The night Toronto turned a new Leaf

Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS

The next time we do a historical look back on the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s very likely that we’ll look back on Saturday night, it wouldn’t be a surprise to have it up there as one of the, if not the most important night for this team in a very, very long time. What happened off the ice was just as important as what happened what happened on it. Combine the two, and you have what could be a turning point moment for the franchise. 

Out With The Old, In With The New

As you probably already know if you read this blog often, I’m not a fan of retiring jersey numbers. I feel that it’s a greater show of respect to the players involved if someone from a new generation wears the same number, extending its history. This applies especially to an organization like the Leafs, where a lot of numbers have multiple legends attached to them.

The Leafs went against my mindset on that one last night, retiring every single number that had previously been honoured, along with lifting Dave Keon’s #14 to the top of the building. Now, I still don’t agree with the decision, but there’s a train of thought that can be taken to justify it.

The reality of the fact is, even without officially retiring the numbers, there was still a stigma towards wearing some of them. Nobody, be it for their own wishes or for the teams, dared throw 13, 17, or 93 on their backs after Sundin, Clark, or Gilmour left. Players who wanted to wear 28 felt uncomfortable with dishonouring Tie Domi, which is still just about the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. But it was the reality that the team’s reverence from above and in the stands created. 

As a result, there wasn’t a true open season, so with that in mind, it was silly to pretend that there was. There was no point in half-assing it; put your foot down and pick a side. The Leafs may not have picked my preferred side, but I can respect the fact they got around to following through in some way.

There’s also a future-thought to be had here. While most look at this as an acknowledgement of history, the fact that the retirements came en masse makes this a distinct drawing of the lines. In an individual scenario, letting a new kid wear the number feels like the best way to signal a new generation, but that many players being immortalized at once gives a different vibe. One where the team says “these are the Leafs of old, remember them, but what’s left is your story to create”.

Last night, the Leafs effectively decided which pages in the Leafs history book have been written sufficiently, and which ones are being ripped up to be started again. Let’s see who fills the chapters.

Thinking of the Children

Beyond the news, though, there was a distinctly different tone to the presentation efforts last night. Most obviously, the new logos and new jerseys graced the Air Canada Centre for meaningful hockey’s sake for the first time; both being having a lot of acknowledgment of the past in them, but a lot of subtle changes to make them distinctly new.

But it was more than that. The graphics were grittier, the music was from this decade, the game operations crew from the PA’s to the Host’s and everything in between were different. Deadmau5 drove in the back of a pickup truck debuting a “new” track (he actually came back and finished an old demo). All of this sounds so new and un-Leafy, and obviously, some aren’t fans.


Not to throw one Reddit user under the bus, of course, but they summed up much of the blowback well. An eloquent putting of complete and utter disagreement, if you will. Make no mistake, there’s a lot of the same being said by the more die-hard parts of the fanbase, and I’m sure ti will continue for a while.

The issue, of course, is that this isn’t about you. If you’re someone who has gone to a bunch of games every year, watches every game on TV, reads all the blogs, listens to every interview, and has at least ten pieces of Leafs merch in your house right now, the team isn’t listening to you. And that’s the right call.

I’m 24 years old, which makes me about as young as you can get while still being roped in by nostalgia. I have vague memories of my dad yelling at the early 90’s team, and the Quinn era came around just as I was starting to grasp the workings of hockey. I remember 99, I remember the Battle of Ontario, I remember 2002. I grew up idolizing Doug Gilmour and the Sundin Era is a mostly completed image in my mind. Excitement for the Leafs was something that crossed through the early stages of my life, so as the team began to fall into the abyss, it wasn’t going to turn me away. For those even older, who had adult memories of those runs but also survived the 80s, the ups and downs of the 70’s, or even maybe remembers the team winning the cup, you will never have to sell them on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But If you have some of that, what do you have?

If you’re 20 or younger in this city, you likely don’t have vivid memories of the Leafs being good. To an entire generation of Torontonians, the Leafs are a bunch of awful seasons and Game 7. Forget cups, this is the longest that the fanbase hasn’t had any real glimmer of hope, even temporary, in their history. The rest of the league countered with young superstars and new powerhouses, and unlike the years of having to reply on TSN the next morning, this generation has YouTube, live streaming, and social media to really let them become a fan of whoever they want, wherever they want.

You’re more likely to find Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews on a kid’s back in Toronto than Nazem Kadri or Morgan Rielly. Their Reebok curved brim cap might have the Capitals or the Kings. That entire generation is one that’s lost and one that has to be re-earned. To do that, you have to be comprehensive.

