1993. I was finally old enough to really GET hockey. And what a time to get hockey. Doug Gilmour. Wendel Clark. Felix Potvin. Pat Burns. I was sitting in the car, listening to the radio after visiting my grandfather in a retirement home, as Nikolai Borchevsky scored in overtime in Game 7 to take the Leafs over the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings in a huge upset. Toronto would go on to beat Curtis Joseph and the St. Louis Blues in the next round in an amazing series, and play against Wayne Gretzky and the LA Kings for a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals. This was the series in which every Leaf fan EVER developed an intense hatred for referee Kerry Fraser (Google him, or check out http://www.downgoesbrown.com)
There was heart break. For more then one reason. The Leafs would have gone on to play the Montreal Canadians in the Stanley Cup Finals, which may have led to the end of the world as we know it. But a phantom call gave Gretzky and his team the chance to move on, and they did. And lost.
I kept being a casual fan until my first year at the University of Waterloo, when I would watch every Leafs game, cheering on the likes of Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Brian McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Curtis Joseph. I literally finished a Latin exam in 20 minutes so I could catch Game 4 of the Toronto-Ottawa series (with the Leafs up 3 games to none, I wasn't going to miss a sweep.)
The Leafs had good teams over those Pat Quinn years, but never made it to a big game. And on the down swing of Pat Quinn's time with the Leafs, there was a lockout, and since then we've not made it to the playoffs. I had to endure with a goalie who was more like a sieve, who's last name bore a striking resemblance to my own.
This year, things changed. Incredibly. The Leafs are bottom dwellers, but over this season the Leafs have become one of the youngest teams in the league. People will debate the sense in trading two first round draft picks and a second for Phil Kessel (especially now that we are essentially eligible for a first overall pick) but at the time I can see why the deal was made. No-one was anticipating such a low finish. I was willing to accept Kessel would likely be better then whomever we could draft.
We hadn't played well this season, leading into the olympic roster freeze. Then a miracle happened. In one short day, six members of an underachieving team were sent off, and new players brought in. One of these players was Dion Phaneuf, who in his first year with the Calgary Flames was outstanding.
Suddenly, the Leafs were different, they were quicker. Young players were given the shot, and they rose to the occassion. Phaneuf brought leadership and accountability to the team. We became tougher, faster, more FUN.
The playoffs this season are not possible, nor were they at about the halfway point, but we have hope. We have a young team with two cornerstones in Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. We have an incredible number of young players who are playing well. Tyler Bozak seems to be finding his role centering Kessel. Kulemin is playing outstandingly. Sjostrom has become one of my favorite players simply due to his defensive ability and Penalty Killing specialty. The goaltending tandem of JS Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson has been fairly solid (Giguere picked up back to back shutouts in his first two games as a Leaf!).
The old has been moved out, and the new are looking to have potential. They're playing well, having won 5 of the last 6. I have hope for next season. I have been wrong about this before, but I don't think I have been as entertained by a Leafs teams in a long time. I can see similarities to the Chicago Blackhawks, with a young nucleus, learning to play together. This is a Leafs team I can really get behind. This is a Leafs team I can get my hope up for. I know it's not an instant Stanley Cup, but I see the pieces in play, and I see this team getting better and better as they play together.
I see a future.
Go Leafs Go.