Leafs beat Red Wings under shadow of Downie’s passing

Auston Matthews scored his sixth goal of the season to help the Toronto Maple Leafs double up the Detroit Red Wings.

TORONTO – It was an understated tribute that might have needed an explanation somewhere else. Except so many Canadians, and fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, knew Gord Downie’s words by heart:

… The last goal he ever scored / Won the Leafs the Cup …

And so as the team took to the ice at Air Canada Centre on a day of mourning and celebration in our country, it did so with Bill Barilko’s No. 5 banner lowered a few feet beneath the other 17 recognizing retired numbers by the organization.

Simple. Perfect.

When the Tragically Hip last performed here in August 2016, only Barilko’s banner was left hanging in the rafters. Naturally, the band played “Fifty-Mission Cap” to close the first of three ACC shows during the tour that tugged at heart strings across the nation. It was a spellbinding performance. I was there.

“It’s a really neat song,” said Leafs forward Eric Fehr, who tweeted out the framed picture carrying its lyrics that hangs in the team’s equipment room.

“Do I know the Bill Barilko one? Of course,” added Nazem Kadri. “That’s Day 1 stuff if you’re Canadian.”

Downie’s death at age 53 late Tuesday, following a courageous battle with glioblastoma, cast a rather sizeable shadow over a meeting between the Leafs and Detroit Red Wings here Wednesday. The Hip opened this building with a concert way back on Feb. 22, 1999 and their music provided the soundtrack to this evening as well.

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In the moments between the action – between another gorgeous Auston Matthews goal and a turn-back-the-clock reply from Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg – there was a triumphant feeling in the air.

It ran much deeper than the scoreboard, where the home team prevailed 6-3.

“It just seems that every guy coming from Canada around my age group grew up listening to it,” said Fehr. “I don’t think Auston or any of the other (young) guys really know much about it, but we’ll educate them over the next little while.”

There was a rendition of “Poets” played during warmups and “Courage” after the national anthems. The crowd cheered when the first few chords blared out of the speakers. You had “Little Bones” and “Fifty-Mission Cap” and “At the Hundredth Meridian” and “Nautical Disaster” during breaks in play and at the intermission.

“That was great,” said Fehr. “Good songs.”

Before puck drop, in-house announcer Mike Ross even read a beautiful tribute that started: “Last night we lost the beloved frontman of our nation.”

This was not a normal day at the rink.

“It’s tragic,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock of Downie’s death. “It’s just the way it is. You’ve got to live each and every day, you never know what’s going to happen in your life, to your family, to yourself. You want to enjoy the moments.

“I think it’s so important to be in the present and enjoy what you’re doing.”

If there is a lesson to be taken from any loss of life, it’s probably just that. Downie loved hockey – rooting for the Boston Bruins, not the Leafs, mind you – and he attended numerous games here over the years. Safe to say he would consider this a good night spent.

The nights have been getting much better in these parts with Toronto now sitting atop the league with a 6-1 record. Matthews is up to 50 goals in 95 career NHL games. For some, the signature lyric in “Fifty-Mission Cap” is starting to take on a new meaning.

“It’s exciting,” said Kadri. “We’ve earned the right to be here, we’ve earned the start we’ve had, we’ve earned to be a good team and one of the better ones in the league. You’ve got to believe in yourself before anybody else does and I think that’s what we’ve been doing in the dressing room.”

When the Toronto players showed up for a meeting on Wednesday morning, Hip songs were already blaring in the training room. They remained on a constant loop here all day – just as they did in dressing rooms around the NHL and beyond.

There was some comfort to be found in the familiarity of Downie’s songs, not to mention the game we all love.

“I didn’t know (Downie) personally, but I knew a lot of guys who did,” said Leafs winger Patrick Marleau, before suiting up in his 1,500th career NHL regular season game. “(Joe) Thornton knew him pretty well I guess and he hung out with him last summer a little bit.”

The 38-year-old was a fan “growing up” and remains one today.

“Music is one of those things where it brings you back to certain times and certain places and it gives you a lot of good memories,” said Marleau.

Memories had, and those still to be made.