- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 22, 2002

TORONTO Three years ago the mayor of Toronto held a rally in front of City Hall to thank the Maple Leafs for their accomplishments that season. Thousands attended. It was on live TV and radio.
It was embarrassing.
The Leafs finished second in their division that season but made it to the conference finals, where they were pummeled by the Buffalo Sabres 4-1. In this city, that was cause enough for celebration.
And it is also the reason a lot of people who wear suits are worried what might happen should the Leafs win another Stanley Cup.
Yesterday, cars driven by a generation not even born when the Leafs last won a Cup in 1967 zipped up Bay Street, across Yonge and onto Queen, tooting horns and waving Maple Leafs flags. Sensible-appearing young office workers went about their chores with small temporary blue and white maple leaf tattoos on their cheeks, and children of all ages wore Tie Domi No. 28 jerseys. The local TV news led with the Leafs practicing.
A matronly woman who didn't want to give her name but appeared to be in her early 60s said yesterday she had been coming to Leafs games for decades, though not as many now as when her husband was alive. The tickets are still in the family, however.
"The tradition is still there, and people still love them, but I'm not sure how many remember when they won the last time," she said. She pointed to her son and added, "He was just a baby."
"I was 6," the son said. "I remember sitting on the end of my parents' bed, watching the black and white TV. I'm 41 now, so that was 35 years ago."
On the streets in front of the Air Canada Centre, scalpers were moving at a quicker pace than usual; city police were issuing citations for anybody trying to move a ticket for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final against the Carolina Hurricanes. "It's almost useless anyway," one of the dealers said. "People can't afford these tickets."
Still, the building was full, as it has been since it opened in February 1999 when it replaced the beloved but rickety Maple Leaf Gardens. Tickets do not go on sale for Leafs games so much as they are willed, father to son; if some of the better ones become available, they are snapped up by corporations.
"This is Canada's team as much as the Dallas Cowboys say they are America's team," one veteran Toronto columnist said. "There are 3 or 4 million people here in the metropolitan area, but this is Ontario's team right up to the Ottawa city limits. If some of the fans got upset and 10 season tickets became available, there would be 100 people lined up to buy them. It's just like Washington, where there are waiting lists for Redskin tickets."
Toronto is Canada's largest city and most powerful, the latter a fact that grates on the rest of the nation from time to time. It is the center of commerce and the media center, and its sports heroes are the ones trumpeted from coast-to-coast in the print and electronic outlets.
It is also the only one of the Original Six franchises that never recovered from the NHL's 1966 expansion, which doubled the size of the NHL to 12 teams. Toronto won the 1967 Stanley Cup but is the only one of the Original Six never to have returned for a final (the others have played for titles at least three times).
Of the current teams located in Canada (excluding Ottawa, which is only 10 years old), all have been to the finals at least twice since Toronto's last appearance. Montreal has won 10 Cups since the Leafs' last. Even the Quebec Nordiques found a way to win twice although they had to move to Denver and become the Colorado Avalanche to do so.
Yet in Toronto, fans cheer wildly with blind passion for each stumble forward their Leafs take, knowing, perhaps, where it won't lead.
"They're not that patient, but these fans have a love affair with their players," coach and general manager Pat Quinn said yesterday a few hours before he was hustled off to a hospital with a "chest condition."
"It's a city where expectations start really high even if they're not justified, and there have been a lot of times where there was no justification for the expectation that is was a Cup year."
Attendance was down for a Blue Jays day game on Sunday because the Leafs were playing an afternoon game. It made no difference that it was in North Carolina; these people bleed true blue.
"Any fan has to be hopeful. That's what makes a fan," said executive vice president Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame goalie. "You have to believe there's some combination of things that could happen that could produce a championship, and the fact is in almost every case there is that possibility. What the fan needs to feel is that today there is a possibility of a better tomorrow."
That's what they have been praying for in Toronto since 1967.


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