“We have the best fans in the world.” —Auston Matthews
TORONTO — Zoom out.
As the Toronto Maple Leafs—first place in the National Hockey League and, more important, tops in the power rankings—fly their perfect road record to Ottawa Saturday, they’ll travel by caravan, emotionally and literally.
Leafs Nation is known for invading Canada’s capital in such numbers that, in the past, ticket sale restrictions were enforced to tone down the blue. And that’s when they were bad at hockey.
Not when they’ve soared to a 6-1 record and lead the NHL in goal differential (plus-12), goals scored (34, a whopping seven more than their closest competitor), and belief.
Auston Matthews, the steam still evaporating off his OT-winning stick, incorrectly described the Bell Centre as a “hostile environment” last weekend when, in truth, loud pockets of the Nation cheered his heroics.
Chicago rolls in, and Joel Quenneville—who coaches two of the NHL’s 100 Greatest—gushes about the Leafs’ youth and offensive weapons. Toronto heads to D.C., and Barry Trotz—who oversees four of the league’s top-10 scorers—slaps a Mario Lemieux comparison on Matthews and is afraid to trade chances.
Home and away, these Leafs are selling out buildings at a rate of 102 per cent, according to ESPN.
“Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s like the British Empire. There’s no end to the fanship,” says Connor Carrick. The third-pairing defenceman even got stopped by fans while vacationing in Hawaii this summer.
Zoom back, to this sterling early season’s home opener.
Maple Leafs Square is alive with scarves a-twirl and feet a-hopping.
The plaza party to the immediate west of Air Canada Centre’s doors gained its status as a teeth-clenching, hair-pulling, big-screen gathering place for Toronto sports fans because of the building’s basketball tenant.
In the spring of 2014, the Toronto Raptors were embarking on the first of four consecutive playoff runs, hosting the Nets in Round 1, when club president Masai Ujiri famously said, “F— Brooklyn,” and Jurassic Park went ballistic.
The Maple Leafs of 2014 were bad on a fast track to worse, enduring the first of three consecutive post-season whiffs before finally bottoming out for the greater cause.
As a swelling percentage of Raptors fans reach psychological acceptance that the Cavaliers will be the Beast of the East until LeBron James gets struck by lightning or signs in L.A., it’s increasingly the hockey fans slapping on their blue-and-white war paint and circling the Square.
Awakening the latent momentum of April’s playoff showing, the eight-goal home opener was a raucous affair inside and out.
On hockey nights, especially ones with school in the morning, the ACC is notorious for its beat-the-traffic lower bowl and registering the decibel levels on par with a closed library. But a Monday night versus Chicago crackled with playoff-race electricity, and finished with a sizzle.
The Buds’ home dates of 2017-18 have instilled the barn with an invisible makeover. The ACC feels fresh and loud and… fun.
There are impulsive standing ovations, an in-house DJ spinning live fan requests that aren’t “Cotton Eye Joe,” grown men wearing replica sweaters stamped with kids’ names, and “Go! Leafs! Go!” chants that aren’t the idea of the Jumbotron but by the people themselves.
“There’s more excitement,” Mitchell Marner says. “The city’s excited; we’re excited. We know what we’re capable of.”
Nazem Kadri, suddenly an eight-year veteran, says fans stop him everywhere to tell him how giddy they are over the possibilities.
“I kind of just go with it,” Kadri smiles. “I go with them, because they get more excited and I get excited and then everyone feels great.
“Our fans are very passionate, very smart. They understand bits and pieces of the game that maybe other places don’t.”
There is a love/hate triangle in this city between the citizens, the hockey club, and its checkered 100-year past.
The mission of President Brendan’s Shanaplan was to restore the franchise to its rightful place. The Hall of Famer wanted a culture change, a vague notion at first pass but one now symbolized in pieces you can touch.
The bronzed bench of Legends Row, complete for now, acts a selfie station for tourists and a monument to a mended fence with Dave Keon.
This summer, Shanahan commissioned a large-scale art installation with the team motto — Honour, Pride, Courage — in bold silver lettering illuminated with blue. Behind Conn Smythe’s original mantra, the names of every Cup champion of Leafs past are engraved in Stanley Cup-esque metal plates. There is space for new additions.
“We’ve done a real good job of trying to reconnect with our past, an Original Six team with great, great history, want to get back to our rightful place. We have to keep building the product on the ice so it matches the history,” coach Mike Babcock says.
“It’s much different than it was three years ago when I arrived as far as the energy, but I think the passion for the team has always been the same.
“I was just running in the park, and the guy driving by, the security guard, was like, ‘Yeah! We believe! We believe!’ I was actually just glad he didn’t run me over as he was telling me that.”
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) September 17, 2017
Part of the culture shift is drawing and keeping local talent on the roster. Toronto-area kids, like Shanahan himself, playing for the same sweater they dreamed of wearing way back when anything was possible.
Winger Zach Hyman, who was raised in Forest Hill, is the top-line poster boy for the trend.
“Everyone wants to grow up and play for the Leafs, so they’re kind of living that dream through me,” Hyman says of his local boosters. “If I had to go buy tickets for all my friends, I wouldn’t have much money left over.”
London, Ont.–born Kadri says he gets asked to Sharpie his name on everything: smartphone cases, babies, French fries….
“Yeah, I signed a French fry before. It was pretty weird,” Kadri says. “It was probably the worst autograph I’ve ever given to somebody in my life. I think they kept it. For all I know they could’ve eaten it or given it to someone else to eat. I did the best I could.
“People ask you to sign their kids, which is…” Kadri chuckles and shakes his head. “I love the Leafs fans. You can’t fault them for it.
“They’re passionate people. The players are passionate, too.”
As he recounts his autograph adventures, there is a childlike quality to Kadri’s storytelling.
The Leafs’ slick new pre-game video introduction, which erupts to the strains of Imagine Dragons’ anthemic “Believer” (sample lyric: “I’m fired up and tired of the way that things have been”), features throwback photos of all the players from their minor hockey days. No more tearing down photographs of the past.
A child pressed a sign to the glass before Game 1, a Magic Marker’d wish: “Bring on the best season yet!”
Emily McIntosh is undergoing brain cancer treatments at Sunnybrook Hospital. She says she “bleeds blue” and winning home-opener tickets care of Kadri’s charity foundation was a source of inspiration.
“She was at a loss for words,” says Kadri, whose uncle, Mohamed Nazem Kadri, passed away from brain cancer.
“That’s somebody who battles real-life adversity. At times, I think that I haven’t scored in four, five games and it’s a very stressful time for me, but that’s nothing compared to what [she] deals with on a regular basis.
“For her to fight and battle like a true soldier means a lot. I figured I’d credit her. She’s a big fan of mine.”
We’ve seen Kadri and Frederik Andersen and other players chatting up fans, young and old, posing for photos in the hallways long after the Jumbotron has dimmed and the TV cameras have been packed away in their bulletproof cases.
We’ve witnessed firsthand the tremendous work for rare cancers and concussion research Dominic Moore does through Smashfest.
Babcock says each Leaf, in his own way, is trying to give back to the city through charity and time spent with fans.
“As much as our life is very public, a lot of the work our guys do on our team is in private,” the coach tells us.
“They’re not trying to get attention for what they’re doing. They’re just good people.”