NHL: Does Tradition in Toronto Still Resonate with Young Maple Leafs Players?
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"1940 ... 1940 ... 1940."
Few teams were ever skewered like the Rangers were by such a simple taunt by the crowd.
The Islanders, of course, had won Stanley Cup championships in '80, '81, '82 and '83. The Rangers had last won a Stanley Cup in 1940 and that finally changed in 1994, when they won an epic seven-game series from the Vancouver Canucks.
The 54 years between Stanley Cups was a lifetime for many fans. After the Rangers finally won, there was relief that they would no longer hear that chant. The Toronto Maple Leafs have one of the longest and most fulfilling traditions in the National Hockey League.
Toronto is the home to the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Maple Leafs are one of the great icons for English-speaking hockey fans in Canada.
However, when it comes to winning hockey, that tradition does little for the modern-day Maple Leafs.
The 1966-67 season was the last year the NHL was a six-team league. The Maple Leafs were no juggernaut that season, but they rose from their third-place finish to defeat the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks to emerge as league champions.
I'll see your Pete Stemkowski and raise you Dave Keon.
There have been no championships since the great expansion of 1967-68, and no appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals since 1967-68. The best the Leafs have done in the ensuing 45 years were back-to-back losses in the Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Kings in 1993 and the Vancouver Canucks the following year.
The loss to the Kings was particularly heartbreaking. The Maple Leafs led the series 3 games to 2 before losing back-to-back 5-4 decisions in Games 6 and 7. The seventh game, in Maple Leaf Gardens, saw Wayne Gretzky lead the Kings with a hat trick to deny the Leafs a place in the Finals.
Had the Leafs won the game, they would have faced the Montreal Canadiens in what would have been an epic matchup for the sport.
Since then, the Leafs have not come close to that level. The most recent years have been the worst—they have missed the playoffs altogether the last seven seasons. Leafs hockey has been synonymous with an empty feeling at the end of the season.
Older Leaf fans can think of Bob Baun, Frank Mahovlich, Johnny Bower and other past stars with fondness, but young Leaf fans and Leaf players find it difficult to get any joy from that tradition.
At a certain point, that history starts to mock the current team.
The Rangers knew that back in 1994 and the Red Wings had to hear the same thing until they won the Stanley Cup in 1997, after their last championship had been won in 1955.
In baseball, the Boston Red Sox grew weary of hearing about the 1918 World Series champions until they won in 2004. The Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 1917 and didn't win another until 2005.
The Chicago Cubs are the leaders of the misery index, having last won the World Series in 1908. That's 104 years and counting. The Leafs are mere pikers in misery compared to the Cubs. But 45 years is a long time.
The Leafs players know all about the tradition as soon as they put on their blue and white uniforms and start skating in the Air Canada Centre.
However, that tradition only adds to the considerable pressure they face every time they step on the ice. The tradition will come back to wrap the team up with warmth and security when the Leafs finally put a team on the ice that is capable of winning.
Until then, it will be an albatross around the necks of the current players.
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