Pictou Advocate sports

‘A new day dawning’ for Maple Leafs?


I’m beginning this week’s column with some friendly advice: Embrace the 1,000 words with a wee bit of caution.

Alright, the more caution, the better.

My observations are expressed — free of charge, of course — with excessive optimism by an old soul who has been a card-carrying Toronto Maple Leafs fanatic for 74 years.

I’ve been in this state ever since I was injected with blue blood at Christmas in 1946. Often — too often — people have said I just don’t know any better.

Those many years ago I had great pride wearing my first Leafs sweater in Miss Warrington’s Grade 3 class at the Brown School.

For almost three-quarters of a century since then, I’ve been wearing Toronto sweaters, jackets and ball hats with similar pride. Heck, since COVID-19 invaded, I’ve even been wearing a Maple Leafs mask.

I was lucky at the start.

In my first season cheering for the Leafs, they won the Stanley Cup. They won it again the next year. And the year after that. Following a one-season lapse, they won another. Four cups in five years.

A decade later, I was spoiled again. I was scouting Nova Scotia for the Leafs. In those 1960s, they duplicated their earlier feat — four cups in five years. I was fortunate to be there on three of the championship nights, right in the middle of the champagne showers in the famous dressing room.

It doesn’t get any better.

But it sure can get worse — for a very long time. It’s now 53 years since the last celebration at Maple Leaf Gardens.

There’s one good point I keep reminding anyone who will listen. The Leafs are still the defending champions of the Original Six. Nobody will ever knock them off that pedestal.

That’s ancient history. It’s time to look ahead.

It starts with the next few months as the hockey gods bring the game out from under the pandemic cloud that silenced Hockey Night in Canada too long.

The immediate recovery includes a season with just 56 games. But there’s something exciting that’s about to happen.

There are four very different-looking divisions ready to face off. But, I assure you, I’m about to call them by their commercial names. So herewith I address the Canadien Division and the Canadian-based teams. It’s hockey heaven brought to the True North.

So it’s time to make some guesses — er, predictions — on how our Canadian franchises will finish in the year after 2020. I leave the American clubs to the American writers. For the months ahead, here’s how I see the Canadian seven:

1. Toronto Maple Leafs

2. Calgary Flames

3. Edmonton Oilers

4. Montreal Canadiens

5. Vancouver Canucks

6. Winnipeg Jets

7. Ottawa Senators

For 10 months, I haven’t gotten to church, thanks to the pandemic. Instead, I spend an hour every Sunday morning in my La-Z-Boy, my iPad turned to virtual services from Woodlawn United Church.

Two Sundays ago, the most amazing and inspiring man in our congregation, Ralph Sams, who could be called a man of many talents, conducted the service. He’s one of the oldest people in the congregation, yet he has you listening to every word, every syllable. That day, he called his sermon “A New Day Dawning.”

He suggested we move forward from a troubled 2020 and bury its uncertainties. Yes, a message that could apply to many things.

Later, I was arranging my thoughts on the coming hockey season and couldn’t help but reassess Ralph’s topic. “A new day dawning.” That’s it; I’ll apply it to the Leafs.

It confirmed my thinking that Toronto could top the all-Canadian group.

Why so hopeful?

I simply feel this is the year for the leaders of the Leafs to reach the potential they’ve been displaying. It’s a hope that Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander will be the four to light the box of matches and set the division ablaze.

With Morgan Rielly heading the defence, Frederik Andersen continuing his solid play in nets, and ageless Joe Thornton coming aboard and surprising everyone, why can’t this club take first place?

As for my fantasy team, Maple Leafs Forever, I have all of those key guys in the fold. Yes, all seven of them.

In the real hockey world, as in the fantasy world, I take nothing for granted. There are some interesting scenarios possible for the Canadian franchises.

The Flames pulled a star out of the hat with their acquisition of goalie Jacob Markstrom. With a formidable lineup already there, they’ll be tough.

The Oilers, with the big offensive pair of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, can’t help but contend.

The Canadiens have a prominent believer in now-analyst Brian Burke. I love his opinions on just about everything. Goalie Carey Price and scorer Tomas Tatar are on my fantasy squad, thanks to Brian’s evaluations.

The Canucks filled their hole in nets with Braden Holtby, while young phenoms like centre Elias Pettersson and rearguard Quinn Hughes will keep them in the race.

The Jets shouldn’t be left out with potentially the best goalie in Canada, Connor Hellebuyck, along with forwards Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. But is the division too tough for them?

Things have been awful in Ottawa in recent seasons and, if there’s a likely candidate for last place, it appears to be the Senators despite players like Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot.

I think it’s great — especially for TV viewers — to have this country’s franchises bunched together, even if only for this one season.

To conclude, remember that eight-year-old kid I was talking about at the beginning? I can truthfully say I’ve never given up on the Leafs, even in their darkest days. However, I do caution you not to bet the grocery money on my predictions.

I become overly hopeful at the start of any new season.