TORONTO -- Nick Trantos remembers the parade like it took place yesterday.
Trantos and a school chum cut class, hopped on a streetcar and headed to Bay Street to see their heroes: the Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs. The year was 1967 and Trantos was 9 years old.
"I wasn't going to miss it for anything," said Trantos, 55. "I was not going to be denied. I remember the convertibles carrying the players passing us, and the one I most remember, other than the one George Armstrong was riding in with the Stanley Cup, was the car carrying Dave Keon. He was my hero and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy that year. I was a few inches from touching him and it was the biggest thrill. He gave me a glance and I carried that with me for years."
Trantos is not alone. Not by a long shot.
After a painful nine-year absence, the Maple Leafs are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the hype surrounding the team in the city is ramping up beyond most people's wildest dreams. This is a place that adores its hockey team like few other cities, and for as long as the Maple Leafs remain in the playoffs, it will be party time in Toronto.
Former Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher knows all about the playoff madness that infects the city, having built a team that nearly made it to the 1993 Stanley Cup Final. The Maple Leafs held a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference Finals against Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings, but dropped the last two games and were eliminated.
"It brings out the true hockey fan in everybody that is in the rink," Fletcher said. "The Stanley Cup Playoffs, historically in Canada, are the be-all and end-all, and the interest is ratcheted up almost tenfold. Everybody, from the time they start following hockey as youngsters, it's all about the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It brings out the best in the fans for sure."
During Toronto's final home game against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, Maple Leafs director of media relations Pat Park was taking stock of who was sitting where in media row so he'll have a handle on where he'll seat the growing horde that descends upon Air Canada Centre in the playoffs. The Maple Leafs traditionally have one of the largest media contingents covering an NHL team and, when the playoffs arrive, there is a considerable increase in credential requests.
"It becomes a significant news story in Toronto," Park said. "So you end up with the sports media that always covers the team, but also news reporters too. Once you know the Maple Leafs are in the playoffs, things really ramp up around here."
When it became official that the Maple Leafs were in the playoffs, more than 75,000 people signed up in one day for the team's last-minute club in an effort to get playoff tickets. The Maple Leafs have plans to hold tailgate parties on the day of home games and to allow fans to watch road games on the big screen at ACC.
Though a handful of Maple Leafs have playoff experience, none has played a postseason game for Toronto. Forward Nazem Kadri, who grew up a fan of the Montreal Canadiens and was in eighth grade the last time the Maple Leafs were in the playoffs, has already noticed a considerable buzz in the city.
"Of course," said Kadri, 22, the team's second leading scorer with 44 points in 48 games. "Everyone is excited and eager -- and so are the players. I know everyone is pumped up and it's been a long time. Everyone seems so pumped up right now. We're enjoying it."
Asked about his memory of Maple Leafs playoff hockey, Kadri laughed and said, "To be honest, I don't really have any. I was a Habs fan and I was pretty young. I don't have any recollection of the Maple Leafs being in the playoffs."
Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said he and his teammates hope to repay the club's loyal fans with a long and fruitful run.
"We have great fans in Toronto," Phaneuf said. "It's the best time of year to be playing, and for fans it's great to be watching. You can feel the buzz. We have unbelievable support in the city and we are excited to be able to play for them in the playoffs."
Longtime Maple Leafs fan Gord Martin was beginning to wonder if he'd ever get the chance to see his beloved team compete for the Stanley Cup again. Therefore, the 74-year-old who lives north of Toronto in Brighton was overjoyed when Toronto clinched a playoff spot this season.
"It was just unreal," Martin said. "It has been very frustrating to miss the playoffs year after year."
Martin, who was at the final home game with his son, Mike, said he intends to cover his garage door with Maple Leafs flags, and his basement is full of blue-and-white memorabilia. His belief in his team is a constant source of entertainment for his neighbors.
"Every year when we didn't make the playoffs, I'd tell the neighbors, 'Oh well, we'll win the Stanley Cup next year,'" Martin said. "They thought I was crazy."
Like many Maple Leafs fans, Trantos has a playoff ritual that has been on ice since 2004. A nephew made him a replica Stanley Cup many years ago that he sets beside the TV when Toronto is in the playoffs, and it has been pulled out of the closet and dusted off.
On April 26, Trantos and his wife, Sandy, went to the old Maple Leaf Gardens at 60 Carlton St., which has been converted into a grocery store with a rink that seats nearly 3,000 on the premises, in an effort to coax the ghosts of MLG to once and for all head south to ACC.
Oh, yes, he also brought home a little piece of history.
"There was a piece of the original wall from Maple Leaf Gardens that I chipped away and I have it with me," Trantos said. "I'll put it in the Stanley Cup beside the TV and hope it brings the team luck."