“Why are you here?” I love reading and hearing people’s stories about what dragged them into this awful disaster we call fandom. Why they picked the sport, why they picked their team. Many of us, more so than just about any fanbase for the sport on this planet, got dragged into years of misery with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
I owe my youthful biases, and possibly a lot of what my life has been, to a generational shift triggered by a construction boot 49 years ago.
My father always told me that his first memory was Game 6 of the 1967 Stanley Cup Finals. I’m sure many others have said the same, just like a million people say that the were at a specific stadium for a historic moment. What’s interesting, though, is that he never claimed to remember of the hockey, but rather a fit of rage from my grandfather. He was a Habs fan, and when Geroge Armstrong netted the 3-1 empty net goal, he decided that the most logical reaction would be to kick in the television set.
Needless to say, that’s a traumatic moment for a two-year-old to witness, and it makes sense that he’d remember it. It also makes sense that it would encourage him, as he grew up, to cheer for the side whose emotional investments didn’t appear to cause so much heartache and, well, TV break.
But there was more to it than just that. My father grew up in Timmins, an industrial town in Northern Ontario that wasn’t much farther from Montreal than it was from Toronto, and certainly closer to Quebec border than it was to the Golden Horseshoe. It left hockey fans in a position where they to make a tough decision about hockey allegiances. The Habs ended up being the more successful team over his lifespan, but looking around the town, it’s not hard to see why the Leafs put up a very convincing argument for himself and others.
For a few years, our family made a point of heading up to the outskirts of town to take a few days at a friend’s cottage. We weren’t well-off enough to head to tourist cities or travel the world, but that was never seen as a bad thing; it was a chance to get away from the city and give my dad an opportunity to catch up with friends and family.
In 2001, for example, I met his long-time priest, Father Les Costello. Costello moved to Toronto in pursuit of a hockey career at the age of 16 and joined the St. Michael’s Majors. He won two memorial cups with the team before going pro and joining the Leafs’ system. He spent most of his short-lived career in the AHL but did get to play in parts of two seasons with Toronto, including five games in the 1948 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Leafs won that year, which got him his name on the cup and a ring for his troubles; one that, so the story goes, he wore when baptizing my dad and many others in town.
Les’ impact went beyond the pros, though. He retired at just 22 years old to focus on becoming a priest and was ordained at 29. He was loved by everyone in town for his quick sermons and quick wit, his occasional small-town crudeness in his delivery, and his selflessness in the pursuit of helping others. Eventually, he combined his two passions into an initiative called the Flying Fathers, a traveling team of hockey-playing priests who started off as a one off and end up becoming Canada’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters, raising millions of dollars for charity over 40+ years. Les was 73 when I met him and still as sharp as a tack and as friendly as could be, though unfortunately, he passed away after an on-ice incident. Today, he has a street named after him near McIntyre Arena.
Until this spring, it had been almost a decade since I had last been in Timmins. Trips “for fun” stopped happening shortly after my parents separated, and the last two trips up have been sadder moments; 2008 when my great-grandmother passed away, and this year to scatter my father’s ashes, as he specified. The latter occasion involved us staying in the city itself, so I took the opportunity to make a few stops in the city.
One of them was the Mac. We had terrible luck in previous attempts to check the rink out in previous years; my dad would always bring us, but it would always be closed off or in use for something. One again, it was closed to prep for a convention we got up there. This time, though, I wasn’t going to strike out without going kicking and screaming. Taking the “act like you own the place” mantra to heart, I walked into the attached cafe, and when everyone was paying the least amount of attention, found the door that goes into the rink, and went in.
McIntyre Arena has a Leafs connection to it as well. The arena was built as a scale model of Maple Leaf Gardens just seven years after the original was built. It has the roof shape, the coloured seats, and the end balconies. Years later, they even added a scoreboard that wasn’t quite as intricate as the MLG model but carried a similar look. Such a look and template is not surprising given that the steel for the original Gardens was provided by JP Bickell, who ran the McIntyre Mine and ended up building the rink.
