Sometimes a hockey game is more than a hockey game. And sometimes singing a national anthem is more than just a song. Both these things were true in Toronto’s Air Canada Center on April 16, as the Maple Leafs cut the Big Bad Boston Bruins’ series lead in half. Ten days before this game 16 members of Canada’s thriving hockey community died in a tragic bus crash. Ten of the fatalities were players for the Humboldt Broncos on their way to a playoff game in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League Playoffs.
Canada is hockey and hockey is Canada. There’s really no parallel here in the United States. Hockey belongs to Canada and Canada belongs to Hockey. They are married to each other. And because of that this tragedy was bigger than the individuals involved. Within a few days of the crash, the Gofundme page for the Humboldt Broncos’ survivors had raised millions, and as of Wednesday some 138,000 people have donated more than $14 million through the site.
America has many teams that define us nationally. The Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Yankees, and Notre Dame Fighting Irish. These four Behemoths of sports are cultural dividing lines. You either love or hate them. We all know who and what these teams mean even if we don’t follow sports.
Now imagine that there was one team that embodied all this money, fame, scrutiny, hate, and love.
That is what the Toronto Maple Leafs are to Canada. When they are on TV Canada has their TVs on. Especially during the playoffs. And sadly they have not won a playoff series since the 03-04 season. Adding insult to injury the last time they won the Stanley Cup was in 67 and worse still they have never been back since. That’s 49 years without an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. And yet their ticket prices are by far the most expensive in the entire NHL. Many native Canadians actually have to fly to lesser markets like Arizona if they want to see their beloved Leafs play live. It’s considerably cheaper that way.
There are 31 teams in the NHL and only 7 are located in Canada. This year only 2 of those 7 made the playoffs. The Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets. And the Jets don’t really seem to symbolize much yet. They’ve only been in Winnipeg for the last 7 seasons having relocated from Atlanta. The original Jets team left Canada to become the Coyotes over 20 years ago. So it matters that the Leafs made the playoffs this year. And it matters that they beat the Bruins in their first home game of the playoffs. This would all matter anyways, but it matters more now.
The Bruins were the first U.S.-based team to join the NHL way back in 1924. And over the years they’ve had some heated rivalries, most notably with Canadian teams. But one of the most dramatic moments between the Leafs and Bruins was very recent. In 2013, after a season shortened by a lockout, they faced off in the first round of the playoffs. In Game 7 the Leafs led 4-1 in the third. It looked like their series drought was about to end. But the Bruins would not give up. They pulled their goalie twice in the final 2 minutes of regulation to force overtime. Patrice Bergeron scored the overtime goal that sent the Leafs home.
In keeping with Boston sports teams’ newfound tradition of ridiculous record breaking comebacks this was the first time that an NHL team had rallied from a 3 goal deficit in the 3rd period of a playoff game to win. Leafs fans would find cold comfort when the Bruins eventually went on to lose the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Blackhawks in equally tragic fashion. I know this loss still deeply troubles Leafs fans, because I was proudly sporting my Chara jersey while grabbing some last minute groceries before game 1 when I got into a heated conversation with someone from Toronto right in front of the deli counter. Thankfully, in classic NHL fashion it ended with us shaking hands and wishing the other well. But these rivalries go deep, and these heart breaking moments stay with real fans. But so do the great moments, so do the moments that let people heal.
The Leafs entered this year’s playoffs with a franchise record 105 points. Loaded with young guns and some key veteran talent it looked like legendary Coach Mike Babcock might be able to lead them back to the promised land. But the first two games were an utter disaster. Both took place in Boston. Game 1 was a complete and total beat down mostly thanks to power play dominance from Boston. The final score was 5-1 with 3 of Boston’s goals coming on power plays. By the time the Leafs finally had their first score of Game 2 they had been goalless for 3 straight periods of the series. That’s an hour of hockey with no goals.
And to make matters worse Boston had already scored 4 times in the 1st period of game 2. That debacle ended 7-3 in Boston’s Favor. And even as a die hard Bruins fan I had to admit it wasn’t particularly enjoyable. It’s always nice to see your team dominate, but you still want to see good competition. But the Leafs simply looked terrible and there was no reason to think things would change in game 3. The goal differential was 12-4. The Leafs just seemed to be outclassed.
But I had underestimated the power of Toronto, the center of the beating heart of the hockey universe. And as the third battle began I realized I was secretly rooting for … Canada. In the NHL when the opposing teams are from both countries the host country sings the opposition’s national anthem first and then their own. It’s a great tradition of good sportsmanship. The singer for game 3 finished the “Star Spangled Banner” and then only did the lead in for “O Canada,” before she let the crowd take over. And take over they did. This isn’t exactly unique. The Blackhawks’ crowd does this every game. But with the Broncos’ disaster still so fresh in every hockey fan’s memory it was impossible not to feel like Canada herself was singing.
In fact 5 years ago this week the Boston Marathon Bombing took place ending the lives of 5 people and maiming hundreds of others. And if it hadn’t been for the restructured season due to the collective bargaining lockout, that infamous 2013 series between Boston and Toronto would have been in essentially the same stage as it is now. For their first home game after the terrorist attack the Bruins organization tried to help their city heal.
Watch moving opening ceremony below:
That night the Bruins’ fans took over the “Star Spangled Banner” from the legendary Rene Rancourt, just like Toronto did this week. This is the real importance of sports. It binds us together in our pain and heartache. And it does so with something that ultimately doesn’t matter that much. It turns out that the things that don’t matter that much actually end up mattering a lot. A flag is just some cloth. A song is just some sounds. A sports team just plays a game. But when we need them their symbolism become medicine. We’re all in this life together. Boston made that clear by creating a charity campaign for the Broncos’ survivors.
And for Toronto, Game 3 belongs to them. It was a truly magnificent comeback performance. The Bruins rained 42 shots on goal, yet only managed to sneak past 2. Frederik Anderson was an absolute brick wall, making 40 of the best saves I’ve ever seen. On a normal night the Bruins would’ve probably stolen this game away. But this wasn’t a normal night. Babcock rallied his players and came up with line combos to match Boston’s overwhelming offense. Because they all knew what this meant. The Leafs were playing for Canada, they were playing for the Broncos.