Sports


George Stroumboulopoulos and a parade of Canadian music stars put the artist-jock divide on ice

There’s something George Stroumboulopoulos wants to make clear about himself as a hockey player: “I suck. I’m terrible — I may be the worst player in the tournament.”

Despite his self-described lack of skills (he only started skating two years ago), the multiply pierced host of CBC’s The Hour, former MuchMusic sensation and ubiquitous poster boy gets giddy discussing his alternate life as a right winger, anticipating this weekend’s Exclaim! Hockey Summit of the Arts (or Exclaim! Cup for short) “When you get on the ice — personally, it’s the only time I don’t think about work. On the ice, I’m completely about the game. And you see that with lots of cats. It’s a release. A full-on release. And it’s one that’s healthy,” Stroumboulopoulos says. “It’s almost like everyone on the ice turns into a 12-year-old.”

Sitting across from the signed Saku Koivu jersey in his office at CBC headquarters on Front Street, it quickly becomes obvious that Stroumboulopoulos has been bitten by the hockey bug in a big way. Like most Canadian boys, he grew up playing street hockey and dreaming NHL dreams, then abandoned those dreams as he drifted to the musical side of the arts-or-sports high-school divide. But recently, in his early thirties. he’s fallen back in love with the game. There’s a lot of that going around. “Certainly I find that a lot of people I know totally fell out [of touch with hockey], and it’s totally because people didn’t want to play with the jocks,” he says. “But about two years ago, just leading up to the [NHL] lockout, for a lot of people there was a reconnection with the game. Certainly in the community that I have worked in. I worked in the music community, covering bands, and my whole life has been about bands on the road and all that. And then, suddenly, it became about hockey.”

Leading this charge to get rockers off the stage and onto the ice for the past eight years has been the Exclaim! Cup, a tournament featuring 30 teams made up largely of musicians, artists and media types.

As Stroumboulopoulos says, “You’re on the ice — or in the stands — and rooting around are some of the most creative, talented, interesting, inspiring people in this country. You can be on the ice at one time and have three of your favourite songs from the past five years — those guys and girls who wrote them are on the ice.”

The team lineups read like a CanCon A-list, filled with MuchMusic icons and indie idols: Tyler Stewart of Barenaked Ladies, Seán Cullen, Chris Murphy and Andrew Scott of Sloan, Luke Doucet, Andrew Cash, Dave Bidini and Tim Vesely of the Rheostatics, Jeremi Madsen of The Deadly Snakes, Sean Dean and Mike Belitsky of The Sadies and Greg Millson of Gentleman Reg’s band, just for a start.

The tournament began as a challenge game between The Morningstars (whose lineup includes members of the Rheostatics and Lowest of the Low as well as tournament founder Tom Goodwin of Exclaim! magazine) and the Sonic Unyon Pond Squad and has since grown into an unlikely highlight of Canada’s musical calendar.

“It’s bigger than Jesus. Easter used to be about scratchy church pants, now it’s about hockey. It’s big,” says Morningstars defenceman Dave Bidini (who is perhaps equally well-known as the rhythm guitarist for the Rheostatics). The Exclaim! Cup is so big that Bidini wrote a book, The Best Game You Can Name (see sidebar, this page), largely about his team and the tournament.

Bidini says part of what draws artsy types into the tournament, and through it back to hockey, is the Exclaim! Cup’s emphasis on fun over competition. “The whole sporting principle is flipped a bit … people seeing sports as play as opposed to a jock-driven competitiveness. One thing the Exclaim! Cup embraces is that kind of joy of play and the heart of the game and what sports means not in terms of winning and losing but in terms of heart — the joy of the game.”

Patti Schmidt, host of CBC Radio’s Brave New Waves, has played on the Montreal Ninja Tune Wicked Deadly Karate Chops for the past three years. She says the tournament is friendlier now than when it started out and she’d know: she served as referee for the inaugural game.

