I am a diehard Leaf fan, I don’t apologize for that.
I’m Nostalgic. I don’t apologize for that either. I wanted this year to be different. I assume we all did. However, with 2015 being the disaster that it is, I find myself in deep thought about why I am still a die Hard Leaf fan. How did I get this way? And without fail 1993 is what comes to mind and it’s what makes my blue blood flow. I realize that this particular year has been well discussed in Leaf nation many many times, but I don’t think I can write about anything else until I discuss 1993 and what it meant and still means to me. First though, I need to give you some background, some context.
My Dad came to Canada in the summer of 1967 (the irony is not lost on us). He had $17 in his pocket, but had followed his heart. His girlfriend’s family (my Mom’s) had moved out of the Scottish slum they both were raised, in search of a better life here in Canada. This is a story many Canadians can relate to. He arrived with $17 in his pocket. 17… What a f…ing great number! He got a job with an older Scotsman as a plumber and raised three kids, my older brother, my younger sister and myself. We all grew up playing the game. He loved his family. He loved the Old Country. He loved his New Country. He loved the Leafs.
In 1978, the Leafs made a surprising run with a young group of exciting players to the conference finals. I’m sure some of you older guys remember it vividly. I’m sure all of you have seen the Lanny Macdonald OT goal against the Islanders that sent them there.
I was 3. I don’t remember it at all. But it’s an important reference point, because it would take another 15 years for the Leafs to get back to this point. The year this discussion is centered.
The entire 80’s decade was a disaster; some refer to it as the ‘Lost decade’ in leaf history. On the ice there wasn’t much in terms of highlights but off the ice, the highlight of the whole decade was the drafting of #17. At 10 years old I didn’t follow the draft or contracts, or even stats, I just watched the game. When 17 broke into the league is when I went from the game being on in the background while my brother and I played mini sticks (knee hockey), to being glued to the TV watching every shift. Here are a few telling stats for Clark as an 18-year old rookie: 34 Goals, 227 PIMs and he hit everything that wasn’t wearing blue and white. How could any Leaf fan not love him? But that’s all we had to hang our hat on, one guy. This can’t be stressed enough for the younger crowd, the 80s, much like the past ten years, SUCKED, to put it mildly.
I’m just going to jump ahead now. Harold died in 1990 and new hope rose from the ashes of the tire fire that was the 80s.
In 1992, I was 17. When you’re 17, friends are ultra-important. We didn’t have Twitter or Facebook to let us know how friends were doing; we actually had to meet up with them and have actual conversations. I was lucky enough to hang out with a group of awesome guys. Most of us grew up playing hockey, but we were all leaf fans. We all hung out in a friends’ basement. It had a bar, a fridge, an old beat up pool table, a TV, an old felt poster of Farah Faucet left over from the 80’s, a separate entrance, a working toilet, and fake wood panelling for walls. We called it Cheers after the TV show. To me, it was the greatest place on Earth.
We would get together at Cheers, drink a few beers and watch the game and then head out to the local watering holes that would accept our fake ID. Life was great and, sparked by the Gilmour trade the Leafs were starting to show some very interesting/positive signs.
The Leafs ended the 1992 season with only 30 wins, but 20 of those came in the second half of the season, after the Gilmour trade. Finally, # 17 had someone to play with. It felt like a very long cold winter was finally starting to come to an end and it was hard to comprehend what I was feeling as a leaf fan. It wasn’t just the alcohol that was making me smile in Cheers, it was true optimism, true hope. It felt good.
*Side note: My friends’ grandfather has an uncanny resemblance to Cliff Fletcher the ‘Silver Fox’.
The 92/93 Leafs season didn’t start off like we had hoped. We were doing ok, but we certainly couldn’t classify it as great. In fact, at the 40 game mark we were 16-17-7, outside of the playoff window and looking in. But the team had shown some spark, they were tough, they were good defensively and they had a young Felix Potvin who looked like he could be the real deal. In fact, he looked so good that Trader Cliff made a move to help in the goal-scoring department. He shipped out big name, future HHOFer Grant Fuhr and brought in Dave Andreychuk from the Sabres. He and Dougie G clicked like me and a six pack of John Labatt Classic. The Leafs went on a terrific run in the second half of that year.
In fact, they went 28-12-4 to finish with 99 points an all-time high for the Leafs. They were one of the hottest 2nd half teams in the league. Doug Gilmour had eclipsed the highest single season point mark totalling 127 points while being named the best defensive forward in the league. Pat Burns was taking no shit either and would be named coach of the year as well. They were one of only 2 teams in the league to finish with GAA under 3 and they were tough, REAL tough, TEAM tough, STAND-UP-FOR-ALL-YOUR-MATES tough. This was a team unlike any that I had witnessed in my 17 years. Despite everything just written, they were MASSIVE underdogs to win even one round in the playoffs and with good reason, they had to go through Detroit first.
Detroit had Steve Yzerman, Sergei Federov and a young Nik Lidstrom. They had also recently picked up Paul Coffey and they also had Mark Howe, the son of Mr. Hockey! As tough as the Leafs were, Detroit might have been even tougher with the like of a young Keith Primeau, the prototypical grinder in Gerrard Gallant, Shawn “the Hatchet” Burr and, of course, Bob Probert, the heavyweight champ of the league who also had 14 goals to go along with his 292 Pims. Although they only finished 4 points ahead of the Leafs in the season standings the gap felt like 40 points.
Back at Cheers our expectations were justifiably low. As much as we wanted the Leafs to win, no one expected it and the first two games did nothing to raise our hopes. The Leafs went into Detroit for 2 and got their asses handed to them in both games. It was over. We were done. It was only a matter of time. This was as good as fact, only someone forgot to tell the core of the ‘93 team that.
