This story appears in the March 11, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Early in 2016, Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan realized that he finally had one for the Mod Squad. His big moves to that point—firing a general manager, head coach and assistants, 18 scouts, staffers who had spent decades with the organization; greenlighting the roster blowup and ensuing tank job—were too bloody for swagger. Besides, he had assumed this mostly watchful, low-key mode by then, “slipping back into the bushes,” quirky charm unplugged. You’d cast him as the undertaker.
Sure, there were punch-the-air moments, like when Shanahan landed analytics wonder Kyle Dubas as an assistant GM or lured coach Mike Babcock north with a standard-shattering $50 million contract, or slid legendary GM Lou Lamoriello out of New Jersey. But those moves instantly prompted weighty questions about power-sharing, egos, the shift to analytics or—again and forever—finally ending one of the world’s last great championship droughts. None of it was light, or much fun.
No, that part of Shanahan had, in public at least, been buried beneath so much seriousness: his three years running the league’s forever embattled Department of Player Safety, his poignant 2013 Hall of Fame induction, his work to fight the disease that killed his dad. Who knew him anymore as the guy who planted fake offseason activities in his team bios (“Sheepherder . . . U.S. Open ball boy . . . Running double for Tom Hanks in the football scene in Forrest Gump”), or the high school sophomore who began a striptease on a table to “Louie, Louie,” or the scrappy boy who grew up in Mimico, a lunchpail pocket in western Toronto, just a beer-can toss from the Leafs’ current practice facility?
Who, really, knew him anymore as the runt of the Shanahan litter, son of an off-the-boat Irish fireman, enduring skull smacks for taking the wrong chair by his older, far wilder brothers, fighting kids of all sizes daily behind the school and getting his ass kicked in hilarious fashion?
The Mod Squad knew. That’s what one of Shanahan’s Devils teammates dubbed them when he caught sight of the Mimico boys down to visit: prime ’80s mulletry, leather jackets, cigarettes. (“Holy s—, Shanny, how do I explain to my wife that she doesn’t have to be afraid of the Mod Squad?”) They’d grown up together, all first-generation Canadian kids with parents answering the phone in thick-accented English or, worse, mother tongue straight from God knows where.
Shanahan took over the Leafs in April 2014, after strong assurances from the team’s board that he’d have a free hand. He had never run a team before, never mind one for corporate owners like Bell Canada, Rogers Communications and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, and so he spent a year figuring out just how free. And amid the big personnel changes, once in a while Shanahan would ask about the Leafs’ logo, that soulless chunk that only a committee could love, the symbol that had left him and his buddies—Leafs fans all—cold their entire lives.
Shanahan loved the team’s original crest, created in 1927 by owner Conn Smythe in tribute to the Canadians who served in World War I. It was veined and spiky, like something produced by an actual tree, and served as a symbol of excellence until being “updated” during the playoffs of the Maple Leafs’ last Stanley Cup championship in 1967 to keep pace with the era’s polyester vibe. Some liked the new look, of course, but the dynasty collapsed and the team never won another Cup. Yet the logo remained. “It’s, like, when you move into your first day on the job, you say, ‘Am I allowed to press this button? What happens if I press this button?’ ” Shanahan says. “ ‘Am I really allowed to?’ ”
This is in a bagel shop in Mimico, a February blitz of ice pellets buckshotting the windows. Shanahan, 50, sipping coffee and not wearing anything close to a suit, grins. A string of meetings ensued, him just waiting for someone to say stop. What the hell: He pushed the button. And after it was all set, he finally dialed up some of the Mod Squad.
“Hey,” Shanahan would say. And as he reenacts this, now, for a moment the layers dissolve and you can see the wiseass kid again, the one who never imagined that he’d be running the hometown team. “Guess what they’re lettin’ me do?”
There are times and places in Canada when I think—we probably all think—that one would have to be crazy to live there.
— Jan Morris, City to City
Yes. But let’s agree that, compared with the rest of the globe, Canada’s crazy is easy to miss. What country seems more sensible? The even discourse, the reflexive politeness, the brilliant yet genial wit, that easy embrace of hellish cold: Canada is a rock. Canada is the neighbor who helps clean out your garage. You search for the slightest crack, wait years for some flareup of national mayhem, but Canada is always so . . . solid. Then you learn of its obsession with the Maple Leafs. And there’s your clue that something is off.
