All of us — or at least most of us — have had a favourite team in the National Hockey League. It’s pretty much an obligation in being a sports fan in this great country of ours.
We may not have been born with such a prerequisite embedded in our hearts, but a choice usually happens very early in life, often before we start attending school.
It’s part of being Canadian.
Right now, though, I want to limit my focus on the two franchises in the country that have been around for 100 years or so. Specifically, that means the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens. I’m sure you’ve heard of them both.
I have a familiar starting point in any such chit-chat.
It’s not written in any hockey textbook, there’s no mandatory rule hidden away somewhere and, as far as I’m aware, there’s no logical explanation for a fan to abide by its stern guidelines.
Yet it’s taken for granted.
It goes like this: If you’re a Maple Leafs fan, you hate the Canadiens; if your favourite team is the Habs, you despise the Leafs.
Well, I’m taking this Christmas season to let out a secret that I’ve kept tucked away for the past 73 seasons. I’ve only mentioned it to family and very close friends. Just too controversial.
When I’ve talked about it, I’ve been called different, I’ve been seen as unusual, I’ve even been branded confused and unfaithful.
Nonetheless, I’ll proceed.
I’ve written many times that I’ve been a life-long Leafs fanatic. I wear Leafs hats, I wear Leafs T-shirts and golf shirts, I wear Leafs jackets and there’s always been a Leafs licence plate frame on the cars I’ve had. Strangers come up to me in Sobeys or Tim Hortons and offered everything from congratulations to condolences.
I don’t hide my loyalty.
Yet press me to name my second-favourite franchise and — here it comes — I admit it’s the Canadiens. It’s always been the case.
How could such a conflict ever happen, especially to someone who spends so much time around hockey and hockey discussions?
There are a number of reasons.
Nothing on television takes my attention more than a Leafs game. It was so back in the good old days, and it’s been so through these 53 years of frustration. To date, I’ve watched every single Toronto game this season, even the ones from the West Coast. When the Leafs aren’t playing, I’m probably watching the Canadiens.
My one-two preferences began 73 Christmas mornings ago. It was 1946 and I was eight years old.
I’ve told that story many times in newspaper columns, in my recent books, in hockey conversations anywhere and everywhere. How I asked Santa for a Canadiens sweater, how Eaton’s was sold out of them, how I opened my parcel that day and a Leafs jersey was staring back at me.
My allegiance was altered forever.
Why didn’t I just forget about the team in red, white and blue? I guess it’s because the Canadiens — and things Montreal — just never get very far out of reach.
A couple of years after that 1946 Christmas, a friend began delivering the Star Weekly in our New Glasgow neighbourhood. In case you aren’t old enough to remember, that was a Toronto publication. I wanted a route, too, and soon got one delivering the Standard. It was the once-a-week competition from Montreal.
Then came the box tops.
I didn’t collect comic books or stamps like some friends. I collected Quaker Oats box tops. For two of them plus a quarter, you could get large photos of two players. Only Leafs and Canadiens were available. There were about 50 each year and I wanted them all.
To have enough box tops, my grandmother, who lived with us, helped by eating Quaker Oats for breakfast 365 mornings a year. She never complained and liked seeing the Leafs and Habs covering my bedroom walls.
By the 1960s, I was scouting for the Leafs and, among the perks, I attended the Stanley Cup finals each spring. Three times I was there on the nights Toronto won the championship, getting doused with champagne in the celebrations.
My pal Sterling Bain accompanied me on two of those occasions despite his being a devout Canadiens fan. To reverse the favour, I took him to Montreal in 1965 when the Habs celebrated. No, the Canadiens were never far away.
During the ’60s, I brought two Toronto players to Pictou County — Frank Mahovlich and Kent Douglas. Good memories of two good guys. When a third group asked if I could get another Leaf for an event, none were available. So I landed Montreal goaltender Jacques Plante.
When I moved into The Chronicle Herald’s sports department, the Montreal organization’s top farm team, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, was based in Halifax. I covered them for 13 years, getting to know most of their young players on the way to the NHL. They were great young guys, hard to cheer against.
My association with the Vees brought me more Montreal involvement. Top Canadiens people like Sam Pollock, Floyd Curry and Scotty Bowman made me a regular guest during NHL annual meetings that were held each spring in Montreal. The meetings always coincided with an Expos homestand and tickets were always complimentary.
Many more years have passed and, though I’m well beyond retirement age, I haven’t let go of my interests in Toronto and Montreal.
For the past 20 years, I’ve been participating in fantasy hockey leagues. My team is called the Maple Leafs Forever, its rosters always having lots of blue and white content. My current 2019-20 roster includes a dozen Leafs, as well as six Canadiens.
I make no excuses.
After more than seven decades, I feel I’ve earned the right to simply laugh whenever someone refers to my unique one-two Leafs-Habs sentiments.
And now my secret’s out.