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GUEST COLUMN: Leafs-Habs series rekindles magical memories

Series featuring iconic Original Six rivals pits neighbour against neighbour as fans of both teams live and die with every goal, save and decision

How spell-binding that film footage is from the Leafs-Canadiens playoff hockey from the 1960s, shown ahead of the games now being played between the historic rivals.

Listen to the rich baritone of Jack Dennett’s narration that originally accompanied those clips, and the nostalgia’s overwhelming. Should Leaf Captain, John Tavares, return to the Toronto’s lineup, it will certainly rouse recollections of Bobby Baun’s Cup-winning goal in overtime, despite a broken ankle, for the Leafs in 1964.

For one eerie second last week, many wondered whether JT might be another Bill Masterton. Fortunately, Tavares’s participation in Thursday’s pre-game skate may be a precursor to him winning the trophy named after Masterton instead.

Masterton died after hitting his head on the ice in 1968, and the trophy is awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication.

With respect to the pandemic, there’s a positive in this sensational-seven, Canadian division. It does make one long for that simpler six-team league. Were the NHL so configured, the winner of this series would be meeting the Winnipeg Jets in the Stanley Cup final next week.

There’s no greater rivalry in North American pro sports. That Yankees-Red Sox assertion made by Ron MacLean the other night, is an entirely regional conflict. This Leafs-Canadiens thing is national, relevant still in the five Canadian cities that now boast their own teams.

With 31 teams now, 32 soon, admittedly the rivalry’s more tepid than in its 20th-century heyday, this Upper Canada versus Lower Canada contest, from the Plains of Abraham, to Canadian ice surfaces everywhere.

All of this is so aptly depicted in Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater, an icon of the Quebecois cultural curriculum. And, like most such conflicts, this one too, I assure you, occasionally spills out into the streets.

For example, one Hab fanatic I’m reasonably acquainted with is forever raising the ire of anyone he encounters who is not so inclined. Ahead of a series of Leafs-Canadiens games back in February, he hung a half-dozen sweaters of the bleu, blanc et rouge in all the street-facing windows of his house.

This, of course, triggered an aggressive response from a neighbour, we’ll call “Geoff” for privacy purposes. He responded with a blue-and-white Leaf banner of such broad expanse, in his sunlit front window it looked like a solar blanket for an Olympic pool.

Needless to say, the Habs were trounced badly that week, and my buddy’s convinced that his ill-timed manoeuvre cost Canadiens Coach Claude Julien his job.

You’d think he’d learn, but, no.

He’s got this most annoying tactic, that’s altogether grade-six-ish. Whenever the Canadiens score he dials up all the Leaf fans he knows, hangs up after one ring. A simple, juvenile prank on the surface, yes, but, when one’s on the receiving end, particularly after an overtime loss, the shrill sound of a landline is remarkably rather aggravating.

Conversely, when the Leafs score, the barrage in return is spectacularly impressive, so much so, that for much of this past week his house has sounded like a call centre. The other night, his wife told me that he stormed off to bed, said he’d listen to the rest of the game on the phone. 

To this tactic, he once told me of an ‘Earth Day’ several years back and an adversary we’ll call “Malcolm”. This chap, over in Oro, was adamant that his Leafs-fan-family was to spend that solemn night soundlessly in the dark.

Now, to ease the tension in that three-pre-teens-seething-séance, my buddy served up several of these one-ringers, informing that gathering of Montreal’s resounding win over Toronto that same evening.

He contends as well with an odd couple over in Ramara; let’s refer to them as Dave and Anna. They’re particularly nasty in these exchanges, sending Mr. Montreal a stunning floral arrangement accompanied by a card, “Sorry for your loss!” when the Canadiens were eliminated one spring. They’ve two daughters named “Sundin”, “Sittler”, and “Sawchuk”. I know. It doesn’t add. That’s how radicalized they are.

Yes, we teach our children well – a bit of manners, a little ‘readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic’, maybe some Sunday school too, so long as the nightly regimen of sports lore and mythology’s not interfered with.

Our youngest of four, Hannah, grew up so subjected to the hype and hyperbole de les Habitants, that when she took in her first official viewing of a Toronto-Montreal match-up, she yelled up from the basement, “Dad, Beliveau’s not playin’ tonight! Dad, … how old’s Beliveau?!” as the regal, silver-haired, Jean Beliveau, long-retired, took to his centre-ice red at le Centre Bell, ahead of the opening face-off.

Even my editor’s unduly surly at the mere mention of the Canadiens. I get it, he’s a tad sensitive, being born in ’67. As such, I’m under oath not to note the Habs’ 24 Cups in this space.

This series conjures up memories of Montreal versus Boston in 1971. Beliveau was well into the twilight of his career, and the Canadiens were set to meet Bobby Orr and the big, bad, Bruins in the first-round.

Now, the current Canadiens are not the underdogs they were then, but, Toronto’s clearly the favourite. Back then, Boston boasted the league’s top four scorers, and six of the top 10.

Yet, in spite of scant regular-season apprenticing, the Canadiens opted to start a recent NCAA grad by the name of Ken Dryden in that ’71 series. The Canadiens generally, and Dryden specifically, upset the Bruins, went on to win the Stanley Cup, and Dryden was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, such was the sensation surrounding the playoff MVP, a full year ahead of his winning the NHL’s top-rookie honours.

Magical, this mirror-image of Cole Caufield and the Canadiens, 50 years on.

Oh, and when he scores tonight, do me a favour, give 705-487-1669 a ring.

John Epstein is a former, 25-year Orillia business owner who left southern Ontario for the north years ago, and has never been back. He is now a freelance writer, whose column will appear monthly in OrilliaMatters.