoff meeting is in the cards.
When I check scoreboard finals involving the Leafs, one part of me shudders, another cheers, when they win.

The same thing, oddly, happens when they lose.

I could never quite explain this odd sensation, and it took a quote from Ken Dryden, upon his jersey number retirement at the Bell Centre last season, to give me some perspective into the paradox of how I felt.

Dryden, when asked about differences between the Canadiens and Leafs in theory, explained that from his perspective, both teams resembled each other more than each team's fans would care to admit. He did mention that the fans of both were virtually identical in passion. He did not theorize beyond that, unfortunately.

I'd be lying if I didn't agree.

The former Habs goalie never did delve into the french - english, or Ontario - Quebec dynamic of the question, but rather settled his opinion on the fact that both teams had histories, up to a point, that greatly compared to each other.

I imagine that point to be 1967.

For myself, that meant trying to percieve the Habs in a 40 year Stanley Cup drought, trying to find their way home.

It quickly put me in a Maple Leafs fan's shoes.

It helped me to recognize just what it is that I like, and don't like, about the Maple Leafs, fans notwithstanding.

For starters, the Leafs bring the same passion to big games as do our Habs. While that dedication tends to swing and sway throughout a season's course, it revives whenever they meet the Canadiens - making for many memorable games.

I like the odd Leafs player, when imagining them in a Habs jersey.

Mats Sundin would surely be a better Canadien than a Maple Leaf, purely on a historical perogative. With Mats reminded of Stanley Cups at every turn, how could he not be more primed than he is in a city that tolerates his nights off.

Tomas Kaberle is in many ways an equal talent package to Andrei Markov. While he may be surrounded by less than stellar cohorts on the Toronto defense, he has often shown himself to be a big game player, especially against us.

Both Darcy Tucker and Chad Kilger are former Habs that I wish had never left. If Tucker could focus more on the final score, minus his sideshow antics, he'd be a welcome Habs player once more. Habs fans tend to hate him for his behavioral extremities, but like Claude Lemieux once upon a time, when he reels in his idiocies and sticks to hockey, he can become quite the gamebreaker.

Kilger, with his size and skating, can also make a difference. During the Habs identity crisis years in the early 2000's, Kilger was an all too brief breath of fresh air. After injuries took him off the Habs roster, he alternated between flashes of greatness and ghostlike disappearance. He's a Maple Leaf now because of those inconsistancies. I'm biased, though, in Kilger's case, he's from my hometown, and remains a very likeable off ice fellow.

Beyond these four, no Leafs player truly makes me jealous or envyous.

In recognition of historical matters, I was very interested last season when the Leafs chose to finally honour the 1967 team with a ceremony noting the landmark Cup win. In consequence, I was extremely put off when the Leafs organization failed to include the Stanley Cup in the evenings dealings.

It made ridicule even simpler.

I have many friends and aquaintences that are Leafs die hards, and I can rarely get them to speak of their individual and personal pains in regards to the Leafs perenial hopelessness. While they are quick as lightening to slander Montreal in every way, they are often at a loss to explain exactly why, or where the Leafs seem headed.

Me being who I am to them, I'd guess that they do not want to enter such a discussion. They have an almost scripted venom for Senators fans, but little to put forth to me in terms of prolonged arguments or queries.

It's not really the way it should be in a spirited rivalry.

Perhaps it is just the void in my father's reminiscing that makes me long for certain special meetings between the two teams. I do not know any other way to explain my longing that secretly makes me quietly cheer for Leaf success on par with that of the Habs.

One thing is for certain though, when it comes to the Leafs against the Habs, I will enjoy hating them as I relish in mocking them for the better part of the next twenty four hours.

Beyond this regular season's end, I'll likely be mad at the Leafs once more for spoiling what could have been one hell of a party.

But I've gotten use to it, and that's just plain sad.


PPP said...

It's always interesting to read your take on the Leafs coloured though it may be by not actually living in Toronto.

Kaberle is Markov's superior is every way except hitting.

When have Sundin's off-nights or any player's in Toronto been acceptable?

As for the Habs and Leafs' respective approaches to building a team I would say that despite your belief that the Leafs haven't been blooding a lot of youth both teams have actually been very close in how the team is built. Where do you think that Kaberle, Steen, Stajan, White, Colaiacovo, Antropov, Ponikarovsky, and Wellwood came from? Not to mention Tlusty, Kulemin, and Pogge waiting in the wings.

For every high-priced free agent that the Leafs have signed the Habs have signed as high-priced a free-agent as they have been able to afford/attract.

As for one team not dominating over the past decade since January 1, 2001 (the new millennium) the Leafs have 18 wins, 8 losses, 4 ties, and 4 OT/SOL. That means that they have picked up over 64% of the available points. Seems pretty dominating.

