Toronto’s passion for pucks

From the Leafs to international games, Hogtown loves it all

02.08.2010
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Sweden's Börje Salming was among the most beloved Toronto Maple Leafs of the '70s and '80s. Photo: HHoF

The Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit (August 23-26) will bring together the world’s most hockey-focused minds, seeking answers to questions that confront our game. And that makes Toronto a fitting host city, because the Ontario capital is always looking for hockey answers too.

It’s not as if Toronto doesn’t have claims to fame beyond hockey. It’s home to the CN Tower (once the world’s tallest free-standing structure), Canada’s biggest stock exchange and book-publishing companies, the six million artifacts at the Royal Ontario Museum, and the iconic prog-rock band Rush.

But ultimately, North America’s fifth-largest city is synonymous with hockey. Even by Canadian standards, Torontonians are exceptionally hockey-hungry.

It starts at the grassroots. Toronto has the world’s largest amateur minor hockey league. From minor atom to juvenile, a whopping 40,000 youngsters are registered in the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL). That’s more minor players than many respected IIHF member nations can boast in total at every level (male, female, and junior), such as Latvia (4,539), Slovakia (8,671), and Norway (6,385).

Only in Hogtown would minor hockey get parents so riled up that they’d actually file a $25,000 lawsuit against the GTHL and a midget junior A club for cutting their sons from the roster. It happened in June.

Of course, there’s something else that hasn’t happened in June in Toronto for many years: a Stanley Cup parade. The Toronto Maple Leafs own the NHL’s longest Cup drought among Original Six clubs, dating back to 1967. Among expansion teams, only the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings can match that streak of futility.

Yet unlike many other NHL markets, going Cupless hasn’t hurt attendance at home games. Toronto has sold out the Air Canada Centre nonstop since October 2002. The waiting list for season tickets is about as long as the 24-km #501 Queen Street streetcar route – North America’s longest.

If it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, Toronto fans can turn up the heat by reflecting on their team’s lack of individual NHL honours within recent memory. No Leaf has captured the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer since Gordie Drillon (1938). Legendary captain Ted “Teeder” Kennedy was the last Leaf to win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP (1955). You’d have to go all the way back to Britt Selby (1966) to find Toronto’s most recent winner of the Calder Memory Trophy as rookie of the year. And no Leaf defenceman has ever earned the Norris Trophy.

In fact, these days, the best-known name among Toronto blueliners might belong to the man who founded Canada’s favourite doughnuts-and-coffee chain: Tim Horton’s. The burly product of Cochrane, Ontario suited up for the Leafs between 1950 and 1970, claiming four Stanley Cups.

However, Horton wasn’t the most accomplished defenceman ever to wear the blue-and-white Maple Leaf. That honour goes to Sweden’s Börje Salming, whose pioneering move to North America in the mid-1970s opened the door for other Europeans to join the NHL. Salming, who racked up 787 points in 1,148 career games, was named to the IIHF’s Centennial All-Star Team alongside Russia’s Vyacheslav Fetisov in 2008.

A famous moment involving Salming illustrated Toronto’s high regard for the international game. The Kiruna native received a standing ovation before a 1976 Canada Cup game between the host Canadians and Sweden, even though he was playing for the “enemy”.

Other major international highlights? Toronto also hosted Game Two of the 1972 Summit Series (a 4-1 win for Canada over the USSR) and the final of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey (a 3-2 win for Canada over Finland).

One significant omission in the city’s international resume is not having hosted an IIHF World Junior Championship. Despite bidding for it several times, the closest Toronto’s come is staging a couple of games during the 1986 World Juniors. Neighbouring rival Hamilton hosted that tournament, as well as the iconic 1987 Canada Cup.

But Toronto will likely get a chance to end its World Junior famine, as Canada is slated to host the U20 holiday showcase in 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2021. Since Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax will all have had the privilege by then, you have to like Toronto’s odds.

Meanwhile, regardless of what recommendations come out of the World Hockey Summit for junior development, the women’s game, or Olympic participation, the focus in Toronto will always go back to the Leafs in the end.

Even in the heat of summer, the members of Leafs Nation are wistfully looking at old pictures of Mats Sundin, Dave Keon, and Turk Broda. They’re listening to such rocking tunes as “The Ballad of Wendel Clark” (Rheostatics), or “Fifty Mission Cap” (The Tragically Hip), which tells the tragic tale of Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko, who scored the Cup winner in 1951 but then died in a plane crash.

If they’re not reading a well-thumbed copy of Return to Glory: The Leafs From Imlach to Fletcher, in which IIHF.com writer Andrew Podnieks chronicles Toronto’s two conference final runs in 1993 and 1994, they’re debating on internet message boards just how loudly the two-headed monster of new captain Dion Phaneuf and Toronto GM Brian Burke will roar in 2010-11.

While winning a Stanley Cup is far from certain, the city of Toronto’s passion for pucks is as unstoppable a force as you’ll find anywhere in the universe.

LUCAS AYKROYD


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