It was just after seven o’clock in the morning and my two Shih Tzu pals, George and Gracie, were taking me for my first walk of the day. That’s customary. It happens every morning before breakfast.
But one day last week, as we were checking out the power poles in our Portland Hills neighbourhood in Dartmouth, a school bus came up the street. That’s normal too. This time, however, the bus pulled over to the curb beside us.
Since school hadn’t yet reopened, I figured the driver was checking a newly-assigned route and became lost. Not so.
“Good morning,” he said as he opened the door. “That’s a great shirt you’re wearing.”
It was one of my blue and white collection, with block letters large enough to see from a distance: “Toronto Maple Leafs” surrounding a team logo. A friend says it identifies me as a member of a cult — a Leafs cult.
The bus driver revealed why he stopped.
A big grin washed across his face as he rolled up his shirt sleeve. It exposed a Leafs logo tattooed to his arm. He said it was there for 30 years.
We had a brief but interesting chat. He’s been a Leafs fan since 1972 when he was three years old watching the team on television on Saturday nights.
“So you never saw them win the cup,” I implied.
When I explained I’ve been a Toronto fan since 1947, he smiled again as he responded: “My father wasn’t even born then.”
There was another thing we agreed on — fans across Leafs Nation will love the coming season.
He wished me well and drove off.
As I resumed keeping up with the dogs, I thought of the date. There was almost a week and a half left in August. And hockey’s the talk?
I wondered: Does the sport not take a vacation?
I did a little speed math as I walked on — it was just over 10 weeks since the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup.
No wonder the hockey off-season seems short. The first time I cheered on a Leafs cup-winning season, in 1947, it was mid-April. Even the first Toronto celebration I witnessed in the flesh, in 1962-63, it was also mid-April. This year the Capitals won a week into June.
After what seems like a very short summer, hockey is already back.
It’s not just the NHL.
The Halifax Mooseheads, who will host the 2019 Memorial Cup tournament, opened training camp over two weeks ago at their practice base at the Dartmouth 4-Pad. Heck, they’ve already played their first pre-season exhibition games. It means the Moosehead season will last for nine months — until sometime in May.
Of course hockey is in the same situation in Pictou County. The Pictou County Weeks Crushers will host the first of four pre-season Maritime Junior Hockey League games at the Wellness Centre this week. More August hockey.
The so-called off-season hasn’t been shortened with just the pros and juniors. It’s the same with the kids, too.
My eight-year-old and 12-year-old hockey-playing granddaughters are already at hockey schools and both will be having tryouts in the Cole Harbour Minor Hockey Association just as school begins another year.
That’s not an exception. Minor hockey organizations across the province and country are starting earlier than ever. I can recall, back in my Pictou County days, when you couldn’t find ice in the rinks until October. Nowadays ice remains in most arenas throughout the summer.
Wherever you look, the summer break is getting shorter and shorter. The sport itself never seems to take a break off the ice either. With awards nights, player drafts, trading periods and other matters, the game never leaves the sports pages or sports channels.
Since the Mooseheads and other major junior teams seem to be among the first to the starting line, let’s take another peek.
I can assure you the Halifax club, now entering its 25th season, never closes its offices. Business goes on around the calendar.
This has been a particularly important summer for the club that attracts spectators from all parts of Nova Scotia.
Of course, majority owner Bobby Smith and general manager Cam Russell, both former NHL stars, know what it takes to be a success at the junior level. The Moose hosted the Memorial Cup activities already — in 2000. They also know what’s required to become national champions — a mountaintop they climbed in 2013.
With his every move — draft picks, player trades and so on — Russell’s incentive is aimed at being prepared to competitively challenge for the top award.
Smith, meantime, appears even more confident. In a press release as camp opened, he summed up his feelings in three words — “We are ready.”
Hockey matters away from the rinks are also happening earlier and earlier.
Just a few days into August, the 2018-19 Hockey News Yearbook arrived in my mailbox. Too early? Not in my mind, especially since the cover of this year’s issue is ablaze in blue and white, an elegant photo of two Leafs — Auston Matthews and John Tavares.
There’s something else. If you want to get involved in the world of fantasy hockey, online sites are already offering their services. That’s much, much sooner than a few years ago.
There’s something else to help get excited earlier than usual. Many of the sport’s wisest commentators and publications are already picking the Leafs – yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs — to win the Stanley Cup this season.
The heading on The Hockey News Yearbook cover? It refers to the Leafs this way: “Can Anyone Stop This Stacked Attack?”
What’s that mean? The 52-year Stanley Cup drought may end for long-suffering worshippers.
No wonder a school bus driver pulls over when he sees another Leafs supporter on the sidewalk.
Let the long season begin.