The playoffs are in sight. It all comes down to tonight's game.
My friend has a son, Austin. His name is one letter removed from the Leafs star rookie, Auston Matthews. Austin started hockey this year and will come of age in a time when the Leafs won’t be torturously bad or dysfunctional, as they were, and have been, for me. Austin will be part of a generation that, like beardo Jays fans who never had to wrap themselves in a comforter and watch Otto Velez play at Exhibition Stadium in the 70s and 80s (pity them), will probably only know decent or good or great hockey played by decent or good or great young players. A handful of days from qualifying for the post-season, the current edition of the Leafs—and its young, gifted rank—are poised to drag their franchise back from oblivion.
I won’t count the numbers for those who haven’t read a sports page in awhile (although, know this: they’re festooned with not-broken-since-horses-
It has been dark for so long. There was the misery of the Harold Ballard years, including short-lived success throughout the late 70s that ended with the humiliation of the coach, Roger Neilson, and the embarrassment of team captain, Darryl Sittler; the over-looked high-sticking call by Wayne Gretzky on Doug Gilmour in 1993 that prevented Toronto from moving on to play Montreal in the Cup final; the teasingly good teams through the early 2000s led by a captain, Mats Sundin, who was always one puck shy of redemption; and the wilderness of the last 15 years, informed by sloppy drafting, misguided coaches, and apoplectic fans. But with the brilliant play of young forwards like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, fans, like myself, shake our heads at how effortlessly it seemed to turn around, like an iceberg melting overnight to free the freighter wedged there for years.
If the Leafs can take one point from their next three games, they will find a place in the post-season. Little Leaf flags will sprout on the sides of cars; nervous men and women will huddle outside bars on suddenly spring-warm game nights smoking and trying to figure out if they should be celebrating or not; neighbours will occasionally shout things like “FREDDIE!”or “NA-ZEEM!” or “BOZIE” across the road to each other; and your friend who isn’t quite sure how many minutes you’re supposed to get for an interference penalty will know that William Nylander’s shot is more like a knife flung by a magician cutting the twine of his assistant bound against a wheel by her wrists, than what many people simply call “a laser.” You can’t count on anything until it happens—fat ladies singing and score clock countdowns and red lights spinning and all of that—but if the Maple Leafs get that point, watch out.
In a city already blissful with the warmth of the season, and people happy to not be in America, and getting more unlike its old self than it was the day before, this will be a whole new thing. Other than a degree above awesome, not Austin—nor me or you—knows how it will feel.