Tomorrow, for the first time since March 16, 1996, the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t be playing on a non-holiday, regular season Saturday. They play tonight in Buffalo; they won’t be in action again until next Tuesday.
The Maple Leafs’ non-appearance on Hockey Night in Canada is mildly intriguing. The Leafs are a cash cow for the CBC; everyone knows this, even sports reporters who regularly lament the Leafs’ constant presence on CBC Sports’ flagship program irrespective of their on-ice performance (we salute you, William Houston of The Globe and Mail!). They retain their visibility for one very simple reason: they are, despite their well-documented Stanley Cup drought (1967, etc.), either the first- or second-most popular team in the NHL (the Montreal Canadiens might be able to give them a run for their money). Moreover, the Leafs get bigger ratings than other Canadian teams and, in turn, generate higher advertising revenue. This isn’t homerism: it’s simple fact.
CBC’s predilection for the Maple Leafs can thus be attributed to good old-fashioned pragmatism—nothing more, nothing less. Still, in addition to tomorrow night, the Leafs will be idle on Saturday, December 27 and Saturday, January 17, which suggests at least a mild ideological shift within the walls of the CBC. It’s not that they’re about to abandon the Leafs or anything, but the fact that CBC Sports was willing to live without them for three weekends in 2008/09 means more exposure for other teams—in particular Montreal, who surely deserve it in this, their hundredth year. Plus, it lets Leaf fans get used to watching Hockey Night in Canada without our favourite team; only a cynic would suggest it’s good training for this year’s playoffs. Either way, we’re sure we’ll be able to keep ourselves occupied tomorrow night; one Saturday off in twelve-and-a-half years really isn’t the end of the world.
Photo by Carrie Musgrave from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.