You've all heard stories about how crazy hockey is in Canada. But let's talk about how crazy hockey is in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Sportsnet studio host Jeff Marek told a particularly entertaining story:
"In 1993, the Maple Leafs' Western Conference Final run up against the Los Angeles Kings," he said, "I remember talking to Doug Gilmour and asking him 'How did you get in the rink?' There was a street behind Maple Leaf Gardens called Wood Street and every fan knew that every player went in and out of Maple Leaf Gardens by Wood Street. Usually around 4 p.m. people were lining up -- just because they could -- to get a high five or an autograph from a Maple Leaf. It was horrendous for Gilmour to make his way through. He could've ran for mayor, and he would've won. No platform, no nothing."
So Pat Burns allowed him to do something that no other Maple Leaf had been allowed to do before: instead of wearing a suit and tie, Gilmour would put on his No. 93 jersey and a Maple Leafs baseball hat, and walk through the crowd. No one would think that Doug Gilmour would dress up as Doug Gilmour."
That's what we could be looking at beginning next week. The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2004. Twitter did not exist then. Twenty-four -hour cable sports networks (like the one Mr. Marek works for) existed, but they were not nearly as over-the-top as they can be in 2013. Yes, even in polite Canada. Hell, the Toronto Maple Leafs have never played a Stanley Cup Playoff game that was broadcast in high definition.
The coverage around the games will likely be a little different and more extravagant. Marek suggests,"If someone changes the blade pattern on their stick, or the lie on their stick, or the color of the tape on their stick, it will be reported on, it will be an issue on television, talk radio and digital as well. Every single level of media will cover this team." While there have been good teams in Canada since 2004 -- the Senators ('07) and Canucks ('11) made the Stanley Cup Finals -- this could somehow go to another level. "I don't think you will ever have a team in Canada that has been this covered, and that includes Stanley Cup teams," said Marek. "This is just for getting into the playoffs. I think this is going to be a whole different level of coverage for the Canadian media. Everybody wants a taste of it."
Greg Brady, who co-hosts the highly-rated Brady and Lang on Sportsnet 590 AM The Fan in Toronto, has lived in both the United States and Canada, and also thinks the coverage of the Leafs is going to be unprecedented, and might already be. "I don't know what to compare it to in the U.S., because as popular as the NFL is, I guess the comparison point might be what the Packers are in Green Bay," says Brady, though adding "but you'd still have people who live 20 minutes from Lambeau who say they like college football better. It probably doesn't have a comparison point to how popular the Maple Leafs are. The other teams in Toronto haven't made it a threat where the Leafs' popularity could be challenged." I asked if they could put together a three-hour show on the Leafs in August, and he responded "absolutely."
What won't likely be too different is who actually covers those games. The CBC -- Canada's public broadcast -- has the rights to pick the two "best" playoff series, as they see them before cable's TSN gets their shot. Trevor Pilling, CBC Sports head of programming, told me very coyly that "there is absolutely a chance of that. I'll be happy for all those Toronto fans who've been suffering all those years. We'll wait and see until the end of the regular season. Absolutely taking the Leafs would be a strong consideration for us."
What impact might the Leafs have in terms of the business side of things? "I think we have a very strong idea. It's a similar, although amplified version of what we had in Vancouver the last few years, with that team making it to the Stanley Cup Final," Pilling said. "We know how hockey crazy a lot of Canadians are. The Leafs being in would be good for the city of Toronto, and good for our business I'm sure as well."
There appears to be unlimited potential for how nuts the media would go should the Leafs get in. But what if they win a round? It is certainly possible. The Eastern Conference is weak. The teams they may end up likely facing -- the Boston Bruins or the Montreal Canadiens -- have been slumping down the stretch. Say the Leafs win a playoff series. What would Toronto be like the summer?
Brady sees it as more the jumping off point to a larger debate about where the team is headed. "I think there's been a lot of progress with the Maple Leafs, I also think they've had some luck. they've had some games with some awful shot totals, but they find ways to win. I don't think anyone's under the illusion that this a team that can go to the Stanley Cup Final in the next one, two or three years. The problem is, the team hasn't even taken baby steps since the salary cap's been put in. They haven't been able to adjust. In Toronto, it'll be about managing the salary cap. [Maple Leafs winger] Phil Kessel has a year left on his contract, will they re-sign him?"
That said, Toronto hockey fan will likely be in a rare positive mood. "I don't see how anyone could look at this season as not a success," Brady says. "They could get drummed by three goals a night by Pittsburgh or Boston and it'd still be a success."
The Leafs, as individual players with star potential, could get a boost from an actual victory. Something Marek notes about the team is that "there's not one personality, or even a couple of personalities that a fanbase can rally around," and he's right. The team's biggest players are ostensibly, James Reimer (a goaltender, a position that never makes for that huge a star), Joffrey Lupul (a decent player, but not necessarily the kind of stats you'd want, though he's been oft-injured) and Phil Kessel (a winger with an otherworldly shot, but often thought of as reclusive or not media-friendly. Brady told me that there's the impression that "Toronto does not fit who he is. He doesn't like the spotlight.")
That brings us to Nazem Kadri. Though he's slumped recently, Kadri -- a 23-year-old from London, Ontario, of Lebanese descent -- could be your breakout on the Leafs. Young, talented, and like many a prospect that comes through the Air Canada Centre, already hotly debated about by fans and the media of his "readyness" for the NHL. It certainly doesn't hurt his Q-rating that Kadri is a favorite of CBC blowhard Don Cherry, who sealed his affection -- as he did for Gilmour back in the day -- with a kiss on the cheek on a recent Hockey Night in Canada broadcast.
Could Kadri become a star in Toronto in the vein of Wendel Clark or Dave Andreychuk, or even Gilmour? It's very simple. "Defends how he performs," said Marek. "The thing about Gilmour was, he was clutch. He'd lose 10 pounds in water weight a game and [they would] hook him up to an IV afterwards to replace his fluids. You'd watch the game and the guy's got a goal and two assists. I don't know if Kadri has the body of work in the regular season yet. I don't think there'll be the same appreciation. I mean, there are folk songs about Dougie in the hills. It'll take at least a couple of seasons of actually doing something for Kadri to get there. But he's got a shot."
Ratings are measured differently in Canada since the last time the Leafs were in. The portable people meters more accurately reflect what Canadians are watching, and -- true to a stereotype, perhaps -- that means hockey ratings have gone up. A Leafs playoff series would likely easily break first round records. A Leafs series against the Montreal Canadiens? Both Brady and Marek suggested they could go near five million viewers. In a country of 35 million people, that's a huge chunk of people in the country watching a first-round playoff series. If they went any further, maybe they could come near the numbers of Canada's fervor for the 2010 Olympic hockey team, which set all-time ratings records in the country for the Gold Medal Game.
A good note to end on might be this: even the slightly reserved Pilling says this about the potential of a Leafs playoff run: "I really look forward to seeing the buzz that would come with a Leafs playoff appearance. Now, the Leafs against another Canadian team in the Stanley Cup Final? That is something we would have never seen before. It would certainly create a new landscape and new opportunities. We could only dream of such a scenario."