For Habs, Maple Leafs Are Always A Thorn

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It doesn't matter that the Toronto Maple Leafs are about to miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, or that they were steamrolled 8-5 by Philadelphia Friday night - when it comes to playing the Montreal Canadiens under any circumstance, the team Habs fans love to hate, always shows up to give it their all.

What likely makes the Leafs such a multi pronged and dastardly foe is that they tend to grasp better than the Canadiens do, the importance of a national Saturday night telecast. Across a mostly english speaking nation, the Leafs play for stakes that aren't always as apparent to Canadiens fans.

When Toronto has boasted strong clubs, they've played to win on Saturday nights to uphold their honour. When the Maple Leafs have had weaker clubs, they seek to beat the Canadiens to salvage respect. It's the same for the Canadiens.

Often, the team with loftier goals, is undone by the team playing with the more primitive and sinister motive of getting even.

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There are Leafs and Canadiens fans from Halifax to Victoria Island, and no matter how meaningless or important games are between the teams, the stakes - as in bragging rights - are forever heightened.

Canadiens players, should they lose to Toronto, will mostly get to hear about it in their home province - and that can get pretty extreme. Leafs players get to suffer their own fans wrath on a broader scale, and there's nothing like hearing your team stunk four thousand miles from home.

Some hockey theologists suggest that without playoff meetings, the Habs and Leafs rivalry is essentially dead.

I would suggest to them that they check their pulse, as any rivalry (with language thrown in as a cultural divide), that has such a long, splendid, glorious, misapropriated, maliscious and spiteful history can never die. Die hards know this - on both sides of the fence.

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My ten year old daughter, who couldn't name a hockey player by name to save her lunch, will see a Toronto jersey and utter, "the Leafs suck!" She didn't pick that up from Dad (though I tend to laugh heartily), she picked in up in the schoolyard.

One day she asked me, "Dad, why DO the Leafs suck?"

I gave her an answer she couldn't possibly grasp.

"It's kind of a Canadiens fans point of view. When the Leafs are bad, they're really bad, and everybody knows it. Then they suck. When they're good, it's because they've beaten the Canadiens, and that sucks."

"Well then", she paused, asking while pondering, "When was the last time the Leafs sucked?"

"Oh, about two weeks ago, when they beat Montreal 5-2!"

"If Canadiens lost, how come they don't suck?"

"Oh, they did in that game, trust me. It's a complicated thing!"

My kid looked at me quite puzzled, as she ought to. I advised her that unless she were to become a very rabid hockey fan, she'd do well to stop with the "Leafs suck" stuff. There's not much sense in inheriting that point of view when the knowledge ain't there to even try to begin defending it.

I asked if any of her school pals were Leafs fans. She replied that almost all were.

Keep your friends, I advised.

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My daughter and I drove off to our usual end of week after school ice cream treat, seeing, along the way, a half dozen Leafs logos - jerseys on the sidewalk, car flags, ball caps, and bumper stickers. It was what brought up the conversation in the first place.

We live a good four hours away from Toronto, an hour from Montreal, and in this city for the last few seasons, the Canadiens logos around town usually outnumber the Maple Leafs crests 10 to 1. It hasn't always been that way.

As we drove on, I wondered why I was seeing so much blue and white, on this day.

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Then it hit me. The Leafs have been eliminated from the 2009 playoffs.

Pride was being spoken.

It's something I have done when my Canadiens have been post season booted.

I've often said it before - Canadiens fans and Maple Leafs fans are more alike that they would readily admit. Maybe that is why they get on each other's nerves so much.

For myself, it is part of why I respect them.

Makes me wish a Montreal Canadiens player was seated in my young daughter's passenger seat on the way to our weekly ice cream treat. I wish they could see all those logos worn as badges four hours away. The pride of a Leafs fan wearing their jersey is nowhere close the to pride of the players who wear it for real.

If they aren't careful, the Canadiens will find out about that out again tonight.

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