The NHL has been through so many realignments that sometimes you wonder if it shouldn’t just do a random draw before every season (actually, that’s not a terrible idea). It’s when you get to the real aims of past realignments that things get more interesting.
In the ’90s, Gary Bettman was desperate to make the NHL look like the NBA. First, out went the old division and conference names: Norris, Smythe, Adams, Patrick, Wales, Campbell...to the trash. There’s a couple generations of hockey fans who wouldn’t even know what those are now. In came Western and Eastern conferences, and Central, Atlantic, Pacific, Northeast divisions. Then in 1998, the league split into six divisions instead of four, with one big switch of conferences. The Toronto Maple Leafs flipped to the Eastern Conference.
While never publicly stated, the intention was clear. The Maple Leafs were being positioned to have playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens, hockey’s biggest rivalry, or so they claimed at least. The rest of us saw scant evidence of it.
That was the only explanation, because Toronto was leaving behind more than enough blood rivals to make the switch. I’ve been to enough Hawks-Leafs games in the ’90s to know, and seen enough Hawks chase Wendel Clark around the ice, the rabbit to their greyhounds, to tell you just how deep that schism went. It was no different with the Wings or Blues. But the NHL has always run back to Habs-Leafs, though for reasons that have become cloudier and cloudier.
Believe me, I know why they think it. Any hockey fan has seen enough Hockey Night In Canada video packages to turn us all Clockwork Orange, or heard Ron MacLean refer to “The Forever Rivals” to the point of vomit.
And on the ground, you can definitely see it. Canada’s largest city against the one that considers itself its most famous and regal. The modern vs. the old. The heart of Canada (in its own mind) vs. Quebec, which still sees itself apart in a lot of ways. That all makes sense.
But on the ice? We have to take their word for it.
We see the black-and-white footage of playoff battles past, but those might as well have been filmed at the Roman Colosseum. They haven’t played each other in the playoffs since 1967, which also happens to be the Leafs’ last Cup (and seeing as how it took place during the Original Six era, doesn’t really count. Fight me.). They’ve only shared a division for 23 years, and never even really competed for it at the same time. There’s never been a year when they’ve finished first and second in the division. Fuck, they’ve only ever been in the playoffs at all together four times since the Leafs switched to the Eastern Conference. Some things are truly timeless. But they’re also buried under so much dirt and sand that they’ve lost almost all of their importance.
And if we’re being honest, the Leafs switch to the East and the ravenous desire to see the Habs and Leafs play in a series again is traced back to 1993, and the GRAVEST MISTAKE, at least to hear Leafs fans tell it. While baseball still lives on glorifying its nostalgia, hockey lives on still bitching about its nostalgia. Find a hockey fan and you’ll find someone who can list off previous injustices and fuck-ups at a moment’s notice (or three beers in). As a Hawks fan I enjoyed three parades in a decade, and yet I’ll still just as quickly tell you about Mike Keenan benching Larmer and Roenick in Game 1 of the 1992 Final or Amonte blowing out his knee in 1996 or even Gaborik being offsides in 2014 that cost the Hawks a fourth one. Baseball means romanticizing what came before. Hockey means using it as justification for a gripe with the world at large.
And there has been no bigger gripe than the 1993 Leafs-Kings Western Conference final. Shit, there’s a guy who’s made a whole career out of bitching about it. Game 6, overtime, Leafs with a chance to return to the Final for the first time since that 1967 triumph. Wayne Gretzky high-sticks Doug Gilmour in just about the most plain-to-see fashion. Referee Kerry Fraser’s balls high-tail it up to his throat, declines the chance to make the call, Gretzky scores not a minute later to send the series back to Toronto where the Leafs proceed to trip over their own dicks as Gretzky manages a hat trick.
I wrote that from memory, because there isn’t a hockey fan anywhere who hasn’t been badgered by this story by some angry dude in a No. 17 jersey in some concourse or some bar. Not only would it have sent the Leafs to the Final, but it would have sent them to where the Canadiens were already waiting. Habs-Leafs for the Cup. Bettman’s worst nightmare, but Eastern Canada’s and a hockey purist’s dream. The only true Final matchup, to hear them tell it. It never happened, and the Habs dusted the Kings in five for their last Cup. Neither the Canadiens nor Leafs have been anywhere close since.
Heightening the sense of outrage is that every other Canadian team, save the Jets, who have only been in existence for seven seasons, have at least made a trip to the Final since. Between the two of them, they’ve only made the conference finals twice since 1993. Even the Jets have made one.
But that will get corrected now. The Canadiens and Leafs will finally meet again in the playoffs. But sadly, no one will be there to see it. I probably have given off the impression that this matchup is all an annoyance to most hockey fans, and the fact that it’s behind closed doors is satisfying. It’s not, at least to me. There is something special about playoff hockey, and especially in Canadian buildings (except for Vancouver, where the signature gesture is literally giving up). Canadians will tell you most of what they love about hockey has been taken from them (and for the most part, that’s a good thing), but the playoff atmosphere is still something they can hang on to. And every building sounds just like that come spring (when their teams actually bother to make the playoffs).
Both Scotiabank Arena and the Bell Center would be quaking come the weekend or next week. It would be epic. It would probably show us all why so many have cared for so long when we couldn’t figure out why the effort was worth it. It would have seemed right out of Thunderdome.
But alas, all we’ll get is piped in noise and empty seats. Which is a true shame. Maybe if we listen closely we can hear the simultaneous thud as Leafs fans all throw themselves out of their apartment if Carey Price locates his Carey Price-ness for a week. Or the grinding teeth of the Quebecois as a whole if he doesn’t and Auston Matthews goes off. But not the same.
Only the NHL could finally get what it’s wanted for so long and still not really get it.