TORONTO — They crowd the corners where their heroes are warming up, music blaring. A gaggle of blue-and-white jerseys and smooth faces. They hold signs. They look on in awe. Little Matthews, Marners, Nylanders watching the bigger, real-life versions go through their pre-game routines, music blaring.
Their eyes are wide as are their hearts. Ahh, the innocence. Not to mention the contrast.
Dotted throughout any Leafs crowd at Air Canada Centre are men and women with more mileage on them, more pain. It’s been 50 years since the Leafs have won a Stanley Cup; 50 years since they’ve made a final, even.
It’s a heavy history that an emerging generation of Leafs fans can’t quite grasp. Even better, they likely won’t have to.
If things break right and Leafs president Brendan Shanahan’s golden touch continues, a 12-year-old Leafs fan today could be watching Auston Matthews and the rest do their magic at the ACC all the way through high school, through university and well into their first job.
There could well be a parade.
It’s almost unfathomable to those who have known mostly chaos.
Steve Prescott has been coming to watch the Leafs since he was young enough to fall asleep in his father’s lap by the time the third period rolled around. Their seats were in the corner of the old Maple Leaf Gardens, not far from Harold Ballard’s old lair.
He doesn’t have to think twice when he’s asked to recall is his saddest moment of a lifetime of Leaf fandom:
“’93 buddy,” he says. “‘93.”
That’s the Leafs in a nutshell, for generations of fans who came of age post-1967. Even the most electric of memories — the magical Doug Gilmour-led run to the Conference finals in 1993 – can inspire a grimace more than 20 years later. Gretzky’s high stick; Kerry Fraser’s non-call. The end.
His son, himself a hockey player with the AAA Brampton 45s, can’t fathom the depths.
And what adult would want him too?
“Do you know the last time the Leafs won the Cup?” Kaiden is asked as he wonders around the concourse at the ACC prior Toronto’s 3-2 win over the New Jersey Devils, further cementing the Leafs’ playoff prospects. He’s got a slice of pizza in hand and just came from watching warmups. The anthems are about to start. Life is good.
“I don’t know,” Kaiden says.
Not since your dad’s been alive, he’s told.
Silence. Clearly this is hard for him to imagine.
How many times have the Leafs been in the playoffs since you were born in 2004?
“Four or five?” he says.
Try once, little guy. And we know what happened then. Actually, Kaiden knows. It’s his first Leafs scar.
“When Boston made that comeback, that’s my saddest Leafs moment,” he says, referring to Toronto blowing a 4-1 lead with 12 minutes left in the third period of Game 7 of their first-round series in 2013. “When Boston made that comeback I was like, ‘what?’”
Like father, like son:
“Yeah, that hurt too,” says Steve.
There are so many great things about what the Leafs’ renaissance means for so many people – and it’s just getting started – but one of the best is that waves of young fans can look forward to what looks like a long run of fun, exciting and winning hockey.
All those unblemished faces pressing the glass during warmups are watching the real deal.
It’s not hyperbole given quality of their young talent. No Leafs team has boasted a better rookie class. William Nylander, 20, was the game’s first star Thursday night with a goal and an assist, breaking a franchise record by becoming the first Leafs rookie to record a point in 10 straight games. Matthews was the second star, with two assists and is poised to break Leafs icon Wendel Clark’s rookie goal-scoring record. Mitch Marner tied the Leafs rookie record for assists with his 40th. There are nine games left.
Charlie Wilson, eight, drove down from Collingwood with his dad, Greg, for the game. He got a puck from Matt Martin during the warmup, but that didn’t make Martin his favourite player.
“My favourite? Probably Mitch Marner,” he says. “My second favourite is Matthews maybe. Third favourite? Nylander?”
The list keeps going.
His father, born in 1966, can only sit back in wonder.
“I used to bless myself and pray for them as a kid,” Greg says. “Hockey Night in Canada was the only thing I was allowed to watch on TV. I’m a huge Leafs fan.
“[But] they were so bad for so long I used to feel bad for the other team when they won.”
But that didn’t stop him from turning his son on the Leafs.
“It just happens,” he says. “You just watch the game and they’re sitting alongside you. You tell them to put down their electronics and watch the game.”
A parent’s role is to keep their offspring safe from harm. For years, introducing them to the Leafs was questionable judgment to say the least.
But the team that once traded the pick the Devils used to select hall-of-fame defenceman Scott Niedermayer – the foundation piece on three Stanley Cup winners in New Jersey and one more in Anaheim – is now a hoarder of draft picks and young talent.
The team that couldn’t tank right, that couldn’t draft right, that spent most of the past 12 years neither good enough to make the playoffs nor bad enough to draft favourably is now poised to make the playoffs. Potentially for years to come.
Kids, by nature, are optimists, as they should be. But young Leafs fans have cause today.
“I think the Leafs are going to be in the in the playoffs this year,” says Kaiden. “Maybe they could win the Stanley Cup, or maybe in a couple of years. Because right now they’re growing together and if they stick together they’ll keep on progressing. They have a lot of good young players and as they get older they only get better, right?”
From the mouths of babies comes … the Shanaplan.
For the first time in generations it’s okay for parents to let their kids grow up to be Leafs fans.