Nine days prior to the 52nd anniversary of their last champagne swig, the longest current nomadic wanderers in hockey’s Stanley Cup wilderness breathed their last for yet another blessed, and yet supremely cursed, spring.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, who fell 5-1 to the hated Boston Bruins in Game 7 of their first-round matchup on April 23, it extended to 15 the number of years since they lost won a playoff series. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, their two young stars, were both six years old when the Leafs defeated the Ottawa Senators in seven games in the first round of the 2004 NHL playoffs. Steady on the losing side that night was the rugged, gigantic defenceman, Zdeno Chara, who, now a still gigantic and only slightly less rugged 42, got his back in captaining the Bruins to this year’s first-round win.
Not that Chara hasn’t got his revenge on the Leafs many times over since 2004 – this marked the second straight spring and third in the last seven that the Bruins have knocked the Leafs out in a first-round Game 7. And while not quite as gut-wrenching as the previous two occasions – infamously, the 2013 Leafs coughed up a 4-1 third-period Game 7 lead – this Toronto loss had inflamed the social sphere even before the final whistle. The condemnation of coach Mike Babcock, for a perceived lack of imagination in adjusting his lines and strategies late in the series, skating-wounded defenceman Jake Gardiner, who surrendered the puck on Boston’s opening goal, wayward centre Nazem Kadri, who for the second straight spring was suspended by the NHL, missing Games 3 through 7 for an illegal cross-check on Boston’s Jake DeBrusk in Game 2, and slick Swedish star William Nylander, who had sat out the first two months of the season in a contract dispute before signing a six-year, $45M deal only to never really shake off the layoff rust, and ended with just eight goals in 61 games (working out to an average of $1,284,722 per goal), reached a crescendo pitch as all vied for the all-consuming ire of the trolling twitterati.
Those observers closer to the scene, and more reserved/sane, wondered about the mid- and longer-term fit between Babcock, the game’s highest paid coach at $6.25M per annum with four of his eight years still to go, and the wunderkind general manager, Kyle Dubas, who is nine years younger than Chara and therefore 22 south of Babcock. In his exit remarks two days after the Game 7 loss, Babcock intoned, again, about what he sees as the Leafs’ dire need for greater depth, and declined to expound on his relationship with Dubas. For his part, the wunderkind followed Babcock to the podium and, offered the chance to say Babcock’s job was safe for at least a fifth winter, graciously declined. “We’ll do what we think is best and we’ll let you know when we know,” was the way he put it.
The Leafs were the last team to win the Stanley Cup in the Original Six era, outlasting the Montreal Canadiens in six games to hoist the old mug on the warm Toronto evening of May 2, 1967. In the years since, the NHL has added a dozen regular-season games to its schedule and a solid six or seven weeks to the back end of the playoffs. Over those years, Lord Stanley’s urn has been contested 51 times (their was no Cup awarded in 2005, during the players’ strike). Yet, the Maple Leafs have played into May in only nine of those 51 seasons, and none since 2004. Naturally, that lack of playoff May days has turned into its own unending May Day of sorts for Leaf Nation.
Incidentally, of the 22 players whose names were engraved on the Cup in 1967, eight have now passed on. Johnny Bower, the most recent to go, was 93 when he died on Dec. 27, 2017. Deeply beloved by Leaf Nation, he is one of 11 of those 22 ’67 Leafs who have been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. That’s once Hall of Famer for each Cup the Leafs won in the 50 seasons between 1918 and 1967. And now, they’ve won zero in the seasons since, which is technically just a few months longer dry run than the St. Louis Blues, who started play as one of six expansion teams in October of 1967, but the Leaf dilemma undeniably represents an exponentially deeper emotional funk, given Toronto’s rabid fan base not to mention oft-described position as the current game’s epicentre.
Unless Babcock and Dubas can together harness and complement the exquisite talents of Matthews, Marner et al between now and the spring of 2021, the Leafs will that April, May or June tie the New York Rangers for the longest drought in Cup history, which extended from 1940 through 1994.
Which is not to say that theirs would then be the most desolate run in North American sports. The Boston Red Sox went a Curse of the Bambino-inspired 86 years between World Series wins, the billy-goat-cursed Chicago Cubs drifted for 108 years before finally breaking through in 2016, and a dozen NFL teams and NBA teams have never won a championship, with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals (they last won as the Chicago Cardinals in 1947) and the NBA’s Sacramento Kings (they last won as the Rochester Royals in 1951) the longest-suffering.
But the Cardinals have moved twice (and their first two homes, Chicago and St. Louis, have since housed NFL champions in the Bears and Rams), the Kings three times, and so no single city in either league has suffered so long a run of ignominy as Toronto with the Leafs. Which leaves the Red Sox and Cubs are the only real compareables. Both overcame celebrated if perhaps fanciful curses, the Curse of the Bambino, which emanated from Boston owner Harry Frazee’s trading of Babe Ruth following the Red Sox World Series win in 1918, and the Curse of the Billy Goat, which legend has it was invoked by William Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, who was kicked out of Game 4 of the 1945 World Series at Wrigley Field, with the Cubs leading two games to one, because of the odor emanating from his pet goat.
As for the Rangers, they were said to be the victims of Dutton’s Curse, invoked by Red Dutton, who, upon stepping down as president of the NHL in 1946 with the promise he would be able to resurrect his New York Americans, as the league’s seventh team, was thwarted when the Rangers reversed field and denied their support. Another version was that the curse could be tied to the Rangers promotional decision, in the summer of 1940, to burn their mortgage in the actual Stanley Cup, thus desecrating the sacred chalice.
Alas, with no apparent franchise-killing trade, malodorous pet or denial of a promised franchise (that we know of) lurking in the Maple Leafs’ storied past, perhaps the time has come for some inspirational soul in Leaf Nation to concoct a new and colourful curse narrative, one which might, if not explain, at least distract slightly from their own run of spring wanderings.
Ether way, those Rangers of yore ought to be looking over their collective shoulders, because their historic, 54-year drought is in real and present danger.