Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Boy & His Hockey Team

For my first blog, I thought I’d give everyone an understanding of why I’m such a die-hard Leafs fan. Lord knows it’s not their sparkling winning percentage, precise penalty killing, or excellent drafting. Over the last 5 years this team has been abysmal, and a disgrace to the franchise and its history. Yet, I still love my Leafs, and here’s why...

What is it that inspires ones fandom in a sports team? Is it a matter of geography? Simply a situation of following the team that represents the location of where one lives? Is it because of an admiration for the skill of a player, or players? Is fandom based on the colour and logo on the jersey? Or does the franchises history and legacy factor into the equation? There is no definitive answer to this question, as all of these reasons could be a plausible explanation for ones admiration for a hockey team. However, there are cases when a hockey team carries more meaning for someone that goes deeper then any of the “superficial” reasons listed above, and this is one of those stories.

In April of 1967, a 19 year old boy, his parents, and younger sister travel from a suburb of Pescara in Italy to Toronto Ontario in Canada. Eventually, only the young teenager would remain in Canada to start a family of his own. Upon arriving to Toronto, the boy and his family took a taxi cab to his uncle’s house, and over the next several weeks the crowded household would sit around a television and watch something magical transpire. The family watched as the Toronto Maple Leafs would make an unexpected run at hockey’s most prized trophy and eventually win the Stanley Cup, defeating their rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. At the time, the young teenager from Italy didn’t realized that what he’d witnessed was a historic moment on two fronts. First off, it would be the last time the Maple Leafs have won Lord Stanley’s cup. Secondly, the young Italian had no way of knowing that, decades later, the team he had watched win hockey’s greatest prize would ignite a passion in his youngest son. It seems as though this unborn child was destined to become an avid follower of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Several blocks away from his future father, the yet to be born child’s eventual mother would watch the same historic event unfold with her father.

Flash forward to 1989. The young Italian teenager is now a man, married with three children. The man, his wife, and two eldest children are out and the couple’s youngest son, at the age of six, is under the care and supervision of his mother’s father. The elderly man sits with his grandson, and the two watch a broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada. Once again, the forever rivals Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens engage in battle. At such a tender age, the young boy didn’t understand the details of the game he was watching, all he new was that he was spending quality time with his "Nonno". The boy was happy and that’s all that mattered. For the next couple years the boy looked forward to Saturday nights. That was the night Nonno would watch hockey with him.

Those joyous nights once a week with Nonno would come to an abrupt halt in 1992, because the boy’s grandfather had passed away. When the boy, now eight years old, was told of his grandfathers death, he was devastated. His world had been shaken, changed forever. He couldn’t reconcile why his Nonno was gone and resented God for not answering his prayers of and giving him his grandfather back. It was as though someone ripped the boy’s heart from his chest and thrown it against a brick wall. The boy was emotionally wounded and friends nor family could heal those wounds. For most of the summer of 1992, the boy cried himself to sleep at night.

That fall, the young boy started watching hockey more attentively. He remembered those nights watching games with his grandfather and watching the team that his grandfather followed gave him some comfort. The Toronto Maple Leafs had an incredible season that year, and in the spring would embark on a miraculous playoff run. The young child got so wrapped up in the excitement of it all. For him, watching that playoff run was almost like a time machine. Every time he watched a game during that spring, in his minds eye he’d recall those nights he spent watching the Leafs with his grandfather. For three hours the boy was happier then he’d been in a long while because it felt as though his grandfather was right there next to him on the sofa watching the games with him.

His grandfather and great uncle, who passed away two years later, watched as Leaf legends Dave Keon, George Armstrong, and Johnny Bower led a Leaf team that had been written off by the media achieve great success. Almost three decades later the boy was seemingly carrying on a family tradition as he watched new Leaf stars Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, and Felix Potvin carry a Maple Leafs team to improbable success as well.

The boy watched with elation as the underdog Leafs beat the heavily favoured Detroit Red Wings in a thrilling seventh game overtime victory, which saw rookie Nikolai Borshevsky re-direct a point shot by defenseman Bob Rouse pass the Detroit net minder. A mere two days later the boy, up way past his bed time, watched in euphoria as Doug Gilmour weaved his brilliance behind the St. Louis net and slipped a puck passed an unsuspecting Curtis Joseph to end a game one marathon in double overtime. Unfortunately, a couple weeks later the dream of a return to Stanley Cup glory ended in a controversial fashion. A cover up that saw an evil official dressed in his Zebra attire, with his annoyingly well-done hairstyle, protect the then NHL golden boy, dubbed “The Great One” from certain exclusion from a pivotal moment in the game. “The Great One” would eventually win the series, ending the Maple Leafs season and squashing the dream of a Stanley Cup final between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens. The young boy was sad again, shedding several tears. His team was finished for the year. However, the boy learned an important lesson that summer. Nothing really ever comes to an end. The Toronto Maple Leafs would live to play another day in the fall, and his grandfather would be with him forever as long as he kept the memories of their time together alive in his heart.

The boy has since grown into a man, and throughout the years his attachment to the Toronto Maple Leafs has grown ever stronger. He’s enjoyed the highs and lows of following this team, but his support has never wavered. He was paid the highest of compliments when his mother once remarked that when he watched the Leafs he reminded her of his grandfather and great uncle. Some cynics and detractors may view this level of fandom as an obsession. If that is the case, then I am obsessed. I was that boy, and this is my story. For me, my love affair with the Toronto Maple Leafs is not just about where I live, or the players, or the jersey, or just wins and losses. It’s so much more then that. My fandom is about a family tradition, a constant connection to the loved ones I’ve lost and friends, who I value a great deal, that share my excitement for this team. As I sit here over 4600 miles away from home, admiring the mountains in the distance reflecting on my admiration for this hockey team, one thing is certain, being a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs is indeed, the passion that unites us all.

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