“I was told by [Exclaim!’s] Ian Danzig that it would be a very casual thing, it’s for charity, blah, blah, blah — don’t brush up too hard on the rules. And then it turned into this total macho, testosterone, beat-on-each-other game. It was shocking! I thought I would just show up and make up calls, you know — funny! Creative! No!”

Today, though, all agree that the emphasis is on a clean game and having fun. The tournament rules not only forbid contact and punish fighting with expulsion from the tournament, they also reward clean play. Teams are rewarded for getting no penalties and teams with too many penalty minutes are ineligible for the playoffs. As founder Tom Goodwin says, “The most important thing is bringing goodwill and the bottom line is we want to play fun and safe hockey.”

Bidini says that’s most evident in the least competitive division. “People who just started to play in the past two or three years, who 10 years ago never thought they’d get on the ice and have come to terms with what hockey is and have found the joy in the game and have gotten past all the bullshit that’s attached to that culture … I would say that in the Exclaim! Cup, the Zed Division, that’s where you find the true celebration of the game.”

And, of course, it is about more than just hockey. The entire tournament is a food drive (fans and players are asked to bring a non-perishable food item) and a fundraiser for Artscan Circle, a group that links creative artists with at-risk aboriginal youth. In the end, it’s also about the music: every night of the tournament (April 13-15), players jam onstage at the Hockey Hootenany at Lee’s Palace as part of their required artistic contribution.

“It’s about community,” Stroumboulopoulos says. “You walk into the rink on that weekend with your bag, you know, there’s a chip truck outside, there’s a band playing, you can buy t-shirts, and there are fans, there are kids running around, you get the sense of an event. And you realize that it is probably the most fun you’re going to have playing in a tournament of this scale,” he says. “I get a real sense of what a fun journey this weekend is. And when the play stops, the music starts.”

HE WROTE THE BOOK
Everyone goes out of their way to emphasize that the Exclaim! Hockey Summit of the Arts is about fun and punishes the brand of game that Don Cherry advocates. But in his book, The Best Game You Can Name (McClelland & Stewart, $34.99), writer, musician and Morningstar defenceman Dave Bidini shows a more competitive side of the tournament:

“I dug my shoulder into Ponytail’s chin, and he reacted with a butt-end to the ribs, which I answered with a groovy slash down his inner calf. A snug headlock gave way to a rib-rattling elbow, and another butt-end was traded with a forearm shiver until we were squishing gloves in each other’s faces, our nrrrghs! and ohhhgnnns! and grrrrrrss! stifled by the hot sweaty lather.”

In that spirit, Bidini wasn’t above giving a little verbal face-wash to an opposing team, The Nighmares, during an interview with Eye Weekly:

“They’ve got the four Dean brothers, and a couple of them are really good, but they kind of don’t try. They’re cherry pickers. They hang out at the red line — once they get the puck past the red line, they’ve got like 7,000 moves, but they don’t dig. So that team walks around and carries itself a little better than they actually are. There’s some trash talk for ya.”

Need Bidini fear retaliation on the ice? “Actually, we’re not in their division,” he says. EK

BEST TEAM NAME
MONTREAL NINJA TUNE WICKED DEADLY KARATE CHOPS

RUNNERS UP: THREE GUT FEELINGS, DARTMOUTH FERRIES, HUMILIATION, FLUID LIVING ARSEHOLES

BEST LOGO
WINNIPEG WHEATFIELD SOULDIERS, WHO WEAR A PORTRAIT OF BURTON CUMMINGS ON THEIR CHEST

RUNNER UP: HUMILIATION’S THUMBS-DOWN CREST

INTERESTING RIVALRY
CHRIS MURPHY AND ANDREW SCOTT OF SLOAN — MURPHY PLAYS FOR THE FERRIES WHILE SCOTT IS ON THE NIGHTMARES

Originally published in Eye Weekly April 13, 2006. 

