Column by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — I cheered for the Los Angeles Kings in 1993. It was the year the Maple Leafs were supposed to win the Cup. Doug Gilmour appeared to have the will all his own to haul Toronto out of the cell of infamy they had been trapped in since last capturing a championship in 1967.
The team’s captain set Toronto club records for points and assists in a season, was nominated for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, and won the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward. As the playoffs progressed and the Leafs took on the guise of a team destined to end a quarter-century of disaster, the city became a torrent of energy and enthusiasm. Everyone had a story about the run to the NHL semi-finals, whether it was a pair of tickets scored at the last minute or a serendipitous encounter with Wendel Clark outside of Maple Leaf Gardens.
When Toronto is in the NHL playoffs, the city’s downtown core — thick with bankers and mall shoppers — shakes off its focus on digging for gold and allows itself to dream of silver. For anyone in the nation who might criticize Toronto for being too serious and self-conscious, living in this city when the Leafs appear to have a chance (all knowledgeable hockey fans know they never actually do) is a joy.
In 1993, every night was a party, even the days between games. There was revelry in the streets: flag waving, car honking, spontaneous chanting, the constant shout of “We want the Cup!”
Of course, Wayne Gretzky relegated the Leafs to their rightful, er, honorary place as the Bad News Bears of hockey. In Game 6, Gilmour had the gall to attack the Great One’s stick with his face. Leafs fans seem to recall this incident another way, claiming that Gretzky assaulted Gilmour with a high-stick that drew blood and should have drawn a penalty. But Kings fans, Gretzky fans and Leafs haters saw the play for what it was: Gretzky reminding Gilmour and Toronto that they were mortal. Most importantly, referee Kerry Fraser didn’t see the play at all, so no call was made, and the Kings went on to win the game and force a deciding seventh contest.
Remembering the 1993 Maple Leafs
No. 99’s series-winning goal was sent in off the back heel of defenceman Dave Ellett and will play in the minds of Maple Leafs devotees until the team does at last finally one of these years some time in this century or the next or certainly before the sun flames out to black find the talent and fortune to win a 14th Stanley Cup.
Rooting on Gretzky and the Kings to victory was a lot of fun. But it was more fun just being in Toronto during that time. The city was in the midst of two back-to-back World Series championships by the Blue Jays and was about to earn an NBA franchise. It felt like a big city for the first time.
Twenty years later, Toronto has grown up, becoming a major international centre for finance and culture. Sports titles remain as elusive as Tyler Seguin, however. Seguin, who could have been a Maple Leaf had the team not traded its 2010 first-round draft pick to Boston, will be one of the Bruins’ stars aiming to extend Toronto’s postseason misery when the teams begin their Eastern Conference quarter-final series on Wednesday night.
Although the Leafs have gone deep into the playoffs since 1993, no team since that squad in Gilmour’s finest pro season has created the kind of buzz and anticipation as the current group led by Phil Kessel and goaltender James Reimer.
If you’ve ever doubted Torontonians can laugh and be giddy like East Coasters or as passionate as Quebeckers or as community-minded as Calgarians, come to this city during the NHL playoffs and your impression will change. You don’t have to cheer for the Leafs — only a sadist would suggest you do that — but you do have to take notice of their fans and how Toronto can indeed show the heart, at least, of a champ.
BEST PLACES TO EAT FOR MAPLE LEAFS GAMES
After the game (nearby): Real Sports Bar, C’est What? and the Bier Markt are popular spots. None will disappoint, although the service at Real Sports is atrocious lately. It does have the largest HDTV screen in North America and was named the best sports bar on the continent in 2011 by ESPN. C’est What?, meanwhile, has outstanding microbrews and a lively atmosphere packed with locals. Although there are a couple of TVs behind the bar, it’s not a sports hangout, which can be a nice change after a game. For something upscale, hit DEQ, the outstanding patio bar at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Feel like good food with a clubby feel (re: waitresses with long legs)? Then Bloke & 4th is a hot spot in town for excellent eats and nightlife (reservations recommended).
After the game (farther afield): If you want to explore the city, try the Ballroom for the best sports-bar food in Toronto, as well as plenty of TVs and a bowling alley in the heart of the Entertainment District. For just good beer, trek to Bar Volo, on Yonge Street north of Wellington Street. For great steak, avoid overpriced places like Harbour 60 and Bardi’s, and head to Barberian’s on Elm Street, a steakhouse that’s stood in Toronto since 1959. No-nonsense and amazing. Also, Brant House off of King Street West is outstanding.
WHERE TO STAY IN TORONTO
The Strathcona is the most reasonably priced hotel in walking distance to Air Canada Centre, but the best value may be the Novotel on the Esplanade, a fine hotel in a terrific location. It often has deals. If you’re going to end up in the trendy west end of the city, try to get a room at the artsy Gladstone Hotel.
OTHER SIGHTS TO CATCH IN WALKING DISTANCE
Hockey Hall of Fame: Sports fans must see the hall, where interactive displays and loads of great history are offered. Fun on weekend mornings prior to the game.
CN Tower: Torontonians don’t get too excited about the tower any more. It’s been around for nearly 40 years and for most residents it serves as a directional landmark more than a place to go. But the tower — the tallest free-standing structure in Canada — is a thrill and visitors won’t be disappointed. The view in any direction you look — but especially facing southeast toward Lake Ontario and beyond — is magnificent. (Here’s a video)
Harbourfront Centre: The Harbourfront area has numerous performances, festivals and entertaining weekly events that are often worth checking out. Visit the website for the schedule when you’re in town.
GETTING MAPLE LEAFS PLAYOFF TICKETS
The Leafs are the toughest ticket in the NHL — even more so in the playoffs. You will need to pay a premium and the best, safest places to do so are online at ticket brokers. Regular-priced playoff tickets in Toronto range from $55-$440.
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