Because this makes no sense. From afar it appears clear that the Montreal Canadiens—the world’s oldest hockey club, the one whose historic mystique is matched only by the New York Yankees and the Boston Celtics, the one that minted indelible presences like Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Ken Dryden and Guy Lafleur—must be Canada’s most important franchise.
Toronto? In the half century following that last championship, it’s become hockey’s oddest creature: The gargantuan sideshow. Not one Maple Leaf won a prestige regular-season award. Geniuses like Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux and Crosby worked wonders elsewhere. Powers rose in second-tier places like Edmonton, Uniondale and East Rutherford. The NHL grew fivefold and colonized the Sunbelt, and every other Original Six club produced at least one Cup parade. The Leafs, though marshaling some dynamic, even 100-point, teams in the 1990s and early 2000s, have seen their playoff runs typically end in anguish (search: “Gretzky, Doug Gilmour, blood”) or collapse (search: “Bruins, Leafs, third-period capitulation”).
Even worse, while the epic sufferings of the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs amassed cultural cachet largely because of hokey invented curses, the title drought endured by the Leafs smacked of actual karmic comeuppance. In overseeing Canada’s wealthiest franchise—Forbes values the Maple Leafs today at $1.45 billion, second in the NHL to the New York Rangers—mercenary management had so alienated its Golden Age legends, and for so long squeezed its fan base, that sympathy seemed a waste. No sobriquet like Friendly Confines, stuck to majestic Maple Leaf Gardens. Locals dubbed it the Carlton Street Cashbox.
And yet they kept paying out, win or lose—even during the atrocious era of blowhard owner Harold Ballard, even when they were hurling jerseys onto the ice during the miserable 2014–15 season, and certainly now that the promise of 21-year-old Auston Matthews, already the best young scorer in Leafs history, and last summer’s free agent coup, John Tavares, has Toronto (40-21-4, third in the East) poised to become a perennial Cup contender.
This season’s seesawing performance has locals wary, of course, but there’s no disputing a shift in tone. The franchise’s uncuddly identity—the Yankees without winning, the Mets without love: Canada’s Knicks—has grown progressively more human with the arrivals of patiently tended prospects like Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and William Nylander. Then came Tavares. The former Islanders captain didn’t just agree to fewer years (seven) and less lucre ($77 million) to return home; the 28-year-old tweeted a boyhood photo of himself snoozing in Maple Leafs sheets with the caption, “Not everyday you can live a childhood dream.” You could hear the Awwwws coast to coast.
“Oh, that’s beautiful,” says Ontario premier Doug Ford. “It’s a whole new mind-set. Shanahan? It wasn’t about the money. Tavares wasn’t about the money. It was about passion.”
On the morning of Feb. 7, Toronto mayor John Tory looked out the window of his City Hall office to see a crowd of hundreds rushing to the rink in Nathan Phillips Square. The Maple Leafs have held occasional outdoor practices, but this was the first time, ever, that players stunned commuters by clomping, in full gear, onto the subway, riding two stops and walking the city’s streets to play a free 3-on-3 tournament.
As a former businessman, Tory knows a deft marketing stroke when he sees one. But as mayor of Canada’s most diverse city, he suspects that the Leafs sense such touches are necessary “if they want to maintain the Canadian connection in a city that’s dramatically changing, where a lot of people [have] no connection to hockey.” And considering the sport’s role as one of the culture’s prime engines of assimilation, the Leafs’ ability to knit Toronto’s varied communities has implications for the country at large.
So, though ending this drought (“Can you disarm the bomb?” Babcock asked himself before taking the job. “Can you actually do it?”) is the point of every move made today in LeafsLand, it’s also oddly beside the point. Because no franchise matters more in Canada than the Maple Leafs. “It’s not even close,” says Brian Burke, the American-born Sportsnet analyst who has run five NHL teams, including Toronto from 2008 to ’13. “Montreal is a dominant brand as well, but a distant second.”
Of course, Quebec residents—and sports fans at a distance—will protest this notion. The Habs’ $1.3 billion valuation is nothing to sniff at. But it’s also true that griping about Toronto arrogance, Toronto-centric coverage and the Leafs’ ubiquity, no matter their record, in Hockey Night in Canada’s featured Saturday game has been a birthright in Canada’s six other hockey towns for generations. And if you want a true sense of the Maple Leafs’ brand reach, watch it travel. “There’s not one rink where you’re not seeing it flooded with blue-and-white jerseys,” says Matthews. “We always notice it, especially when we go to play in Montreal or Ottawa, these rival places where it’s always an unbelievable atmosphere.”
