The Maple Leafs off-season in recent years has always conjured images of some arcane festival, where pundits and purists clog up every real and digital highway in the city in an effort to be the most relevant source of irrelevant news. Like pilgrims descending upon Mecca, only the truly devoted have seen an entire city glow in the soft light of a million Blackberries when Darren Dreger updates his Twitter. It’s been hardly more than a month since Brian Burke was booed picking Nazem Kadri, signed away half of the Montreal Canadiens’ total body mass in Mike Komisarek, and left fans outraged when he went to Sweden to lock up the Sedin twins and accidentally signed some goalie and his roommate. But since those eventful weeks, Leafs fans have had to be content with listening to Pierre McGuire describe the entry-level signing of a collegiate nobody like Dion Phaneuf blocking a Jason Blake 60-footer with his teeth while simultaneously breaking the glass with Mike Van Ryn. But here we are, finally, on the auspicious date of August 15th, which for all intents and purposes confirms a small part of the combined legacy of Dryden, Quinn, and Ferguson Jr. will extend into the next decade. Just as Harold Ballard remains synonymous with the 1980s Maple Leafs, and Doug Gilmore for the early 90s, the 2000s will be forever remembered as Muskoka Years.
It's true, Cottage Country did blossom in the early years of the decade. The Leafs were a perennial threat for fourth place and young adults now talk about Nieuwendyk on Lalime the way grandfathers talk about Barilko on McNeil. Mats Sundin looked less like the ghost of Alex Steen’s father and more like a real-life hockey player, possibly because Pat Quinn wisely chose his linemen by paying attention to chemistry and talent instead of just seeing which Kazak peasant could look Sundin in the eye. Tomas Kaberle would occasionally remember to shoot, Bryan McCabe would occasionally remember to play defense, Darcy Tucker was still too small to be seen by the naked eye and consequently made a fortune mining gold out of Marty Brodeur’s Stanley Cup rings from the far side of the crease, and Pavel Kubina was nothing less than the bogeyman himself, smuggled away from the Bohemian forests during a moonless night to terrorize Tampa Bay ice workers by carving his will into their soft, fragile landscape. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, in a name: Owen Nolan went wrong. The Nolan trade was the end of the beginning of what had looked like a second-tier hockey club a couple of pieces away from a long playoff run. Instead, Owen Nolan spent 110 minutes in the penalty box while Brad Boyes scored 153 goals, became the first member of the St. Louis Former Maple Leafs, and then teamed up with Carlo Colaiacovo to defeat Lex Luthor. As outlandish as that sounds, replace the words “Lex Luthor” with “Nashville Predators” and what emerges is a very relevant allegory to the poor Maple Leafs of today. Brad Boyes is exactly the top-six forward this young Leafs team could use, yet the “Old Brass” shipped him, a 1st-round pick, and a future Queen’s University assistant hockey coach for the long-time Shark and now-time duster. On its own, this trade could be forgiven, but during the lockout every single member of MLSE seemed to forget everything they ever knew about running a successful hockey club. Still, this was a problem that in a similar situation had been fixed and forgiven. MLSE had miraculously voted 10-9 to recognize that they, in fact, did not know how to run a basketball team, and eventually signed Bryan Colangelo to counteract their money-hoarding ignorance. But with Canadian businessmen representing Canadian teachers celebrating Canada’s team in Canada’s city, the Boys in Blue Suits thought they had a resume nobody could question and subsequently decided the correct thing to do was to hire John Ferguson Jr. as their public relations manager. And so with swift injustice, Pat Quinn’s team because MLSE’s cash-cow experiment, and for four long seasons we watched and suffered as the Muskoka Cottage Properties were over-expanded, devalued, torn down and shipped off to be rebuilt into future local celebrities and awkward wedding guests. The crumbled skeleton of the post-lockout Maple Leafs is scattered across the NHL and European leagues, its individual members seemingly brainwashed in their belief that freedom from their corporate masters will automatically make them better at hockey. And you know what? Sometimes they're right. Inevitably they land with a southern market team with huge ambitions for the new revenue from Canadian retirees eager to see a player who "used to play for the Leafs."
All that's left now is the original property. Never traded, always renewed, hand-picked long before the yuppies descended. You loved it as a kid, but now you try to convince your parents to sell it so you can have your sleek new E-Class to match your friends’ but then they tell you how the market just isn’t right and that there’s a limited window and not enough demand so you bitch all the while forgetting the beautiful flow of the lake, the never-pressured atmosphere, and the way a time spent there always seems to push you in the right direction. In a phrase, the perfect cottage. But now, as Cottage season creeps up, and still nobody is interested in this old, rustic fixture of the Maple Leafs landscape, perhaps all it will take is a single weekend in October to reinvigorate interest in the original property.
As long as we aren't malicious. Tomas Kaberle is all alone in Cottage Country now, and nobody can hear him cry.