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The team’s older than the Leafs, the players are younger, the tickets are cheaper, and they’re actually playing

It’s hockey night in Canada: Thursday in mid-November and the seats are packed, standing room’s packed; people are being turned away at the door. The pep band that played the anthem is sitting at the north end of the ice, but the hard rock between faceoffs is coming from the stereo, and once the puck is dropped, the only music necessary is the scraping, slapping, thumping, crashing rhythm of the game. A man in a red tracksuit behind the south-end boards never takes his eyes off the play as he chants, “Hit ‘im agin! Hit ‘im agin! Hit ‘im agin!” A Toronto forward in blue and white answers his call, slamming, arms up, into a defenceman six inches taller than him and CRASH –“Woooooo! That hurt!” calls the guy in the tracksuit — their combined 400-something pounds of body mass is applied full force to the boards.

Did somebody say something about a hockey lockout?

No one’s particularly missing anything here at St. Michael’s College School arena at Bathurst and St. Clair, where the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors are playing host to the Guelph Storm. The tickets are only $12.50 and the 1,800-seat arena is so cozy you can smell the sweat off the bench and hear the grunts of the players, even from the very worst seats in the house. And in the wake of the NHL lockout, this is the best game in town.

What’s more, there’s history here, even more, as it turns out, than there was at the Gardens. The Majors are one of the oldest hockey teams in the country, and one of the most successful in preparing young men for the pros. The Majors’ 98-year history is intertwined closely with the progression of the game in Toronto and is curiously fuelled by the unique educational philosophy of the Basilian priests who run the adjacent St. Michael’s College School.

Both traditions are evident in the building. Beyond the south boards is the “wall of fame,” an array of framed photographs of the 162 St. Michael’s players who have gone on to the NHL, 11 of whom are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, including Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon and Tim Horton (see sidebar).

Tyler Haskins — an 18-year-old Humber College business student who plays centre for the Majors — says he’s fully aware of the giant footsteps in which he skates, and that he’s inspired by the uniquely proud history of the uniform. “It’s pretty special … we have a sign in our weight room that says ‘St. Mike’s breeds NHL champions.’ You know it is true,” he says. “It’s pretty neat to see those faces up on the wall and kind of put yourself in a category, you know.”

The other, more spiritual tradition is embodied by the words emblazoned over the front door of the arena: “Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge.” Father Hugh Foley, a retired St. Michael’s teacher (and a former SMCS student), says that motto is applied by Basilian educators to athletics in order to “educate the whole person, in mind, body and spirit.” Foley says it is no stretch to claim that the Basilians believe athletic achievement can be a tribute to the glory of God, in the same way that music or visual art can. He points to the writing of former St. Michael’s principal Father Thomas Mohan, who wrote, in an essay entitled “Academics and Hockey,” that humankind gives glory to God, “when every human talent [is] actualized…. Sports are part of this human activity. The young athlete is trained to keep his body fit that he might co-operate with his teammates in playing the game.”

The Basilian approach to athletics led Father Henry Carr to found the St. Michael’s hockey program in 1906, more than a decade before there was an NHL. Carr said he thought hockey would help “form boys into men.” Over the next four years, his team’s success (they won the national amateur championships in 1910) helped develop the popularity of the game in Toronto, leading eventually to the founding of the Maple Leafs. The Majors formed a close partnership with the Toronto Maple Leafs starting in 1926, acting as a farm team until 1961, when coach Father David Bauer (who went on to found Canada’s first national Olympic hockey team) decided that the game was interfering with its players’ education and cancelled the OHL program at the school. Without the Majors, St. Michael’s continued to develop young hockey players (including Eric Lindros) at the high school and Junior “A” levels. The Majors were revived in 1997.

Today, the Majors’ affiliation with the school and the Basilians is more casual (the team is owned by Eugene Melnyk — a St. Mike’s alumnus and also owner of the Ottawa Senators — and only eight of the players are enrolled at St. Michael’s). Yet the players say the same educational principles are at work in the team today.

