For passionate and steadfast Toronto Maple Leafs disciples like me, it’s been a long, long agonizing ordeal. A long, long confinement in hockey hell. It’s lasted for 51 years and 70 days.
That’s 18,628 days if you’re counting.
It began so far back, at the time I was 29 years old, only eight years into my half century with The Chronicle Herald, and my wedding was still six months away. The NHL still had only six teams.
Check your old calendars and those 614 months take us back to May 2, 1967, the last time our beloved Leafs celebrated a Stanley Cup championship.
No wonder we’ve been mocked by those annoying followers of the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins. It’s been a rocky, twisty road, with little sunshine to brighten our persistent worship of the Blue and White.
Now, at long last, there’s hope.
The Canada Day signing of star centre John Tavares, one of the best players on the planet, means the Leafs have become a legitimate threat to get the big shiny cup back.
Any team owning three talented centres like Tavares, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri must be considered contenders to be handed the mug from Gary Bettman. That threesome reminds me of Toronto’s great trio of Syl Apps, Max Bentley and Teeder Kennedy in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
How quickly our hopes have changed!
Way back in early May, I wrote this headline on my Advocate column: “Will I ever see Leafs win again?”
Those 10 weeks ago, I was seriously thinking there wouldn’t be another Leafs title in my lifetime. You can get very pessimistic like that when you’ve reached the age of 80.
Now it’s up to me to stick around.
The addition of Tavares for a measly $77 million rightfully dominated the sports channels on Canada Day afternoon. It was a summertime opportunity to believe the Leafs really have a chance to bring the cup back to our native land. To Tavares’ native town. To the hockey capital of the world.
I couldn’t help but smile when the newest Leaf posted a childhood photo of himself online, showing him asleep and wrapped in Maple Leafs bed sheets. His caption: “Not every day you can live a childhood dream.”
When I read it, I couldn’t help but think of the title of my first book: “I’ve Lived My Dream.” I know what it’s like to fulfill a childhood goal.
Now an obvious question: Will number 91 be named captain of the club before the 2018-19 season? He’s certainly qualified to lead the young Leafs to hockey’s holy grail.
A few good players, including James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, have departed the good ship. But with young stars like Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Zack Hyman, the ingredients are there for success.
After 51 consecutive years of failure, you need to be almost a senior citizen to remember the good times.
Losing seasons piled up despite the presence of good and great players such as Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Rick Vaive, Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts, Borje Salming and Darryl Sittler.
Yet I have never regretted that my eight-year-old heart turned to the Maple Leafs in 1946.
I got my first Leafs sweater that Christmas morning — and I was one proud kid in my grade three classroom when Toronto won the cup in that 1946-47 season, then added three more in 1947-48, 1948-49 and 1950-51.
That was the beginning.
I was into my newspaper career and involved as a bird-dog scout for the Leafs in the 1960s when the club returned to the top after an 11-year absence.
I remember it well.
The first of the Punch Imlach championship teams captured the cup in 1961-62, the clinching game coming against the Blackhawks in Chicago. On that wonderful evening, I watched the action and post-game activities at home on a black and white television.
There would be three more cups for Toronto in the decade, all three taking place at Maple Leaf Gardens, the long-time cathedral of hockey.
I was lucky.
I was in the press box at the Gardens for all three of those championship nights – in 1962-63, 1963-64 and 1966-67.
In the ‘64 finals, I was in Detroit for game six against the Red Wings. That was the game when defenceman Bobby Baun broke his leg, and came back to score the winning goal in overtime. From there, it was on to Toronto for the seventh contest, won by the Leafs on a Johnny Bower shutout.
After a two-year absence, the next cup came in Canada’s centennial year, with Toronto beating arch-rival Montreal in game six.
Being there for three Toronto cup winners was like a dream. Following each of those games, I was in the Leafs’ champagne-splattered dressing room. The celebrations are even better than they appear on the home screen.
What were those games like? All three remain at or near the top of my many career highlights. It’s hard to describe the feeling – but I’ve never forgotten those opportunities
You may have noticed the number 1967 is in my email address. It’s been there, I have to explain, to remember the last Maple Leafs cup – even though my wife had always said it was because we were married in ‘67.
Now, after 18,698 days of reminding everyone that the Leafs are still the defending champions of the Original Six, we welcome John Tavares, hoping at long last that a whole new generation of Toronto fans will experience what we thrilled to more than five decades ago.
Among the new Leaf’s comments — at his press conference and in later interviews — was this one: “I just had this feeling this was the right fit for me.”
I’m sure it will be.