(Robert L Note: I figure the above title is attention-grabbing in a sense, but misleading in another. However, don't expect this lifelongsupporter to profess a Leafs love with what you are about to read. I just thought I'd clear that up right away.)
I became a Canadiens fan just prior to the dawn of the 1970s when the NHL was about to become a 14-team league. Reared on Habs lore, myth, and legend by my father via dozens of great tales, I grew up anticipating seeing great battles with the Leafs in my time.
Sadly, such battles never materialized.
In my time as a fan, the rivalry has restricted itself to regular season contests for the most part. There have been only two playoff meetings in my lifetime after I was five years old, when the Leafs last met and defeated the Canadiens in Canada's centennial year of 1967. Both playoff meetings, during the Habs dominating dynasty years of the 1970s, were absent of any drama as the Habs were just too strong for not only the Buds, but for the entirety of the NHL at the time.
Since then, I have been waiting and waiting and waiting for them to meet in the playoffs again, just for the thrill of the experience.
It came within a game of happening in 1992-93, and I recall being of the opinion then that it didn't matter which opponent the Habs-in-waiting would face in the final, be it the long-time rival Maple Leafs or the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings, I could not lose in wishing for a passionate final.
As we all remember, the Habs, on a mission, disposed of those 1992-93 Kings in a swift five-game final to claim their twenty fourth Stanley Cup. In hindsight, I often wish the Leafs would have made it then, as it turned out to be the last time the Canadiens and Maple Leafs could have met under such circumstances: in a Stanley Cup Final.
In the mid 1990s, former-Habs-goaltender-turned-Leafs-president Ken Dryden convinced the NHL to move the Leafs into a more geographically-suitable division, where they could now battle the Habs for a place in the standings through eight regular season meetings.
Dryden's successful proposal was both a good and bad thing, as it increased the chances of both teams meeting in a playoff round, while eliminating the possibility that they can meet in a battle for Lord Stanley's Mug.
Admittedly, since that realignment, neither team has shown the goods to get to the final. It is now a further far-fetched notion that either team could have their act together coincidentally in the same season to even make such a scenario possible. The best both teams could achieve would be a meeting in a conference final, which isn't quite the same for older fans.
Put me down as one fan who disagrees with conference-based playoffs, as it eliminates so many great rivalry possibilities and the Habs and Leafs chances of meeting each other to play for the Cup. It wipes out not only their prospective meeting for all the marbles, but it has in the past deprived hockey fans of seeing the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche, for but one example, beat each other down for the right to inscribe their names on the Holy Grail of hockey silverware.
All hockey fans lose with this narrow setup.
Getting back to present reality with the Leafs and Habs, no one team has quite dominated the other in the last ten years, and that is probably the way it should be, because what is the sense of a one-sided rivalry?
There is always a great anticipation of drama in even the most inconsequential of match-ups between Toronto and Montreal.
Two seasons ago, the Canadiens virtually knocked the Leafs out of the playoffs with back-to-back thrashings too late in the season for the Leafs to recover. Last season, the Leafs returned the favour in what could be billed as the strangest game ever played.
As of this writing, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs seem to be heading in opposite directions. The Leafs are a club mired in identity and discipline crises while the Habs stand third overall in the NHL (albeit fourth in their conference due to divisional leader seeding), with only the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings having more points.
Plainly stated, the Habs are exceeding most expectations while the Leafs are likely still trying to figure out their Jekyll and Hyde team.
Over the past few seasons, the Habs have stabilized their lineup by drafting smartly and grooming their prospects patiently while awaiting results. The plan seems to be paying off.
In Toronto, there is no such plan in place, as the salary-cap-limited Leafs must battle with the production from high-priced free agents that have so far failed to make the team appear as the contenders their GM John Ferguson pertains them to be. The youth waiting in the wings of the Leafs organization is nothing to speak of.
With all history considered, recent and bygone, this is where both organizations stand in regards to each other right now.
Appropriately, it also brings me to my present Habs fan relationship with the Maple Leafs, and it is a contradictory one.