Haskins compares playing for the Majors to his experience with the Guelph Storm, where he played until October, 2003. “Playing in the OHL, it’s usually so much confined to being a hockey player, but at St. Mike’s it’s really a different experience. The school’s right there and it’s a great school…. Even for those not going there, there’s a high regard for character and leadership and those kind of things that go along with being a St. Mike’s Major.”

Still, for all it has contributed to Toronto sports history, the team is virtually ignored by the Toronto media. The Toronto Sun, that bible of Hogtown athletics, gives more prominence to their absurd dice hockey league than to the potential superstars at St. Mike’s. In other OHL towns, and in comparable leagues across Canada, the players at this level are celebrities. And they deserve it: if the play is less disciplined and the passing less crisp here than in the NHL, the players are every bit as fast and hit every bit as hard and shoot very nearly as well as the pros. In fact, many of these players will be pros soon enough: six of St. Michael’s current 23 players have already been drafted by NHL clubs, including Haskins, who was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings earlier this year (another 15 of them are still too young to be eligible for the draft).

Back on the ice, Haskins is now breaking in over the blue line, no one between him and the goalie except a 6′ 5″ defender named Michael Okrzesik. Haskins wires a shot between the big man’s legs that the goalie manages to get his glove on, redirecting it so it rattles off the glass. As his teammates fight for the puck behind the net, Haskins plants himself in the Storm goaltender’s kitchen, steadfastly waiting for a pass. He’s just five metres away from the wall of fame, a place his photo may one day be hung. If he notices the wood of Okrzesik’s stick being repeatedly applied to the small of his back, he doesn’t show it. Haskins isn’t going anywhere. Yet.

Next home game: Dec 17 v. Plymouth Whalers. Game tickets are available from Ticketmaster or at the door, SMCS Arena, 1515 Bathurst.
416-651-8228.

ROAD TO GLORY
Eleven former St. Michael’s players have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame:

FRANK RANKIN (Majors 1912-1915; OHA 1906-1915)

This pre-NHL superstar (he played a position called “rover”) for the Stratford OHA Champions between 1907 and 1909 later coached an Olympic team.

REG NOBLE (Majors 1916; NHA 1916; NHL 1917-1933)

The first St. Mike’s player to play in the NHL, Noble’s career took him through six teams (including two in Toronto and two in Montreal) between 1916 and 1933. He scored 30 goals in 20 games in 1917-18 for the Toronto Arenas. He went on to be an NHL referee.

JOE PRIMEAU (Majors 1923-24; OHA 1923-27;
NHL 1928-1936)

Known as “Gentleman Joe,” he played from 1927-1936 with the Leafs and returned to coach the Leafs from 1950-53 (he was behind the bench when Bill Barilko scored his legendary goal). Primeau later returned to St. Mike’s as a coach.

TED LINDSAY (Majors 1943-44; NHL 1944-60,
1964-65)

Famous “production line” mate of Gordie Howe and Sid Abel with the Red Wings, Lindsay scored 20 goals or more 11 times and won four Stanley Cups. He ran into trouble with the league and was traded to Chicago after trying to organize a players union in 1957.

BOBBY BAUER (Majors 1933-34; NHL 1936-42, 1945-47, 1951-52)

Was a member of the great “Kraut Line,” in Boston during the late ’30s and early ’40s. In a career split by his service in World War II, he won two Stanley Cups and three Lady Byng Trophies.

FATHER DAVID BAUER (Majors 1941-43, Majors coach 1953-51)

Inducted into the Hall as a “Builder,” Bauer was hugely influential in developing amateur hockey in Canada. A promising player who gave up a chance to play with his brother Bobby on the Bruins (see above), he instead went into the priesthood. As a St. Michael’s coach, he helped develop such players as Frank Mahovlich and Dave Keon. In 1962 he founded Canada’s first national Olympic hockey team.

