A nation's fans be-Leaf in club

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:42 AM ET

They haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967. In fact, they haven't even made it back to the championship series since that last title match.

But the Toronto Maple Leafs are Canada's team, just as the NFL's Dallas Cowboys are America's team.

Before the angry letters, phone calls and e-mails begin pouring in, the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators aren't eligible, despite their superior records this season.

Neither are the defunct franchises from Winnipeg and Quebec, for obvious reasons.

This isn't about being the best team in Canada, or the Leafs would be at the back of the pack.

The contest comes down to two teams -- The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs -- Canada's only members of the Original Six. Their deep-rooted fan bases are what makes them the sole contenders and while the Flames, Canucks, Oilers and Sens may one day, in the distant future, be able to claim it as their own, the title of the nation's team belongs to the Leafs.

By now, unless you're one of the many Leafs fans who reside in the Stampede City, you are no doubt seething mad and about ready to stop reading.

Thanks for proving the point. There is no neutral feeling when it comes to the Leafs: You either love them or hate them. That fact, at first glance, may seem to support Montreal but in fact gives the Leafs an edge over the Canadiens.

For example: Should every other Canadian team but the Habs and Leafs be eliminated from playoff contention, fans of the others would probably support the Habs and still be outnumbered by the number of Toronto supporters.

That's the depth of the club's roots and the reason for all the ill will toward the team.

Want more proof? Look no further than the Saddledome crowds to decide the winner.

When the Leafs were in town earlier this month, flocks of their fans came to every open practice in search of autographs or a glimpse of their heroes. Ages varied from longtime fanatics to third or fourth generation enthusiasts who will continue to pass their love of the Leafs down to most of their children.

At the game itself, there were times chants of 'Go Flames Go' were overpowered -- or at least muddled -- by those of 'Go Leafs Go.' There were many Blue and White jerseys in the crowd, as you'll see when the team travels to any Canadian city and most of those in the U.S., too. And when the Flames came away with a 1-0 decision, the hometown faithful seemed to cheer with a little more enthusiasm than usual.

Beating the nation's team is a moral victory, after all.

Two years ago, before the Flames' playoff run and the nightly sellouts that have followed, the Leafs and Canadiens played here back to back.

The Leafs drew a sellout crowd of 17,509 people Nov. 18, 2003, while the Habs game was watched by more than a thousand fewer (16,139).

The difference? Toronto fans snatched up any remaining ducats.

The reason the Leafs own the title of Canada's team has nothing to do with tradition, although Toronto's runs deep.

It's not about legendary players like Tim Horton, Johnny Bower, King Clancy, Syl Apps. Or Darryl Sittler's record 10 points in a game (6 goals and 4 assists, Feb. 7, 1976).

It's not about their nine Stanley Cup titles since the 1942-43 season when the NHL was truly born. The Canadiens have more than double.

It is a numbers game. And the Leafs have always had the numbers when it comes to fans.


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