Yes. Even Montreal. When Tavares broke a 3–3 deadlock in overtime in a sold-out Bell Centre on Feb. 9, what should have been the time-honored stunned silence wasn’t. What should have been the shuffling quiet of a beaten crowd wasn’t. Instead, the Toronto roars filled the place, claiming it, and strange as that felt, you had to be impressed.
“There’s nothing like it. I don’t care what sport you go to,” says former Bruins coach—and famed Hockey Night gadfly—Don Cherry. “Even when they were one of the worst teams in the league, you’d go on the road and it’d be, ‘Let’s go, Leafs.’ ”
Asked why, he doesn’t pause.
“Nobody knows,” Cherry says.
No, but they have a pretty good idea. Numbers—cold measures of time, population, household income, ratings, budgets, contract disputes—lie at the bottom of any explanation of Maple Leaf dominance, not to mention Maple Leaf love or loathing. Start with one of the greatest head starts in sports history: In radio’s early days, only Leafs games were beamed nationwide, priming the entire western flank to regard Toronto—then one of only two Canadian NHL -franchises—as its “home” team when Hockey Night began its run as a cultural colossus in 1952.
Still, what with the Canadiens’ success and Montreal’s primacy as the nation’s largest and most dynamic metropolis, the fan bases for both likely would’ve remained fairly even. “When I was growing up, this city was relatively colorless: Nice place, but it was half the size of Montreal,” says Tory, 64. “Montreal was seen as the global city.”
But beginning in 1976, everything changed: Sovereignty and language issues in Quebec touched off a political crisis, and banks and businesses—not to mention baseball—began a steady bleed to Toronto. Canada began dramatically increasing its flow of immigrants, particularly from Asia and the Caribbean, who washed up predominantly in the greater Toronto area. “And the city,” Tory says, “just started to take off.”
With a population now at 2.86 million, Toronto recently passed Chicago as North America’s fourth-largest city and is growing by at least 70,000 a year. Such demographic clout—nearly one quarter of Canada’s 36 million population lives within 100 miles of Toronto’s downtown arena—ensures Leafs preeminence. And that’s before a few deep playoff runs or, yes, a Stanley Cup title sparks bandwagon-hopping on a Biblical scale.
“The other big thing is that all the big companies—and literally every big advertising agency—is based in Toronto,” says Scott Moore, the former Sportsnet president who negotiated Rogers Media’s current 12-year, $5.2 billion deal with the NHL. “When the Leafs play well and are in the playoffs, those agencies buy more hockey on television.
“They’re certainly the most important sports franchise in Canada—and people can love or hate that. But they’re in the country’s biggest economic center. When the Leafs do well, all Canadian teams do well. The entire league does well.”
If all that conspires to make Toronto seem suspiciously like New York or L.A., well, it’s always easy to think of Canada as Nice America. But doing so is a mistake, because nothing in the States compares with the Canada crazy that blossoms most obviously on a sheet of ice. Nothing in the States compares with the Greater Toronto Hockey League, with its 40,000 players—from Minor Atoms (age 10 and under) to U21s. And no American version of accomplished, big-city adults would allow a sport to push them to such extremes.
Name, please, a top three U.S. mayor who has not only tried personally to woo a free agent (Steven Stamkos, 2016), but also dresses up like Abraham Lincoln for his team. Tory has done so for every playoff home opener since 2003, taking the subway with a pack of old buddies dressed as Elvis, Colonel Sanders and—new addition—Donald Trump, and stopping in a bar for “reinforcements.” Tory’s disguise is so elaborate, complete with a Hollywood-quality beard that comes in a “very elaborate box” and is applied by a makeup artist, that he often goes unrecognized. “It’s all guys who grew up Leafs fans—because you just were,” Tory says.
Asked about this one February afternoon, Ford says, “That’s pretty crazy. Why hide?” But he’s preoccupied with scrolling on his phone, looking for unrequested proof of his friendship with Tie Domi, infamous Leafs enforcer and dad of Canadiens instigator Max. Finally, Ford gives up.
“Must’ve been erased,” he says. “It was a great picture of Tie Domi and myself. Everyone says he has a big noggin. Christ, my noggin is twice as big as his.”
