Leafs-Habs in table-top showdown

Updated: Jun 3

By Jim Withers


Well, that was fun.


It was like table-top hockey with the sport's two most storied franchises finally facing off in playoff action against each other for the first time in 42 years, and I was one of those insufferable old boomers waxing nostalgic about a simpler time when the Toronto-Montréal rivalry was a real thing. Like newspapers.


The series transported me in a time machine back to the Original Six era, before the pooh-bahs of pucksterism rigged things so that Montréal and Trawna could never again tangle in a Stanley Cup final series. I was back in a time before NHL franchises sprouted like weeds in such unlikely shinny outposts as Phoenix and Las Vegas, when we not only knew all the teams but all the players, and we had plastic Shirriff/Salada hockey coins of each one.


This 21st-century Leafs-Habs series reminded me of a time when the ice and rink boards weren’t all splattered with advertising, when players had nicknames like The Rocket, The Chief and Boom Boom, and when the Great White North was divided into our version of red and blue states – the former being Habs Nation, with surprisingly strong footholds in Northern and Eastern Ontario, not to mention Western Canada, and true-blue Leaf Land everywhere else. It was a time when the sublime Danny Gallivan and René Lecavalier called the action in Canadiens games and Foster Hewitt was the voice of the Leafs. It was a time before MLB and the NBA made inroads in Canada, when every boy seemed to own one of those vintage table-top games in which the Habs and Leafs were forever locked in an icy showdown, each player bedecked in their home colours, moving in the slot (literally), wearing an inane smile and no helmet, while firing Savardian-spinarama slapshots at maskless netminders, who also smiled inanely while holding their goalie sticks in an awkward manner not seen since Glenn Hall retired, trying to stop a puck that looked like it was the size of a tractor’s rear tire by violently whipping back and forth in the crease. As hard as it may be for Gen-Xers, Millennials and Gen-Zedders to imagine, it all seemed so realistic back in our miniature world, and that’s where we’ll be transported – however briefly – as the puck drops tonight when, after all these years, the Leafs and Canadiens renew playoff hostilities.


The Canadiens won the last time, in 1979, in four games. This time it wasn't so easy, but my team prevailed.


The Leafs, with an authentic superstar in their lineup (Auston Matthews), looked like they were capable of becoming the first team to finally end Canada’s 28-year Stanley Cup drought, and were, naturally, overwhelming favourites against Montréal. The Canadiens, with only occasional glimmers of hope from their young bucks, are long removed from their glory Flying Frenchmen days in the legendary Forum and have been, truth been told, the epitome of mediocrity for decades. And yet, the intriguing thing about sports is that you never really know what the outcome will be. Every once in a while, a David smites a Goliath. And that’s what keeps us sports addicts coming back for more.


When it comes to sports prognostication, I’m reminded of late-Montreal Gazette sports scribe Ian MacDonald who, in his weekly NFL predictions, could be counted on to offer a gem like this:


“The Packers are healthy, undefeated in a dozen games and are favoured to win by 30 points, while the Bills will be missing several of their best players as a result of concussions, broken legs, pulled hamstrings and criminal convictions, and their longest 'winning streak' so far has been a win, a tie and 'a close one.' Nevertheless, take the Bills.”


With that in mind, I can honestly I made this prediction before the first puck was dropped:


"The Leafs are impressive; the Habs not so much. Nevertheless, take the Habs (in 7)."


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