There is a saying that spreads around Canada. It goes: “The Leafs fall in spring.’’
That is not leaves as in trees shedding their greenery. That is Leafs as in Toronto Maple Leafs, who have become the poster boys for disappointment in their country.
Somewhere Conn Smythe and King Clancy, icons of this beloved hockey team, are shaking their heads in disbelief. What ever happened to this proud franchise?
Four teams are left in the chase for the Stanley Cup. The Maple Leafs are not one of them and have not been for a long time. Oh, they made the playoffs. That is not terribly difficult in these days of franchise overload. Advancing in the playoffs is quite another matter.
In the first round of the postseason, Toronto took the two-time defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning to a seventh game before … well … falling. By folding up at that point, the Leafs became the first team in the history of the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball to lose an opening round elimination game in five straight seasons.
The dry spell is worse than that. The last time Toronto won Lord Stanley’s coveted Cup was in the 1966-67 season, a whopping 55 seasons ago. That is a hockey lifetime, the longest stretch without a Cup in NHL history.
Understand that Toronto isn’t just any old franchise. The Maple Leafs are one of the original six NHL teams, a cozy little club that included Montreal, Detroit, Chicago, Boston and New York. Each year, four of the six reached the playoffs, effectively the Stanley Cup semifinals. And the Maple Leafs were almost always one of those four.
Toronto has won the Cup 13 times, second only to the Montreal Canadiens’ 24. There have been two dynasties, 1944-51 when they won five Cups in seven years, and 1961-67 when they won four Cups in six years.
Those were the Maple Leafs of Frank Mahovlich and Dave Keon, of Johnny Bower and Turk Broda, of Hap Day and Red Kelly. Their roster of memorable stars is lengthy.
Bill Barilko scored the Cup winning goal in 1951 and then was killed when his plane crashed on a hunting trip in the summer. Bob Baun was carried off the ice with a broken ankle in the 1964 playoffs but returned to the game to score the winning goal in overtime.
They were hockey royalty in those days. They have become postseason bottom-feeders lately, though.