Tucked into the back of the rink was the Timmins Sports Hall of Fame, which was actually an unfinished looking room with a bunch of plaques. With nobody the wiser still, I wandered in, and it was rather impressive to see how many athletes came out of the 45,000 person town. Most of all, there were plenty of NHL players, who shared the same arena as the many of the kids who were playing for fun for much of their lives before making a big leap of faith in an attempt to “make it”.
We talked about Costello above, but many others went on to wear the blue and white, making more of an NHL impact in the process. Soon as you walk into the room, you see a giant photo of Bill Barilko lifted on his teammates’ shoulders after scoring the 1951 Stanley Cup winning goal. Barilko, of course, is part of Leafs mythology because of the plane crash that ended his life shortly after. But the list keeps going; be it players who wore blue for a short period of time like Eric Prentice and Paul Harrison, guys who didn’t join the organization until their playing days were over like Dave Poulin, members of the glory years like Bob Nevin and Allan Stanley, and absolute legends like Frank Mahovlich.
The most recent Timmins native to wear the blue and white came in my own generation when Steve Sullivan was traded to Toronto in 1997. As a huge Doug Gilmour fan, that move was a massive heartbreaker for me, but the wound was treated a bit when some small-town family strings were pulled and I ended up meeting him outside the Gardens at the impressionable age of five, shortly after the deal. Sully promised that he’d do his best to fill the void and had a great start, scoring 16 points in his first 21 games. It wasn’t meant to be, though, as the Leafs ended up waiving him and losing out on an undersized but very skilled player. The love for him is very clear when you walk through the streets of the town; even with his career now three years behind him, it’s hard to find a bar or sports shop in town without some sort of nod to him in a corner.
Today, the town is waiting for their next young hockey talent to break through and represent them at the highest level again. They’ve also got a third NHL team that has attempted to claim the city’s heart, though Ottawa Senators gear is only really present on a few of the younger adults. More than anything, I noticed that the kids tended to wear their own league gear and left the pro stuff to the side. That might have a bit to do with the Leafs, Habs, and Sens being awful this year, but I also imagine that the easy game access that the internet brings today makes it easier for detached small towns to have favourite players rather than favourite teams.
But that certainly wasn’t the case for my dad’s generation, and when you put together the surroundings, it’s not a shocker that he chose the Leafs. Traumatic victory was the start, but being around for the last overwhelming generation of Timmins-based Leafs probably helped. Having a local figure that he was close to around with stories of Stanley Cups probably helped. An bilingual but anglo-leaning background probably made an impact too.
He chose the Leafs, and stuck through the worst of the years. For a myriad of reasons, he moved away in his late teens, and Toronto ended up being his end spot. There were reasons beyond the game, but having a bit of pride for the city thanks to the team he loved made it feel familiar. He met my mom here, they attempted to move back, it was a non-starter, they came back, and they had me. Much like he was born just in time to catch the end of the last Leafs dynasty, I was born just in time to idolize the teams of the 90s. He made sure from the second I was out of the womb that hockey was on my mind, my hometown was on my mind, and that I’d bring the two together.
We weren’t able to afford to have me get into the game from a playing perspective, but he made sure I was always following it, and gave me an alternative route to be involved in two ways; getting me to meet the media side of the game from a young age, and having me start working on my computer skills by the time I was out of kindergarten. It took until my teens to piece those together as my intended career path, but he (and my mom, who admittedly cares less about the hockey side) made sure I had every opportunity to be prepared to take that road.
It was also our biggest bond. Even when we didn’t see eye to eye with each other about the real world, we were able to sit down, watch the game, and bond over what was probably some random 5-2 loss in the middle of the winter. Every so often, he’d scrounge up the money to get us to the Gardens or the ACC to catch a game, and those were some of my fondest memories. The team was obviously something that meant a lot to him; he passed while wearing one of his many blue and white tees, but a big part of it for both of us became how a silly, perpetual loser that neither of us could bring us both together.
Everybody’s fan origin story is different, and nobody’s is better. But I enjoy his a bunch; it’s crazy what a construction boot, a wacky priest, and a gold miner’s rink can lead to.
Photo Jeff Veillette Sr, January 5th 1965 – April 12th 2016