The Toronto Maple Leafs really have a remarkable following. No hockey fan has suffered like those who cheer for the Maple Leaf forever.
The 45th anniversary of their last Stanley Cup championship came and went last Thursday. Saturday was the nine-year anniversary of the last time the Maple Leafs performed at home in the playoffs, as Jeremy Roenick ended another Toronto season on a downer with an overtime goal to clinch the series for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Yet, the fans stick by their team. They have been so patient. They have been so loyal. They are hopeful one day it will be all worth it.
This blind faith has not been lost on the current Maple Leafs group.
"I think it will be crazy [at the Air Canada Centre on Monday]," Toronto forward Joffrey Lupul said after he scored twice in his team's 4-2 win
in Game 2 against the Boston Bruins on Saturday to tie the series at 1-1.
"I saw the videos the other day of everyone crowded around Maple Leaf Square. I'm really excited. I'm thinking about it already. It's only 20 minutes after the last game but I can't wait to get out Monday. Those fans deserve it. And hopefully the building's crazier than ever."
Maple Leafs fans cheer for their team with different levels of allegiance. Some of the younger ones are two games into their first experience of playoff hockey. The majority of the real fans won't be among the corporate crowd inside the Air Canada Centre on Monday.
They may assemble at a friend's house, a local watering hole or the latest hot spot to take in a Toronto game at Maple Leaf Square to watch outside on the giant television affixed to the west-end of the Air Canada Centre.
Before Maple Leaf Square became the place to be, Ray the Limo Driver would often park his car on Bremner Blvd. in between pick-ups at nearby Union Station. He would flip on the radio, watch and listen.
Before Maple Leaf Square, he would watch the parts of the game by peering through the window of the lounge inside Union Station. That lounge is no longer there.
Ray, 43, had to park his limo further down Bremner on Wednesday and Saturday for the first two games of the series because the area around the ACC has been closed to cars to allow the large gatherings of spectators.
"There are a lot of newbies and that is a good thing," he said. "The people who I'm excited for, though, are the people who have cheered for this team 50, 60 years and want to see one more championship before their last breath. I also want the alumni to feel good about their team again."
Ray is an optimist. Sure he wished the playoff wait for the Maple Leafs didn't last nine years, but he always came up with a few reasons why it didn't happen for Toronto hockey fans. He always looked forward to next year.
He grew up in York Mills. Former Maple Leafs defenceman Jim Dorey was a family friend. Through friends of his father, he used to attend his fair share of games at Maple Leaf Gardens. He hasn't been too many at the Air Canada Centre.
"But I haven't missed at least part of a game in the last 15 years," he said. "If I'm not at home watching, I listen when I can when I'm working."
His friends and acquaintances know his dedication to the Blue and White. Last season, a Union Station janitor tracked down Ray as he entered the building for a washroom break. The cleaner had found a ticket to that night's Penguins-Leafs game on the floor. Ray saw a few shifts live and in-person in the third period before he had to return to his job. He also made it back for overtime.
On Monday, Ray has the night off. Rather than taking in the game at his local or going to Maple Leaf Square, he will watch the game on his small television in his downtown apartment.
"I don't want any distractions," he said. "I can see the replays and all that stuff."
But would Ray rather be inside the ACC on Monday, cheering for Lupul and Co.?
"If somebody offered me a ticket I'd be there in a heartbeat. Are you kidding me?" he said. "There might be only three games left in the season. But I'm hoping for the best."
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