Ford is a controversial figure in Canada, partly because his younger brother Rob’s sad, zany stint as Toronto city councilman and mayor included a string of public drug and alcohol episodes—including one at a 2006 Leafs game—before he died of cancer in ’16. But before that, the brothers played hockey together, first on the streets with a ball and yelling “Car!” like every generation of Canadian boys and then, in the late 1980s, on their label company’s ever-brawling industrial league team, the Buzzers.
“Anyone that touched him, I was over the boards in about a half a second. I’d always protect him,” Ford says of his brother. One Sunday, the gloves dropped at the opening face-off and within minutes both teams’ top two lines had been ejected. Finally, Rob laid out the goalie on a breakaway, and the real mayhem ensued. “I was standing in the stands behind the bench, and all of a sudden I feel a sucker shot right in the back of my head,” says Ford. “The other team had come around in the stands, and then people were fighting, jumping on the ice with running shoes,” Ford says. “The police ended up showing up. . . . ”
Even the sophisticates can’t resist the game. In 2018 the longtime conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian, stopped a curtain call cold to announce that the Maple Leafs’ minor league team, the Toronto Marlies, captained then by his nephew, had just won its first championship. “The audience went nuts,” Oundjian says. Or was already.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in a church or a mosque or a museum,” says Oundjian. “Everybody’s a hockey nut.”
Not everybody. Oh, Frank Mahovlich still keeps an eye on the game. But his days as a Maple Leaf make it hard for him to feel thrilled about the current revival. “No, I kind of gave up on the whole thing,” he says. You can’t blame him. Many a free agent has been scared off by Toronto’s reputation for unrelenting pressure. And no great in Toronto’s history ever had it rougher.
It made little sense. The Big M led the Leafs to their last four Stanley Cup titles, piled up 155 points from 1960 to ’62; his 11-year Toronto stint, alone, would’ve landed him in the Hockey Hall of Fame. But at his graceful best, Mahovlich made the game look easy, and critics took any off-night as an insult. Home fans booed him regularly, and he was heckled downtown during the ’63 Cup victory reception. Twice, in ’64 and ’67, he left the team mid-season to check into a hospital with what was then termed a “nervous breakdown.” Why?
“I always tell my students in class, nine out of 10 questions have the same answer: money,” says Frank’s son, Ted, a teacher and hockey coach at Wilkinson Junior Public School and author of The Big M. “The thing with the Maple Leafs in that era . . . ”
His dad cuts in: “ . . . was the money.”
All Original Six teams, then, were known for paying little and colluding to depress salaries, but Punch Imlach, Toronto’s tyrannical coach and GM, took it to an infamously spiteful level. Imlach never forgave Frank for walking out of training camp in a contract dispute in 1962, and from then on, he tinkered with his top winger’s minutes and mind, intentionally mispronounced Mahovlich’s name, ridiculed him to reporters, demanded that he practice even after a skate blade had sliced through his rib cage.
“Being punished for losing a game: That never happened in Montreal or Detroit,” Frank says. “I was tired, and then people would boo you and, jeez, I had nothing to give. I was just run down, exhausted. Every week I had a breakdown.”
During his last hospital stint, in November 1967, a doctor told Mahovlich that his only ailment was an allergy to Imlach. Four months later, Mahovlich was traded to Detroit; his scoring fade instantly reversed course. After being traded to the Canadiens in ’71, Mahovlich added the touches that placed him on the NHL’s 100 Greatest list: a then record 27 points in the ’71 playoffs, two more Cups—and a mind unclouded at last. “It was so light,” he says of his four-year stop in Montreal, which remains the family standard.
“To this day,” says his wife, Marie, “they treat us like kings.”
Mahovlich never talked to Imlach again. He wasn’t alone.
Another star of Toronto’s ’67 champs, defenseman Larry Hillman, asked for a $5,000 raise—for a salary of $20,000—after the Cup win. Imlach refused to budge above $19,500, held fast until Hillman cracked, and then fined him $100 a day for his 24-day holdout. When Hillman left the team a year later, for Minnesota, he declared that the Leafs would never again win a Stanley Cup until he was repaid his $2,400—with interest. The “Hillman Hex” took hold.
Then there was hard-boiled center Dave Keon, four-time Cup champ, playoff MVP in 1967, voted in 2016 the greatest Leaf ever. His primary complaint was owner Harold Ballard, a spectacularly awful presence who matched Imlach for money-grubbing. After wresting control of the team from Smythe’s son, Ballard served a year in jail for fraud and tax evasion. He removed a portrait of Queen Elizabeth at Maple Leaf Gardens because, he said, “the Queen doesn’t pay anything to get in, does she?”