TIM HORTON (Majors 1947-49; NHL 1950-74)

A dominant defenceman said by Gordie Howe to be the strongest man to ever lace up skates (and namesake of the donut shop chain), he played for the Leafs, the Rangers, Pittsburgh and the Buffalo Sabres. He continues to hold the Leafs record for consistency, playing in 486 consecutive games between 1961 and 1968.

RED KELLY (Majors 1945-47; NHL 1947-67)

He won eight Stanley Cups, four Lady Byng Trophies and one Norris Trophy in his career with the Red Wings and Maple Leafs in the ’50s and ’60s.

DAVE KEON (Majors 1956-60; NHL 1960-75; WHA 1975-79; NHL 1979-82)

By many people’s estimation, the best Maple Leaf ever, Keon played a remarkable 15 seasons with the Leafs, from the dynasty teams of the ’60s to the Ballard nightmare of the 1970s. The only Leaf to ever win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

FRANK MAHOVLICH (MajoÒrs 1954-57; NHL 1957-74; WHA 1974-78)

Known as the “Big M,” Mahovlich is one of the best forwards in the history of the game, winning six Stanley Cups with Toronto and Montreal. He is now a Canadian senator.

GERRY CHEEVERS (Majors 1957-61; NHL 1965-72; WHA 1972-76; NHL 1976-80)

Played goal for the powerhouse Boston Bruins teams with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He’s widely remembered for his mask, which was white and marked with stitches showing where it had been struck by the puck.

Originally published December 9, 2004 in Eye Weekly.

In multicultural Toronto, we witness the observance of many sacred seasons but none is as widely and ardently observed as the current high holiday: the NHL playoffs. When the Leafs are in the playoffs — to the delight of many and to the dismay of some — all other concerns take a back seat to the annual genuflection before Hockey Night in Canada, the dancing in the streets, the studying of sports-page scripture, the praying and the inevitable crying. William Kilbourn wasn’t kidding when he wrote in 1968, “If I were asked by some stranger to North American culture to show him the most important religious building in Canada, I would take him to Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens.” And perhaps it’s because we’re immersed in the playoffs now that few have noted the imminent desecration of that civic cathedral.

Last week, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. (the owners of the Gardens, the Leafs, the Raptors basketball team and the Air Canada Centre) announced that the Gardens will be sold in June to Loblaw Cos. Ltd., which plans to turn it into a place to buy toilet paper and dog food.

It’s hard, while you’re spewing coffee all over the pages of your newspaper, to imagine what exactly the Loblaws spokesman had in mind when he assured the Star that “a superstore at the hockey shrine will proceed, and reflect the history and heritage of the building.” Memories of Baun prepared Lamb Shanks, anyone?

“The history and heritage of the building.” Conn Smythe, then owner of the Maple Leafs, had construction crews work through the nights in 1931, erecting the unpretentious art-deco building in just five and a half months. The Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup their first season in the Gardens, and in the years that followed they won 10 more championships there (only the Montreal Forum — now a movie theatre called The AMC Forum — was home to more Cup victories).

Along the way, there are dozens of moments of historic significance for the Leafs Nation: in 1942, the Leafs become the only professional sports team to ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series; Bill Barilko scores the cup-winning goal in overtime in 1951 before dying in an airplane crash; Bobby Baun scores an overtime winner on a broken leg less than an hour after being carried off the ice on a stretcher; Darryl Sittler scores 10 points in one game.

And it ain’t just the Leafs. The Gardens is where Canada first beat the Russians in the 1972 Summit series after being humiliated in Montreal. It was where George Chuvalo gave Muhammad Ali the fight of his life in 1966. The Beatles and Elvis and Nirvana and Liberace played there, Pierre Trudeau held rallies there, various prime ministers won party leaderships there.