You have to win, of course, and you have to build a roster of enjoyable players. That’s how you get them in, but to keep them, they need to feel a part of the team, and a part of the culture. The Raptors and the Blue Jays are great examples of doing this properly; they tied their come-up in with the “us against the world” momentum that Toronto was building through its music and pop culture movements earlier in their decade (the post-Drake shift, if you will), and shifted the presentation. They updated most of the music, they upped the ante on their advertising, and they while they didn’t directly encourage their players to be boisterous, they left a little more rope for them to be themselves. It made the teams feel fresh and new and let potential new fans feel like they were part of a new Day 1, representing a movement as much as they were a team. 

It might take the Leafs a few weeks to get a few little things right; the volumes, the PA announcer’s inflection on certain words, etc. But it’s clear they’re going in a fresh, modern direction here geared at creating a new generation, rather than appeasing a current one that will forget about what they don’t like the second the pucks start going in.

No Place Like Home

Right, there was a hockey game too. It was a big two points for the Leafs, who probably actually want to pick up points this year, and it was once again quickly obvious that in close game situations, this team is quick and talented enough to leave a lot of teams chasing them around the ice. But there was something more to it than that.

I’m not a big fan of the whole “you need Good Canadian Boys” thing that Don Cherry and pals do. I think the best way to win a hockey game is to have the best players on the ice playing the most logical system for them. Passports don’t make you win, being good does.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not nice to see a hometown player succeed, and on a night like last night, it was something else to see Connor Brown score the first goal and something more to see Mitch Marner get his first of his career in the rink he grew up wanting to play in. Plus, you know, just generally dominate.

To get a win on a night like tonight, where local hockey history was celebrated and further influenced by those who witnessed it, that’s pretty great. From this point on, I just want the pucks to go in, but that part of it couldn’t have gone much better. 

The Burning of Ghosts

Put together this night felt like like an exorcism as much as an honouring. 

The number retirements were the last brick left in the bridge-mending with Dave Keon as much as they were a tribute to the past and a line-drawing for the future.

The new look and feel were an erasing of the last elements of the Harold Ballard era as much as they were a the base layer of giving Toronto’s youth a new team. 

The big nights for Brown and Marner were just the tip of the iceberg on another great effort by one of the youngest ever rendition of the Leafs with some of the highest upside we’ve ever seen from them. A reminder that the days of gunning for has-beens are done and that the Leafs’ new roster direction is to get ahead of the curve and find the will-be’s.

Even the end result was a middle finger to the past; when your only shred of success in the prior era ended in a catastrophic, mockery-inducing loss, taking a 4-1 lead to the Boston Bruins in the third period and holding it to the letter with a mostly-refreshed group that retains only the cream of the crop from that night in Boston is refreshing.

There are still eighty games to go in this season, and an indefinite amount of years to go in this franchise. But last night, the Leafs found a way to tastefully celebrate a century while simultaneously throwing it away and starting a new era.

  • DukesRocks

    I’ve been a Leaf fan since the mid 70’s. I’ve seen it all from Sittler and Salming to now Mathews and Marner. In all this time I would say the Leafs had the worst management group in all Toronto Professional Sports. It was a breath of fresh air when Shanahan walked into town and took charge of the Leafs. During this time frame, as a Leaf fan, I’m proud of the job he has done with the brain trust in management and the product on the ice. Shanahan’s goal to bring the Leafs back from the depths of obscurity to relevance has invigorated the city. As a 50 year old, for the first time I think anything is possible with the Leafs… Thank You Mr. Shanahan.

    I love that Shanahan has brought the Leaf’s brand back to its rightful place in this centennial year. I love that we honour the top 100 players and Legends Row. But, I feel Shanahan is missing the boat on one player. There has been only “ONE” player from the 80’s until now that has owned this city. From the time we drafted him 1st overall in 1985 to when we traded him in 1994 for Sundin, he was the heartbeat, the pulse and the breath of this city. No player even comes close to how revered by the fans he was and is today. No player, not Sundin, Gilmour or Domi struck the fear of god into the opponents when he stepped on the ice. No player gave so much of himself to this city, so much so he cut his career short due to injuries. In my era, there is no doubt, the greatest Leaf to dawn the Blue & White will always be Wendel Clark. If I had to choose one word to describe Clark, that would be “LEGEND”. Mr. Shanahan put him where he belongs.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      Great comment as usual. I will only add that I think Wendel played the game like most of us fans would have played if we had the talent and skill; Jacques Demers once said “He was annoyed at his players just before every game they played against the Leafs” As soon as the lineup was posted they all jumped up to see if Wendel was dressed.