In 1975, Ballard publicly ripped Keon and refused to sign him but then jacked the compensation fee for waiving his rights so high that no team would be interested. Keon ended up jumping to the WHA and spent four decades estranged from the organization, refusing to have his number honored, refusing to just show up and wave.
Says Hillman, “We certainly didn’t deserve what we were put through, so I just left the Hillman Hex. At 35 years somebody asked could I take it off, and I said, ‘50’s a nice round figure. . . . ’ ”
Being held in contempt by its icons is hardly a good look; combine that with a decade of ineptitude on ice, and by 2014 the Maple Leafs brand was as vulnerable as it had ever been. Hockey minds dismissed the rising Raptors as a temporary threat, on the order of the World Series champion Blue Jays of the 1990s, but Toronto had become a different city. Today, more than half of the metro area’s millions were born outside of Canada, and the NBA’s international makeup (the Raptors’ roster includes players from Congo, Spain, Cameroon, as well as Asian-American Jeremy Lin) reflected it. With Drake cheering courtside, and its brilliant “We the North” campaign crystallizing long-hidden Canadian “attitude,” the Raptors gave the national sports ethos an entirely different feel.
Charged with marketing both teams, MLSE chief commercial officer Dave Hopkinson was both delighted and concerned. He could explain away the day, in 2014, when the Raptors passed the Leafs in Facebook likes as a matter of the NBA’s global reach.
But other market monitors revealed a basic divide: Maple Leafs crowds reflect old, white, male Toronto; a Raptors crowd, he says, “is much more representative of present-day Toronto—young, diverse by gender, by culture, by background.” Customer research revealed a mind-set in newly arrived immigrants: I feel like the Raptors are more, “My Team,” because I’m never going to be part of old, white Toronto.
TV ratings saw the surging Raptors occasionally surpass the struggling pre-Matthews Leafs. Says Hopkinson, who left MLSE last June to become Global Head of Partnerships for Real Madrid. “I thought, Here we go. This could be it. This could be where the Raptors become the dominant team.”
Enter Shanny. Brought in by Tim Leiweke, then president of MLSE, in the spring of 2014, Shanahan had been tasked with reviving the sclerotic hockey operation. One of his first calls was to Dave Branch, commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League. “Who should I talk to?” he said. “Who’s the next guy?”
Branch directed him eight hours northwest, where Dubas, a 28-year-old GM, was using daring personnel moves and statistical analysis to revive the small-budget Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. The situations hardly seemed comparable. But with the NHL’s hard salary cap neutralizing Toronto’s market advantage, the Leafs needed—and could spend freely on—creative upgrades in sports science, training staff, scouting, development and analytics.
Thus ensued a half-legendary seven-hour job interview/debate, complete with pizza run. “I’ve seen a lot of people like Brendan in his role, with his playing pedigree,” says Dubas. “But not with his ambition for learning and immersing himself in things that he didn’t know about the business and hockey side, and for pushing us to challenge our own beliefs.”
At the same time Shanahan, the only player with 2,000 penalty minutes to recite Shakespeare in a locker room, began wading into more familiar waters. Three decades ago, Lamoriello made him the first-ever draft pick of his Hall of Fame career in New Jersey, and when an insecure Shanahan worried that he wasn’t good enough to play in the NHL, Lamoriello told him, “Trust me, you are.” Twenty-two years later, when a 40-year old Shanahan insisted that he could still play in the NHL, Lamoriello told him, “Trust me, you can’t.”
Shanahan retired. And now, in 2015, the man who had given him professional life and death would start working for him in Toronto. For the next three years their operation hummed: GM Lamoriello mentored Dubas, transitioned in the high-maintenance Babcock; assistant GM Mark Hunter made the right call on selecting Marner in 2015; the Leafs won the ’16 lottery and signed Matthews and got better fast. Then last April, with the Colorado Avalanche wooing Dubas, Shanahan had to make a decision: Lose the game’s best old GM, or lose the next great young one?
Shanahan promoted Dubas. That had been the original plan; Lamoriello’s deal called for three years as Leafs GM before being elevated to “senior adviser.” But clearly Lamoriello wanted to keep going: Within a month he was running the Islanders. And clearly, Shanahan—no matter how effusively grateful for his help, now and in the past—had handed Lamoriello one of his few tastes, ever, of rejection.
