My mother is the reason I am a Maple Leafs fan today. For as long as I can remember, she has been a steadfast supporter of the Toronto hockey club.
Growing up as a youngster in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario in the 1960s, however, it’s surprising that she didn’t wind up rooting for the Bruins. Her father Don, who had been a mighty fine hockey player in his day, cheered for Boston. Before she was born, my grandfather was actually among a contingent of Italian-Canadian players that was selected to form an All-Star team to face off against squads in Italy. The family legend goes that, when Phil Esposito was playing hockey on outdoors rinks in the Sault as a youth, he pretended he was Don Lato. So, when Esposito was traded to the Bruins in 1967, in what would turn out to be one of the worst trades of all-time, the stars aligned for my grandfather who now had the local kid, and supposed admirer, wearing his team’s colours.
At that time, however, my mother, Patti, was already a full-fledged Maple Leafs fan. Her Baba (Ukrainian grandmother) supported Toronto, and my mother recalls how she would curl up on the couch with her baba on Saturdays to watch the Buds on Hockey Night in Canada. Although she could have been forgiven for switching allegiances at an early age, those formidable moments with her grandmother galvanized her into being an ardent Maple Leafs fan. Of course, celebrating four Stanley Cups before her tenth birthday certainly didn’t hurt either.
By the time I was born, many of those happy Maple Leafs memories had all but disappeared. She suffered through the 1970s, which included flashes of brilliance from players such as Darryl Sittler, but was ultimately marred by Harold Ballard’s cantankerous ownership and penchant for alienating key personnel. The next decade began with a thud, but with the addition of players such as Wendel Clark and the later acquisitions of Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk, things were starting to trend upward.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that I, too, gravitated towards the Maple Leafs. In fact, my first vivid memories of watching the team play were on television was during the 1993 postseason run. I remember asking my parents to stay up late during those playoff games, requests that they would happily oblige, knowing I wouldn’t last too long after my usual bedtime. I’d wake up in my room the following morning, trying to piece together what the score in the game was before I had nodded off. As a drowsy seven-year-old, I missed most of the critical moments that postseason, such as the missed high-stick call on Gilmour, but evidently so did Kerry Fraser. While there was certainly enough excitement around the club in the early 1990s to warrant my fandom, it was undoubtedly because of my mother’s influence. Although my father was, and is, a sports fan, it was my mom who was the true Maple Leafs fan in our household.
To this day, she still maintains an assortment of Maple Leafs memorabilia that adorns her bedroom. She refers to it as the shrine, but I’m not sure my Dad agrees. The only thing missing from her collection is a Doug Gilmour jersey that was once her prized possession. When our family moved from Mississauga to Thunder Bay in 1994, her coworkers bought it for her as a going away present. Knowing her passion for the Maple Leafs, and evidently her affinity for Doug Gilmour, they purchased her an authentic No. 93 jersey that even included the fighting strap.
For years, she proudly wore his sweater, even on days when Toronto wasn’t playing. That was until I asked to wear it to school. I recall brimming with confidence the day I walked out of the house with it on, strutting towards the bus stop. With the school day complete, I made my way to the Archie Dillon Sportsplex in Timmins for daily swim practice. In a moment of overconfidence and absentmindedness from the day that had just transpired, I forgot to secure my locker before I headed out onto the pool deck. When I arrived back in the change room after my workout, I was horrified to see that my locker had been cleaned out; Gilmour was gone. As a 13-year-old, I had nothing of value, except for that jersey. Knowing how much it meant to my mother, I was crestfallen over how I would explain to this her.
From what I can recall, she took the news of the theft reasonably well but I know the loss pained her. After all, it was her first real Maple Leafs jersey and Dougie was her favourite player. More importantly, however, it represented the friendships she had forged with her coworkers and, of course, bore the symbol of those tender moments she shared with family watching the team as both a child and later a mother.
For the next two decades, I swore to myself that one day I would replace it. For her sixtieth birthday, I could think of no better gift. Patti, now a Baba herself, has her sweater back to watch Maple Leafs games with her granddaughter.
Happy birthday, Mom