      • DukesRocks

        .I figured you’d be one of the guys old enough to remember what Clark meant to us fans and our city. I reviewed the top 100 and saw Clark was somewhere around 15th. This kind of shocked me considering how big of a celebrity he was during that time. Then I notice he wasn’t on Legends Row as well. I was wondering if recognition of the honour had more do to with points and winning the cup. Sittler, Salming and Sundin never won the cup, so it must be a points thing. But like you said, if I had the skill, I would want to play like Clark. He did it all, scored, hit and boy could he fight. Since I’ve followed the Leafs, Clark stood alone in the hearts and minds of Leaf fans. In my opinion it’s an injustice to have him ranked 15th and an even greater injustice to not have him on Legends Row.

        Lol… Jacques Demers, I never knew that

        • Harte of a Lion

          Late to the party as usual. I love re-reading some of these old articles and I’ll say it again. This is Jeff’s best work to date,
          DukesRocks, have a little more patience and you will see Wendel added to Legends Row. Shanny realizes his importance however you can’t add everyone at once and the feeling within management was that the most important thing to achieve for the 100th season was to mend fences with Dave Keon. As someone closing in on 60, I remember the cup, I remember how Ballard couldn’t stand being shown up by his stars and decided to gut the team for ego’s sake. I remember the desolation of Smaug otherwise known as the 80’s. I remember when Ballard dies and was torn between mourning and dancing on his grave. I remember the 90’s when Cliff Fletcher, while still a force in the NHL management club brought in via trade a small skilled forward with a motor that never stopped and nearly ended the cup drought single handedly. I remember Pat Burns and how I laughed at the Habs for their stupidity at letting him go. I remember Ken Dryden and not laughing any more. I remember Pat Quinn and the luck of the Irish. I remember JFJ and his brilliance at drafting even if it failed to translate into success on ice. (JFJ drafted more NHL players who played over 200 NHL games in one draft, 2006 (6) than Brian Burke did in 5 years (2). I remember Cliff Fletcher revisited trading Alexander Steen for someone named Stempniak…who let the dogs out … woof woof!
          I remember Brian Burke’s 5 year plan that was condensed to whatever the fuck he decided it was on any given day. I remember (though mostly in nightmares where I awaken in a cold sweat with the shakes) that Brian Burke was the WORST GM in the history of the Maple Leafs. I remember him giving a broken player 5 x 5.25 after one successful season to prove he fleeced the Ducks. I remember him finally trading Kaberle to Boston for a 1st a 2nd and Joe Colborne. Win for the Leafs right? Except Burke wanted a kid named Biggs from the USNDT so he traded Bostons 1st (30th) and the Leafs 2nd (39th) to the Ducks so he could select 22nd. Who did the Ducks select with those 2 picks? Rikard Rakell (30th) and a young goalie named John Gibson (39th). Remember that kid that he got from Boston in the Kaberle trade? He gifted him to Calgary for a 4th as he felt at 23, Colborne had reached his potential then 6 weeks later after injuries decimated the team’s centres, traded a 2nd and 7th to the Ducks for Peter Holland. The Leafs best centre from the season before? Mikhail Grabovski who was bought out a year after signing his own 5 year deal.
          I remember Dave Nonis who was so over his head he thought that giving Phaneuf 7 x 7 Million was a sensible thing to do. He of the “I’m not worried about years 6 or 7” of the infamous David Clarkson contract. Perhaps he should have worried about years 1, 2, 3…
          I remember Carlyle vs a toaster, Ron Wilson vs Burke, who was just never quite good enough, Paul Maurice, Pat Quinn, Mike Murphy, Nick Beverly, Pat Burns, Tom Watt, Doug Carpenter, George Armstrong, John Brophy, Dan Maloney, Mike Nykoluk, Joe Crozier, Punch Imlach (again) Dick Duff, Floyd Smith, Roger Nielsen, Red Kelly, King Clancy and John McLellan and the idiocy that seemed to follow the team year after year. I even remember Punch Imlach and his first go-round as coach. So much promise year after year which became so much misery.

          DukesRocks, Wendel Clark will always be remembered as the heart and soul of the Maple Leafs and will no doubt be immortalized on legends row in the near future. With so much promise brought on by Shanahan, I can wait a little longer to see Wendel cast in bronze.

          Go Leafs Go, and isn’t there a trade where we can take advantage of Burke and the Flames one last time.

  • joekool

    Pretty much agree with everything you said here, Jeff. Just want to add that at 24 years of age (any age, really), you are one hell of a writer, with great content too. Thanks for all the work you put into this excellent website.