“There are many easy days for me and then there are some hard ones,” says Shanahan. “That was a hard one, having that conversation with Lou. But I think that knowing Lou and what I’ve learned from Lou even prepared me for that conversation. I think he understood that this was. . . . ”
His face darkens, here in the bagel shop: The undertaker returns. “You know, he’s a private guy, and I’m private as well,” Shanahan says. “So I don’t want to talk about it too much, other than to say it was how we envisioned it when he first signed. And I felt it was the right thing to stick with that.”
Maybe there’s no more to it than that. Lord knows, by then Shanahan had grown used to bumping up daily against his past. There’s his mother, Rosaleen, whose brogue used to appear “anonymously” on local call-in shows with praise for that Shanahan boy—still living in his childhood home. There are his high school buddies, his three brothers, all within a 20-minute drive. And there’s the memories of his father, Donal, whose mind began to go when Brendan was 15, who died of Alzheimer’s five years later, whose presence flickers to life whenever Brendan returns to Mimico.
“Long before I took this job, there were lots of moments where I’d like to dig in a little deeper on him, talk to him a little more,” Shanahan says. “I think that’s part of coming back here, too. I did my entire 21 years in the NHL elsewhere. For me this is a very personal challenge, and it’s very meaningful.
“It’s weird: I didn’t choose where the Maple Leafs practice rink was going to be—but it’s in my old neighborhood, like a five-minute drive away from here. So I drive through, I do routes that have lots of ghosts. Lots of stories.”
He gets in his car, and drives one route: Past the funeral home where his father was laid out, the school wall where he scrawled his name in Wite-Out and Donal caught him, the sidewalks where his dad always seemed to drive up just when Brendan was doing something sketchy. And as he retells a few stories, each so detailed, giggling the whole time, you can see why Shanahan was the one who ended up bringing back the old Maple Leafs logo. He loves the past, the way you can retell it and feel the way you did then, all over again.
That’s why Shanahan knew that his regime had to shed the cold, bottom-line image that had calcified into fact. It’s why he pushed to establish the Legends Row statuary outside Scotiabank Arena that, year by year, has honored the likes of Frank Mahovlich, why he reversed the team’s policy of not retiring player numbers; why he dialed Dave Keon in 2016 and convinced him to come back into the fold. And it’s why, finally, in ’17, after Larry Hillman confided that he’d lifted the Hillman Hex after 50 years, Shanahan quietly went to his board and received approval to cut him a check for $2,400—plus 50 years of compounded interest.
Just before hitting the highway back to Toronto, in the thick of the storm, Shanahan rolls slow past his mom’s house. He starts to speak of how it came to be, him leaving home at 16, scared and alone and missing it. It happened fast. He was just a sophomore, playing two years up, but his family all figured he might play college somewhere. They hadn’t known scouts were watching. Then one appeared at the door: London, OHL. “We’re going to draft your son,” he said.
Brendan would be gone playing, there and then in the NHL, while his dad grew sicker in Mimico. He missed so much of it. “The draft was in June, and my friends were just finishing up exams, and I said, ‘You know, I might not come back next year,’ ” Shanahan says. “And they were, like, ‘Yeah, right.’ ”
He stares straight ahead through the windshield at the road and snow, wipers snapping. Six seconds pass.
“And I never came back,” Shanahan finally says. “Until I got this job.”
You won’t hear much big talk from the Maple Leafs these days. Part of that is Babcock, who lives in a clenched-jaw world of grinding today-ness because, hell, it’s the only way to stay sane. Same for Shanahan, who missed and made his share of big shots as a player and knows that only the dumb get excited about one game, week or month. So when the Toronto braintrust stepped on a jammed Bell Centre elevator on Feb. 9, seconds after Tavares’s storybook goal, the poker faces had been screwed on. Shanahan, in full “bushes” mode, nodded blankly; Dubas stared at his shoes; assistant GM Brandon Pridham glanced at both and then away. No smile, no waggled eyebrow. They might as well have been heading to the breakfast buffet.
It seemed near inhuman, considering. Last summer Dubas had been a GM for six weeks, going head-to-head against Lamoriello, of all people, when he convinced Tavares to come home. And now, after justifying his massive deal by playing at a career-best pace (38 goals and 76 points in 69 games, as of March 11), Tavares had produced his signature moment of the regular season. And yet . . . nothing. At ground level the doors opened, and they bolted out, striding quick toward the locker room with Shanahan in front—and nearly made it when Pridham could restrain himself no more. In lockstep he turned, slapped Dubas high and hard on the back, squeezed once, and let go; Dubas shot him a look. For hockey suits, that’s an end zone dance.