When I look at standings and see that Toronto, as well as our Habs, are both in the playoff picture, I envision (salivate is too strong a word) that a playoff meeting is in the cards.
When I check scoreboard finals involving the Leafs, one part of me shudders, another cheers, when they win.
The same thing, oddly, happens when they lose.
I could never quite explain this odd sensation, and it took a quote from Ken Dryden during his jersey retirement at the Bell Centre last season to give me some perspective into the paradox of how I felt.
Dryden, when asked about differences between the Canadiens and Leafs in theory, explained that from his perspective, both teams resembled each other more than each team's fans would care to admit. He did mention that the fans of both were virtually identical in passion. He did not theorize beyond that, unfortunately.
I'd be lying if I didn't agree.
The former Habs goalie never did delve into the French-English, or Ontario-Quebec dynamic of the question, but rather settled his opinion on the fact that both teams had histories, up to a point, that greatly compared to each other.
I imagine that point to be 1967.
For myself, that meant trying to perceive the Habs in a 40-year Stanley Cup drought, trying to find their way home.
It quickly put me in a Maple Leafs fan's shoes.
It helped me to recognize just what it is that I like, and don't like, about the Maple Leafs — fans notwithstanding.
For starters, the Leafs bring the same passion to big games as do our Habs. While that dedication tends to swing and sway throughout a season's course, it revives whenever they meet the Canadiens, making for many memorable games.
I like the odd Leafs player, when imagining them in a Habs jersey.
Mats Sundin would surely be a better Canadien than a Maple Leaf, purely on a historical prerogative. With Mats reminded of Stanley Cups at every turn, how could he not be more primed than he is in a city that tolerates his nights off?
Tomas Kaberle is in many ways an equal talent package to Andrei Markov. While he may be surrounded by less-than-stellar cohorts on the Toronto defense, he has often shown himself to be a big game player, especially against us.
Both Darcy Tucker and Chad Kilger are former Habs that I wish had never left. If Tucker could focus more on the final score and less on his sideshow antics, he'd be a welcome Habs player once more. Habs fans tend to hate him for his behavioural extremes, but like Claude Lemieux once upon a time, when he reels in his idiocies and sticks to hockey, he can become quite the game-breaker.
Kilger, with his size and skating, can also make a difference. During the Habs identity crisis years in the early 2000s, Kilger was an all-too-brief breath of fresh air. After injuries took him off the Habs roster, he alternated between flashes of greatness and ghostlike disappearance. He's a Maple Leaf now because of those inconsistencies. I'm biased, though, in Kilger's case; he's from my hometown, and remains a very likeable off-ice fellow.
Beyond these four, no Leafs player truly makes me jealous or envious.
In recognition of historical matters, I was very interested last season when the Leafs chose to finally honour the 1966-67 team with a ceremony noting the landmark Stanley Cup win. In consequence, I was extremely put off when the Leafs organization failed to include the Stanley Cup in the evening's dealings.
It made ridicule even simpler.
I have many friends and acquaintances that are Leafs die-hards, and I can rarely get them to speak of their individual and personal pains in regards to the Leafs perennial hopelessness. While they are quick as lightning to slander Montreal in every way, they are often at a loss to explain exactly why — or where — they fel the Leafs are headed.
Me being who I am to them, I'd guess that they do not want to enter such a discussion. They have an almost scripted venom forfans, but little to put forth to me in terms of prolonged arguments or queries.
It's not really the way it should be in a spirited rivalry.
Perhaps it is just the void in my father's reminiscing that makes me long for certain special meetings between the two teams. I do not know any other way to explain my longing that secretly makes me quietly cheer for Leaf success on par with that of the Habs.
One thing is for certain though, when it comes to the Leafs against the Habs, I will enjoy hating them as I relish in mocking them for the better part of the next twenty four hours.
Beyond this regular season's end, I'll likely be mad at the Leafs once more for spoiling what could have been one hell of a party.
But I've gotten use to it, and that's just plain sad.