Maple Leaf Gardens has been our town square and remains a repository of our dreams and past glories. It is an insult to the history and heritage of the building to turn it into a grocery store. Loblaws should know better than to attempt to attach the legacy of our hockey shrine to their brand. And Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment should know better than to let them.

It isn’t as if there aren’t other offers on the table. Eccentric millionaire Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Ottawa Senators and the Junior B St. Mike’s Majors, has offered to pay MLSE’s price. He wants to build a smaller hockey rink inside to be home to his junior hockey team and, as he says, “turn it into a mecca for junior hockey.” The rest of the building he’d turn into a museum of some kind, maybe a junior hockey hall of fame (which is, incidentally, a great idea). He’ll agree to turn down concert business that might compete with the Air Canada Centre. He just wants to keep the building that fuelled his hockey dreams as a home to hockey dreamers. That’d be good.

But Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is insisting the Gardens be deconsecrated. Fearing that any new owner might compete with them in their new home at the Air Canada Centre, MLSE is making it a condition of the Gardens’ sale that it cannot be used for sports or entertainment.

MLSE is not like any other business. Because they own the Leafs, object of civic worship, MLSE finds itself nearly guaranteed to earn a substantial profit. Every single Maple Leafs game since 1947 has sold out, in good times and in bad. A 2001 study by Forbes magazine showed the Leafs to be — by far — the most profitable franchise in the NHL. We blindly throw them big bags of cash because they are the keepers of our team.

That sort of privileged position comes with — should come with — an element of civic responsibility. MLSE owes us. For the sake of the city, and of the Leafs’ ongoing legacy, they should get over their unfounded fear of competition and sell the Gardens to Melnyk. And if not him, then to someone who will preserve the building for something like its original purpose.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly April 29, 2004. 

A lifelong zealot considers the possibility that a Stanley Cup win might wreck the cult of the Leafs

I often imagine the moments after a Maple Leafs Stanley Cup win. Sometimes there’s a dam-breaking overtime goal, others the seconds tick down toward the end of a rout. Either way, at the moment the game ends, Leafs announcer Joe Bowen chokes back tears, his cracking voice over-pronouncing the syllables, “Holy Mackinaw! The! Toronto! Maple! Leafs! Have! Won! The! Stanley! Cup!”

In that instant, the rapture is upon us. My brothers and I and everyone else in the bar pile into each other. There is fist-pumping and flag-waving. There are tears. There are hours, days of running through the streets, hugging strangers and yelling as 35 years of heartache is replaced by ecstasy; Leafs fans have been delivered into heaven in a golden chariot and nothing will ever be the same again.

There is nothing I have wanted more and longer and yet, I’m apprehensive about seeing it happen. The Leafs are a religion in Toronto, and the theological ramifications of seeing the face of God are unknowable.

“What if we won?” is a question that gets its extreme subjunctivity not only from how long it’s been since the Leafs’ last Championship (1967), but from the fact that in my gut, I don’t believe they’ll ever win again. There’s an agnosticism that comes from following a losing team for a lifetime. Having spent years of white-knuckled hours watching Hockey Night in Canada, decades studying stats, a lifetime of psychic energy devoted to willing them to put the puck into the net, I’ve come to accept that my prayers will not be answered, or that they have been and the answer is “no.”

Most comparisons of sport to religion are jokes targeted at the rituals that characterize the fan: the saints in the Hall of Fame, my sister-in-law’s insistence that to mention the word “shutout” before the final horn is blasphemy. But there is a truth in the metaphor that speaks profoundly to our post-existential secularized society.

My adherence to the Church of Latter Day Leafs puts me in communion with a large group of others who share my devotion to the team. Together we have placed our collective hope in the gloves of something larger than ourselves, to which we can contribute nothing except the strength of our faith. Though we’re rewarded with beautiful moments along the way (Sittler’s 10-point game in 1976, Gary Valk’s overtime goal to oust the Penguins in 1999), what usually comes of our devotion is frustration and disappointment.

