It’s me, Duncs. I feel like tonight is a pretty safe space to talk about our Leafs feelings so I thought I’d share how I felt over the last couple years and why tonight means so much.
It might not have been the day I became a Leafs fan, but it might have been the day that eventually led to the day I became a Leafs fan. I cheered for the Penguins then. Mario Lemieux was (is) my favourite player. I had the redesigned white Pens jersey with the triangular modern logo. I had asked about getting Mario’s name and number on the back. My dad joked we might be able to afford one ‘6’. The Penguins were visiting the Gardens to play the Leafs that night, sometime in 1992 or 93. It was a Saturday. I asked my mom if I could stay up to watch the whole game. Usually I was on the clock for bed sometime after the start of the second period. Mom was usually pretty firm on bedtime but that day she paused. “Oh…well yeah, maybe we can do that tonight,” she said. I was pumped. I went about my day and I was playing in my room when my parents walked in. I don’t remember who asked the question. “If you could be anywhere today where would you be?” I felt my eyes go wide and said “At the Leafs/Penguins game!” My parents produced two tickets, in the Golds, and my heart leapt. It was quite literally a dream come true. My dad and I sat in the Golds and my mom sat way up in the greys. (It blows my mind – the idea of loving someone so much you’d spend money to sit next to strangers just to be across a really big room from someone.) I wore my Penguins jersey that night. A man joked I was wearing the wrong colours and I laughed with the fans around me. I was in my element. I belonged, and I was in awe the whole time. The Leafs won 4-2, but Mario scored, or maybe he set up Jagr. I’m not sure, but I remember Ken Wregget started for Pittsburgh and Felix Potvin for Toronto. I may have started that season as a Pens fan, but I finished it a Leafs fan, and the rest is history.
One of the biggest lies in popular fiction and movies and TV and all that is the ease at which characters are able to refer to a moment when things changed. I don’t know when it was. Maybe it was when I was slightly hungover on Bremner, walking to get groceries, and found out the Leafs lost to the Caps when they really needed a win, but I wasn’t expecting one. Maybe it was the second, or fourth, or fifth of six losses during a playoff “push.” It wasn’t quite when they lost to the Jets and sealed the deal of another year of mediocrity. I already knew it was over then. That game was just the confirmation. The Leafs had broken my heart. It’s not like it was new. It was a little different though. Even if I knew they weren’t that great, I wanted them to overachieve. They had done enough for long enough, to need only to hold on and couldn’t do it. It was hope dashed, yet again. It was harder to swallow. It changed how I felt.
There was so much anger and disappointment and frustration. I totally understand the need for media to generate narratives and I couldn’t have been more sick with how bad everything sounded. It was all crap. The play was garbage. The coaching was garbage. Nothing worked. Phil was mistreated more and more and SaluteGate was a thing and there was just no fucking reason to be anything but ashamed and it was awful.
Then some things started to change.
I was pleased with Brendan Shanahan and his initial philosophy. I was happy to see Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter hired. I watched Babs’s plane land and I was confounded and then satisfied after Lou came to town. I approved of the purging that occurred. I bought into the new regime. It felt different though, like I was a skittish puppy uncertain of affection. I was unsure about hope now. I kept it at arms length, and as much as I checked in on the new blood and the new systems, I kind of took last year off.
I won’t lie- it felt good. I didn’t worry about storylines, or game-to-game trends. I just knew these were the guys and things would get better. Nothing else really mattered. We have an all-world coach and a future that looked good, if a little uncertain. That was okay.
Then April 30 happened.
I was born on Canada Day, 1985, so this was very much a brand new thing for me – a first overall pick. I read all the articles and I’d watched him play in the World Juniors. I was pumped about Auston Matthews, but I don’t think anything would have made me believe tonight but to see it.
Tonight isn’t just special because of prophecies fulfilled or for a never before-seen feat of four goals in a player’s first game. Tonight is special because it makes that hope I forgot about feel tangible again. It solidifies the connection to something that is a common thread through the parts of my life I find most meaningful. It’s not just some stupid sports thing, or a distraction from real life. This is the thing that’s been the canvas on which I’ve drawn up real life feeling fucking real again. It’s something else, and I don’t want it to go away. Thanks, Auston.