When you sit in the gondola above the ice at Scotiabank Arena, you stare directly ahead at the banners of all the Maple Leafs who’ve had their numbers retired.
There are a lot of them, but it’s only in art-world terms that you’d call the majority “modern.” Apps, Broda, Barilko, Kennedy, Armstrong, etc. Mid-century masters, every one.
They look like what they were – skilled labourers, soldiers when called upon, the sort of people who held down two jobs to make ends meet. What set the best of them apart is that they were winners.
(Owing to famous circumstances beyond his control, Bill Barilko played in only five NHL seasons, but he still managed to grab four rings.)
High achievers to a man, but you wouldn’t call many of them stars. At least, not in the contemporary sense of players who dominate the league statistically. They don’t feature on best ever lists. The Leafs’ greats were can-do types who slugged their way up to the rafters.
Which is why Auston Matthews seems so new and shiny.
On Tuesday, Matthews scored his 59th and 60th goals of the season. That makes him the first and, given the way the NHL is headed, very possibly last Leaf to cross that threshold.
Afterward, Matthews went the “aw shucks” route – “It was pretty special, honestly.”
But given how much local ink has been spilled over this chase of a fairly random number, you’d think MLSE just put a man on the moon. Hockey in Toronto – where the people that run the team still can’t figure out if they should steer into their terminal nostalgia loop, or start acting like this is the first time anything good has ever happened to them.
Were Matthews, say, a Pittsburgh Penguin, 60 goals would be a nice milestone. But given the town he’s done it in, Matthews ought to ride a donkey to the last game of the season. He is the one who was promised.
While the Leafs celebrated their brilliance in having recently been very bad at hockey and then making the incredibly obvious No. 1 draft choice, it was hard not to think about the guys hanging off the roof. What would they have made of all this?
One presumes they would be just as taken as everyone else by the individual talent required to score so often. And given the era they played in and the ethos that then prevailed, they’d be thinking it didn’t amount to much if the team didn’t end up winning anything.
The problem with scoring 60 goals is that people expect you to score at will. If you score 60 in the regular season for Toronto, they’re going to expect you to score 60 more in the playoffs. That that’s impossible doesn’t matter.
While stuck in traffic on Wednesday morning, my eye drifted to the licence plate of the car one over and one in front of me. It was a Leafs’ logo’d vanity plate reading IR8FAN.
It took Hemingway six words to write the perfect short story, but it took this anonymous genius only six characters to capture the essence of a city.
Toronto’s baseline position with the Leafs is adversarial. The better the regular-season numbers get without matching postseason success, the more adversarial that position will get.
The divide between the two things is growing. Leafs records are falling like wheat this season. The team will finish the year with more points than it has ever had. The club is putting pucks in nets like it’s the go-go eighties. For the first time since the Second World War, Toronto has the top goalscorer in the game.
On paper, this is a juggernaut. The fanbase should be frenzied. Does it feel frenzied to you?
If you polled the city’s hockey fans, I’m going to guess that most of them think Toronto has a poor-to-decent chance against Tampa Bay in the first round.
If you polled people who don’t follow hockey closely, I’m going to guess most of them think the playoffs don’t start until June.
Matthews, recently admitted to the Hart Trophy green room, now has a Connor McDavid problem.
McDavid will lead the NHL in points again this year. He continues to be the consensus best player in the game. What have the Oilers done with that once-in-a-generation gift? Nothing.
It’s not fair to expect one person to win hockey games because hockey doesn’t work that way. For the most part, people understand that.
But it follows then that it’s not fair to expect hockey teams to win because they have the best player. People aren’t on board for that one. All they see is a criminal waste of resources.
McDavid has borne this pressure alone for most of his seven seasons in the NHL. Even though he is surrounded by other No. 1 picks, can’t-miss prospects and a superstar who is nearly his equal, it has always fallen on McDavid to explain the Oilers’ fecklessness.
Matthews has been spared most of that. The general dyspepsia of the average Toronto fan makes the Leafs’ dressing room a target-rich environment. It’s been Matthews’s fault, but it’s also been Nazem Kadri’s fault, Jake Gardiner’s fault, Mitch Marner’s fault, Mike Babcock’s fault, Kyle Dubas’s fault and so on. The miasma of mediocrity that surrounds the team come playoff time makes it difficult to pinpoint any particular person as the problem. They all start looking the same when they’re coughing up another opening-round series.
It gets a little harder to hide once you’ve singled yourself out as the greatest goalscorer in the history of an Original Six team.
So congratulations to Auston Matthews on reaching 60. It’s an amazing personal achievement. And if his current run of form doesn’t continue past this week and well into the month of May, our condolences. Like so many Leafs greats since the eighties and beyond, at least you can say you had an April for the ages.