The Maple Leafs fan in me

October 17, 2016

Let me begin by duly noting that I am not one who one would call a big National Hockey League fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

On a given night in a given game in a given season, I would cheer for the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators to beat the Maple Leafs.

Having said that, I would like to see the Maple Leafs return to some sort of high-compete level.

It’s been a while — through many players and many coaches over many years — that the Maple Leafs have had a team worth getting excited about.

But there are signs that the Maple Leafs are getting close to emerging from the NHL doldrums.

With new management at the top and a big-ticket, big-bucks coach calling the shots while armed with a big contract, the Maple Leafs seem to be getting it together off the ice — which often trickles down to the on-ice product.

The scouting has greatly improved, led by Mark Hunter, formerly of the Ontario Hockey League powerhouse that is the London Knights.

And while Leafs Nation — which includes an adoring fan base and a throng of media followers — is already adorning a place in team history for rookie forward Auston Matthews, there is another youngster that Toronto should be able to build around.

That would be 19-year old centre Mitch Marner, who still has OHL eligibility after leading the league in scoring in 2015-2016 and sparking London to the Memorial Cup championship. After scoring 116 points in just 57 regular-season games, Marner then came through in the clutch during last spring’s playoffs with 16 goals and 44 points in 18 pressure-packed outings.

What is worth noting about Marner is that he is just a wee lad by NHL standards at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds.

Marner’s small stature and skilled ways is another indication of how the game is changing.

While there is still room for the big, power forwards, there is more focus now on skill, speed and smarts rather than size and physicality. Oh, it’s still an advantage to be big, strong and tough but the days of being big, strong tough and stupid are just about gone.

Marner reminds me in a way of former Maple Leafs captain Dave Keon, whose no. 14 was recently retired by the team.

Keon may have played with more of an edge that Marner does but they are similar in size and heart, not to mention speed and skill.

Like I noted previously, I would very much, as a long-time fan of the NHL dating back to the 1950s when I was still in grade school, see the Maple Leafs succeed again.

For sure, I did not like it at all when the Maple Leafs were part of the Original Six and beating Detroit and Montreal en route to winning Stanley Cup championships in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967. But being a Canadian and being a throwback fan makes me want to see and be a part of the Maple Leafs being a serious competitor again.

Toronto, for sure deserves a winner at the NHL level, with the Maple Leafs as a franchise being supported in such a loyal, almost-feverish way even during the decades of futility.

Let’s face it, as the Leafs have been losing all of these years, they are still prominent and high-ranking in fan support and media coverage. So let’s just say that if I have to continuously read and hear about the Leafs it might as well be in a positive sense.

And I tell myself that it is rather ironic that the Leafs are not a favourite team of mine when so many of their players and coaches from over the years have been favourites.

Player-wise, the aforementioned Keon was a favourite of mine over the years as the heart-and-soul of the Stanley Cup champion days.

I also really liked Original Six Maple Leafs such as defensemen Bob Baun and Marcel Pronovost and forwards such as Red Kelly, Frank Mahovlich and Dick Duff. In fact, I was thrilled as a kid when both Mahovlich and Duff ended up playing for Montreal.

In later years, following all of the expansion, many players who ended up with the Maple Leafs became favourites of mine including Darryl Sittler, Mike Gartner, Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour.

I was even a fan of Stanley Cup-winning coach George (Punch) Imlach and later was also a fan of Pat Burns, the gritty coach who passed away a few years ago.

The way I feel, I would rather see the Maple Leafs be successful than say the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, San Jose Sharks, Dallas Stars or Nashville Predators as a few examples.

I mean, how many from around here really care about Tampa Bay, Florida, Dallas, San Jose or Nashville? Hell, I don’t even care much about the New York Rangers or New York Islanders let alone those warm-weather, American-based teams.

So while I am not suggesting that the Leafs are on the verge of any sort of long Stanley Cup playoff run any time soon, I do actually hope that they get there sooner than later.

Leafs fans have already put in enough wait time.

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