The idea to attend all 82 Toronto Maple Leafs games in a season is something I’ve pondered for years. A Notre Dame friend of mine has attended every Irish football game since 1977. My first reaction to this feat was the impact it must have on his day-to-day life. But college teams have their schedules five years in advance, so for him, the planning was fairly straightforward. The more I thought about it, the more I thought why not attempt this with the Leafs? They are an iconic franchise with worldwide appeal. The Centennial Season would’ve made a wonderful platform to leverage. Unfortunately, that “work thing” was still affecting my social life at the time so it never materialized in 2016-17. But the idea wasn’t thrown out completely, just put on the backburner.
Now retired, walking with Deb in Florida last winter, I bounced the idea off her again. A little pushback was expected, but her reaction was the total opposite; she immediately embraced the idea. She “got” that this was the natural progression for me, culminating my life-long passion for the Leafs. I’ve been an acquirer of artifacts for over 50 years. We built a shrine to display the collection in our home and used the collection to raise millions of dollars for charity. Our brand has reached fellow Leafs fans and collectors, and I connect with them almost daily. We have now moved most of the collection to the Museum of History in our Nation’s Capital. These days I spend my time researching and speaking about the history of the team and these pieces. So… what’s left to accomplish?
The Maple Leafs brand is stronger today than ever in the history of the franchise. Why not spend my time uncovering how that’s possible, especially given a 50+ year Stanley Cup drought?!
Foster Hewitt first broadcast Leafs games from the Mutual Street Arena in the 1920’s. But it wasn’t until they went across the country in 1933 that the true love of this team began to expand. Radio was in its infancy stages but growing exponentially across North America. Families would gather around the radio on Saturday nights to listen to the hockey game. Foster’s hockey broadcasts entertained the Canadian troops overseas during the war. He became more famous than the Prime Minister of the country!
The love of the team has been passed through generations of families. Brendan Shanahan once told me the one thing his family did religiously was watch Hockey Night in Canada together, every Saturday night. There are thousands of Canadian families with a similar story, but that’s just scratching the surface. This inspires me to want to experience, first hand, what other Leafs fans go through in their respective cities. Maybe they quietly cheer for the Leafs after moving to a new city when they were already a Leafs fan. Or maybe it’s a family tradition that dates back generations. Whatever ties them to the team, I’m hoping they will share their story with me and I in turn will pass along to Leafs Nation through this project.
The connection someone has to the team may be as simple as a one-off game, like the female recruiter I hired while I was still in school. She once went on a date to a Leafs game. She didn’t like hockey but figured the guy was worth the effort. The game in question was February 7, 1976. That one-off game turned into one of the most historical on record, when Darryl Sittler scored 10 points. She has that story to tell for the rest of her life.
Unlike other sports that broadcasted games in the early days (starting in 1921), teams like the New York Yankees or Pittsburgh Pirates weren’t the only game in town like the Maple Leafs were throughout Canada. That exclusivity is what separated the Leafs from other teams. They became the team for fans not only in Toronto, but also as far as Vancouver. It was the common thread that bonded children with their grandfathers. They talked about the rich history of those times and what the Maple Leafs meant to them.
The Leafs have the mark of not winning for over 50 years. Sometimes that curse can be the bond that holds public interest in a team. The Argos have a record 17 Grey Cup Victories, but there was a 31 year drought (1952-1983) where they were dubbed “the loveable losers”. At the time, the Argos regularly drew 40,000+ fans to old CNE Stadium with the attraction, “How will they blow this one?”…thus the derogatory chant “ARRRRRRGGGGGOOOOS.” When they finally won and broke the curse, the interest in the team faded. Today they are a sad shadow of themselves drawing fewer than 15,000 fans per game. The Chicago Cubs were baseball’s “lovable loser” for 71 years, finally breaking their curse in 2016. However, they continue their tradition of an engaged fan base. The Boston Red Sox were also the perennially cursed going 86 years (1918 to 2004) before winning again. Now, like the Cubs, they are a regular contendar and continue to have a huge fan following. Ironically, both the Cubs and the Red Sox also boast the two most iconic sports stadiums (Fenway and Wrigley) in professional sport. The experience and environment in those stadiums made them league-wide attractions and is a big part why the teams stayed relevant during their decades of failure.
The public interest and undying, fanatical passion for the Leafs survives the ups and downs of the teams on-ice success. The Leafs hold a generational bond like no other team. Their tradition has extended itself over decades. The passion continues to grow as they inch closer each season to the pinnacle of hockey, The Stanley Cup. What would a Championship season mean for Leafs Nation? Stay tuned…