Friday, January 31, 2014
Leafs Rivalry Dies Hard For Some, Never Existed For Others
Another Saturday night. Another Leafs vs. Sens matchup.
It doesn’t seem to have the same intensity that it used to, does it?
In fact, there’s a whole generation of new fans who probably don’t truly understand the enmity both teams and fanbases had towards each other during the height of the rivalry. At times, there was real bloodlust there, like when Tie Domi absolutely crushed Martin Havlat with a hit that ended up on repeat in Don Cherry's videos, or when Domi beat up Magnus Arvedson. Clips of Daniel Alfredsson destroying Darcy Tucker against the boards are now played alongside sentimental music during tributes to the former captain, but many forget the ugly incidents that led up to or followed that.
Like Darcy Tucker irrationally diving with fists swinging into the Senators bench, trying to fight the whole team, only to later claim that a Senators player spat on him. Or Leaf coach Pat Quinn accusing Marian Hossa of intentionally swinging his stick into Bryan Berard’s eye. Or Curtis Joseph exploding into a rage after a Sens goal and tackling plump referee Mick McGeough in the corner, later claiming to have “slipped”.
The last major controversy was probably Mark Bell crushing Alfredsson with a blind-side hit just before the 2008 playoffs. Even that seems like ancient history.
Now we mostly get Nazem Kadri and Cory Conacher yapping at each other in scrums. Luckily for Conacher, Kadri always has Lupes to “hold him back”.
Expect all this politeness to change. Very soon.
But before we get into the reasons for that, let’s take a quick look back at some of the playoff carnage:
1999-00: Leafs beat Sens in 6 games in the first round of the playoffs. Ottawa scores only twice in 3 games against Curtis Joseph at the new Air Canada Centre.
2000-01: Leafs sweep Sens in first round, despite losing all 5 games to Ottawa in the regular season. Ottawa scores 3 goals in the entire series, getting shutout by Joseph in the first two games at home. Games 1 and 3 ended in overtime on goals by Mats Sundin and defenseman Cory Cross respectively. Ottawa’s best player, Alexei Yashin, gets one assist in the series and promptly gets traded to Long Island.
2001-02: Ottawa loses again to Toronto, this time in a close 7-game, second-round series. This is made all the more painful because the Senators held a 3-2 series lead going home for Game 6. They raced out to a 2-0 lead early in the first on goals by Hossa and Alfredsson, only to watch defenseman Ricard Persson take a 5-minute boarding call and game misconduct for checking Domi from behind into the boards. Many felt Domi went down a little too easy, but the Leafs tied the game with two goals on the ensuing power-play and went on to win by a goal, tying the series. The Sens didn’t recover in Game 7, getting shutout by Joseph again in Toronto.
2003-04: After marching to the conference final the year before, the Senators and their fans were confident going into a first-round match against the now hated Leafs. It would be Jacques Martin’s last as coach in Ottawa. Somehow, the Senators get shutout 3 times in the series but still manage to push it to a seventh game in Toronto. Before the game, new Sens owner Eugene Melnyk was quoted as saying “We’re gonna kill ‘em!” Famously, Ottawa goalie Patrick Lalime implodes in the first period on two long shots by Joe Nieuwendyk and his career in Ottawa ends along with Martin’s. Domi says after the game, “A big inspiration was Eugene Melnyk's comments.”
At the time I was working at Hy’s Steakhouse and one of the cooks came in the next day with a broken hand from smashing it into his coffee table after the second Nieuwendyk goal. He had to work the salad station for a month.
Tensions were extremely high during that series. I remember watching the last game with my younger brother and his girlfriend. When Toronto scored one of those goals against Lalime, his girlfriend (now his wife) let out this huge roar of frustration, ran out of the room and up the stairs where we heard a bedroom door slam so hard that we thought the hinges had snapped off the frame. She stayed up there the rest of the night with all the lights off. And she didn’t even like hockey.
That’s the kind of mass anguish we’re talking about here.
The Senators and Leafs haven’t played a series against each other since. That could change very soon for a couple of reasons.
One, the new NHL alignment calls for divisional playoff-matchups, although that’s mitigated by the “wildcard” slots which will frequently result in cross-divisional matchups. Only the 2nd and 3rd seeds in each division are guaranteed to play each other in the first round, but sooner or later the Leafs and Sens are bound to end up there together.
Secondly, we've hit an era where both teams are likely to be perennial playoff contenders. That hasn't been the case since 2004. After crushing the hearts of Senators fans that year, the Leafs went on a horrific streak after the 2005 lockout, missing the playoffs seven straight times. When they finally made it back to the dance last season, their usual partner was locked in a nasty affair with the Montreal Canadiens. This just further diverted local Ottawa fans from their old enemies across the province.
Thus, the rivalry has died off, kept on life-support by the press needing angles and older fans who still can’t quite use their hand the way they used to in 2004.
Now that Ottawa actually has a temporary hold on a wildcard spot, and with the Leafs looking like a lock for the post-season, we may actually get another series out of these two in the near future.
When it does happen, it’s going to be wild. Remember, in the heyday of the Battle Of Ontario, there was no such thing as Twitter. Fans used to diss each other on forums or by writing letters to the Hockey News, putting it in an envelope, licking a stamp and walking down the block to the red box. Two months later when the new issue hit the stands… BURN.
Until that next series, we’ll have to make do with some minor hacks and whacks, unless the two truculent coaches, Randy Carlyle and Paul MacLean decide to get into it in the hallways. I think it could look something like this. Or we can hope.