Only once have I believed paradise was at hand. Of the five trips to the semi-final series that Toronto has made since last winning the Cup, the 1993 series remains the proudest and most painful: the Leafs squeak into the playoffs for the first time in three years; they perform miraculous upsets in marathon overtime-laden series against Detroit and St. Louis; the city behaves as if the second coming is here. Before and after games, fans crowd the streets around Maple Leaf Gardens (a hockey Cathedral, now deconsecrated), people climb lampposts waving tin-foil Stanley Cups, street parties carry on all night.We’re one goal away from a Stanley Cup final against the Montreal Canadiens when game six of our series against the Kings goes into overtime. In the first minute, Wayne Gretzky (the greatest player ever to play the game, never to be forgiven) cuts Doug Gilmour’s face with a high stick that should draw a four-minute penalty, but doesn’t. A minute later, while Gilmore is receiving stitches on the bench, Gretzky scores to even the series. Gretzky gets three goals and one assist in game seven and the Leafs, fighting to the last second, lose 5-4.

At a cottage in Wasaga Beach, five of my adult male friends and I weep. I can count on my hands the number of times in my adult life that I have cried (not teared-up, but actually wept, sobbing and wailing): once when I was arrested (a story for another time), three times when close relatives died, once over a failed romance and four times over Leafs’ losses.

The shared grief is part of what separates Leafs supporters from those of other teams, in the way that centuries of suffering are part of the foundation of Jewish identity. According to Paul Quarrington, who has written or edited five books about hockey, “the fact that they’ve been losing for so long has given them a mythic status. You can really cheer for them as you would cheer for David against Goliath.”

Mythology breathes life into the history of all religions, and the Maple Leafs are not without theirs. The most powerful, immortalized in the Tragically Hip song “Fifty Mission Cap,” is the story of Bill Barilko’s ghost.

Barilko was a good but unspectacular Leafs defenceman who in the last game of the greatest final in Stanley Cup history, in 1951, scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime against the Canadiens. That summer, his plane crashed during a fishing trip and search parties were unable to find his body. The Toronto Maple Leafs did not win another Cup until 1962, the year Barilko’s remains were discovered.

I wish a curse were hanging over the Leafs now, a ghost that could be exorcised, something lost that could be found. Maybe Harold Ballard, the pit boss behind our years of incompetence, might be resurrected and killed to extinguish the curse. Or something.

“If they were in the finals and they lost I don’t know how I’d be able to take it,” Quarrington says of this year’s Leafs, who have a good chance to do very well, “but I don’t know how I’d be able to take it if they won, either…. It’s a bit like God giving us evidence of his concrete existence. What are the implications about faith then?”

Our years of unwavering loyalty, our status as the Jobs of the NHL’s bible, indeed our faith, would be simultaneously rewarded and cheapened by a Leafs Cup win. What’s the value of faith in the face of proof? The magic and nobility would be gone. Suddenly the Leafs would be a respectable, competitive team; a normal team.

And of course they’d lose again. I wonder if, having sipped from the grail, we’d be content drinking from the cheap crystal of moral victory that fills the cupboards of the perpetual loser. It’s doubtful we’d see street parades for first-round victories again. I doubt I’d be brought to tears by an early exit.

The hearts of Leafs fans are like a steam furnace in which the pressure of hope and desire and expectation has been building for 35 years, only occasionally relieved in small bursts. A victory would throw the valve wide open and empty the tank.

Still, though my relationship with the team might fade, though the rest of my life might pale in comparison, I’d take it. I need, just once, to experience that moment, lived so often in my imagination, in which the trumpets sound and The! Toronto! Maple! Leafs! Have! Won!

It’ll never happen, of course. The Leafs never win, and I love them for it. And the strength of my hope and the quality of my faith will only grow.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on April 10, 2003.