One of Canada’s most storied sports rivalries is about to add a new chapter. But while the fierce feud between Montreal and Toronto has played out mainly on the ice and on the gridiron, its newest and most heated iteration is unfolding on the soccer pitch.
The Montreal Impact and Toronto FC will clash in a two-game MLS Eastern Conference final series that begins Nov. 22—continuing a clash that reached a new height last season when the Impact tossed aside the Reds 3-0 in Toronto’s first-ever playoff game.
This year, the Impact and TFC both earned a chance to reach the MLS Cup by closing out the conference semifinals in New York City. The Impact defeated the New York Red Bulls 2–1 while Toronto FC embarrassed New York City FC 5–0 at Yankee Stadium. Each team is advancing to the conference final for the first time in franchise history.
Their collective siege of New York set up a collision of fledgling MLS franchises with passionate fan bases, separated by a five-hour drive and more than a century of sports-related tensions.
To set it all up, let’s revisit some history:
Montreal and Toronto faced each other in the NHL playoffs for the first time in 1917, the league’s inaugural year. Toronto prevailed. But the rivalry didn’t really heat up until the mid-1940s, when the Leafs and Habs clashed several times in the playoffs and grappled for dominance among the Original Six.
Montreal beat Toronto in the 1944 semifinals, en route to a Stanley Cup. The Leafs won the Cup in ’45, and the Habs won in ’46. Then Toronto beat Montreal in the 1947 Cup final, the first of three straight championships.
Toronto again beat Montreal in the 1951 Stanley Cup final. Bill Barilko scored the winner in overtime, and died in a plane crash that summer. As the famous Tragically Hip song goes, the Leafs wouldn’t win another until 1962—“the year he was discovered.” But in the meantime, the Canadiens beat them twice in the final—part of a string of five consecutive Cups through the ’50s.
The rivalry continued through the 1960s, with the teams meeting several times in the postseason while both dominated the league. (The Leafs and Habs won a combined 13 Stanley Cups between 1955 and 1969.)
The rivalry found its place in Canada’s literary tradition with Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater, published in 1979, about a young Canadiens fan who endures the indignity of being given a Leafs sweater by his mother.
The Toronto Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes share a rivalry that dates back to 1946, when the teams met in the East final in the Als’ inaugural season. The Argos won 12–6. The teams have met in 11 East finals since then, with Montreal winning six and Toronto five.
In 1955, the Alouettes came back from a 15-pount deficit to win 38–36 in front of their home crowd. In 1996, Doug Flutie and the Argos embarrassed the Alouettes 43-7 in East final, in Montreal’s return after the franchise had been dormant since the early 1980s.
But Montreal took control of the rivalry in the 2000s, winning five of six postseason meeting between the two. Toronto last beat Montreal in the 2012 East final en route to the Grey Cup.
While those storied battles have gone dormant, Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact have carried on the tension-filled tradition. (In fact, the franchises from the two cities have been facing off in various iterations of professional soccer for the past four decades before going mainstream with the MLS.)
The Impact and Toronto FC have met in several Canadian Championships since the inception of TFC in 2008—and the early matches of the “401 Derby” would help heat things up for the Impact’s arrival in the MLS in 2012. (Montreal had played in the North American Soccer League until then.)
The teams played their first MLS game in April that year, with the Impact winning 2–1. Then in 2013, the Impact crushed TFC 6–0 in the Canadian Championship.
But all of that was merely prologue to the MLS playoffs in October 2015. After years of frustration, the Reds had finally reached the postseason, led by league MVP Sebastian Giovinco. But the Impact—in their second-ever playoff appearance—won the knockout round 3-0, spoiling the party for TFC and their drum-beating supporters.
Now, once again, Canada’s two largest cities have a reason to clash. And after these next two games one team will leave the victor with a shot at the MLS championship.
It will be angry and ugly; and it will be fun. And regardless of the outcome, here’s hoping that this tale of two cities stays that way for years to come.