VANCOUVER — Justin Trudeau must be jealous of the Maple Leafs.
He travels just one province east or west from his Ontario base and starts encountering hostility, while Toronto’s hockey team, despite its own dubious record, can go multiple time zones in either direction and still feel some love.
As the Leafs begin their only Western Canadian trip this season, their new players will be amazed by the reception, while veterans just smile when the furthest-flung part of Leafs Nation greets a team with no title the past 52 years like conquering heroes.
These past few months might be the most remarkable example of enduring Leafs appeal, sea-to-sea sold out crowds at training camp in St. John’s, Nfld., the usual caravan in Ottawa and Montreal and a swath of blue and whites here, Calgary and Edmonton.
There’s even a Leafs-themed pub in Vancouver, the Regal Beagle, that’s headquarters for B.C.’s Buds’ branch that flies the logo out front.
“We’re all of Canada and maybe some of the U.S., too,” winger Zach Hyman said. “That’s why it’s special to be a Leaf, having fans watch you wherever you go. We travel well, but have a fan base that extends far past the GTA. You saw we had ties out east at camp and a few years ago had a pre-season game in Saskatoon that was a sell out.”
It all goes back to when the NHL had only two Canadian teams, from pre-World War II to post-Woodstock and the powerful Leafs had an English media monopoly west of Quebec and in parts of Atlantic Canada. Foster Hewitt brought the Gardens to life on the new medium of radio in the 1930s to a population often isolated by weather or geography. In the war years, the government actually relied on the vast audiences listening to hockey as morale boosters and to squeeze in public service messages.
That the Leafs were also a successful team, seven Stanley Cups between 1931-52 stocked with many Western Canadians and Northern Ontarians, didn’t hurt their brand, either. In the golden TV era of Hockey Night , where everything stopped on Saturday evenings, the Leafs won four more Cups in the 1960s, their last and most dramatic against Montreal during the nation’s 100th birthday.
While the Habs have twice the titles, Edmonton enjoyed its 1980s dynasty, Calgary won one and the Canucks made two Cup finals, many children and grandchildren of those Leafs fans held that tradition dear. That’s why this week you’ll see many young and middle -aged Albertans still give it up for the Leafs. Many transplanted Torontonians who migrated west in the energy boom years make the Leafs’ annual visit a must-see as well.
“I’m shocked whenever I see it,” said American-born defenceman Justin Holl. “We get great support everywhere.
“I was scratched a lot last year, so I’d be working out on the road in our room and hear a really loud cheer. I learned to wait for the goal horn and if there was nothing, it meant it was a Leafs goal.
“It means a lot to us because it’s so cool to hear that in another rink.”
Two Leafs were reunited with their dogs on this trip to Vancouver, Morgan Rielly with Maggie, his nine-year-old Labrador retriever, and Nic Petan with Tiger, a mini-Golden Doodle puppy.
“She’s always excited to see Morgan come home,” said Rielly’s father Andy, who watched Monday’s practice at Rogers Arena. “Maggie lives with us, though my wife (Shirley) does about 95% of the work.
Petan said he used part of Sunday’s day off to take Tiger on a long walk.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019