In the National Hockey League’s 1966-1967 season, history being made was assured. It would be the final season with only the Original Six teams participating, the league doubling in size the following season on its way to its now 32 franchises spread across the United States and Canada. The Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup at the end of the season, defeating their arch rivals the Montreal Canadiens four games to two.
Toronto hasn’t been to the Stanley Cup finals since.
It’s not that the Maple Leafs have been universally bad the past 54 years. They’ve had decent teams and star players. But this year was supposed to be the year, what with young superstud guns Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner ably abetted by the still potent John Tavares and the newly acquired savvy veteran playmaker Joe Thornton. Toronto won their division handily and looked set for a deep run into the playoffs, a legitimate contender for the Cup.
Then the playoffs started.
Things started going south when Tavares was injured in Game One in a first round matchup against those pesky Canadiens. Still, Toronto seemed to have the upper hand and indeed did just that, taking a three games to one lead in the series. Just one more win and it would be off to Winnipeg, where the Jets had summarily dismissed the Edmonton Oilers in a sweep to win their series. Unfortunately for Toronto, it neglected to win that fourth game. In fact, in the three straight losses with which they ended their season they never had a lead. Ouch.
While detailed analysis of what the Maple Leafs should or shouldn’t do to bolster their roster is a matter of debate (I have my own underperforming team to worry about), it staggers the imagination that among all the teams that were in existence in the four major sports in 1967, Toronto stands alongside this minuscule Hall of Shame as a franchise who have not so much as reach the championship series or game since that year:
- Cincinnati Royals (now Sacramento Kings)
- St. Louis Hawks (now Atlanta Hawks)
- Detroit Lions
- No one
Making matters worse is that even as the Dallas Cowboys are (or at least used to be) America’s Team, the Maple Leafs are Canada’s Team in Canada’s sport. They have their own television channel. The season ticket renewal rate is over ninety-nine percent, even at an exorbitant price including a personal seat license. The Maple Leafs aren’t a sports franchise, they are a way of life.
In theory, every sports franchise should be judged on its present status. How is the product? If there is a minor league system, what prospects are in the pipeline? Is the leadership capable of maximizing the present team’s strengths? Are the scouts and talent evaluators making the right decisions? This is all here and now plus plans for the foreseeable future stuff. As said, should. Assuming it’s not the same people in charge, they are not responsible for past failures.
Try telling that to a fan base who have suffered for decades watching a team in which they have invested heavily continuously fall short. It’s all too tempting to see today’s failure as a continuation of previous flops. Logically one knows this to not be the case, but logic and sports are uncomfortable bedfellows. The Toronto Maple Leafs have once again fallen, and for their fans it is yet another summer of discontent to be spent waiting for the ponds to freeze over.