Toronto was an early odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup, but its urgency—and defensive heaviness—has yet to match its skill-and-speed offense. Dubas keeps hustling: He’s resolved the holdout of Nylander, traded for defenseman Jake Muzzin and inked Matthews to a five-year, $58 million extension, leaving fans with plenty—for now—to feel good about.
TV ratings have rebounded from their 2014 nadir, dwarfing the Raptors’ numbers. The Feb. 9 Leafs-Habs game on Hockey Night drew a season-high 2.25 million viewers across Canada; the Raptors’ season high came for the Feb. 22 return of San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan to Toronto, attracting an average of 710,000 viewers. “Hockey’s back,” Hopkinson says.
But the Leafs have done more than just reignite disaffected viewers. They’re forging new ones. Hopkinson’s research shows that young immigrants also lean into a winning team in a way that they don’t a loser. While conducting an online survey of non-white Canadians for his book Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities, University of London professor Eric Kaufmann found, he says, that, “minorities are as or more likely than whites to feel Canadian when thinking about hockey. So, even though the players at all levels (not least the pros) are overwhelmingly white, this doesn’t seem to have impaired identification among minorities with hockey as a Canadian symbol.”
Ted Mahovlich sees that process firsthand. More than half his students over the last 15 years have been Muslim—and none played hockey for him. But every fall four or five, now in their 20s, drop by and speak of having joined ball hockey leagues. “And I’ll say, ‘Will you have your kids one day playing ice hockey?’ ” Mahovlich says. “And their answer is, ‘Absolutely, yes.’ ”
This is why, if and when the Leafs eventually do win a Cup, Canadians are expecting what former Leafs GM and current Sportsnet commentator Gord Stellick calls “a civic orgasm.” Quietly, plans are being made; Tory figures a crowd of 6 million will surge downtown, closing schools and shattering the record set by Chicago after the Cubs’ 2016 World Series win. As for the Leafs, read into it what you like: After Chicago’s parade, Dubas visited the Cubs’ offices, spent two days comparing notes on everything from scouting to mental development.
Earlier this season, Cubs staffers came to Toronto. Then, on Feb. 17, Dubas slipped away from the Leafs’ long road trip to spend another day at the Cubs’ spring training facility in Arizona, and finally met two-time slumpbuster Theo Epstein. But, Dubas insists, he’s not focusing on anything cosmic, “not in the sense of, ‘How did you overcome the curse?’ Because if you start chasing that—start chasing ending a very long spell of poor luck—as opposed to trying to get all of the different process-markers correct within your organization, I don’t know that that’s smart. . . . It’s giving yourself as many opportunities as you can, not allowing that over-arching burden of The team hasn’t won in 51 years now to seep into the daily routines and performance of the players and the staff.”
Process-marker? If any game this season should be used as a measure of the Maple Leafs, it’s their Feb. 23 rematch at home—and 743rd meeting overall—against Montreal. Toronto had lost a season-high three straight, and after starting off slow (again), their (still) suspect defense surrendered three goals in the first 14 minutes. But then Matthews cranked up a superstar performance, scoring and tussling, and in the third period Tavares was engineering rushes and the thing shifted into a swift-flowing carnival of offense, and with 1:50 to play it was 3–3. Marner fired off the left wing. Zach Hyman popped in the puck for the win, and then the Leafs scored two more just for the fun of it.
But the most emblematic moment came just after the game-winner: Tavares, Marner, Hyman converged in a big screaming hug, three Leafs raised in nearby Oakville, Thornhill and near the subway stop at St. Clair West. All had once been fans in the seats. All had played in the street, pretending to be what they would become.
“Oh, yeah, when I was a young kid I’d watch it with my family and parents and sometimes I’d come to the games,” Hyman said in the locker room after. “To be able to play in a game like this on Saturday night against Montreal, being able to battle back and score the game winner? If I told my young self, I don’t know if I’d believe it. I’m pinching myself.”
Standard stuff, of course, as simple as a slap on the back: Heated rivalry, hometown kids make good, a last-second win. Few passions run hotter than Canada and its hockey. But here’s the Toronto triumph. For the first time in a long time, it feels new.