Maple Leafs’ storied past shouldn’t be a source of embarrassment
If you grew up in the Greater Toronto Area (as I did) you certainly heard the jokes.
“The last time the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup, most of their fans were in diapers. And the next time they win it, those fans will be in diapers again!”
“How many Leafs does it take to win a Stanley Cup? Nobody knows and we may never find out!”
Yes, everyone is a comedian when it comes to discussing the longest championship drought in the NHL among non-expansion teams. And the ongoing futility of the Toronto franchise always serves as fodder to remind fans of that very drought. So many Leafs fans were not alive for the team’s last Stanley Cup in 1967 that the memory and relevance in the city are fading. And that Cup has become more of a curse than a blessing. It’s not celebrated any longer. It’s only a painful reminder that the 50th (!) anniversary is right around the corner.
Even millennials who grew up marveling at the heroics of Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin have grown weary over time, and the playoff runs of the early and late 90’s feel more and more distant with time.
And though the promise of the franchise’s young prospects exists, they won’t bear fruit anytime soon. So 1967 continues to hang over the city like a dark cloud, looming larger and even darker anytime the team shows patches of strong play only to (eventually) sputter out.
There is still so much that’s not commonly known about the ’67 team. Though it contained Leafs legends such as Tim Horton, George Armstrong, Frank Mahovlich and Johnny Bower, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for playoff MVP was Dave Keon. And though all four of those aforementioned legends have their number and photo hanging from the rafters of the Air Canada Centre (the Leafs do not officially retire numbers, instead they “Honor” them) there is no mention of Keon. Ask around, and some aging Leafs fans might call him the “Greatest” Leaf to ever play the game, a marvelous combination of skill and class, akin to the Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Béliveau.
So Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan took steps to ensure that more young Leafs fans will know who Keon was by honoring him on Saturday with a place on the Leafs Legends Row, a collection of bronze statues of former franchise greats that stand outside the Air Canada Centre. The official statue will be unveiled next October.
Shanahan cold called Keon to gauge his interest. Keon has had a tumultuous relationship with the organization due to irrational behavior by past management and the organization’s refusal to raise his number to the rafters. But Shanahan, understanding that you can’t move forward until you’re at peace with your past, did his best to make it right.
This is perhaps one of the most telling moves Shanahan has made during his tenure. For years, the Leafs were mismanaged. There was the persistent belief that they were just a piece or two away from contending for the Cup and as such, the motive was always to just throw a fresh coat of paint on the roster and forge forward, overlooking some of the most glaring issues that plagued the team and the organization.
Past management wanted Leafs fans to believe that the team was always very close to a championship, so while 1967 is an important part of the team’s legacy, it hasn’t been the be-all and end-all for fans of the blue and white.
Take Tim Leiweke, the former CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (owners of the Leafs and other teams), who said that he wanted to take down pictures of the Leafs past glories that are hanging in the Air Canada Centre and that he had planned a Stanley Cup parade route.
Turns out that removing history from the equation isn’t the way to re-instill pride in a fan base that can be described as fledging these days, at best. Perhaps the reason why Leafs fans have grown tired of being associated with 1967 is because they’re not familiar with all that the team, and others of the past, encompassed.
Keon is the very embodiment of the players that current Leafs management are trying to create: heavy on skill and character. Celebrating him was as smart a move as the Leafs have made since the new, seemingly level-headed regime took over.
Sure, the jokes will probably still keep coming. But Shanahan and Keon ought to remind Leafs fans that the past isn’t something to walk away from and shun in embarrassment. It’s a part of who and what the Maple Leafs are, warts and all.