In game 3 Andreychuk scored twice, Clark had 1G 1A and Gilmour had 3 assists. Skill. Leadership. Toughness. As great as that win was, the prevailing thought was not positive. Being down 2-1 to the mighty red wings was not really winnable, right?
Again, core players stood tall with Andreychuk potting 2 more in game 4 and we’re all tied up!
However, Detroit still held home ice advantage and it was still a steep mountain to climb.
Then this happened…
I’m not sure who jumped higher that night, Foligno or the boys at Cheers. This was the turning point where we as starving leaf fans that had suffered through the 80s finally started to believe that we could win. This team wasn’t going down without a fight, they were playing to win and with the belief they would. We had a good night at Cheers.
There were still a lot of doubters though:
“We were completely outplayed and got lucky.”
“Cheveldae had an off game,”
“The true red wings would show their quality in Toronto and take this in 7,”
At least that’s what most MSM guys were writing at the time and after a game 6 drubbing at home, who could disagree?
*Side note: I’m sure we were “out-Corsied” in most of, if not all of these games. I think the analytics crowd of today would have hated the 1992/93 Leafs. They’re my favorite Leaf team, ever.
That ass kicking only made Game 7 sweeter. I’m sure we’ve all seen it before and in the process of adding the clip to this piece I got a little watery eyed watching.
It’s my all-time favorite goal as a leaf fan.
We did it! We beat the Red Wings! It was Un-f…ing believable. I remember being so happy tears of joy streamed down my face. We were the Leafs, the laughing stock of the league for a better part of a decade and here we were, conquerors of the mighty Red Wings, in game 7, in ‘The Joe’ to boot. The party at Cheers went on until the wee hours of the morning.
There was no time to rest for Leafs though as the series with Blues started almost immediately. Brett Hull, Craig Janney, and some guy name Shanahan were up front while Cujo was the brick wall that stood in front of the Leafs. This series also went 7 games, but I never felt as though we would lose. Even though it came down to one game in the end, it felt like we steamrolled them.
Game one ended in double OT likes this…
Every kid in Toronto was practicing this move in Street hockey for months to come.
Here are few other highlights I remember.
Meanwhile back at Cheers, we were living life to the fullest. Every other night was a party, and we weren’t going to let anything get in our way. School, girlfriends, part time jobs… ALL had to take a back seat. The Leafs were rolling!
It was during the St. Louis series that we started to be joined by my friend’s grandfather for the games. As I mentioned in an earlier side note, he had an uncanny resemblance to Cliff Fletcher and that’s what we called him. He would come to the basement through the side door like the rest of us. In fact, sometimes he left without even going upstairs to talk to his son. I’m not sure how old he was, but he was of an age where his mind was starting to drift. However, we all treated him like he was one of our own, one of the boys. On the first game of the series as he sat in the most comfortable chair in the house, he handed a bottle of Johnnie Walkers to whomever at the time happened to play the role of Sam “Mayday” Malone that evening and asked for a drink.
The conversation went something like this:
Silver Fox: Pour me a drink son.
Mayday: Do you want that straight up or mixed with something?
Silver Fox: Oh I can’t drink that straight. I need it mixed.
Mayday: What would you like it mixed with, Coke?
Silver Fox: Ice.
Yup, something special was going on and our team was making us all proud and a little delirious. It was glorious.
But ahead was… Him, he the Great One, maybe the greatest player to ever wear skates, the all-time leader in pretty much everything hockey. That’s it, that’s all we had to do was beat him and we would play for all the marbles. Daunting no doubt, but the talk around this team had changed, it was positive. A lot of pundits were picking our boys to win. This was crazy. Never in my life had I heard such positive talk about our boys. And why wouldn’t there be? Gilmour was playing out of his mind great, Andreychuk was scoring like Phil Esposito and Wendel… well Wendel was doing this…
The series started off with bang, literally. The Leafs were all anyone could talk about, think about and the Stanley cup was a real possibility. Leafs Nation had awoken from a deep slumber and a lot of the time it felt as though we were still dreaming.
This is it… this is where 1993 ends.
I’m not going to discuss the Game 6 Wendel hat trick, including coming off the bench for a pulled Felix Potvin to score the tying goal. I’m not going to discuss Kerry Fraser and his gutless, no balls, no call. I’m not going to mention how the greatest player to ever play, played what he called, the greatest game of his life to beat us with a goal from behind the net off of Dave Ellet’s skate in Game 7, his 3rd of the night.
None of that is important.
What is important was the resulting undying belief and loyalty I have in the Blue and White. The 1993 team solidified it for me. I was a true fan before 1993, but I became a diehard after this amazing run. I was 18 and life was fun, simple and true, just like our team was. The fact that the ‘fun’ years of my life coincided with my team becoming awesome again was magical. All of us who watched it unfold remember the 1993 team fondly. The team bonded like none before and maybe since. I was watching at Cheers surrounded by friends like I had never made before or since as well.
When my wife told me she was pregnant with our first boy over 10 years ago she did so by handing me a bib, with a maple leaf on it. She knows who I am; she was there in 1993 too. Before my boy was born,
I read him this book while he was still in the womb…
I have 3 boys now, all hockey players, I still tell them bedtime stories of Wendel vs Big Bad Marty McSorely.
Why I am still a die Hard Leaf fan, how did I get this way?
The 1993 Team is why.
*Side note: A few weeks ago I turned 40, a lot of the guys who were with me in the basement we called Cheers, were there at my 40th birthday party as well. Diehards.
Thanks for reading…
This day in Maple Leafs History
March 27, 1993 — With an assist against the Oilers, Doug Gilmour shatters Darryl Sittler’s Maple Leafs record with his 118th point of season, finishing the term with 127.