A night like no other in Toronto

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:48 PM ET

TORONTO - There is no feeling like Opening Night in this hockey city of hope and glory.

Outside the Air Canada Centre, before a puck was even dropped, before a bagpipe played, the festival of a new Maple Leafs season had begun. This is Maple Leaf hockey at its absolute best: Noisy and alive. So full of anticipation. In this city, we tend to have it backwards: The parade and the scene kicks off the season rather than ends it.

But one step at a time on an optimistic Opening Night. The Maple Leafs are unbeaten with only 81 games to go. They got goaltending from J-S Giguere and a pre-game bow from Johnny Bower. They got a goal from an unexpected source in Tim Brent and an expected source in Phil Kessel. And they got a winning goal from Clarke MacArthur on a rather exquisite move. For those counting these kinds of things, that’s three goals from players who weren’t playing last year on Opening Night, a win from a goalie who was in Anaheim at this time last year: The new faces on a team trying to find an identity all coming up large when the bright lights came on for real.

A win can make everything seem just right on Opening Night, even when you scramble to the final seconds, even when you require last-second saves by Giguere. Even when you win a game that would have been a loss a year ago. The result is the result. The rest is best discussed on another day.

On Opening Night, everything seems a little more magnified: The importance and the celebration of it all. This is Christmas and Birthdays for hockey fans. The season begins in ceremony, all wrapped up, and it becomes all about anticipation. You never want to be disappointed. You never want to think this isn’t the year.

The excitement began quite early for Brent, the longest shot of long shots on the Maple Leafs roster. He began training camp as a name on a list and no more than that. He wasn’t anyone’s favourite for a job. And then the career minor leaguer ended camp no longer a minor leaguer. Not even a fourth liner. Just before the Leafs left the dressing room Thursday night, he heard his name called. He wasn’t just playing for the team he grew up cheering for. He was starting.

On Opening Night dreams can come true: For Brent, they did. He took the opening faceoff. He scored the first Leaf goal of the new season, his first goal as a Leaf, the second goal of his NHL career. He killed penalties. He played 16 minutes and eight seconds and received the ultimate back-handed compliment from coach Ron Wilson, who isn’t much on compliments: “I can put him on the ice and know nothing bad is going to happen.”

And that, on Opening Night, is what Leaf fans can record as progress.

It wasn’t all perfect, but then it never is. Mike Komisarek had a second consecutive rough Opening Night against the Canadiens on the Leafs defence but at least he wasn’t running around taking penalties. It wasn’t all perfect, especially in the Leafs long-time difficulty in trying to create in-arena atmosphere. Leaf fans, historically, are huge in numbers and extraordinarily quiet. Thursday night, after the Brent goal gave the Leafs a 1-0 lead, the stadium scoreboard went straight to some kind of hamburger contest. The goal wasn’t announced for a few minutes. The scoreboard ran yet another sponsored contest for some time. The moment was lost.

This is the kind of stuff that must drive Brian Burke nuts. He wants atmosphere. He wants excitement. He wants truculence on the ice and off. His team is a work in progress. His in-stadium presentation, unlike the hockey club, never seems to get any better.

The team, though, looked better in small ways. The speedy Kessel looks like he has found another gear. The dreadful penalty killing of a year ago didn’t seem at all dreadful. The Leafs even got through a tough stretch when captain Dion Phaneuf was lost from the lineup and needed some stitches. Good teams battle. Good teams find a way. On Opening Night, the Leafs did that much.

“A big win,” said MacArthur, playing his first game as a Leaf. “The town is excited. So are we. (The win) is good for the fans. Good for us.”

This is the hockey land of hope and glory. Unbeaten after one. So many days still to play.


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