Courtice, ON—You might think you know where Leafs Nation is. Perhaps in the downtown arena where the team plays. Perhaps in Maple Leaf Square outside that rink, where fans congregate to watch away games on big screens. Maybe, even, it’s in Florida, where Toronto fans figured out how to get tickets despite a scheme by the Panthers to limit Canadian buyers’ access.
Leafs Nation is in all of those places. But it’s also in a garage in suburban Toronto, where a group of neighbors watch every Leafs game, all year. Yes, in the winter. Yes, when the bugs come out in the spring. And of course, for the playoff games.
These are my sister’s neighbors, so I’ve observed the phenomenon on many occasions. For Game Four of the second-round Stanley Cup series, I decided to breach the walls and ask if I could hang out.
No, there aren’t actual walls, or imaginary ones—everyone’s welcomed, and neighbors dropped over and took off at various times during the game. But the “Core Four” remained—Steve, Jamie, Bruce, and Cam. Well, actually, Cam went back down the street halfway through to put his two-year-old, Caiden to sleep.
To that point, Caiden had provided the highlight of the evening, telling someone else who turned up and asked about his John Tavares Leafs sweater that there was a “flower” on there.
“No, it’s a Maple Leaf,” he was told. He repeated the mistake later. Again, he was corrected.
But back to the start of the game. “They’ve gotta get the first goal, right?” someone said. This was followed by, “Did you see what Marner said about the media?” It was clear everyone knew everything that had happened since the last game three days prior.
Attention focused on the game. Jamie, the most vocal of the group, said he expected five shots from Tavares. The captain would eventually get precisely that many. Do these guys know their hockey? Another bit of evidence: Some player, I can’t recall who, jumped on the ice later in the game. “What’s he doing on the fourth line?” came the question. This despite that the announcer hadn’t said anything else about who was on the ice.
Earlier on, there had been the question, “What happened to [Erik] Gustafsson? He gets a goal and an assist [Sunday] and they don’t play him tonight?” This from Jamie, a passionate hater of Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, and a passionate admirer of William Nylander. It took me a while to figure out who Jamie was talking about when he was yelling for “Willard” early in the game. When “Willard” scored the first Leafs goal, it came to make sense.
“Didn’t I just say Willard,” Jamie asked the room. In fact, he had. They also nailed it when they discussed Nylander’s back-checking and Tavares’s play with the puck at various other times of the game. This is what is great about knowledgeable fans—they can be partisan, but they know what they’re looking at, and you’d be wise to listen to their comments. Those, by the way, were few when the game action was on. These guys were in the garage to watch the game, after all.
Midway through the game and with the Leafs leading 1-0, Mrs. Jamie—Lori—showed up. Her opening question, “So they have to win four more?”
Universally, “Shhhhh” was the response. No need to jinx things.
Various comments passed back and forth as the game progressed, including stuff about signing, contracts, and the Leafs roster. Nothing about the draft or other NHL matters of the week. One thing that everybody agreed on was how horrible Toronto defenseman Justin Holl had been, was, and will be for the Leafs, apparently forever. It didn’t matter in the end, of course, as the Leafs won, 2-1 despite some Holl gaffes.
As was tradition, at that point, Jamie went over to the workbench, where a variety of bottles awaited, and poured shots into tiny plastic cups. This was about as close to ritual or tradition as there would be, despite my hopes for a meta-narrative that had these guys thinking that what they did in the garage somehow could influence the outcome of the game.
Sure, some others watch on giant screens from comfy couches. These guys prefer a TV set up on top of the beer fridge, the workbench bar already mentioned, and decent-quality lawn chairs. In the winter, they run a small portable heater and drape a cloth over the opening where the garage door is.
Their scene is not that complicated. These guys just love the Leafs and enjoy watching the games, no matter how much anxiety it can also give them. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing plays out all over the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and wherever Leafs Nation gathers, but nowhere will it be more real than in this spot—garage door open, driveway welcoming as people walk in and out of the scene while the Fan Core Four watch their team.
Will this finally be “the” year? Maybe, but what really matters is Friday night.
Brian Kennedy is the author of a number of hockey books including Growing Up Hockey: The Life and Times of Everyone Who Ever Loved the Game (Forward by Kelly Hrudey). He reports on LA Kings and Anaheim Ducks hockey as a credentialed media member and member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.