And I don't think that you could argue other than that the Leafs have been the better team by far since Patrick Roy's last Stanley Cup win. Maybe Leaf fans should pity poor Hab fans that still think that Montreal is an important franchise/successful/a destination for players.

It should be another great game tonight and like you I would kill for some Leafs-Habs playoffs series. As for the start of the season, sure the Habs are doing well but I remember that they were doing well last year too. How'd that play out? ;)

RetroMikey said...

Excellent perspective on the rivlary between the 2 teams although I have always haed the Leafs because of the fans in general and not really the players who don the uniforms. Funny, I believe Leafs fans in general hate us fans and the Habs players equally. We are starting to see Bob's team starting to shine and we will be playing competitive hocky in the new NHL. Sadly, Toronto has a long way to go before they can become a contender. Thank the bigwigs who run their team and do not listen to their fans. Very sad to be a Leafs fan.

PPP said...

The funny thing about the Habs-Leafs rivalry is that I feel that the hate (from my part at least) is more on the message board fans than any Habs fan I actually know.

Toronto does have a long way to go to being a contender but um so does Montreal ;)

Robert L said...

PPP - "It's always interesting to read your take on the Leafs coloured though it may be by not actually living in Toronto."

I could say the same!

"Kaberle is Markov's superior is every way except hitting."

Kaberle can't be hitting much, as it a big part of markov's game either. I'll say it again, they are pretty much even and are very similar players in style.

"When have Sundin's off-nights or any player's in Toronto been acceptable?"

Sundin since the mid 1990's, everyone else since 1967!

"Both teams have actually been very close in how the team is built."

Hamilton Bulldogs won the Calder Cup last season.

"The Leafs have been the better team by far since Patrick Roy's last Stanley Cup win."

Yes, they have been, whether you are talking about 1993 or 2001. Still, the Leafs have no Cups to show for it.

My points are much more about current regimes. We could go even farther back if you wish....

"Leaf fans should pity poor Hab fans that still think that Montreal is an important franchise/successful/a destination for players."

No team that misses the playoffs become a prefered destination, as both the Leafs and Habs experienced this past summer. Having said that, there isn't a hockey fan in Montreal worth his salt that isn't thrilled with snapping up Hamrlik.

Aside from a dreadful six weeks last season, the Habs showed a lot of growth and potential.

The Leafs....hmmm.... do you really think that much of them?
I'm glad you like your team!

The hate thing/message board stuff is just juvenile. It's the eye to eye fun that gets me fulfilled.

GTC said...

Expertly written as usual Robert. I too began watching the Canadiens a tad too late for Jean Beliveau and the leaf rivalry. The closest that I recall was in 1979 when they met in the quarter finals.

I remember at the time not thinking much of it since the loafs weren't in the same class as the Canadiens. (The more things change the more they stay the same) Indeed it wasn't a memorable series as the Habs easily swept the pathetic maple logs, the real excitement that year was in the semis with the Bruins, but I digress.

As for your ongoing back and forth with pp, he seems to have that same dellusional sense of pride in his team that most laff fans have, hey you can't blame them, they have their own network that continuously extolls the virtue of their sad franchise, no matter how bad they actually are. Only a maple duds fan can deny that these teams are going in opposite directions, the blue and white clowns have mortgaged their future for a bunch of swamp land, while the Canadiens are flush with young talent and steadily improving.

As a final point, yes these teams have been pretty close competetively since the last time we won a cup, but Habs fans realize that this won't last much longer, the Canadiens are coming out of the darkest time in the history of the club, while all indications are that the loafs are entering yet another one of theirs.


Ali Berke said...

These are pretty much my toughts and feelings towards the leafs.

Thanks for a fine article. Keep up the good work.

Ali Berke

PPP said...

Robert, you could definitely say the same ;)

But come on, you can't seriously think that either the media or the fans accept the losing. They don't stop going to games but to think that they don't offer as much criticism (at least) than Habs fans and the Montreal media is laughable.

By your logic Koivu's off-nights have been acceptable for the past 8 years and the Habs for the past 14 years (and counting).

Hamilton won the Calder last year? Big deal.

The Philadelphia Phantoms won it in 2005 and 1998. Where the Stanley Cups that those are supposed to portend?

I am also glad that you think so much of your team. We wouldn't be fans if we didn't shade towards our own team when things are close.

GTC - Yeah, I remember all of those articles in The Star/Sun/G&M extolling the virtues of the Leafs. I am guessing that you are being sarcastic.

Good game so far ;)

Robert L said...

LOL - We have fun, don't we?